Marketing Trends & Small Businesses

I went to a networking function yesterday where a speaker was promoting his latest marketing book.  Boiled down, these were his main points from memory:

  • creating difference; not benchmarking
  • execution of strategy
  • delivering value
  • micro-targeting
  • epidemics
  • empowerment
  • relationship management

If you read marketing books & information in general, you might notice a number of terms that you’re familiar with.  There’s a reason why Sun Tzu’s Art of War is still being read to this day – there’s nothing new in strategy.  It’s just a different way of saying the same thing.

Not to say that there isn’t value in reassessing & reviewing things like this – it often triggers new ideas or reinforces old concepts that have fallen by the wayside.  Yet, one factor that frustrates me about so many marketing talks is the complete lack of focus for small businesses (especially existing small businesses).

The Difference of Small Business

More importantly – lack of capital, resources and economies of scale.  It’s fine and dandy to say split your customer base into a dozen segments, but if your customer base is only a thousand to begin with, you’re talking about market segments of less than a hundred.  Sounds good? After all, you can really meet each of their individual needs then.

Let’s say it takes me 2 hours to put together each monthly e-mail.   With a dozen segments, I’m looking at 24 hours just to write & code each e-mail.  That’s not even counting the time it takes to figure out (and make work) each individual promotion or value proposition for each of those segments.  Figure it takes 5 hours each total for that & the e-mail. That’s 60 hours a month, just dedicated to writing & coding an e-mail newsletter. If you figure about 176 hours a month available (8 hours a day * 22 days), that’s 35% of your time dealing with 1 aspect of your entire marketing plan taking up your time.  Not to mention the necessary resources in terms of software, segmentation & research required to just get those dozen segments.

If your micro-target here is 100 people, and your new newsletters convinces 10 people instead of 2 to purchase, you’re still only making an additional $800 in revenue per newsletter. That’s $9,600 in revenue for a dozen newsletters – or about $288 total profit (3% net margin).

Ascension : Chronicles of the God King Review

Ascension : Chronicles of the God King is a deck-building board game that has strong flavors of Magic the Gathering and Dominion in it.   It’s a fast gateway deck builder game that takes less than 5 minutes to explain and less than an hour to play.  Ascension is a good game that I believe has carved out it’s own niche in this fast growing sector of the market.

Appearance:  Ascension : Chronicles of the God King comes in a rectangular box that is about three times as big as it needs to be – except for the inclusion of the board.  The game itself consists of 200 cards, 50 tokens and the game board so there’s really no reason for the large box size except to ensure the board fits.  On a different note – the game artwork is actually pretty good.  There’s nothing exceptional here; but it’s nice and quite thematic and the use of ‘flavor text’ on the cards can be quite funny (e.g. the Burrower Mark III whose text is ‘Can You Dig It’).  Card stock is good which means that the game is likely to hold up to quite a few plays.

Rules / Ease of Learning:  Ascension is the easiest deck builder to learn – I’d say even easier than Dominion.  It took me less than 5 minutes to teach and set-up the game for our first gameplay.   The board is set-up with the Heavy Infantry, Mystic & Cultist on one side and the draw / discard deck the other with the six (6) cards that are the cards available to purchase in the centre.  Each time a card is bought / killed; players refill the centre row with cards from the draw deck.  The number of Honor (victory) Points available varies depending on the number of players in the game, with Heroes & Constructs having honor points at the end game as well.

Each turn, players draw 5 cards from their deck and then play them out, using the Runes (for purchasing Heroes & Constructs) or Power (for killing monsters) provided for their turn.  As a balancing factor, the Cultist is always available to beat upon for 2 Power and the Mystics & Heavy Infantry cards for Rune purchases.

One complaint is that in an effort to keep the rulebook simple, the designers seem to have left out a few important points.  E.g. The Cultist never dies; when (exactly) the centre row is refilled and what order rewards are fulfilled.  It’d be nice if they included an FAQ or rules clarification on these points.

Gameplay: Ascension : Chronicles of the God King is much more tactical a deck builder than other deck builders as players must learn to use the specific cards available on the board and in their hand to win.  While you can start the game with a general ‘strategy’ (e.g. deciding to buy Mechana Constructs, focusing on Heavy Infantry / heroes, focusing on a draw deck); the randomness of the centre row will dictate your actual gameplay.

The game is also quite fast – since chain of actions are unlikely (i.e. multiple draws); it’s unlikely that players will be waiting for any single player to draw through and play his entire deck like Dominion.

We had a ton of fun when playing, with the game very well balanced.  Even with a bad draw, thanks to the Cultist, Mystics & Heavy Infantry; there’s always something that a player can do to better his deck.   The Cultist in particular caused lots of grins as players would send their army to ‘beat on the Cultist for Honor‘.

However, there’s a few areas to note with Ascension.  You need to play (or perhaps just sit down and read through the cards) a few times to get an idea of potential combinations through the game. That does give more experienced players an advantage.

The randomness of both card draws and the centre row can give an unfair advantage to a player – but that’s true of most games with an element of luck.   It’s just that with Ascension, since there’s almost no ‘interactive’ cards, you can’t stop a player that you know is pulling ahead.

Lastly, the amount of ‘randomness’ in the game increases as the number of players increase as the centre row churns through at a faster rate.  That often means that players have to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude in larger groups as the cards in the centre row will have churned over most likely by the time it reaches them.

Conclusion:  Overall, I like Ascension : Chronicles of the Godslayer.  It’s a light deck building game that is easy to set-up, simple to teach and fast to play.  There’s certainly depth to the game here already and a good expansion should add more to this game.  It’s not going to replace Thunderstone as a meatier, themed game for me but I must admit, I do prefer it over Dominion.

Best Practices : Plan, Plan, Plan (3)

When it comes to running a business, you’ll find that many business consultants / teacher recommend putting together a business plan.  There’s a very good reason for this – it enforces a structured methodology for reviewing threats & weaknesses in the business model.   Here’s a few major things that a business plan allows you to do:

1. Get a Loan and/or Grants

Any institution that will provide you a loan will want you to have a business plan. There’s no guarantee they’ll give you one if you have one, but you won’t even be able to apply without having one.  A few of these institutions might even require you to go through their particular program when creating the business plan before they’ll loan to you.

2. Best and Worst Case Scenarios

When I plan for a year, and specifically when I budget; I normally do three scenarios.  A best case, worst case and ‘realistic’ case budget on my side.  As an example, I estimated a 50%, 10% and 25% growth rate this year for each of those scenarios, with concurrent changes in the variable costs of the business.  This gave me an idea if I could eat Ramen or Sushi through the year, depending on where we actually landed.

Personally, I hope for the best scenario but plan my expenses (i.e. my salary) around the worst option.

3. Forecasting capitilisation & cash-flow

Assuming you do a three year business plan, you can work you how much money you will need to keep the business ticking over even in the worst case scenario.  This is rather important since a large number of businesses fail in year one to two because of lack of capitilisation.  Sales are never as high as you expect and expenses always higher.

There’s another reason planning is important – cash flow for this business is very seasonal. November & December of 2009 was 33% of our entire total revenue for the year. Since the vast majority of our expenses are fixed (rent, advertising, legal & accounting, salary), this means that a large number of our expenses are going to be accrued through the year while the profits to pay for it is towards the end of the year.

4. Marketing, Logistics & Personnel Plans

So here you are, with a nicely forecast financial spreadsheet with an idea of where the business is supposed to go.  It’s time to derive the rest of your business plans – everything from marketing to logistics to personnel will be dictated not only by your budget but your goals.

Let’s say you notice that you get a huge bump in sales November / December but not much else going on throughout the year.  Maybe then it’s time to look at methods of increasing your sales (i.e marketing).   Perhaps you could have a sale in March / April – a ‘Spring is here’ event.  Perhaps during the summer months, you could target a variety of conventions; drumming up additional sales that way.  Perhaps there are a few league tournaments you could run in Fall that would help.

Personnel needs from flow this to.  More staffing during XMas obviously, but perhaps you need to get specific ‘convention only’ staff? Or maybe because of the longer hours in Summer, you could open the store later – meaning more staff too.

In any case, it’s the plan that should be letting you forecast these potential issues before they arrive.

Caveat

Don’t get caught up in planning forever.  There comes a point when it’s time to call it a day and start putting the plan into action. When? Sometimes it’s hard to tell – so that’s why you need friends.  See next Best Practice.

Musings on board game sales & awards

You would think that Spiel des Jahres winners or games nominated for it would consistently sell well. However, that is not always true with games like Fresco and Magic Labyrinth continuing to be quite slow sellers, especially compared to other big sellers like Dominion & Pandemic.

Overall, just because a game is an award winner, it’s not guaranteed to sell.  It’s a mistake I’ve made a few times, which has caused us trouble too by purchasing too much stock.  I sometimes wonder why this is so, but thinking about it; I believe it depends on the full complexity and depth of strategy of the game.

Dominion & Pandemic are easy to play but have a lot of replay value and depth of strategy, while something like Magic Labyrinth seems much simpler and aimed at children.  My guess is that the market in North America (or maybe just my customers!) like more complex games.  Certainly, we sell a lot more of those quite often than the simpler, Children’s games.

What’s in a Name

Starlit Citadel‘s very much a compromise name.  When we were attempting to find a name for the company, we wanted something that didn’t just denote board games / role-playing games / card games; so we ran through a variety of generic ‘Game’ related terms like Game Center or Game Castle.  Heck, we even played with terms like ‘Dice & Dolls’ and the like; though obviously without much luck.

In the end, I was getting quite impatient to get the company going – I wanted / needed the backend set-up (along with various other bureaucratic issues dealt with like application to distributors, city council, etc.) so when Alison came up with Starlit Citadel, I just agreed to it.  It wasn’t horrendous, it wasn’t great but it worked.  Of course, I really should have known better.

Nearly 3 1/2 years later, some of my major concerns are coming back about the name.  It’s not easy to say (all too often I hear people go ‘Starlight Citad…what?’, it’s not easy to spell and it’s too easy to confuse.  So we get dozens of spellings, lots of people going ‘what…?’ and there’s no direct relation to our company name.

There’s an argument that changing it to something that’s easier to spell & say.  Still, there’s a lot of ‘brand’ built into the name already; and any change is going to confuse our old customers or people who have ‘met’ us before.  Then there’s the practical aspects – changing business cards, banners, logo’s, etc.  It’s probably not worth it right now, which is why I’m not going to do it.

Still, a word of warning to anyone looking to starting a business – take more time to work on your name and think about how badly it could be mangled over a bad phone line.

September 2010 Newsletter

Review Contest Winner

This month’s winner is Andrew A. with his review of Shadows over Camelot. In his words “In my experience, this game (Shadows over Camelot) is great with large groups (5+ players) and gets better each time you play with the same people. The bluffing element to the game really starts to shine when you’ve had experience playing with everyone at the table.

This game is fun for new players as well – the rules are easy to learn, and new players can sometimes be the most successful traitors. (Your fellow knights will be asking themselves “Is he inexperienced or the traitor?”.)” .

 

On-Going Contest

Don’t forget, we are also awarding 50 Citadel Points to each approved review. Lastly, the winner is enterred into the end of the year draw for the Grand Prize of $250 of board games!

Read more about the Contest

Site Updates

Our coupon codes and rewards points system is still down. We’re hoping to have it fixed soon, and once it’s fixed, we’ll be hosting a Rewards Only Sale, so look out for that in September.

In addition, we are sponsoring the Spiel; a gaming podcast. We’ve added them to the site’s Homepage so customers will be able to listen to their podcast directly.

Lastly, read our report on the Anime Evolution Convention we attended in early August.

Read more on our blog

Upcoming Hot Games

Content Image Inline
A ton of great new releases are arriving in the next few months including Dominion : Prosperity, Showmanager, Power Struggle the reprint of Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Jerusalem.

More Pre-orders



In Other News

  • Let us know how you like the new Newsletter design!
  • All Pre-Orders now receive Double Reward Points
  • Drop by the Vendor’s Room of VCon on Oct 1 – 3, 2010 to say hi!
  • We are also sponsoring
    BigCon in Kamloops and
    FallCon in Calgary
  • We have a new employee (Chona) doing shipping for the next few months.

On Competition & Sale Restrictions

In the game industry, quite often there are restrictions on sales – whether geographical or because we are an online store.  It’s an extremely annoying restriction in our view and one that drives the price of products up for our customers; if we can even buy / sell those games at all.

Geographical limitations are annoying since we receive the vast majority of our product from the States.  So for a few games that do have these restrictions, we have to go direct to a Canadian distributor.  This often means we pay between 4 – 5% higher in exchange rate conversions (i.e.  the distributor has calculated their game price at 4-5% higher than if we had just brought the game across the border ourselves); we also have to pay an additional 7 – 12% on delivery.  We are not the only ones affected here – often in these cases, only a few distributors (mostly found in Ontario & Quebec) have the rights, so all the Western retailers have this problem.

Still, I can understand this to some extent.  Sometimes, it’s more profitable to do it with 1 distributor; sometimes it’s just due to existing grandfathered contracts.  It’s the restrictions of sales to online companies that puzzle me.

The main thrust of the argument for restricting sales to online stores are to ‘grow the industry’.  Party to this restriction is the belief that brick & mortar game stores do this better than online stores and their margins must then be protected.

If we take this argument as given; my question is why do these publishers then turn around and sell to big chain stores like Chapters, Barnes & Noble and worst – Amazon?  It’s not even as if they’re restricting sales to their brick & mortar locations; all of these groups are online (if not exclusively so).

It’s the sheer hypocrisy of this that drives me up the wall.

New Bestsellers List for August 2010

Last month (August’s) bestsellers were mostly dominated by newly released games. Quite different from July’s bestsellers that were mostly the tried and true classics of our genre.

Settlers of Catan

1. Settlers of Catan 4th Edition

2. Dominion

3. Settlers of Catan 5+6 Player Expansion 4th Edition

4. Small World : Tales & Legends

5. Dominion : Intrigue

6. Dominion : Seaside

7. Dominion : Alchemy

8. Seafarers of Catan 4th Edition

9. Bohnanza

10. Dixit