If you’re a fan of the popular US adaptation of the TV show, The Office, you probably remember the infamous Christmas Party episode.
In the episode, the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch does a “Secret Santa” gift exchange. The protagonist, Jim, prepares a teapot full of little mementos and inside jokes for his crush, Pam, who he has received as his anonymous gift recipient.
However, come party time, their boss is disappointed by his Secret Santa Christmas gift and sees one he likes better. He changes the rules to Yankee Swap where each participant can either choose the gift they were given or steal a previously opened gift.
Hilarity ensues as Jim awkwardly encourages Pam to take his present without revealing it’s from him while Pam has her sights set on a new iPod.
While that episode resulted in a large resurgence of Yankee Swaps or white elephant gift exchanges, the game is a decades-old tradition at many a Christmas party. That is, until lockdowns during the COVID outbreak of 2020 threatened to put them on hold for a year.
In 2020, David Mancarella’s coworkers were discussing if they could do their annual white elephant gift exchange over Zoom. David volunteered to look online for a solution but couldn’t find one.
Instead of giving up, he and his wife roped in a developer and quickly pulled together a solution for the 2020 season. They didn’t just save the office Christmas party, they also pulled in 150,000 customers including Twitter, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, and almost $300,000 in revenue in just six weeks.
This year White Elephant Online (WEO) is back and David thinks it’s better than ever. Here’s how he did it and is continuing to do it, completely bootstrapped.
A Christmas Without a White Elephant Party is No Christmas At All
In August of 2020, David was on a Zoom call with some very concerned coworkers. COVID threatened to cancel his office’s annual white elephant gift exchange.
“One person said, ‘We have a holiday party coming up, what are we going to do?’” says David. “I thought there must be some way to do it, but when I looked around there weren’t any options online. For me, it felt like this classic lightbulb moment.”
In many ways, David felt he had been preparing his whole life for this moment.
“I went to school for entrepreneurship and have had small businesses before. I’ve also worked in software development and as a product manager for over 10 years,” says David. “This felt like the first time that I had an idea and there weren’t six versions of it that existed. My wife, Leliah is also an entrepreneur, and it was always our dream to work together.”
The best part about building a small tool for online white elephant gift exchanges was that it didn’t have to be a big investment.
“At worst it would be a cool side project,” says David. “Best case, there are millions of users and I can quit my job.”
Building White Elephant Online
First, David sat down with his wife, Leliah, who runs a women’s clothing business and knows a bit about logistics. They figured out how the game would work and how to make it easy for people to purchase and send gifts once the game was over.
For product development, David reconnected with an old acquaintance named Andrzej who he had worked with at a previous company. He took little convincing. Within days the three were working to launch the first iteration of WEO.
David says he was fortunate he had this idea when he did. 2020 was a nice time to be launching a tech product.
“Assuming you have a developer, launching a tech product is relatively inexpensive these days,” he says. “There are so many great tools out there. We used Squarespace to launch the website and added MailChimp and Zendesk later.”
After just one month, David and company created and launched a simple website in September of 2020. The webpage was an email sign-up form and text explaining what the product was. From there they optimized the page for search engines and began writing gift guides and blog posts around the white elephant keywords to get as much reach as possible.
“Once the website was up, we scrambled to get it live by Thanksgiving and launched the Monday before Thanksgiving of 2020,” says David
Building hype early on worked though. Once the game launched, the requests came pouring in that same week.
An Overnight Sensation
Once word got out about White Elephant Online, David, Leliah, and Andrzej were faced with a huge backlog of bottlenecks they needed to solve.
“When you have 150,000 users the number of requests that come in is nuts. Even though we launched we still only had an MVP. We were building and launching over a couple of months,” says David. “For example, when we went live you couldn’t edit your name and other little things like that that we added a week later. “
In just six weeks they had 150,000 users across 3,000 teams at nearly 2,000 companies with 11,000 games played. Not to mention nearly $300,000 in revenue. To reach those numbers that quickly, they played a savvy marketing game, managing to capture sizable media attention.
“For marketing, we did a lot of organic and paid Google ads. Content drove a lot of our hits,” says David. “We also did a little bit of a PR push later in the season. We were even mentioned on the Today Show which blew me away. My wife and I used to watch that every morning.”
A quick $300,000 in the bank account also changed the scope of how David viewed his next steps in life.
“I decided to quit my day job in May of 2021 to focus on this and other projects,” he says. “I finally was able to fulfill my wife and I’s dream of going into business together and living a more flexible lifestyle.”
And David was doubly happy with how well it went over for his customers.
“Companies told us they had a great time and they were happy to continue their white elephant traditions,” says David. “We even had a couple of individuals send me messages saying things like, ‘I’m a very extroverted person and haven’t been able to throw an event for a year. This just makes me feel like I can be myself again.’ It’s cool to be building a product that is bringing some joy to the world.”
Taking a Party Game Online
David grew up in New Hampshire where they call the game Yankee Swap. However, he understands that for the majority of his customers, it’s called White Elephant so he chose the name White Elephant Online (WEO) for his product.
“In fact, I even did some research using Google Trends and other tools to look at the relative popularity of various names for the game,” he says.
While a simple gift exchange isn’t so difficult to do on your own, white elephant exchanges are hard to do online due to their complexity.
“In White Elephant no one knows who will get the gift until after it is done,” says David. “The whole point is that you’re opening gifts and you’re stealing gifts. That’s hard to do ahead of time unless you have some way to facilitate it.”
David walks us through how a game of White Elephant Online typically plays out:
“So you create a game and you invite all your players and participants,” he says. “Everyone can submit a gift ahead of time. To do that, you paste the link from any online retailer and our system will grab the name and the image. You can pick gift wrap too.
Once everything is selected, the virtual table fills up with these gifts. One person serves as the ‘game lead’. That person will share their screen on whatever video chat you are using and be the one taking all the actions like opening and stealing gifts.”
While it may seem more intuitive to have people interact with onscreen presents from their desktop, David says they kept the “game lead” role on purpose.
“It’s more of a party game that way. Everyone’s verbalizing what they want to do. They’re not just sitting at their own computer making decisions,” he says.
At the end of the game, players find out which gift they won and who won their gift. WEO initially gave players the names and emails of the person who received their gift so they could coordinate shipping. However, they realized that for larger companies, employees may not want to receive each others’ personal information so they created tools to allow organizers more freedom to decide.
WEO isn’t just for office parties either. In 2020 they offered a free version for up to 25 people at a time so friends and families could get in on the party over COVID too. For businesses and larger groups of over 25 people, they made all of their profits from a $99 per game business package that included extra administrative features.
White Elephant Online’s Roadmap to the Future
WEO is in a unique position as it prepares to expand in 2021. White elephant exchanges generally are a seasonal event (though they still have a small crowd of consistent players throughout the year) so they can only go forward based on what worked last year.
“We don’t have many unique data points because we’ve only had a month or two of real numbers,” David says. “We’re bullish on this in general because many companies are going fully remote and companies like Microsoft have had distributed teams for years. At the same time, COVID is not as prevalent and there may be many who decide they don’t need it.”
This 2021 season, they want to do all the little things a bit better.
“We want to do more small things to enhance the user experience and make things look nicer,” says David. “We added additional gift distribution options including a report for exporting results to HR. We made it easier to sign up. There are more gift wrap options. We’ve automated more retailers so if you post the link it shows the name and image automatically.”
He’s also looking into ways to expand the business so they needn’t rely solely on a few short months of the year.
“Many have said we should try to move into virtual birthdays and baby showers,” he says. “But I think we may have more luck facilitating something like a gift purchasing tool. There’s so much untapped distribution potential in the core product and many people don’t know it exists.”
Listen to your customers but strike the balance between vision and market feedback.
David’s advice to other founders is this:
“Listen to your customers but strike the balance between vision and market feedback,” he says. “People think they want some features, but as a founder you may know they won’t work. Know what you’re trying to deliver and why it’s valuable, but also make it fun for your customers.”
WEO’s success is the quintessential “right place at the right time” story. It may seem hard to mimic success like this because how do you emulate serendipity? What we can learn from David and his team, though, is that consistently generating and researching ideas is a rewarding habit. Your ideas may be more original than you think.
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