My Soapbox: Chris Bergman, Choremonster

Chore—noun: a routine task, especially a household one; an unpleasant but necessary task.

Monster—noun: an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly and frightening


Who would have thought combining these two nouns would play a role in bringing joy to children, parents and homes everywhere? The answer is Choremonster founders Chris Bergman and Paul Armstrong. Their story and Choremonster’s success has been well chronicled as one of the Brandery’s early and larger success stories. Choremonster is riding a huge wave of momentum following a four-month stint in the Disney Accelerator, powered by Techstars. The Disney Accelerator is a unique, mentorship-driven accelerator model for startups, focused primarily on those in the media and entertainment industries.

We sat down with CEO Chris Bergman shortly after their return to Cincinnati. Chris is the type of easily excitable, gregarious individual who has the capacity to find a way to make chores fun for kids. Our conversation with one of the pied pipers of choredom ran the gamut from the Accelerator program to Star Wars, Cincinnati, Rollerblades, beer (stouts and porters, particularly Rhinegeist Panther) and tea (Darjeeling Muscatel Second Flush from Essencha in Oakley).

First off, welcome back, and congrats on a big third quarter of fundraising.

Thanks!

How does it feel to be back in Cincinnati?

It’s home. I love L.A., I love the people there, and the L.A. community absolutely brought us under their wing, made us feel comfortable. But, there is no place like home, man. And Choremonster was raised by Cincinnati. It just feels good to get back in the swing of things here. To have the whole team together again is really important.

How many of you went to Los Angeles?

We had half in L.A. and half here. And, today for example, we hired a new guy who is just starting, so we all went out to lunch. Just connecting with people I haven’t seen, it’s all those personal relationships right? To put an immense amount of personal relationships on standby for four months was challenging.

Did your family go out west with you?

So we had a son born four days before we moved—his name’s Lee—and so, yeah, we went out right after he was born. I had the whole family there for about two months and then they came back about midway through the program just to kind of get back in the swing of things, of being in Cincinnati. I was so busy at Disney that it would have made no difference if they were in L.A. or Cincinnati.

Can you talk a little about the Disney Accelerator Program? What the experience was like?

Sure! So we took a decent chunk of core leadership along with people that execute really well on things we were going to work on at Disney. As for the accelerator, I think what was so amazing about this particular group of companies that were involved in the first year of Disney Accelerator Powered by Techstars was most of us were further along. The majority of the companies were further along than that pre-seed, friends-and-family level.

We had Ubooly, we had Sphero—companies that have done really, really incredible thing—so just to be part of that group was amazing! Of course, just working alongside the Disney executive team, literally the best creative minds in the world, had an immense amount of value to our company.

You worked closely with Disney CFO Jay Rasulo and Producer Kristina Reed?

Those were definitely our two Disney mentors. Cody Simms, the amazing director of the program, is on the Techstar side and was also incredible. David Cohen was incredible. Countless people were just beyond amazingly helpful, but we had specific weekly meetings with Rasulo and Kristina.

Did they share any particular words of wisdom?

Um, they had plenty to say (laughs). Most of it I want to keep close to the chest. I think what was fascinating, especially with Jay, is the opportunity to sort of see his challenges. What are the challenges of being CFO of a $40-50 billion a year company?
With Kristina, we’re committed to telling stories with the characters we’ve created. To have someone who has won an Oscar (Paperman, 2012) for the stories she created is something I had never expected to be a part of.

How was the living and working environment at Disney?

We were on Disney’s creative campus, which is home to Disney Interactive, Disney Consumer Products as well as some other things I can’t remember. We had full access to the studio, so we were in there a lot as well—Disney Animation Studios as well as Walt Disney Studios proper.

They gave us free reign over where we could go and stick our noses, which was really cool. That was one of the reasons we wanted to do the program. They were willing to open themselves up. There’s no better company to learn from, especially when it comes to creating products for kids and families.

So you didn’t get to stay at Disneyland?

I was there pretty often! We have a three year old; he and I tried to get up there once a week while he was in town.

Pretty nice gig. I’m assuming you aren’t able to divulge much about your partnership with Disney yet?

No, no I can’t—we’ve got some exciting initiatives coming. That’s (laughs) kind of it, though.

Choremonster recently launched on Android, Kindle Fire, soon on Nintendo 3DS. How has that expansion process gone so far?

We want to be where our users are, you know? You look at Nintendo; they have 42 million 3DS units worldwide. Those are in the hands of kids ages 4-12, which is our wheelhouse. So Nintendo has been a great partner with us, and I think they’ve made an incredible piece of hardware for kids. It makes perfect sense for us to be on it.

I read that you’re developing new apps—Slackrr and Teammate. Can you talk a little about those?

I can say that our goal is to create the most ridiculously fun and motivating framework for families. Where every home becomes a joyful place. What that looks like is products inspired by family moments of connection, right? I think those are just two things that continue to serve that mission.
 
How do you see Choremonster evolving over the next five years?

I think you touched on it. Our goal is to create complementary products that continue to inspire those family moments. In today’s world, the universal language is digital. We want to make parents a part of that language so they can connect with their kids through it. That is important to us.

Was the storytelling aspect always the main point of emphasis with Choremonster?

When Paul and I started Choremonster, he was literally drawing monsters with his 12-year-old son. When I think about the way kids interact, we saw they need a champion for them. One of my pet peeves is kid products that talk down to kids. We look at kids as our number one customer and wanted to create something that connects to them emotionally, continues to root for them and understands the challenges of being six years old.

The things you are dealing with at six are genuine problems. For us it was, who is going to advocate for these kids in the home? I think the monsters do a really good job of that. They are able to be a voice to the parent in a way not all kids can articulate well.

Choremonster did some research and found what motivated kids the most was the monsters themselves, their stories, and not as much getting rewarded with material objects. Did you anticipate that?

No, that was absolutely a surprise. We were surprised this whole thing worked at all! To find that part of the reason it works really well is your empowering kids. I think you need both ingredients. That extrinsic motivation of parents rewarding children is important from a psychological standpoint … for engagement. The other part is we wanted to make sure kids had something they earned on their own. In this case, the virtual monsters.

You eliminated the subscription model about a year ago making it more accessible. How do you plan to monetize Choremonster?

We have great brand partners that do brand sponsorship and integration. They own specific chore categories. Basically what we’ve done is meet parents at the point where the problems a brand is solving are at the front of the parent’s mind. Think about brushing teeth or feeding pets or whatever; parents aren’t thinking about that when going into the store or watching Hulu, but when they’re sitting thinking about work their child is doing in their home, it is genuinely front of the line.

We’re seeing an unprecedented 58 percent click through on those brand offers. It is the highest engagement audience of families that has ever existed.

Turning to your nerd side now, does it excite you to be working with the new masters of the Jedi universe and that Choremonster is the Jedi mind trick ofngetting children excited about chores?

It gets really difficult to separate the geek from the CEO (laughs). Time’s going to decide what happens with all that stuff. As a kid that grew up loving Star Wars, knowing Chewbacca lived on Kashyyyk, things like that, there’s not a moment I’m not excited. They just announced the entire Marvel Phase 3, lineup and what’s super cool is I knew a lot of that stuff. It gets me geeked just like anybody else. For example, we just hired an illustrator that was a Marvel comic book artist. [Working with Disney] gives us access to talent and creativity. I can’t stress enough there is no better talent in the world. No better creators. That is hard to wrap your head around.

It’s like, wait, I’m a nerdy kid that just cared about making families happy, and I’m meeting Jay Rasulo on a weekly basis? How the hell did this happen? It happened because of Cincinnati, because the Brandery existed. Because CincyTech invested in us early on. This happened because of mentorship we got here that propelled us into that place.

We can geek out offline a little more, but we can’t geek out too hard on the record.

Right. So here is a Choremonster-related question. Would you rather receive stinky socks or a jar of farts?

Ooooh, valid question! Super-valid question. Kind of depends on what the sock situation is at the moment. I’m currently in good shape from a sock standpoint, so absolutely a jar of farts.

Business has been good so socks are plentiful?

Right. Exactly, good question!

Do you have a favorite monster? I’m partial to Flappy McBeard and Biff Sweatsock.

For me … Frank was the first monster. Frank Rumpnoodle. He’s the first monster every kid gets. If they sign up, they get Frank. He’s been there since the very beginning. I do the voice for Frank, which helps. He’s the Junior Vice Associate Manager of Choremonster and (in Frank’s voice) “it’s all about business and you’ve got to be able to business right.” There’s probably more of me in him than there should be.

Beautiful segue to the next question, which is, are you one of the monsters? That’s a yes?

Yeah, I think Frank Rumpnoodle is the caricature Paul created of dealing with me as a co-founder.

Who comes up with the names?

Paul does most of those. That is shared across the creative team now, though, actually. Everyone kind of picked it up, and even our junior designer does monsters now. That’s kind of a prerequisite; you need to be able to design monsters to work here.

Did you have a favorite Disney character or movie growing up?

That’s really hard. Disney proper right? Setting Marvel and Star Wars aside?

As a kid … The Lion King man! That was my jam. That came out at the right age for me. Aladdin had an incredible Genesis game, though! It was so good!

So you were kicked out of high school; worked as an art director, designer, marketer; were a sports photographer for a time; and now you are Frank Rumpnoodle, CEO of Choremonster. How has that journey shaped you?

Choremonster’s a very personal project for me. I grew up in a complex family situation and was in a home that was sort of the cornerstone for negative reinforcement. I actually moved to California and was a pro rollerblader, doing X-Games stuff, living my dream at the age of 19, right? I found out work can be this amazing, joyful thing that drives and fulfills you.

Fast-forward 10-15 years, my wife’s pregnant with our first son and so how do I instill that; make that clear in my home that work should be this fun thing? That’s a big part of the journey as far as how Choremonster came about.

I ended up an art director for a skate magazine out there. Did a lot in print art direction, doing design work. Ended up at a company doing SMS technology, mobile couponing, tickets. I came in to do marketing but ended up doing some selling, making deals, and enjoyed that.

Then Paul and I started Wiseacre building apps for people. Then ended up where we sit now.

Has being involved in a variety of roles helped you in starting your own business?

Absolutely. It creates resilience. You know you can go to hell and things still work out. One of the guys I was around a lot—he helped mentor us—was Troy Carter. He is CEO of Atom Factory in L.A. and was Lady Gaga’s manager for a while.

Pre- or post-meat dress?

It think it was the same time, actually! He’s probably the reason for the meat suit.

I asked him what he looked for in an entrepreneur. This was the best response I’ve ever heard. He said, “I want somebody who is delusional.” You know, somebody so optimistic that they just make it work—no matter what. I think that’s true, when you do things you love you will do anything to not stop, to keep going. 

You mentioned rollerblading?

(laughs)

You claim to have been an avid rollerblader since 1994.

That’s on my twitter account man, yeah. Absolutely, ’94, that’s an estimate!

Are you currently rocking a particular set of blades? Is that appropriate blade-speak?

Oh, what am I rocking right now? I didn’t know where that was going. You know how some people collect sneakers? I’m a rollerblade head. I get a new pair pretty frequently. I don’t always use them, but right now I’m rocking a pair of Razor SL2’s I just got. They’re white.

A good friend of mine—Jon Elliot—is the founder of Ground Control Frames. Anyway, I better stop talking about this or I’ll keep going.

Let’s talk about your relationship with the city, our community. You intend to keep Choremonster here as you grow?

Our intent absolutely is to stay here in town. It’s fascinating on a personal level. I grew up in the city and just wanted to get out. I didn’t know what we have here. I moved to San Diego for about five years then came back and realized the people … there’s no one like the people of Cincinnati. There’s nobody this open, helpful, supportive … this ‘authentic’ I think is the right word. I thrive in that, you know?

Read more articles by Benjamin Plattner.

Benjamin Plattner is a freelance writer, University of Cincinnati graduate (B.A. in Political Science) and an uber-votary of coffee, food, drink, music, travel and Cincinnati’s newfound momentum (feel free to contact him to discuss any of these things). He lives in Columbia-Tusculum with his luminous wife Ieva and their canine cohorts Violet and Clover.
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