Running out of Ideas

I’m running out of ideas in terms of business blog posts.  At least for the next little while – I’m sure I’ll come back to it with new comments / etc but without rehashing things I’ve already discussed, I’m at a loss of words.

So; what would people like me to talk about? Or again or in more detail? I’m open to discussing most things ; and if I’m not I’ll discuss why I’m not 🙂

We’ve got a few game reviews scheduled for certain, and I’ll be posting some data about game sales soon (once year-end fiddling with numbers is over).  However, I’d definitely like feedback on what else to write about.

The Great Unknown

Running a business is partly about being comfortable with the unknown and then making decisions based on that lack of knowledge.  It means being okay with things not going the way you want it all the time, and not ever having full control of your daily routines.

Business Forecasting

The obvious point here is sales.  I can tell you, roughly, that November to December is our busiest season, that Mondays to Fridays are pretty busy with Mondays and Thursday’s our busiest.  Normally.  There’s no certainty though – we’ve had Wednesday’s be our busiest day’s by far and Thursday’s dead.  We’ve had months that were just as busy as our November.  And there’s definitely no information out there about the industry and retail numbers.

If you are not a person who’s okay with making decisions with limited, partial or completely misleading information; you won’t last long in this business.  Or any entrepreneurial business really.  You’ve also got to accept the fact that sometimes, yo’ll make the wrong call – and being able to shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

Routines

Very recently, my entire day was thrown off because Kaja forgot her keys.  Every couple of weeks, I have to deal with emergency server / website issues that consume my day.  An employee gets sick, and you have to cover for them.

There are a lot of people who like a 9 to 5, routine job.  There’s very few set in stone pieces of work that we have though, and certainly few that are mine alone.  There’s no routine and my workload varies on a daily basis – and sometimes, hourly. If you need everything to be pre-planned out, then running a game store isn’t for you.

The Unknown is part of the fun really, part of the joy of running your own business.  There’s no more boss, no more routine and learning to embrace it just makes things all the better.

Growth is Expensive

Everyone talks about how cashflow and how much money you require when starting a business.  It’s drilled into the head of many new businesses how expensive it is to start; the need for sufficient capital so as not to fail.  What people don’t talk about as much is how expensive actual growth is.

The Harsh Reality

When you first start; most of your needs and the work that can be done can be handled by a single person.  As you grow; you find it harder and harder to complete all the tasks necessarily to run a business with just 1 person.    Instead of entering 1 order, 1 invoice, 1 payroll per week; you’re now looking at 100 orders, 10 invoices to enter.  Instead of just shipping 5 – 10 orders a week; you now have to manage 20 orders. You’re growing; but it’s putting a strain on your business.

The Mathematics of Growth

Let’s focus on just inventory.  Say you have 100 products, each of which you keep 2 items  in-stock.  Each of those products you buy for $20.  That’s $4000 in capital that you ‘keep’ in-stock at any time.  Now, let’s assume you get 1 order for each of those 100 products a week (i.e. 100 orders for 1 item);  you actually have 1 item per product (100 items total) in-stock – a happy medium in case of sudden surges so long as you re-stock once a week.

What if you grow to 200 orders for 200 products? Well, if your initial goal was to keep a full week’s worth of inventory on-hand at any one time; you have to increase your inventory by 200 products – another $4000 in capital.

Now, if you take our normal margins into account, that means to build up $4000 in gross profit; we’d have to sell $8,000 of product – $12,000 in Gross Sales.  That’s a very expensive proposition; especially when you take into account this is Gross Profit – not Net.  There’s still a lot of costs; some directly associated (e.g. storage, shipping, processing charges, etc). that need to be paid for.

As I said; growth is expensive.

More Complexity

Let’s add a few more thoughts.   With growth in sales, you’ll need more:

  • space to store your new inventory
  • boxes to ship the new orders
  • employee hours to handle the shipping
  • bookkeeping time to input the longer inventory lists and no. of orders
  • customer service hours to handle the additional questions
  • etc.

The worst part? Some of these costs have to be front-loaded.  You might see a slow increase in sales; but you still need to start stocking up additional inventory before the sales materialize to get the sales.  You might have to hire an employee full-time and find ‘make-work’ for him till sales improve sufficiently to justify him shipping only. And so forth.

Finding the Balance

Finding the balance between necessary growth; planned growth and available resources is difficult.  If you don’t plan for the growth; the friction of insufficient resources will result in unhappy customers and employees.   Yet finding the funds for growth can sometimes be difficult , requiring sacrifices in your plans and goals.

Kingdom Builder : A Game Review

Kingdom Builder board game
Kingdom Builder board game review

Kingdom Builder is designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and is an area control game that is geared towards beginner boardgamers It uses relatively simple to learn mechanics to provide a fast, simple game for players.

Appearance: Kingdom Builder is produced by Queen Games, which means that the production value is very good. Lots of little settlement tokens are available; along with multiple modular boards, numerous character cards who help score points and the land cards which players will draw each turn.

Overall, there’s little to complain about with the production quality available here. There are more boards and card than will be required each game ensuring that you will more than sufficient replay value in this game.

Rules/ Ease of Learning: In Kingdom Builder, players set-up the game board using 4 modular board tiles in a rectangular orientation to one another. The terrain cards and the Kingdom builder cards are shuffled, with 3 random Kingdom Builder cards drawn and set-aside for the game and a single terrain card provided to each player. These cards are in-play and will be the major way players will score points during this game.

Each turn, players must build 3 settlements on the terrain indicated in their terrain card. These 3 settlements must be built adjacent to the player’s existing settlement if possible. If not possible; the players may place their settlement in any location that matches their terrain tile.

If a player builds next to a castle, they will score 3 points at the end of the game. If they build next to a location tile hex; they may take a location tile (if available) and use the tile their next turn. Location tiles provide additional actions which allow players to either build additional settlements or move existing settlements to new locations. At the end of their turn, the player discards their used terrain card and draws another terrain card.

At the end of the game; points are scored for settlements adjacent to the castles and for the Kingdom Builder cards.

Gameplay: As you can tell, turns are relatively simple mechanically.  Each turn, players must place 3 buildings on the terrain hexes indicated and then they draw a new terrain card.  As such, this is an easy game to teach new players; with the complications arising from the additional action cards and the scoring from the Kingdom Builder cards.

One of the nicest aspects of the game is the drawing of your next turn’s terrain tile at the end of your turn.  This allows players time to review the game-board during the other player’s turns, thus keeping the game flowing quite smoothly.

At times, due to the restrictive nature of the terrain card draws; players might find that their actions are ‘scripted’ as they are unable to place their houses in a location that they’d prefer.  However, the use of the additional action tiles can significantly decrease this luck factor; allowing players to score their settlements still.

Kingdom Builder mostly seems to be a tactical game – while you can create a general strategy at the start of the game based off the terrains available, the Kingdom cards in-play and the location tiles; your first couple of turn draws on terrain cards can significantly alter your strategy.  As such; players have to be able to adjust their strategies ‘on-the-fly’ to win.

There is a certain lack of interaction on the game however; as players are not able to directly affect other players except by (maybe) blocking their future moves.   However, games take less than an hour to finish and turns move very quickly; especially with more experienced players so the lack of interaction does not seem too big a deterrent in the game itself.

Conclusion: Kingdom Builder is a good gateway game.  The rules are simple enough to teach; while there’s definitely a depth of strategy to the game.  With so many variations on the boards and Kingdom cards available; there is a lot of replay value in the game.  The theme is somewhat lacking however; and is very much more focused on a tactical level which can be a deterrent for some players.

It’s the little things that get you – Stress

Stress.  It’s a quite (or not so quiet) constant in business.

The Early Years

In the first few years, you’re always thinking ‘will we make enough to cover the bills? How long before I run out of money?’.   It’s an intense refrain, one that continues for days and hours till you finally make it.  Then you start wondering if you’ll make enough to pay yourself a salary.  It’s incredibly stressful, and sometimes you wonder why you decided to get into this business at all.

For most, this period lasts 1 to 2 years, 3 at the outside before you ‘breakeven’. And for a moment, there’s euphoria.  Then the stress comes back.

The Growing Years

It’s an equilibrium that is made up of a minimal salary & expenses.  Of course, no one wants to earn a minimal salary and that equilibrium isn’t stable anyway.  If you’re lucky, it moves in the right direction and you get even more business.  Of course, that business just adds more work and suddenly you need to hire.

And a new kind of stress comes – that of people.  It’s one thing when you only had to worry about yourself, about your own salary. It’s another when you realise you have paychecks to meet.  If things were slow one month, I could cut my pay and no one was the wiser.  You can’t do that to employees so you suddenly need a reserve.  One that is significantly larger than your previous one.

Then you realise that you keep running out of stock because business has picked up so much.  Now you need to carry more stock – a larger investment in capital.  More stress, as you scramble to find the money to devote to increasing stock.  You can’t touch your salary reserve, so you have to find it somewhere else.  Maybe a loan or line-of-credit? Maybe you just short-change yourself (again) for a few months.  Either way, stress.

And on it goes.  It never ends.

Coping

As a business owner (and human); the only thing you can do is learn to deal with the stress.  Whether it’s meditation, exercise, talking about it, learning to partition or just going out and enjoying your life – it’s a necessary must.  I think part of the reason most business owners fail is because they burn out; by not learning to cope with the daily stress of running a business.  It’s not easy at all and if you’re prone to ulcers; you might consider avoiding being an entrepreneur.

Top 10 Games for Large Groups

Just got another article up, with a list of games for large groups.  I’ve restricted the list to games that come pre-built for large groups (i.e. more than 6) rather than games that can expand to accommodate large groups.  I’ve also restricted the games to the easier to learn type; rather than more complex games like Arkham Horror as I assume most large group games like these will include at least a few non-gamers.

Let me know what you think of the list.  I’ll also be updating some of our lists soon too – there’s been a few new games since we wrote them in 2007 that I think should replace some of those we originally listed.

Top 10 Science Fiction Board Games

We just released a new article – the Top 10 Science Fiction Board Games.  I’ve been playing with that list for ages now; but till recently hadn’t been that excited about that many SciFi games.  Now, I’d say there’s a pretty good number out there, and some that I feel are quite fun to play.  Thus the list.

Have fun reading and do feel free to comment.

 

Managing & Personnel

As many of you know, we’ve recently been hiring and are now are a 3 person company.  That’s a great thing for us (if slightly a strain on our cashflow at the moment); but the real change has been in me having to relearn management.  It has been quite a few years since I had to manage anyone other than myself and relearning best practices has been a journey for me.

There’s a few stumbling blocks I’ve had / have and I thought I’d articulate them here as a reminder to myself:

Project Timelines

Perhaps my biggest frustration at the moment; and one that I keep forgetting.  I hand-out projects to the employees; and while I get updates, I’ve been forgetting to ask for timelines and deadlines.  Now, in the course of our business, we receive a number of set-backs and delays (a rush of orders, delays in getting products in which force us to have multiple receiving days, etc.); but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t at least have deadlines clearly articulated and pushed back (if necessary).

My biggest stumbling block here; and frustration is that I often intuitively have a deadline in mind for a project when I start it (or assign it).  I rarely articulate it (after all, who am I articulating to other than myself?); but it’s there.  Unfortunately, not articulating to employees doesn’t exactly work – and then having a project not completed to an unarticulated deadline just causes frustration.  Mostly with myself; but to a small extent the employee.  Which is obviously not fair to them.

Tasks & Documentation

Another major  area that I have a problem with currently is actually documenting the variety of tasks that I do on a daily basis; and that the company does.  It might seem strange needing to document things as simple as ‘Approve Reviews daily’ or ‘Transfer PayPal funds’ but if you don’t; and for some reason I can’t do it (like a holiday); it doesn’t get done.  As I try to shift more mundane tasks like that away from myself to the employees; forgetting to tell them about minor tasks like that becomes a major problem that can fall through the cracks.

Delegating

Of course, that’s when I do want to let go.  Much of the delegating right now is to move ‘easier’ tasks away from me so I can tackle more complex tasks.  However, at the same time I need to learn to delegate even the more complex tasks and that’s tough. Part of that is of course the old maxim – You can delegate authority but not responsibility. It’s my company, so I still feel responsible for even the smallest tasks.  It’s a tough thing, learning to let go.

Training

Lastly there’s training.  Adding new tasks requires training, adding new projects often requires training (sometimes in simple things like project management).  Then there’s the entire realm of online sales and the complexity that is running such a site – everything from using FTP programs to uploading new modules to payment gateways.  All that at some point will need to be taught, to create redundancy in the company.   Unfortunately, I’m not necessarily the best teacher – sometimes because I’m still learning the subject matter; at other times because of my lack of patience.

Video Reviews : A Business Perspective

We’ve recently been creating video game reviews of our various board games (and soon, our role-playing games).  It’s our newest marketing push on the site, and there’s a few reasons we’ve gone about doing it.   Obviously, it’s a great marketing tool – it allows us to promote our site in other locations without being too pushy; it (hopefully) convinces customers to purchase a game and perhaps just as importantly, put a ‘face’ to our company.  Even if that face is Kaja’s for the most part. 🙂

There’s a lot of great things to say about the video reviews; but there are obviously concerns too that have held us back from creating them long ago.

Firstly, they’re expensive.  Part of that is my insistence that we do it well.  After all, we could just use a digital camera; slap it down on a table and make Kaja talk into it and then post the resulting footage without editing.  However, I’d rather we do something a touch more professional – thus Rob, Phasefirefilms and Joanna.  That does mean that each video costs us a few hundred dollars though.

The next question is ROI.  If it costs us that much to shoot, how wdo we make it back? The obvious answer is that we have to sell that many additional games from it. However; that’s not viable at all.  Except for truly big-sellers like Settlers of Catan, the resulting increase in sales is unlikely to pay us back.  Frankly, so far we haven’t seen the stick move at all (at least as tracked by sales increases on the product page directly).

Lastly, while it’s great for promotional uses; we have to walk a very fine line between making it useful for promoting our site and being too ‘corporate’ with the video.  Adding too many links on the video or ‘pushing’ a game too hard could create the opposite effect that we’re going for.

So why do it? So far, it’s a promotional and branding tool.  It helps get our name out, helps build some goodwill and it might convert a few gamers to buy here and there.  Of course, that does mean that we’ve got to consider how we’ll make our money back in other ways, which can mean something as simple as adding Adwords to the videos.  After all, nearly 60% of our video viewers aren’t ever going to be our customers since they aren’t from Canada.