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Fitting the Pieces Together: Henk Rogers on Why Learning How to Restart Is Essential for Entrepreneurs

From co-founding the Tetris Company to working on renewable energy projects, Rogers has demonstrated that success is possible when one is willing to learn from failures, and adapt and give back to the world.

Henk Rogers, the co-founder of the Tetris Company, was never one to shy away from a good puzzle. What started as a childhood passion for problem-solving soon proved to be an invaluable asset in navigating the unpredictable world of business. Today, Rogers is known as the daring businessman who went behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, boldly traversing the treacherous landscape of Soviet politics and corporate intrigue with Nintendo to bring Tetris to the world stage and secure its place as one of the most addictive and best-selling video games in history. 

This blockbuster journey is the subject of a new AppleTV+ movie “Tetris,” based on Rogers’ life story. The iconic businessman and climate change activist spoke with 1851 Franchise to share insights on his background, entrepreneurial journey, new projects and advice for other business leaders.

Rogers at the SXSW premier of “Tetris”. Image courtesy of Eden Communications.

The Early Days: A Puzzle-Loving Gamer

Rogers' passion for gaming originally began in his youth. As a student at the University of Hawaii, he majored in Computer Science and minored in Dungeons and Dragons. 

“I’ve always been a gamer and would still be a coder if I wasn’t running my companies,” said Rogers. “I remember seeing Tetris for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and I fell in love with it because of its simplicity. It’s so satisfying, and you learn to make decisions faster. Tetris had an appeal that was different from all the other games.”

Henk Rogers in the ‘80s. Image courtesy of Eden Communications.

This love of the game led him to co-found the Tetris Company and secure the rights to distribute Tetris on consoles. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. 

“It took several years to secure the rights to Tetris and it was an immensely challenging time for me and my family,” said Rogers. “I was behind the Iron Curtain, negotiating with the Soviets while on a tourist visa. I was not sure if I was going to get sent to a gulag, and I used my in-laws’ home as collateral to take out loans worth millions of dollars. If I didn’t secure the rights, we would have been financially ruined.” 

How did it all turn out? 

“You’re going to have to watch the movie!” Rogers said.

The Making of a Movie: A Tale of Friendship

The recently released film “Tetris” stars Taron Egerton and is streaming on Apple TV+.

“The whole story is kind of unbelievable,” said Rogers. “Even at the time, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Wow, this would make a great movie someday.’ It was probably about eight years ago when they first reached out about this film and, to be honest, I was nervous! There are so many bad movies that never see the light of day, but then I read the script and saw they were serious.”

The movie also details the heartwarming friendship between Rogers and his co-founder Alexey Pajitnov. Both Rogers and Pajitnov served as executive producers on the project. 

“Who you partner with in business is also really important,” said Rogers. “I’m grateful for my business partner and lifelong friend Alexey Pajitnov, the computer programmer who created Tetris. He sustained enormous risks to his safety to help me secure the rights, and it was even harder for him to negotiate his own rights in a communist country where there was no such thing as intellectual property or private ownership. I believe in doing business in an honest and ethical way, and so it was very important for me to make sure Alexey received royalties.”

Rogers and Pajitnov at the SXSW premier of “Tetris.” Image courtesy of Eden Communications.

Now that the movie is out, Rogers hopes that the main takeaway will be the theme of how friendship transcends ideology. 

“Countries can fall and rise and all kinds of things can happen, but Alexey and I are still friends today, no matter what happens in our respective countries,” he said. “Humans are humans at the end of the day, and we can all be friends.”

Lessons Learned: Surfing the Waves of Entrepreneurship

Having experienced numerous failures throughout his career, Rogers has a strong belief that every entrepreneur needs to possess a survival instinct — a restart button that they aren’t afraid to press if they make mistakes. 

“I think a refusal to accept defeat and a willingness to stay in the game, even when it felt like it was hopeless, was why we were ultimately successful with the Tetris Company,” said Rogers. 

Nothing is ever going to work exactly according to plan, Rogers says, and when things do start to inevitably go wrong, it is all about innovating. 

“I’ve had a number of times when my business was headed in the direction of, ‘Okay, this is the end of my business now,’ and I’ve had to think my way through and figure something out,” he said. “Not only do you survive when that happens, but you become stronger because you focus on the basics that make your business strong.”

This survival instinct, honed during the challenging time of building the Tetris Company, has since helped him successfully grow his empire and venture into other businesses, such as mobile game development, which he was an early pioneer in.

“You can read all about surfing from a book, but the only way you can actually learn how to surf is to get in the water and paddle and fall off your board,” said Rogers. “There are so many times when I’ve fallen off my board in business, and as long as you don’t drown, you’re okay. That is part of the lesson, and you get better at it. So my biggest successes in business have been when I already knew how to surf. If you’re not ready, you’ll just fall down and you’re going to have to try it again.”

Giving Back: Blue Planet Alliance and the Fight Against Climate Change

In 2005, Rogers’ tenacity and survival instinct was put to the ultimate test. After selling a large part of the Tetris Company for $130 million, he experienced a major heart attack. It was an eye-opening experience. Rogers promised himself that if he survived, he would get to work on his real missions in life, including fighting climate change through renewable energy. 

“I was reading the newspaper in my hospital bed when I saw an article about how ocean acidification was going to kill all the world’s coral by the end of the century,” Rogers said. “Right then, I found my most important mission: to end the use of carbon-based fuels.”

Fueled by this calling, Rogers founded Blue Planet Foundation, Hawaii's leading climate and clean energy advocate. Since 2008, the foundation has driven key policy outcomes that are changing the status quo and raising the ceiling of possibility.

“The foundation led to Hawaii’s commitment to using 100% renewable energy sources for electricity by 2045,” Rogers said. “Twenty-two U.S. states and two territories followed, and now have 100% clean energy goals.” 

While the renewable energy movement was catching steam statewide, Rogers quickly realized that this model needed to be exported to the rest of the world. He created Blue Planet Alliance, a 501(c)(3) organization that aims to get islands and countries around the world to legislatively mandate a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2045. The alliance works with governments, businesses and individuals to help grow a global movement aimed at reducing the negative impact on the planet. 

“I was recently in Guam with Governor Lou Leon Guerrero who signed on as the third member state of the Alliance so that was a huge win,” said Rogers. “In the early days of my foundation, we had no idea what we were doing, but we learned through trial and error. And it’s working. Hawaii has already hit its original 2030 target of being 40% renewable. We can do this. People always ask me if I have hope when it comes to the climate crisis and I always tell them, ‘No, I have determination.’”

Fixing Something Broken: Current Projects and Future Plans

Aside from his work with Blue Planet Alliance, Rogers is the founder of 10 companies and nonprofit organizations committed to renewable energy and space exploration. He plans to spend the rest of his life giving back and working on projects that are important to him.

Image courtesy of Eden Communications.

For entrepreneurs inspired by Rogers’ story, his advice is to always recognize your shortcomings, learn from mistakes and admit when you're wrong. 

“If I would have done things differently, I would not be who I am today,” Rogers said. “In hindsight, I would not change anything.”

And like building up blocks in a game of Tetris, Rogers says that by focusing on what really matters to you, all the other pieces will fall into place.

“I firmly believe that a successful person should use their time, talent and money to fix something that is broken about the world,” Rogers said. “Today I only spend time on things that are important to me.”