Friday night marked the Stormpath Annual Holiday Party, and ended two weeks of conspiracy and planning for the White Elephant gift exchange that would be played that night. We are not a rowdy bunch. We actively recruit teammates with low ego, and a bent towards compromise and collaboration over competition and office politics. We don’t have a “brogrammer” culture. But we take games seriously.

Very. Seriously.

Over team lunch at the Baywatch diner on Friday, Brent and I discussed our strategies for the evening’s White Elephant. My planning had begun two weeks in advance. Several coworkers told heart-wrenching stories of White Elephant gift planning gone awry. “Rainzilla nearly destroyed the package!” It was pretty clear that White Elephant is “a thing” – not just a benign game, but in fact a way to earn the respect and admiration of your colleagues. However fleeting. It somehow matters.

Team Stormpath

What Is White Elephant?

To be clear, White Elephant is not a game you can technically win, and there are a lot of ways to play. These are the rules we use:

  • Everyone brings a wrapped gift of $20-25, including dates and significant others
  • The gifts go under the tree at the Christmas party. After we have all stuffed our faces with Kelsey’s homemade smorgasbord of baked goods, we gather at the tree and draw numbers.
  • The first person chooses a gift, unwraps it and smiles graciously.
  • The next person – and everyone thereafter – can either steal that gift or open a new one.
  • If your gift is stolen, you can open a new one or steal. This can cause a cascade of present theft and good-humored chagrin.
  • You can’t steal right back from someone who just stole from you.
  • Gifts can be stolen three times, after which it is no longer in play.
  • After the last player has gone, player number one can steal any gift that is still in play. This is why you want to be player number one.

White Elephant refers to a “dud” gift that might be added to the stock of gifts under the tree. We don’t play that way, because who wants a dud gift? If there is a clear and obvious dud, stealing cascades can go berserk.

How to Win at White Elephant Gift Exchanges

Let’s be clear, winning white elephant is not about getting the best gift, its about giving the best gift. You win by bringing the gift that gets stolen so many times, it goes out of play and the final recipient grins gleefully while several people shoot them looks of mock violence.

You can also win by bringing something that is so widely acknowledged as exceptionally cool, that is treated with a reverence that transcends theft.

Team Stormpath 2

How to Win:

1) Serve a Big Market
The ringers at the Stormpath White Elephant were a pizza stone, a set of fancy chopsticks and a semi-satirical motivational poster. Why does this work? We have a very high-concentration of foodies and cooks. Also of people who used to live in Japan. And we all enjoy the rotating motivational posters, a la “Fuck Mediocrity”, on the wall of our Developer Evangelist’s home office, seen in daily hangouts and occasionally video tutorials. Products that get the most demand are the ones that satisfy the biggest market need. Think about your coworkers as a mini-market. What are their greatest needs?

2) Take Your Office Meme To Etsy
Stormpath has a strong office meme around Star Wars. We watch it (Machete Order, thank you very much) as a team for family movie nights. Joe Stormtrooper is our default account on the website. Our entire demo recreates the StarWars universe as a user model. We have a directory for the Sith Empire that includes subgroups for “Imperial Officers” and “Bounty Hunters”.
Every office has a meme, and Etsy has an impressively wide array of custom handmade stuff that speaks to that meme. I had a painful moment Friday morning when I discovered Stormtrooper coasters while shopping for my mom.

3) Don’t Forget the Significant Others
At Stormpath parties, we include wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, or even parents. While its pretty easy to buy something that will be a hit with half a dozen rabid Star Wars fans, the SO’s are often an overlooked target audience. Plus, there is nothing that is going to score you more points with the guy who sits next to you than bringing something his girlfriend or boyfriend thinks is awesome. Look for something trendy, innocuous, that someone would never buy for themselves. E.g. 2011 whiskey stones, 2012 corksicle, 2014 pizza stone.

4) Booze
While this may not work for every company, its entirely possible booze is the trump card white elephant gift. Brent won big props for bringing a jar of Apple Pie Moonshine. If you have a Costco card, you may be able to get a ridiculously large bottle of… anything. Just the fact that its big will make it popular. Also, look around for a Pre-Christmas wine deal. Even the snobbiest wino is happy with a good $25 bottle of wine. (I speak from hiccup experience)

5) Bells and Whistles
Sometimes its not the gift itself, but a feature of the gift that makes it interesting and desirable. This year, I had a win and a loss. The win was a small box artisanal champagne-flavored marshmallows… dipped in gold. The loss was three boxes of handmade marshmallows in three different flavors. The “winner gift” was more popular not because anyone thought they would taste better. There were even fewer. But they were dipped in gold – the “bells and whistles” feature made it more desirable.

From everyone here at Stormpath, Happy Holidays! May your parties be filled with victory and good noms.