BRIAN KENNY: For as long as we could read, write, and speak, we played games with words. But if someone told you they had an idea for a game where players had to guess a five letter word in six tries without any clues, you might think they were crazy. Word games have been around for centuries. Archeologists found evidence of word squares in the Roman ruins of Pompei. In the Middle Ages, people played games involving palindromes to ward off evil spirits who they thought were confused about which way to read the words. Crossword puzzles, which some might deem the ultimate word game, didn’t appear until the late 1800s. And Scrabble followed decades later in the 1950s. But with each of these word games, there were clues, structure, rules. So, surely a game that asks players to conjure up a word out of thin air would be doomed to fail. Right? Today on Cold Call, we’ve invited Christina Wallace to discuss her case entitled, Wordle. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Podcast network. Christina Wallace is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School where she teaches Entrepreneurial Marketing and The Entrepreneurial Manager. She’s also a graduate of the MBA program here. And she is a fellow podcaster with a podcast called, The Limit Does Not Exist. What’s that all about, Christina?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: It started as the intersection of careers in STEM and the arts.
BRIAN KENNY: Okay.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: That’s my background. And I found a fellow co-host who came from that world and we thought, let’s find everyone else who does interesting things that people think, “Is that a thing?”
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, today we’re going to put you on the other side of the microphone. So, welcome to Cold Call. It’s great to have you here.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Happy to be here.
BRIAN KENNY: All right. And this is a great case. I think obviously many, if not all of our listeners are familiar with Wordle. If they haven’t played it, they probably heard about it. They might be a little curious. I am a Wordle player. I admit. So, how about you? Did you play?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: I started in the midst of COVID and I played this morning. I still play every day.
BRIAN KENNY: Do you post your results?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Oh, no. I posted maybe the first two or three times you could, and then there came a point where my entire Twitter feed was just the Wordle blocks. So, I literally went in and created a rule to block any post that had green squares in it.
BRIAN KENNY: There you go. You’re probably not alone in that. Because I think some people get irritated by those people who guess the words quicker than they do. So anyway, I think this will be a fun case to talk about. And I’ll ask you to start just by telling us what’s the central theme in the case and what’s your cold call when you start the discussion?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Yeah, I mean, the cold call is pretty simple. What’s so special about Wordle? It talks about many of the same ideas that you brought up in this introduction. People have been playing word games for millennia, five letters, six guesses. Why is this a phenomenon?
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Yeah.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: It’s interesting when we bring it up because we wrote this case, Karen Mills, one of my colleagues, and Ebehi Iyoha, another colleague, we wrote this together really as an opportunity to take something everyone knows and loves and frame a discussion around entrepreneurship. It’s a really a great opportunity to talk about what is entrepreneurship? Who is an entrepreneur? And how do you create value? And in this case, we have this opportunity to dissect this viral moment in time and really assess what was created, what was so special.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Why is the New York Times interested in acquiring this game? And is this just a flash in the pan from a pandemic moment, or will this habit, this value, this moment, will it persist?
BRIAN KENNY: And those are all questions I definitely want to get further into. I was surprised, and maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know this, that the creator of Wordle is named Wardle, W-A-R-D-L-E.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Josh Wardle.
BRIAN KENNY: Now it makes perfect sense to me as to why they named it Wordle, but maybe you could just tell our listeners a little bit about the origins of the game if they’re not familiar with them.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: So, Josh Wardle is a computer programmer who has an MFA. So, I am already a fan of this creator. He’s from Wales originally, lived in Brooklyn at the beginning of the pandemic with his girlfriend, and they were big word game players. They did the crossword, the spelling bee, all of the other things that we all did to keep our minds busy. But he’s an interesting guy. He spent time at Reddit as a employee there. So, he has this history of making really cool things that everyone loves and crucially want to tell other people about.
BRIAN KENNY: Okay.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: So, he decided to create a game for his partner, his girlfriend, and came up with this idea, five letters, six guesses, and she worked with him to pare down the list. There’s probably over 12,000 English words that count. And she’s like, yeah, not all of them are particularly guessable.
BRIAN KENNY: Right, right.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: So, she edited down the list to words that felt like fun and easily playable. And they had a bit of a disagreement about what spelling should be employed. He’s Wales. He wanted to use British spelling. And she said, “I’m American. You made this game for me. We’re using the American spellings.”
BRIAN KENNY: Good call.
So that kind of finalized the word list. But he made this for her. And then they shared it with a few friends and they shared it with a few more friends. And November of 2021, 90 people are playing. A small group of friends, friends of their friends. Two months later, January of 2022, two million people are playing this game.
BRIAN KENNY: That’s amazing.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: And it’s all through word of mouth.
Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about how does that happen? So, you go from 90 people to two million people. I mean, how did the word of mouth phenomenon start?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Well, there’s a couple of things. One is, it’s one word a day, and everyone gets the same word. So, it became this thing you could share. You could share with your friends or with your family, especially people who are not co-located with you in this time of incredible isolation. It became a thing where if you’re playing it, you want other people to play it too, so that you can talk about what was your strategy? What’s your opening word? How many tries did it take?
BRIAN KENNY: I’m sorry to interrupt. Did he build the shareability into it?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Not in the original format. You just took the URL and sent it to a friend and said, “Hey, play this game so we can talk about it.” But a month into this sort of growth, December of 2021, a player in New Zealand, it’s already made it to the other side of the world, created this ability to visually share how many guesses it took and what your progression of guesses was without giving away the word. He introduced this idea of the colored squares so you could watch someone’s kind of progression over time. And Josh Wardle said, “That’s fantastic. Do you mind if I build that in automatically as a feature?” And the user said, “Please.” So, Josh was paying attention to how his players were using his game, what they were adding to it, and he incorporated that sharing function. And that truly is what set off that really rapid growth, because it wasn’t just one to one sharing at that point. It became one to many as you were posting on Facebook and Twitter and other ways.
BRIAN KENNY: And that’s kind of how I found out about it. And in the beginning I talked about the fact that this literally, it’s just a bunch of squares you’re looking at. You have no idea what the word is. There’s no category, there’s nothing to help you focus. But despite that, it’s very playable.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Yeah. It’s funny, I mean, at the very beginning I was just sort of throwing out five letter words. It was sort of like, “Am I going to guess it on the first try?” I’ve guessed it on the first try exactly once. I did.
BRIAN KENNY: You’re the only… It’s like a hole in one on the golf course.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: It is. It’s completely luck. It was “query,” was the word. And I was like, “Huh, I got it.” But after that, people started applying sort of linguistic learnings to it to say, “Well, what’s the perfect first word?” And as you’re trying to guess specific letters or pairings of letters, are there things that you can eliminate once you know these letters? There’s a whole science behind it.
BRIAN KENNY: There’s all kinds of strategy.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: And so it grew into this thing that was so much greater than, what’s a five letter word? It seems so simple. And yet it became this moment of connection and of shared learning. Many people who love it, describe it as a way to get your brain started in the morning. But it was simple and it was frictionless. And it wasn’t addictive. It didn’t have all of these components that a lot of digital games have built in to make them the infinite scroll, the give us your money or get addicted and not be able to walk away. It was elegant and simple, and that was one of the things that everyone was drawn to.
BRIAN KENNY: We actually did an episode maybe a year or two ago about Candy Crush, and that’s one of those games that you’re talking about that does become addictive. And that was the whole design of the game. So this is a complete departure from that. You mentioned in the case that one of the things that Josh learned from was a game called Flappy Bird.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Flappy Bird.
BRIAN KENNY: I’ve never used those words together on my podcast, so I just wanted to say it. But what was Flappy Bird about and what did he learn from it?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: So, Flappy Bird was another very popular game that was created originally to be this moment of rest and relaxation and quickly became something very addictive and very negative for its players. And the creator said, “I don’t want this in the world.” And he shut it down.
BRIAN KENNY: Wow.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: And he got death threats on Twitter after having done so, which tells you just how addictive this game was. And so, Wardle saw this and he said, “I don’t want that.” And you could see in his creation, this is one of the things we talk about in the class discussion when we get into what exactly is entrepreneurship? Is he an entrepreneur? Is he just a creator? He never registered the trademark. He never thought about monetization. This was not a first stab at a product to turn into a games company. It was something pure and creative and simple.
BRIAN KENNY: So, that’s a great transition into the next part of the case, which is the New York Times.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Right.
BRIAN KENNY: So, he’s got 2 million people that are now playing the game. It’s becoming a worldwide sensation. The New York Times takes notice. Why? Why would they be interested in this?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: The New York Times has a huge games piece of their business. They have been focused on driving digital subscriptions for the last several years. They were one of the first newspapers that even built a paywall back in the nineties. And trying to think about how do we monetize and build sustainability into our business model as news goes online. And one of the things that they have developed as part of their business model is this not news piece of subscription. So games, recipes, The Wire Cutter, product reviews, The Athletic, which their most recent acquisition before Wordle was around sports. And so, what are things that we can make, deliver and provide sort of that New York Times caliber of whatever that category is, but crucially get people to pay for them? Games have been a big focus for them. The New York Times Crossword, an epic game that people have been playing for decades.
BRIAN KENNY: Been frustrating me my whole life. Yeah.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Well, it was one of the first things when I met my husband, his whole family does the crossword, and they were basically, “If you’re going to be part of this family, you got to play the crossword.” And then Spelling Bee was another big one that blew up and became very popular. They have this piece of their business, they hired Jonathan Knight over from Zynga fame to really build this, and Wordle catches their eye as this could be the next Spelling Bee. So, they preemptively reach out and make an acquisition offer.
BRIAN KENNY: So, now we’re getting into a little bit of tension because this is not what Josh had in mind when he created the game. So, now he’s got a decision to make, right?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Yes.
BRIAN KENNY: Is he going to turn his back on the high lofty goals that he set for himself with this and go for the money? Then he loses the control that the Flappy Bird creator had of shutting it down. So talk a little bit about this sort of turmoil, I guess, that as an entrepreneur he’s about to face.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Yeah, I mean, this is where we end the case is, what does he do? Because he doesn’t have the choice to do nothing. Right now, this two million users is not what he anticipated. There are server costs, there’s hosting and maintenance, and a lot of effort and time and focus going into maintain this. And that’s not sustainable. He has a day job. So, he’s in this moment where he really does have to decide, “Do I shut it down like Flappy Bird? Was it just this experience and then it’s over? Do I sell it off? And if so, is the New York Times going to be the type of partner to steward the creation I made?” And so, he has this conversation with the New York Times really trying to suss out, “Are you going to keep what I made so special?” And I think part of that tension is, will Wordle remain free as the New York Times is figuring out what is their acquisition strategy? Does Wordle become a bit of the loss leader that gets you excited about games and then you’re willing to pay for the game subscription? Or is it free for now and then at some point gets folded into the paid piece of their games?
BRIAN KENNY: Yes. The nefarious objectives of the New York Times. But I love this because, I’m guessing, you know entrepreneurship, you teach about it, you write about it. Is this the kind of dilemma that founders often face when they have to think about getting their creation to the next phase? How do you maintain the original vision even when you’ve got to hand the reins over to somebody else?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: I mean, this is a classic dilemma at the point of scaling. There are many different ways you can grow. You can scale, you can exit your company, but there’s always this moment where it’s going to transform into something beyond what you’ve made. I mean, you can hold onto it forever, but then you have no exit. And many times you are limited into how big it can be. And so, there’s often this moment where you say, do I want this to live beyond me and go on and become a thing? And I have to be willing to let go of some of that control. And if so, what can I do to find the right partner or the right exit opportunity that I think will best support and uphold the vision that I had while still being able to let go? And I think for Wardle, that’s the question on the table. Does he trust Jonathan Knight? Does he trust Will Shorts? And if not the New York Times, then who?
BRIAN KENNY: Does he have another option? I don’t know if you know the inner workings of their negotiations. But could he say, “Yeah, I’ll allow you to put it on your platform because that gives me greater reach and it helps me to be able to cover some of my costs, but I want to maintain creative control of this thing.”
CHRISTINA WALLACE: I mean, anything is on the table. One of my favorite things about teaching MBAs is you always set up, should they do this or that? And there’s always someone who raises their hand and said, “I choose a third option.” So, there’s always a third option when you’re negotiating. And certainly if he felt deeply about maintaining control, he could have had that conversation. I’m sure they would’ve been delighted to hire him to their games team. But from outside, we did not speak to him for this case. This was all written based off of other research.
BRIAN KENNY: It’s great. We can guess whatever we want.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: We can guess whatever we want. But from the outside, it feels very much like this was something he made for a specific moment in time. He was proud of it, and then he was ready to let it go. Like he did his other viral moments that he created on Reddit in the past. And so, I think it was something that he didn’t necessarily want to see destroyed by adding the paywalls and the play infinite number of times and all of those addictive things that he was philosophically opposed to. But at the same time, he was ready to step back.
Yeah. I’m wondering what you think Wordle teaches us. If we take it out of the gaming context, what does Wordle just teach us about the importance of shareability in a world where social media has become such an important part of our day-to-day lives?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: It’s interesting. So, many startups, they build the product and then they say, “Our go to market strategy will be going viral.” And you’re like, that’s not really a strategy. So, there are specific types of products or businesses or use cases where virality can make sense as a growth strategy. But it requires you to build value in such a way that sharing that experience is a crucial part of the attraction. Dropbox is a great example of this. When Dropbox was first being created, part of their growth strategy was, we’ll give you a certain amount of free storage space, and then if you share Dropbox with someone else, you send them your link and they sign up, they’ll get free space, but you’ll get additional free space. Gmail was like this too. When you shared it with other folks, you got additional space. And so, there was value to both sides of sharing. In addition, Dropbox was a product where the whole point of it was to have files in such a way that you could share those files with other folks and make it sort of an easier way to collaborate. Virality makes sense in the context where sharing is part of the value that is being created. And we saw this very clearly in Wordle, but it doesn’t make sense for everyone. And so, if that word of mouth, that sharing component is something you think is an important part of your business, and if you’re factoring in a word of mouth acquisition cost, which is the best one, free, then you really want to be thoughtful about, are there tools or mechanisms like those colored boxes that allow people to share it in such a way that it’s easy and fun?
BRIAN KENNY: And speaking of those colored boxes, I’m on Facebook pretty much every day because I’m old and old people use Facebook. I’ve noticed fewer and fewer of those colored boxes. So this gets a little bit back to the question of sustainability. The New York Times was placing a bet on Wordle when they took it that they could sustain the level of excitement around it. The pandemic has now wound down. People are not cooped up the way that they used to be. So, is this just a flash in the pan phenomenon?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: That was the question in January of 2022. And I think what’s hard here is no one knows. The pandemic was once in a century experience. And I don’t think…
BRIAN KENNY: We really hope.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: We hope. Touch wood, I don’t think back during the 1918 flu that they didn’t have the internet then. So, we can’t even look for comps to say, are these behavioral changes that were sustained for two or three years during the pandemic, will they persist? Companies who have built entire e-commerce divisions, grocery stores who’ve really invested in curbside pickup, all of these massive behavioral changes. We don’t know how long they’re going to persist. So, there was a big question without good comps that the New York Times could work off of. What I think is important to keep in mind, and this comes back to when we teach this case, we ask the students and put yourself into Josh Wardle’s shoes. How much would you want for the acquisition? Now put yourself in the New York Times shoes. How much are you willing to spend? And what they usually realize is there’s a big range between what they might have been thinking this is worth. Remember, there’s no revenue. You can’t do multiples. There’s no mathematical way to assess a value of this game except maybe the two million daily users. But from the New York Times perspective, a million dollars is a rounding error. If that’s a bet that they can take and be wrong on, eh. Let’s learn if this is a flash in the pan or not. And what’s interesting about why it’s a compelling fit for the New York Times game strategy is they already have, not just games that you can buy, but the app, the behavior of daily crossword playing, daily Spelling Bee playing. You slot this in right next to the Spelling Bee in that app, and that encourages this daily habit that was already created during the pandemic. So, the question is not, will people stick around, but can the New York Times create the environment that will help people stick around?
BRIAN KENNY: That’s a great point. This has been a really fun conversation about Wordle. I know that the case ends before the acquisition happened, but we all know that the acquisition happened.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Indeed.
BRIAN KENNY: There was a great deal of angst.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: There was.
BRIAN KENNY: Particularly by the zealot Wordle players out there.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Everyone was convinced the words got harder after the New York Times acquired it.
BRIAN KENNY: I think they did.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: They didn’t. You can check the source code.
BRIAN KENNY: So anyway, it’s happened. It’s still going. I’m still playing it on occasion. But I have one more question before we let you go. And that’s just, if you want our listeners to remember one thing about the Wordle case, what would it be?
CHRISTINA WALLACE: I love this case because it allows us to have this conversation around again, what is entrepreneurship and what is the point of building new things? And I think this is such a great example of showing the creation of value that doesn’t necessarily have to be about innovation or fancy bells and whistles or technological development. I had a student when we taught this at the alumni reunion say, “This game existed in the 50s. Five letters, six guesses. There’s nothing new under the sun.” You can create value, you can build things that are beloved and are habits and are part of people’s lives by just finding a new angle on it, looking for that insight, looking for that value you’re offering. He’s offering connection and starting your day getting that brain turned on and doing something in a really simple way. There’s no AI involved. There’s nothing fancy and complicated here. The source code, you could write it on a piece of paper. There’s a lot of value you can create by having a really unique insight. And I think that’s what I would love listeners to take away.
BRIAN KENNY: Christina, thanks for joining me today.
CHRISTINA WALLACE: Happy to be here.
BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like our other podcasts, After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work. Find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And if you could take a minute to rate and review us, we’d be grateful. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you. Email us at [email protected]. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR podcast network.