Sherry Martin’s first go at the board game business went better than he could have imagined. A year after launching his first game, a word game called “Sentence Says,” he was already completing orders, selling on the shelves of Toys R Us and featured in an Arby’s Kids Meal.
But then came a huge setback: Major toy distributor Mattel Inc. sued his company, then called Marban Industries, because the name was similar to its “Says” games, according to court filings. The case went on for three years before it was dismissed.
It took Martin years to get back on his feet. He pivoted, renaming the company SheForMar Inc in 2016 and the game to “What is the Sentence.” Now he’s selling the game and others for $29.99 on his website and working to get it back in stores. He’s expecting to bring in more than $300,000 this year and has hired 10 people.
A large majority of game developers are white, according to the International Game Developers Association. Only 4% of its 2021 survey respondents identified as Black, up 2% from 2019. Martin is one of a few making strides in the industry.
Before board games, Martin owned a mortgage banking broker company. That was in 1999, and business was good, but he wasn’t feeling creatively challenged.
Then one night he was watching the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous at his girlfriend’s house. The smart home and car of a woman the show’s hosts interviewed caught his eye. Then the show revealed what the woman did for a living: she was a game designer.
“I was totally like, What? She made a game?” he said.
It was a lightbulb moment for Martin. That same night, he began drafting what would become What is the Sentence. The game, designed for kids, challenges players to think of a sentence with the letters on a card.
In 2004, when he decided to pursue the company full time, he reached out to a connection who frequented the New York Toy Fair and asked if he could bring the game with him. It went better than expected.
“He came back with all these orders for my game, [and] I didn’t have any order sheets,” Martin said. “I just wanted to see if people would like it, and apparently they did.”
Before he sold one game, Martin raised $80,000 and added $43,000 of his own savings into the business. He remembers calling up friends, begging them to help him box thousands of games to be shipped out. (Today, the games are manufactured at Premier Box Corp. in El Monte, California.)
The game attracted customers for its educational-focus, Martin said. Elementary school teachers and speech pathologists used the game in their classrooms.
The education-focus was an intentional one, Martin said – he was inspired by his mother, who was a teacher. But, like many creative works, the game has had impacts far past Martin’s imagination. For instance, the game assisted students with dyslexia to learn how to read.
“It had all these attributes that I didn’t know when I created the game,” he said.
This time, students and teachers are his primary audience. He plans to sell directly to schools. “The market is much larger even than the retail outlets, because there may be a couple of 100 million students that go to school during the year,” he said.
He’s also developing a curriculum to go along with the game, pulling from the earlier speech and reading uses the game had.
The lawsuit was a huge lesson for Martin in copyright law. “I was in mortgage banking and real estate and understood all those nuances from a legal standpoint,” he said “Where you get into the creative aspect of patents and trademarks and copyrights, anyone can bring something against you that you have to defend regardless if it’s bogus or not,” he said.
If you’re in a creative field, consider insurance to cover lawsuits: Looking back, he said he might have purchased business insurance when he was seeking trademarks to help shoulder legal costs. He also advises any new entrepreneur getting into a creative product field to speak to an attorney ahead of time
In any case, consult an attorney: “Because if your product takes off, which mine did, then people are going to hear about it from all over the place,” he said “And everyone that hears about it doesn’t necessarily have the best intentions in dealing with you.”