Exploding Kittens CEO Elan Lee had a lightbulb moment about his company’s next release: a line of kids games that would appeal not only to kids, but to the adults playing with them as well.
The Kitten Games line builds on Exploding Kittens’ years of launching adult and family party games and offers children a chance to rehearse social skills and cues while playing.
“One thing we’ve always done really well is make adult and family party games that make the people you’re playing with more fun,” said Senior Director of Creative Operations Kellee Vopelak. “What we hadn’t cracked up until this point was to achieve that same goal with games for kids.”
So when Lee proposed his idea to the team, Vopelak was ready to take on the challenge, supported by a culture and team that could turn ideas into reality.
“What I love about Exploding Kittens is its collective growth and innovation mindset — and the ability we all have to make our products come to life,” Vopelak said. “We can be in a brainstorming session or even just sharing a meal together when an idea strikes, and, if everyone is on board, we’re able to make it a reality quickly and creatively, even if the idea is wacky or unrealistic.”
“We can be in a brainstorming session or even just sharing a meal together when an idea strikes, and, if everyone is on board, we’re able to make it a reality quickly and creatively — even if the idea is wacky.”
That approach — empowered, clever, tenacious — defines how her team works, both within the project management office and cross-functionally across the company.
“We playfully joke about how, even if all of our laptops broke, we would somehow still get products on the shelves — that’s just who we are,” she said. “I am continuously in awe of what we can accomplish when we do it together.”
Built In heard more from Vopelak about how her team brought the Kitten Games line to market and the culture of respect and fun that powers their work.
Because I run the project management office and production and manufacturing team at Exploding Kittens, we were involved every step of the way. If you want a little peek behind the curtain, here it is: Mass retailers like Target launch new products periodically throughout the year. Our project managers are responsible for working backward from those dates to identify key milestones in the project timelines to ensure the product ends up on shelves. For example, all playtesting for a game has to be completed by a certain date so the art can be applied to each component of the game. The project managers are responsible for making sure each team involved hits their deadlines.
I also oversee the production team at Exploding Kittens, which is responsible for working with our factories in China to actually produce and ship the physical product. Have you ever tried to develop and produce a chicken-shaped die shaker that squawks and clucks?! It’s ... complicated.
“Have you ever tried to develop and produce a chicken-shaped die shaker that squawks and clucks? It’s … complicated.”
The PMO and production teams work super closely with my oversight to make it all happen — on time and under budget, of course!
What obstacles did you encounter along the way? How did you successfully overcome them?
We encountered obstacles every day — too many to count! My project management philosophy is that projects will never go the way we expect. Rather, it’s about your approach to those projects and those obstacles that make you and the team successful.
I try to practice a type of servant leadership. I’m dedicated to sitting alongside my team to try to figure out ways to remove roadblocks and help them achieve their goals. I keep my team members motivated and aligned by offering support and guidance. No question is too small and no favor is too big to ask, and my team knows they can come to me with anything they need. By offering judgment-free feedback and support, they know my “space” is a safe one.
What teams did you collaborate with in order to get this across the finish line?
There isn’t one team at Exploding Kittens that we didn’t work with to get these games across the finish line. Game development pitches the games, the art team builds the components, production works with our vendors in China to obtain quotes and samples, sales ensures there’s interest from retailers — and the list goes on, all while the project managers oversee the entire process.
We typically work on pretty tight timelines, and it’s a true cross-functional feat to get our games made. We have weekly project status meetings where the creative teams buckle down and discuss each product that’s on the slate and the project managers work to remove roadblocks or obstacles standing in anyone’s way.
In addition to weekly project meetings, the PMs are consistently creatively problem solving to meet deadlines. At various points in the process, we hold in-depth retrospectives and work in earnest to apply the feedback we receive during those sessions.
All in all, we’re never not cross-functional!