Canada – Not the US

One of the fundamental aspects of running a business in Canada is that you are running a business in Canada.  It’s something that frustrates me significantly when I read ‘how-to’ guides or best practices on the web and realise that a lot of their discussions have nothing at all to do with the reality of the Canadian business landscape.  Yeah, we are very similar to the US but in other ways, we are significantly different.  Here’s a few examples of things that change how and what we do by a wide margin:

1. Smaller Population

Canada has about 35 million people.  California has 38 million individuals alone.  We have about 8% of the population of the United States, which means when you think about it, we have 1/8th of the potential target market than the US.   If you are in the US and catch say 1% of the market, you are doing extremely well.  Here, we’d have to catch 8x the number to just be equal.

It also means that when you look at potential employees, you have a significantly smaller ‘base’ to hire from which can lead to interesting hiring decisions.  What’s a legitimate market in the US might not be so in Canada, or at least, is very much more difficult to capture at a ‘reasonable’ size.

2. Fewer Suppliers

Here’s another fun part – smaller population means fewer suppliers.  If you get a bad supplier in Canada, you might just have to live with it because there’s no competition.  You also have fewer options in terms of geographic spread – many suppliers are smaller than in the US (e.g. Alliance and ACD are both multi-warehouse companies) and we often end-up having to ship from Ontario for our stock.  Again – no choice, few suppliers.  It also means you have much less leverage – you can’t play one supplier against another.

This is particularly interesting when you look at things like shipping or our card processors.  In the US, you could ship via UPS, FedEx, US Mail or do a combination system with local and international couriers.  In Canada, once you do decent volumes there is no better option than Canada Post for residential delivery.

3. Bigger Country

We are a much bigger country than the US.  Sure, 75% of our population is within a 100 miles of the border or so, but many of our customers actually live outside of that 100 mile border zone.  It both makes e-commerce businesses highly valuable (and has driven the adoption of eCommerce at a faster rate than in the US) but also means that the cost of delivery is significantly higher as the volume of products flowing is lower (less economies of scale).

I should also add we have Quebec in there – an entire province that we get relatively few orders (proportionally) due to the language barrier.  We could target them, but then we’d have to translate the site to French, stock translated games, etc.  And again, see earlier comment about population size – there’s really only so many suppliers possible in any one marketplace.

4. Higher Costs

Lower population, fewer suppliers, less economies of scale and a bigger country all lead to generally higher costs than the US.  Add in our higher overall minimum wages and various additional costs and your general Canadian business runs at a much higher cost level than your US business.  Worst, the smaller population means for a niche business like us means that it’s harder to spread the fixed cost around, meaning overall lower profits for a longer period in my experience.

So, what do you do when your costs are higher and your market is hard to reach – up your prices of course.  You need more revenue per person, and so long as the demand curve doesn’t drop off too bad, that should work…. Which is the explanation of why everything costs more than you’d expect.

5. Less Red Tape (mostly)

On the other hand (and this is mostly anecdotal); we seem to have a lot less red tape than in the US.  For example, our ta system is a lot less elaborate than the US’s.  Getting business licenses is relatively easy as is setting up a business and so-on, so-forth.  You can actually set-up and run your own business with a lot less hassle it seems than in the US.  Again, this is mostly anecdotal.

Public and Private Personas

At first, I was going to write a post about the entire Geek Girl issue, but I’ve never gotten an angle on it that I felt comfortable writing about.  Frankly, I think the topic is something Kaja is better of writing rather than me.  Instead, I think I’ll talk about public / private personas especially when dealing with marketing the store.

Being Public

Both Kaja and myself to a lesser extent have a ‘public’ persona.  Kaja’s much more obvious with her being the main employee face in our video reviews.  I, on the other hand mostly post on the twitter account and the blog.  As these are ‘corporate’ personas, they are in some ways different from our private personalities.  As a simple example – both Kaja and I swear a lot less when posting / reviewing for the company.   There’s a certain level of professionalism that is both expected and required when we ‘work’.  While Starlit Citadel allows us to be more ‘us’ than a job in say, a bank; it still requires a level of professionalism.

The problem with having a public persona, especially one online; is that you open up to a lot more comments & discussions than any other job does.  It surely is something that you invite, but due to the nature of how we interact online, it removes some of the perceived barriers between the public and private.

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen in other jobs, it’s just that we are in a way both inviting more comments.  There’s a difference between the salesperson you see in the store and the salesperson who invites you back to his house for a BBQ.

The Medium is the Message

Alright, this isn’t exactly right since the medium is the Internet. However, there’s a difference between say a blog post with a video review with a twitter message with a FB post.  Some are perceived inherently to be more permanent (blog posts, video messages) than others (a twitter message).  The same comment posted as a blog post would be taken differently than one on Twitter.

The Private Line

In a way, as public personas we dictate the line that is drawn by what we speak about / discuss publicly.  For example, by never posting about personal events on a public account, we don’t invite comments about our personal lives.  That’s a line that we draw.  I post about the business, so I expect to get questions about the business – but I stay away from actual sales numbers, which is why I’ve never received a question about ‘what’s your sales’.  Again, we set the expectation.

The issue is, while we perceive this line to be set not everyone gets the memo.  Sometimes, its just a matter of lack of clarity – there’s no actual document out there saying do not say X or comment on Y.  Sometimes, it’s because we actually cross the lines accidentally, or just haven’t ‘set’ the lines as tightly in our own minds.   After all, there’s nothing wrong with interacting socially with customers right? Mostly….

Resetting those lines though requires a touch of finesse.  A great example is comments on Kaja’s & Joanna’s appearances on the videos.  Sure, they are pretty and complimenting them on this is fine… but at a certain point, these comments stop being compliments and just become creepy.  However, because it’s a ‘corporate’ account, we have to be careful of exactly how we reset those lines.

That public / private line issue is much more apparent for Kaja than me.  Part of that of course is the medium, part of that is what we discuss (I’m boring with my business posts) and partly, it’s the gender thing.  For some reason, being female in some minds means that the line gets reset back a lot further than if you were male.

Balancing where and how we talk about these things is a constant issue, and frankly; one that is both intriguing in an academic sense and frustrating sometimes on a personal level.

Ways to Look at a Business

Let’s talk about how you can see your own business and thus the different business goals you might have, and the way that seeing that business imposes different structures and processes.  Now, since most of us are single-owner businesses, when I talk business goals, there’s a lot of cross-over between what the owner wants and the business wants.  As an example – if the owner’s goal is to work 10 hours a week, the business goal becomes to ensure that the owner can work 10 hours a week.

How you structure your business is dependent on the goals you intend to achieve.

Seems self-evident doesn’t it?  Let’s give a few examples:

The Business as a Job – the most common goal, the business is just another job.  You go in, you get paid and if you’re lucky you get to tack on a bit of extra profit.  In this case, hiring is minimal – you have a few part-time employees to help out during busy periods, but for the most part, you are the main employee.  This is probably the most personally profitable method (in the short-term) as you earn both a salary and any profits.  Often, this kind of viewpoint imposes a limit on the growth of the company though – as the owner works in the business rather than on it.

The Business as a Passion – I could also call it, the business as a hobby.  You see this structure more with publishers than you do with retailers, but it’s still possible as a retailer.  Here, the business isn’t run as a business but as an outlet for a passion / hobby – whether it’s publishing games that you designed yourself or a store that is a ‘club’ for regulars, the goal isn’t to make funds so much as achieve the passion.  In cases like this, the focus is less on the bottom-line and more on achieving the business goal, which can be detrimental to the business itself.  A great passion project example would be the Steve Jackson Ogre release.

The Business as a Corporation – This is much more common when you start viewing the business as a separate entity from yourself.  This might be imposed on you (if you have additional shareholders) or as a self-imposed viewpoint, but it forces a more ‘corporate’ viewpoint on goals and structure.  For example, that ‘Manager’ better get paid a regular salary, even if that Manager is yourself.  Neither can you impose random expenses on the business as you have to justify each expense (beyond the Taxman), which can impose a harsher standard.  It is also good training in many ways but less profitable for the company – if you are paying your Manager market-level salaries, your profit is likely to be overall lower but it does allow you to eventually hire someone in for that role.

The Business as an Investment – This is a strange viewpoint but it looks at what you have invested in the company (both real capital and opportunity cost) with an eye at generating a return and the risk of loss.  It reviews the business with an dispassionate eye,  looking for points of failure and final value in the event of a bankruptcy.  Depending on if you see the business as a long-term or a short-term investment, it could dictate how much additional funds you’d be willing to invest in the company.  For example – most game companies are bad investments.  Single point of failure (one industry), quite often with a key employee (you) and almost no assets at bankruptcy (low liquidation value for game stock).   In a case like this, you might view the company as needing to generate profits now so that you can cash out your loans / shares as much as possible.  This imposes cost-cutting procedures through the company and probably hiring freezes.  It’s not a bad viewpoint to occasionally use those; as it forces you to look extremely critically at what you’ve done.

More Mini Reviews

Mage Wars

Let me first warn you – your first game is going to take a while.  While the rules aren’t particularly difficult (and in fact, most of it can be skipped as they deal with specific spells / effects); you are going to have to spend some time putting together the decks.  However, once you’re actually playing the game; Mage Wars is a ton of fun.  It’s a 2 person, direct conflict wargame that will have you sitting back at the end of a game going ‘Damn, I should have done that’.  It’s definitely a great game for those who don’t mind putting together spell decks and direct conflict, but it does require some upkeep to get the most out of.

Dungeon Twister 2

Let me first state that I played the original Dungeon Twister, not the updated version.  I’ve also been told to expect ‘Fantasy Chess’ with Dungeon Twister, and while I can see the similarities, I would say that Dungeon Twister is much more than a gussied-up version of chess.  The ability for each room to be turned combined with the planning for setting up characters and items are all vastly important and can make / break a game for each player.  It does have a steep learning curve like Chess though – the rules might be simple enough, but the strategies can get quite deep.  This isn’t a bad 2-player game at all, and I could easily see how a 3-4 player game could get truly chaotic.

Food Fight

Food Fight came highly recommended as a tutorial game for those looking to improve their Magic drafting skills. I can see how that’d work well after playing the game, but for myself; I found Food Fight just a touch too random.  I like the card drafting element in the beginning (much like 7 Wonders); but the lack of control of how those cards would appear during the actual battle portion made many of the strategies work either really well or poorly.    The game itself seemed too random for me, but it seems to work well for casual or lighter groups.

Epic Spell Wars of the Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullfyre

Another game that I was under-whelmed by, even though the group I was with seemed to enjoy it.  I guess I tend towards heavier games, and Epic Spell Wars just isn’t.  You get a hand of cards, you get to play the cards down (up to 3) to deal damage / heal yourself / etc.  If you’re lucky and no one targets you, you might survive.  If you’re not lucky, well… you might not even get a turn in a larger group.  The most fun that was had was reading out the various silly names of the spells being cast and watching the ‘take that’ element of the game.  Still, it’s a very simple game with a theme that works for lighter / casual gamers but I’d rather play something as a filler if I had to.

Hidden Costs

There are a number of hidden costs involved in running your own business.  I’m not talking about accounting or financial costs – I talk about them a lot anyway – but less ‘tangible’ costs.  These are often hidden, from casual onlookers, from employees, from customers that make running a business more of a challenge than most people realise. Here’s a few hidden costs:

Your Time

When we first launched the site, I worked between 70 – 80 hours a week usually.  Some weeks, I worked more than that. These days, I’m doing a more manegable 50 – 60 hours on average.  That is still a huge chunk of time, however you look at it especially when you consider most jobs talk about 35 – 40 hours as ‘normal’.

Your Boundaries


Other people get to put away the business when they get home.  You don’t.  I’m always on-call if the site goes down (I get a text message if it ever does and I can on it right away, whatever time of day it is).  Even when you do want to take a break, more often than not your mind will circle back to the business, to what you need to do now or tomorrow or the next day.  The boundary between work and personal life blurs and becomes very hard to tell, and this is often a necessity to get your business successful.  Perhaps later, it might separate again but for the first half-decade at least; it’s a constant intrusion.

Your Health

You know all that time stressing about the business, working those stupid hours? Yeah, it takes a toll.  An ‘in-joke’ among some friends are that I’m as often sick as I am healthy.  Not too much of an exaggeration as I’m highly susceptible to colds.  Between stress lowering your immune system, lack of time to exercise / eat well and having to work even if you are ill; you will find yourself getting ill and staying ill longer than you used to.

Your Relationships

Look at all the above.  Guess what that does to the relationships in your life?  If you’re ill, tired, thinking of your business and working on it all the time, the relationships in your life get strained.  You have to have an understanding family and friends as you won’t see them as often, and when you do; often what you’ll want to talk about (whether they are interested or not!) is the one thing consuming your life – your business.  It’s not necessarily healthy mind you… but it happens.

Your Hobby

This is for those of us who made a hobby our careers.  Sure, you might still game – you might still enjoy to game.  However, you just can’t find as much time.   It took me quite a few years to learn to book time out to actually play games, and even these days; I often end up playing games not because I think I might like them but because I want to learn them for the business.   It sucks some joy out of gaming, and committing to learning whole new systems just make me cringe – after all, I could learn a new board game in the time it takes me to learn the intricacies of Warhammer / GURPs/ etc.

Your Future

I know I said I wasn’t going to talk money, but I wanted to bring up personal money.  If you move from a relatively well paying job to working for yourself, unless you are extremely lucky, the chances are you’ll be ‘losing’ money almost immediately.  It’s hard to make as much money (especially in this industry) as you’d earn working for someone else.  At best, a Game Store manager earns $45,000 a year.  A freshly graduated IT worker earns $70 – 80k a year.  A freshly graduated Accountant (before they get their certification!) $55 – 60k.    And chances are, you aren’t even a fresh graduate.  So… how much ‘lost’ funds are you looking at? And it just keeps adding up, year after year….

I don’t want to sound like a downer here, but there are costs to choosing the lifestyle we live.  Some grate more than most, some can be ‘trimmed’ but they are all there.  If you choose to go down this road, realise there are further cost beyond just the upfront capital that you could lose…