This is the final in a series of posts about the winners of SCORE DC’s 2020 Perfect Product Pitch-Mastering the Art of Persuasion competition sponsored by SCORE DC and SLC Holdings Group.

CandygramsJohnny Landers and Anaïs Ortiz were visiting Yosemite for the first time and staying at Curry Village Lodge in the park. After a day’s adventure, they settled down to play a board game. But, after sifting through the available options, they could not find one that was simple, fun, and playable by all. Instead, they brainstormed a word game that was not based on points or speed, but rather rewarded creative strategies and thoughtful word-making. Then, after being further inspired by a beautiful West Hollywood sunset of pinks, yellows and blues, Johnny and Anaïs concocted the idea for Candygrams, the word game that they always wanted to play.

Here’s how the game’s played: Each player (up to 4) starts with 25 tiles and players build on their own color-coded crossword. The game begins with each player building a “base word” that uses all color letter tiles (pink, yellow and blue). In each following round, after any one player rolls the dice for a “color combo,” every player connects one new word (or adds to create a new one), matching the color combo rolled. The winner is declared once a player uses all their letters.

Over the two ensuing years, Johnny prototyped and play-tested the game to ensure the best gameplay possible, using the highest quality materials. He and Anaïs then started selling Candygrams from their website, Amazon, Etsy, and a few local retailers. Right away, it was a hit with families and educators. Here are just a few of the many reviews:

“My roommates and I love this game. We found it at a local brewery one night and just wanted something casual to play but we ended up totally addicted!”

“I really loved this game. I am a teacher and this game helps promote critical and flexible thinking. It also allows for different entry points, so kids of different language skills could play together successfully.”

“This is a great game. It uses all the intelligence of Scrabble and Bananagrams, but adds an extra element of fun and inventiveness. Great fun for adults and younger people alike.”

And the awards started coming, initially the 2018 National Parenting Product Award and the 2018 Game of the Year Award from Creative Child Magazine, followed by another eight. Impressive for a first-time game inventor.

Johnny Landers and Anaïs Ortiz Johnny and Anaïs had hit on a great product, but, like most new small businesses, they needed guidance to scale Candygrams. At the end of 2018, Arlington Economic Development (BizLaunch) referred them to SCORE DC and Ed Coleman was assigned as their SCORE mentor. Over the course of the following 16 months, Ed walked Johnny and Anaïs through the foundational steps to grow their business, including developing a business plan, sales and marketing opportunities. “Johnny and Anaïs had a great product in Candygrams, and given the renewed interest in board games, the timing of its introduction was serendipitous,” Ed said. “But the game market is overcrowded, so we needed to be very strategic.”

With Ed’s encouragement and preparation, Johnny and Anaïs participated in the 2020 Perfect Product Pitch competition. They refined their sales pitch to the most relevant selling points and benefits of the game. “It’s hard not to get emotional or impassioned when you’re trying to ‘sell’ someone on a product – especially when it’s one you’ve designed, took a chance on, and poured your heart and soul into creating!,” Johnny recalls. “Ed’s honest and helpful feedback steered us from what was originally a much more wordy, long-winded pitch to one that was shorter and more succinctly illuminated how our game is different and what specific benefits it can ‘bring to the table,’ so to speak.”

That refined presentation made a mark on pitch judge Dara Trujillo. “In any pitch event, the best example of your product is as close to retail-ready as possible. When Johnny put a game tile in my hand, I could see how well they were made. I loved the game and saw the potential.” As a pitch winner, Johnny and Anaïs got right to work with Dara on cost of goods, marketing, packaging redesign to make it “fit the shelf” and distribution. “Dara’s wisdom, guidance and selling skills is exactly what our mom and pop start-up needs. We’ve learned many things since launching Candygrams — and one of those things is that different perspectives and skill sets are invaluable to the growth of a business.”

And then COVID-19 hit. While the pandemic slowed some of their progress, it created a demand for indoor activity and Candygrams saw an increase in online sales. Johnny counts his blessings and has learned the art of perseverance: “When the pandemic first hit, my first thought was ‘What if we need to find a new manufacturer?’ My second thought was, ‘We would figure it out.’ And that’s exactly how we plan to face any challenge that comes our way.”

Candygrams has not yet arrived on big box retailer’s shelves, but is available at these local retailers. You can also purchase through Candygrams’ website, and get $3 off every game when you use code “HOLIDAY GIFT.” Arlington, VA residents are eligible for FREE local delivery.