By the time he was 30 years old, Rob Angel had built a multimillion dollar empire out of the board game, Pictionary. Angel invented the game—a variation of charades in which clues are drawn rather than performed—and has guided it to worldwide sales of more than $14 million since 1987. Pictionary is sold in 11 languages, in 18 countries, and has been the biggest selling board game in the United States since 1987.
It is not surprising, then, that this young entrepreneur would point to his high school business teacher, Steve Backlund, as an important influence. The reasons, however, are not so obvious.
Angel, 31, does not credit Backlund with teaching him the “how to’s” that made him his fortune. Rather, as a successful businessman and then a teacher, Backlund set an example that Angel has not forgotten. Angel says his former teacher’s influence actually was greatest after he left high school, when he was trying to plan a career. He always wanted to be successful in business, but he also was drawn to teaching. Then he recalled that his former teacher had done both—running a beer distribution company before beginning to teach. “I saw that he was able to combine [the two professions], so I thought I could do it too,” he says.
Like Backlund, Angel chose business first. Although he now has established himself in business, he still plans to give teaching a try, either at the high school or college level. “I had the impression that Mr. Backlund was successful but still had the conviction to do something else,” Angel says.
As for Backlund, he still teaches at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., where Angel was his student. He says his experience as a businessman continues to be an asset in the classroom. “When I teach, I can relate to experiences I had, and the minute I do, I can see kids who might otherwise fall asleep perk up,” he says.
Backlund thinks teachers also influence students by getting to know them and their interests. He was Angel’s homeroom teacher and recalls their conversations about track and Angel’s other interests. “I find the most effective teachers are the ones who establish rapport with the kids, the ones the kids like,” Backlund says. Angel underscores the point, noting that one reason he identifies Backlund as an important influence is that he was so friendly and likable.
The young entrepreneur would probably find Backlund’s business class even more engrossing today. When Angel was a student, the emphasis was on principles and management—the skills needed to operate a business. “The great emphasis today is on entrepreneurial education,” explains Backlund. “It has gone more toward the direction he has taken, moving the product from conception onward.”
But while the subject matter has changed, the teacher’s philosophy has not. “I try to get kids to dream a little and believe in ‘can do,’” he says.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Rob Angel, Inventor Of Pictionary