Fantastic Female – Ellie Dix, owner of The Dark Imp

Ellie Dix helps parents reclaim family time by playing board games together. She is a board game designer and owner of The Dark Imp, a UK board game publishing company specialising in games for families with children aged 8+. 

Ellie has been obsessed with board games from an early age. Not only playing them, but tweaking the rules for fun and designing her own. She firmly believe that board games have positively influenced her ability to interact with others, manage failure, work creatively with available resources, experiment with multiple paths to success, solve interesting problems, adapt to changing situations and make decisions quickly.

Ellie has several published games including big box games, games in travel tins, placemat games, coaster games and cracker games. One of her unpublished games – Uranus! – is currently in the final of The Board Game Workshop annual International design contest. Her book, The Board Game Family: Reclaim your children from the screen, was published by Crown House Publishing in 2019. Ellie is on a mission to get more families playing board games.  

The dark Imp

How did you balance being a mother and professional?

 It’s been tricky! Compartmentalising those roles as far as possible has been helpful. When I’ve tried to do both things at once, I’ve invariably done neither well. I’ve often worked from home, but always tried to make sure that my work space and time is separate to family space and time. When my youngest started crawling (and my elder son was at school), we got a nanny who came to the house during school hours every day. I’d see the baby lots during the day for breaks and lunch, and if he was upset he could come and see me in my work space, but I knew he was being well looked after and could concentrate on my work. 
I think in some ways, being your own boss provides the flexibility needed for school runs, after school activities, school holidays and sick days. You don’t have to ask permission to take off from work. But, of course, there’s always the driving need to work. There’s an ever-present pressure that if you don’t get on with work, it won’t happen. 

It’s never been very easy though. When spending time with the family, it’s easy to be preoccupied by work that needs doing and when working, it’s easy to feel guilty about neglecting the family. That’s the constant problem, especially during school holidays or large work projects. 

But, to be honest, I think that mums feel guilty no matter what choices they make. Instead of dwelling on the guilt, I try to remind myself of the role model I want to be. I want to show my children that it’s possible to grow something amazing from the ground up, to work for yourself and to be successful having crafted your own career.
It’s got much easier as the boys have got older. Now they are 17 and 13 and require far less of my time and energy. 

the dark imp

What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? 

I left my position of Head of Drama in a secondary school when I had my first child, Alfie. The life of a teacher is all-consuming and exhausting and not at all conducive to caring for a newborn. I didn’t work for two years while I cared for my son, which I found really hard. Much as I loved Alfie (of course) I found caring for a small child really quite boring. I would spend hours thinking up activities which would then keep him occupied for only a few minutes. I pined for work, to be honest. 
In the early years of running Pivotal Education with my husband, we were never sure where the next bit of work was coming from. This made us hungry to drive the business forward, but with the ever-present shadow of money-stress. We lived pretty frugally in Spain, with my husband flying over to the UK for a couple of weeks at a time to work with schools. Back in the Andalucian mountains, I felt quite isolated. I didn’t have many friends there and hardly any money for me to travel back to see friends and family. 
When we moved back to the UK, the business started to grow and became more lucrative. We were able to go away on holidays. Though even on holiday, I never felt like I could take a proper break from work. Work time had to be built into every day on holiday. I had staff that needed support and clients that needed good customer service. We wanted to push the business forward, always developing rather than stagnating, and that meant I couldn’t afford a couple of weeks off. 
We sold Pivotal Education in 2017 and left the company in 2019. I immediately set up The Dark Imp – a board game publishing company. With this new business, I made the decision that I wouldn’t work evenings or weekends. I’m happy to grow the company slowly and make sure that I really enjoy the time I have with my children at home. 

Who inspired you and why?

I’ve always been inspired by Sir John Timpson from Timpsons (key-cutters and shoe-menders). For him, the people are the most important part of any business. The structure of the company and all of the systems within it are centred around the people: firstly the staff and secondly the customers. Every member of staff is given autonomy to make things right for unhappy customers. Employees are given their birthday off and are able to access many support & care packages and even a company holiday home. Area managers always carry wine and gifts in their car to acknowledge the work their staff are doing. There is a firm emphasis on training and ongoing professional development. Timpsons is the largest employer of ex-offenders in the country. They actually conduct interviews in prisons so that offenders have a job to go to when they leave. On top of all of this, John and his late wife, Alex, fostered over 70 children and John is now focused on spreading the word about Attachment Disorder. If you go into any of his shops, you’ll see some little books on Attachment and all staff have been trained in it. John Timpson is an example of a businessman going his own way, focusing on what it important and using his position for good.  

What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?

I’d give a young woman the same advice as a young man. Prioritise relationships above everything else. Treat the people above you and below you with equal respect. Make your career in an area that you really care about. If you care about the work you are doing, if you really believe in it’s purpose, then motivation won’t be a problem. There are rubbish bits in any job, so you’ll need the motivation to make sure that you don’t just focus on the bits you want to do. Be brave. If you always stick to your comfort zone, that comfort zone will never grow. You develop skills through doing them. Push yourself and say yes to things that scare you. 

the dark imp

Do you think women feel intimidated in business?

Personally, I’ve never felt intimidated. But I suspect that a person from any under-represented group is more likely to feel intimidated than those who are surrounded by many others just like them. I would think expect that a difference in ethnic group and socio-economic background are just as likely to cause a feeling of being intimidated.

Where will we find you on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m.? 

 Walking the dog, probably or learning how to play a new board game to teach the kids later in the day (when they wake up!) 

What do you love about your job?

I love playing board games. I play lots of games in my job. I play games that I’ve designed and change them through multiple iterations. I play prototypes of other designers’ games and give feedback on them. Playing other people’s games in development is hugely beneficial to my own creative process. It makes me think about my own games in a different light and sparks new ideas. 
But I also really love running a business. I like lots of the non-glamourous bits of sales and marketing. Sales and marketing is really about developing relationships with people and learning how to communicate what they want to hear in a way that is easy to access. And of course, I really love being my own boss. Nothing beats the sense of autonomy I feel from being able to make my own decisions about vision, direction, products and content.  

the dark imp

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made?

It’s tempting to be a generalist when you’re in business. You want everyone to be your customer and don’t want to turn anyone away. But the best decision I’ve made is to properly specialise.  Align your ideal customer with your vision for the company and your message will ring loud and clear in the ears of the people you need to reach. Those ideal customers are much more likely to do business with a specialist and to refer other ideal customers to you as well. So yes, specialising and saying ‘no’ to things that fall outside that. 
Also – giving stuff away for free has been a really good decision – and I mean things of real value. It feels counter intuitive when you’re building a business to give people access to all of your ideas for free, but it makes a huge difference to how well you are able to educate the customer and to the way people feel about you. Invariably sales increase the more you give away for free. 

What’s the worst career decision you’ve ever made?

I think almost all the really bad decisions I’ve made in business have revolved around employing the wrong people or employing people at the wrong time. Hiring is really difficult and it’s always a risk. You have to hire people to really grow a business, but getting the right people at the right time is really hard. It’s an expensive mistake to make and I’ve made it several times! Bad hiring decisions always set you back but teach you lots for the future. 

How do you organise your time?

I’m quite disciplined. I always start the day with the tasks that require the most brain power – writing, creating videos, crafting rule-books, game development etc. I schedule meetings for the middle part of the day and end with checking and responding to emails and easier tasks from my task list.  I keep two days a week free from appointments for deeper work like strategic planning. I usually spend one day a week playtesting games with other designers, which is a brilliant professional development activity (though we’re not able to do that in the same way at the moment).   I have a good system and I try to stick to it, though that doesn’t always work! 

the dark imp

What do you think is your greatest strength?

Probably my willingness to jump into a new situation or task. When I want to tackle something big I’m good at breaking it down into smaller bits and mapping out plans. If I have no clue what I’m doing, I find someone who can teach me. I’ve got quite good at drawing on support from my network to help me navigate new projects.  

What do you think is your greatest weakness?

I don’t have much time for people who can’t make decisions. I can’t bear faffing and I don’t disguise it well! 

How do you make decisions?

It depends what the decision that needs to be made is. But for big or expensive decisions, I’ll usually write out a list of what I want the outcomes of the decision to be. Then I’ll look at the different options and analyse each outcome for each option, allocating it a grade of sorts. It sounds analytical, and it is, but some of the things on the list may be to do with how I feel. For example, I want to work with a supplier that I like and relate to. That will go on the list. Different items on the list may have different weightings according to how important they are. 

What do you read?

I mainly read business books. I’m always looking for great nuggets of advice that I can put into place. But I also love a dystopian novel.  

What do you think are the secrets behind getting to where you’ve got to?

Treating people well, thinking creatively and being prepared to take risks.  

You can get one of Ellie’s games for free when you join The Dark Imp mailing list here:

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