We interviewed the inspirational Lilian Chen, co-founder of Bar None Games, about her trivia website for corporate teams to boost productivity and creativity. This amazing business began with Lilian and Spencer Fertig, in the height of the pandemic when teams could no longer spend time together, and flourished into a business that has taken over a million dollars revenue over the last two years.
A business with a focus on diversity, team bonding, and bringing people together has been a winning combination for this dynamic business duo. As I sat with Lilian I couldn’t help but be impressed with the teams background, the 90,000 team connections they’ve built, and her idea of success.
If you are as curious about what it took Lilian Chen and her co-founder Spencer Fertig to shape their success as I was, take a look.
It is a virtual team building company. So what that means is that we work with companies all over the globe to help them bring their employees together in a virtual format. Typically over Google Meet or Zoom these employees are distributed or remote. And all of our events are interactive collaborative, and really focused on helping people to actually form real connections with their co-workers.
Team managers say that it’s really great in terms of productivity and employees do really appreciate it because you save a lot of commute time. But I think the number one challenge, is employee burnout is high when you’re remote.
It’s hard for employers to figure out how do we actually keep our team feeling engaged? And make sure that people feel connected to the company, or to their co-workers. That’s where we come in. We are the experts at making sure that people are actually having a good time and creating spaces where it doesn’t really matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. So that every single person really feels comfortable and can create true memories together.
I love what you say about connection. What kind of games do you offer that inspire connection?
It’s team-based trivia, people break into smaller groups and work together to actually compete to be the final trivia winner. It’s all themed around specific categories that we curate based on what we know about the group or the organizer can choose the categories.
The second game is TV Game Show, it’s inspired by a few fan favorite TV game shows and can feel nostalgic to people and create a team-based collaborative atmosphere. Our next event is a game called Mini Games Party, which involves three different events that are all kind of unique in different puzzle games.
We also have an Interactive Icebreaker event. That’s the best for groups that are really trying to just get to know their co-workers. Oftentimes, we’ll use it for new employee onboarding. We also have a bingo event which we call, Not Your Grandma’s Bingo. It’s our own spin on Bingo with multimedia experiences in a bunch of different bingo formats, so it’s keeps people on their toes.
We started the company in 2020. As you probably can imagine it was during a period of time where human connection was really difficult to find, and I think everyone felt pretty lonely. I’ve always loved games whether it’s virtual or whether it’s in person. I just think it’s really fun. It brings people together like with my family and with my friends and it’s super joyful.
The company started pretty organically. My co-founder and I had both been in business school, and our first year business school reunion was May of 2020. Obviously, that was supposed to be in person and then soon turned virtual, and with that, my co-founder Spencer essentially came up with this trivia game format.
It kind of progressed naturally from something that was just for friends into something that we also realize had a place at the workplace too.
Your website says that 98% of players report feeling more engaged with their team after. What’s it like getting that kind of feedback?
It’s amazing and super fulfilling. It’s one of my favorite parts about the job, being able to see the actual impact that it has on people and on teams. And I think it really highlights the importance in the positive value that we’re able to bring to who we work with.
Spencer has a background in startup operations at mid-sized to growth stage companies. He was actually an employee for Uber before, I believe there were around 10,000 employees, he really was there through a stage of extremely high growth at Uber with a focus on operations.
He also previously was head of operations at a few different Series A startups. On the side though, he’s always done comedy. Stand-up comedy is his passion and really, what makes him so excited. Products, content creation, game design, and community building are really the areas where he shines. He loves getting people together and he has put a lot of thought into how to do that.
For me, I worked at an early stage, venture capital firm, where I was focused specifically on launching early stage startup. That zero to one stage; testing ideas, building early concepts, minimal viable products, things like that. Before that, I was investing in tech companies at a private equity firm. And so I’ve seen a lot of different tech companies at different stages, both super early as well as a much later stage.
Do you think that both those experiences combined is partly what has led to the success of Bar None Games?
I think definitely, with any young company you’re always testing and iterating different ideas. I draw a lot from my past experience of doing that zero to one testing, building, and being extremely scrappy with a really small budget. For Spencer, he’s worked at larger startups and seen a lot of different best practices.
Given that he was at Uber during a high stage of growth, he also had to be really scrappy and creative. And for sure his humor and his love for bringing people together – I think is one of the reasons why all of our products are so high quality.
The business owned by myself and my co-founder. So I’m a woman of color and then my co-founder is part of the LGBTQ+ community and we feel really passionate about diversity and inclusion. We actually work with a lot of employee resource groups or people who are actively involved in their own companies.
DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) efforts to host team building events that are focused on honoring and celebrating different DEI communities. March for example, is Women’s History Month, we’re working with a ton of different companies to host events that are both educational, but also fun and engaging on Women’s History Month.
We have another game that’s called Celebration Games, where it’s celebrating the impact that females have had in global history. There’s also games on, Pride Month, API Heritage Month, Mental Health Awareness Month.
We also work with 70 different professional entertainers that are comedians, actors, actresses, Broadway stars. Truly people who are born to be on stage and they’re also really diverse as well, to reflect on the values that we have. Along with our clients that we work with, and you know, the different types of topics that we really honor and celebrate.
First of all, there’s so much to be done in the very early days, that it’s impossible for both people to be doing it all. It’s just the most efficient for people to have clear areas of focus. But second, I think it also enables you over the course of growing the business to really specialize in what you’re doing and you become even more of an expert in that area. So at our company Spencer focuses specifically on product and sales so he runs all of our sales team, outbound sales process, and talking to customers.
For me, I run operations and growth with the actual day-to-day execution of all of our events and ensuring that every single event goes off without a hitch. Now we have three other employees who work with us. One person who’s on the sales side and two people who are on the operation side and that’s been immensely helpful to have more hands on deck. We’ve also really focused on learning and development for our employees as well.
Having a really high quality product and making sure that people are actually having fun. You need to consider what do they actually want? Because I think sometimes, I feel like it’s easy to create a product that you want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what the client wants.
The only way you can figure that out, is by talking to your customer and getting feedback. And honestly when you get that feedback, reacting to it quickly, and integrating changes. I think as a business owner you have to be able to have a really thick skin, it’s never a personal – it’s always in the best interest for the business.
Brand definitely matters! The website that you see right now is actually the third iteration of our website. The very first website that we had was put together by ourselves really quickly, it had all the information on the page, but it wasn’t necessarily organized in a way where we were optimizing for user experience.
We hadn’t really sat down and thought about what the photos or illustrations would convey. The key things I wanted for the second version of our website was to put a little bit more thought into flow and things like that. But the version that you see right now, we actually worked with a website designer and a branding expert. We sat down with her and talked about:
- What is our key value proposition?
- What feelings do you want someone to leave with when they look at our website?
- How can we improve navigation?
And she honestly redid our entire site from our logo, branding, illustrations, as well as the site navigation. She designed it to ensure that it was easy to navigate and that we had content on the page that is helpful, but not overwhelming.
We just did the rebrand to our current website last fall. So it’s been maybe about six months or so. It’s not been that that long, but it’s had a really direct impact to when we talk to customers who have never heard of us before. Our website looks way more credible right now, and it does make these sales conversations much easier.
When you have a website that looks legit that you can point to, it makes it really easy to understand what our company does and people just understand quickly, they get it.
Were there any challenges with building your website with Squarespace?
One thing that I wish we thought about more was SEO friendliness. From an SEO perspective, we have run into a few hurdles with Squarespace because of the way the page loads and the overall website load time.
There’s essentially a massive code base that gets loaded every single time and there’s no way for us to edit that or turn it down. So from a page load speed perspective, it’s not the most ideal platform – which does impact SEO.
Candidly we weren’t even aware of it as something that was important to SEO. I would definitely advise someone to think about that. But what I do love is that it’s really easy to customize, it’s super user-friendly when it comes to editing stuff on your own.
Advice I would give to someone starting out is to do a free trial and play around with it and see if it feels intuitive to them. And choosing a website builder that feels like they’re continuing to invest in the technology. I’ve definitely seen with Squarespace over the last three years have incorporated different types of design elements and given us more functionality.
We love expanding on different themes and we are also continuing to focus on our hybrid and in person events categories. When people think of us, they still think of us only for virtual events, but we do hybrid and in person events too. And also we will be building our branding and our marketing presence.
If you could go back and start again, would you have done anything differently?
We’ve worked with over 1500 companies, and 90,000 people play our games – something we’re already incredibly proud of. The fact that people are giving us their time and trusting us with their team’s time that we’re able to actually create true connections, I think that’s the biggest piece of data in terms of how successful are we to doing what we set out to do.
There’s always things that you do that you kind of wish that you did earlier, because it made such a big difference. But I think also the reality is that you are just so limited in terms of your own time, your own resource that you’re always going to be forced to prioritize. Like, for example, do I wish that we had our branding and our website up earlier? Yes, I do. But I also know that the reason why it took two years to give our website a facelift, is because there were just so many other things going on.
I mean, there’s nothing major that I would do differently if I had to start again. I think there are times when you feel challenged as a business owner and so it’s not like everything goes flawlessly, and it’s not like everything is super easy. But I do think it’s all part of the journey and I’m really happy with where we are right now.
It’s also really rewarding, there’s nothing quite like feeling like what you have built with your own hands is really adding something to people’s lives. I would say be ready for ups and downs, but celebrate your wins. Focus on how you measure success. If you measure success as personal growth and your own learning and development, there’s no other journey where you will go through as much personal growth. You’ll end up being really proud of yourself.