The long weeks under pandemic quarantine last year frustrated Denver resident Errol Anderson, who missed hanging out with his friends and playing basketball on the weekends.
When they finally gathered after months apart, Anderson tried to come up with a safe outdoor activity, one that allowed for social distancing and could keep everyone interested. He purchased a cornhole game for $160 and brought it along. His friends played only two rounds before they moved on. A disappointed Anderson tried to exchange the game, but couldn’t find any appealing alternatives.
“I woke up the next day and decided I am going to make myself a game,” he said. He wanted one that would engage not only the players but those watching, where come-from-behind victories replaced predictability.
He grabbed a notebook and sketched and resketched what the game would look like, going through 10 different designs. He borrowed the baseboard used in cornhole, bought multi-colored cups and foam golf balls and started experimenting with different rules and scoring systems.
Instead of players trying to land bean bags in one big hole on a board, his game has nine holes holding cups of different colors, each representing different point values, including one called the “equalizer” that subtracts points. Players bounce or throw five foam golf balls from 15 feet away, trying to score and reach an agreed-upon point total. If they overshoot the total, the “equalizer” cup allows them to deduct points.
It is cornhole meets skeeball meets beer pong, a game where random bounces can allow novices to upstage favorites. Anderson named his game Popongo — a made-up word that bounces off the tongue as readily as the foam balls bounce around the board.
“It means nothing,” Anderson grins when pressed for the deeper meaning of the word, which is shouted when a player hits the winning score, like in bingo.
Anderson, however, was very deliberate in the colors he chose. The game’s black, yellow and green represent a nod to the Jamaican flag, reflective of the island nation’s people, sunshine and lush vegetation, said the Montego Bay native, who immigrated to Denver 15 years ago when he was 32. The red is a nod to African roots and blue represents the clear water and skies of the Caribbean.
“It is nothing like cornhole. It is actually exciting,” said Anderson while demonstrating how to play.
Anderson’s background is in finance, a career path he chose over the one his mother had planned for him — law. He has his hand in several ventures, but never did he envision himself developing a game until the pandemic pushed him, like many people, down unplanned paths.
New business formations in Colorado were flat in 2019 compared to 2018 and over the prior five years were growing at an average annual rate of 4%, according to statistics from the Colorado Secretary of State. In 2020, new business starts shot up 22% from 2019, pushing the five-year average annual growth rate to 8.2%, a completely unexpected outcome of the worst disease outbreak the world has faced in a century.
And while business starts are down slightly in Colorado this year versus 2020, they remain well ahead of pre-pandemic levels as more entrepreneurs like Anderson, who is self-funding his venture, step forward.
As he was developing the game, Anderson chose a Denver design-build firm that could handle smaller volumes over Chinese manufacturers. Capacity has since gone from 100 boards a day to 500 a day, although orders for the game, which is available online for $139.99, are nowhere near that level.
Anderson is hustling hard to get people to play the game and build its recognition, making appearances on local and national television and in magazine articles. The odds are long, but Anderson has a long-term plan.
Jamaica has given the world more than its share of great athletes and musicians, Anderson said. But to his knowledge, no Jamaican has developed a commercially successful game. He wants to be the first, and he wants his success to create jobs in his adopted home.
“I feel like I am adding to the Jamaican culture and in that, I have a lot of pride,” he said.
Another way Anderson is giving back to his home country is by sponsoring the Jamaican bobsleigh team in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. His goal is to raise $100,000 through donations and directing a portion of game and T-shirt sales to the team, whose appearance in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary was highlighted in the movie “Cool Runnings.”
That an underfunded team from a tropical country would even try to compete in a signature winter sport is a classic underdog story. The road ahead for Anderson, like the Jamaican bobsled team, might be steep and long as he tries to create the next big thing. But the motto he ascribes to Popongo applies to his situation.
“Nobody loses until somebody wins,” Anderson says of what makes his game so fun.
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