Thursday, February 28, 2013


I wrote this on the boardgamegeek forum in a thread about starting a game store. It's edited and expanded a bit here, because I can't leave well enough alone.

Figure out your motivation. Why do you want to own a game store?

If it's because you think you can do it better than everyone else around you, well duh, you're probably right, but is that a good reason? Beware of winning.

I started my store because my favorite game store went down hill after a management change (Gamescape North in San Rafael). It turned out at least one other well known game store owner did the same. Gamescape is thankfully back in good hands, but you can see where a major life decision was made almost as a protest vote.

If it's to play more games, it's likely you'll play fewer, and always off hours, and usually to learn some stupid game of the month you don't care about so you can sell it better. I don't believe you'll ruin your hobby by making it your business, but you'll have less time for it (oh yeah, and beware of losing your hobby).

I recall a horrible, sinking feeling when I realized that I didn't want to play Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition any longer. Sure, I've played other games, but D&D was my cornerstone, my linch pin, my passion. Would I still want to run a game store without games I love?  Now imagine loving that game but being kept from it, just a bit out of reach. That was my first year in business when I took a break from games to focus on work... selling games. If I hadn't succeeded, I might still be that struggling guy without his game.

Speaking of games, how is your game knowledge?
How well do you know board games, miniature games, collectible card games, role-playing games and classic games? You don't get to pick, you must know them all well enough to sell them. Diversification is survival, not just success. Active selling is key too. Expect to hand sell a lot of stuff you don't care about to people you don't care about who think you should care a lot.

You will hopefully develop The Stills Effect, where you "love the one you're with." It's something I actively practice, although times like now, when I need a vacation, it can be difficult. You don't need to know every game, but you need to know how to provide entry into the hobby. I will look like a veteran hobbyist when I sell board games to new customers, but after a year or so of shopping with me, it's likely you've gone beyond my knowledge. My job is to empower customers, not be the ever full font of all knowledge. As retailers, we try anyway, and regularly beat ourselves up for our shortcomings of not being all knowing gurus.

If it's to make money, hopefully you've learned by now there's no "there" there. You can make a living at it, but not a very good one. Key here: if you have the skills to succeed at running a game store, you have the skills to succeed doing things making a LOT more money. It's wickedly complex and painfully inefficient and resistant to progress. Open a Subway franchise instead and play more games in your free time. Whatever you're doing now, do it as a consultant or as your core business. It's likely far less risky than a retail store.

Even if you succeed, as my father pointed out when I started, there is a severe opportunity cost. If you're young, you probably lack the skills, but if you're in your 30's and 40's, you'll give up your peak earning years in a profession, provided you had one or intended to have one. You'll likely set yourself back from your peers and possibly take a notch down in your social class, which in this country means lacking access to real estate, good neighborhoods and adequate schooling for your children.

What's your exit strategy? One not so great thing about a game store is it's rarely worth the value of the contents of the store even when it's wildly successful. You've really just bought yourself a job, which might be great if you want something to do in retirement, but it's a dead end if you want to buy a house, put a kid through college or one day retire on your business fortune. Game stores should be this thing you rent that you hand off to the excited next guy. Are you ready to devote your life to retailing? Forget the games, you're a retailer.

As I've mentioned before, the job takes a high level of both passion and dispassion. Loving what you do, what you sell, but knowing that all of your babies will eventually need drowning in the bathwater. Gasp! That's a harsh analogy, perhaps embracing impermanence is a more sanitized version. All games, every game, will eventually hit the clearance bucket or better, leave with a loving owner. Nothing, no thing, is sacred.

Anyway, it's entirely possible that you can do it. It's possible that you succeed at it and you love it. Just be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Some who don't understand retail ask us why we don't have a blanket discount.

Our store has three strong suits:

1. A clean, well maintained space with attentive staff.
2. A central, downtown location with a thousand square feet of game space.
3. New product, usually on release day, whether the rent is due or not.

If we were to discount, you would be asked to choose one of these attributes. The other two would be far too expensive to keep and still stay in business.

But wait, there's more.

Part of choosing would be convincing the other two-thirds of our customers that your choice was right. Losing two thirds of our customers would certainly destroy the store faster than a fast food fire. Only then would we be bringing in enough revenue to survive. You might be willing to put up with slovenly stores, stores out on the interstate, or stores that rarely have new releases other than Magic, but what about everyone else?

I think not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Small Business Freedom

Unless you came from a family of small business owners, the mindset of owning a small business probably wasn't taught to you. They don't teach it in business classes and it's certainly not taught in our schools. Schools are more interested in making sure we show up to the factory on time and stand in a straight line. Look alive citizen. So when I started my own business, there were three important psychological breakthroughs that thankfully developed on their own, but it took years. These were thought processes that helped me succeed that nobody taught me, and perhaps they can't be taught.

You have permission. You can leave your job. You can start your business. When I first started, I had this anxiety that I wasn't supposed to be doing this, that someone was going to come and get me and bring me back to reality, to work or maybe school. There's a bit of insanity inherent in starting a business, because you just don't know. Whenever a prospective business owner asks me how he should project his sales, I laugh like a maniac for a moment. You just don't know. Project them to cover your costs. What else can you do? Asking that question is the first koan of small business.

Even if you think it's perfectly fine to start a business, there's nobody to tell you when to begin or to say when you've had enough. Worse, there's no safety net or unemployment if you fail. There's no relevant trade organization or support group. You're on the trapeze. There is no net. Nobody is even watching. I worried the IRS would audit me for being implausible.

It took about two years to realize I had permission to be there, I could truly own the business and only then did I have the confidence to move forward. Before that time, I was tentative, asked a lot of  people what they thought I should do, and constantly kept my options open. I was always afraid to burn a bridge, and always wanted to keep one foot in my old life. Accepting I had permission opened me up to be creative in what I was doing right now.

The money is mine. If you've never had your own business, the money you've been spending at work is someone else's. It may be a faceless corporation, some shadowy investors, or a mean boss, loved only by his dog. Spending money at work is like playing a game, passing Go, exchanging wood for sheep. It's not your money, so it's never a big deal. The rent went up? Well, what's a Sim to do?

Realizing it was my money got me to resent when money was spent, when someone had their hand in my pocket. It took three years to get to this stage. It required profits really, the realization that if I paid an extra dollar in rent, that was a dollar I couldn't use to pay my mortgage. Bills and debt weren't passive things to be endured, they were active enemies to be conquered, potentially eliminated. Sales were important, but you have less control over income than you have over expenses. Beating down expenses became fun, even when they caused endless headaches. You know my goals in December to reduce the alarm and Internet expenses? Nothing but trouble. But there were savings and eventually the pain will be forgotten.

There is no limit to your success. You own a small hobby store. You probably won't make much money. You certainly can't afford a mortgage or an education for your children. You should probably expect a modest salary. It's a monastic lifestyle without the spiritual benefit for yourself and others. These are all things you're told or tell yourself or worse, your family tells you, so you can accept that you won't be making what you used to, or you won't aspire to the middle class ideal (mortgage, retirement savings, college savings and annual vacations). Perhaps they hope you'll come to your senses and get off that trapeze. It's a lie.

It took about six year to realize I wasn't being held back by society, my trade or the invisible hand of economics. There was nothing holding me back but myself. There was no limit in how much my business could earn, if I could figure it out. I wasn't getting rich, but I was punching through my self limitations. The worst group to listen to turned out to be my peers, the majority of whom, like peers in every trade, had limitations for themselves firmly in place.

At this stage, my personal effort wasn't as important as figuring out how to leverage the energy of others. In other words, if I could plan it properly, other people could continue it after execution. A lot of business owners quit early because they can't give up control, can't delegate, can't accept their job is coming up with the sausage making process and not physically making sausage. The thought of future sausage making exhausts them and they quit. Sure, there are some theoretical limits in all this, but these are limits you realize after you hit them, rather than barriers you place in front of yourself.

Finally, these are hard won realizations, but realizations that many small business owners come to. It explains why many are fiercely independent, do their own thing, spit in the eye of anyone who tells them it can't be done. Doubt and apathy are indulgences they can't afford.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Job

I am the owner.

My job is to say no. I say it to handicapped children in need of a donation, to vendors with games who hope to feed their families, to staff with demands, to customers who push constantly for more, better and free for nothing.

My job is to swallow the blame, and spread the praise. Staff shall blame me for any policy or decision that they wish. Push the blame upwards. I will praise them for all successes that can be reasonably attributed to them, pushing credit downwards.

My job is to play bad cop. No, you may not return your opened and played board game two months after you purchased it. The boss said so, sorry, nothing I can do. What a jackass.

My job is to maximize shareholder value, to quote Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon. That includes everything from choosing the quality of the toilet paper in the bathroom (I've heard criticism), telling you that you can't play your AD&D game on Friday night in my game center, to deciding how clean, how safe, how everything the store can be ... to maximize shareholder value.

My job is to view the money as my money.  It is to resent it just a bit when I must part with it. I don't have to take it personal, but I have to take it seriously.

Alright, I have to take it personal.

The empty husks of dead businesses with loved owners litter our shopping centers. Their past customers can't remember their names, perhaps only remembering the bargains.

The staff wish to please the customer, bend policy to accommodate them, and generally bring them happiness. My job is to place limits on this.

I often feel like the pirate ship captain, one bad decision away from open mutiny and a short life of being dragged behind the ship I command. I know because I've seen it happen.

For all this, I am disliked by some. My job is to be ok with that. If you want to be liked, get a dog.

I do this job every, single, day.

I love my job.

I am the owner.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Are you Gamer Geek Enough?

White Dwarf had an interesting article a couple years ago about how people engage with their miniatures hobby. Some paint, some model, some play the game, some just like to read the stories. There's overlap, but we all have our way of engaging with our hobby. That method of engagement is determined by interest, time available, and the period we are in life. I mention this because of the ongoing geek challenge of whether someone or another is geek enough, gamer enough. The judgment is continual, harmful, and quite unnecessary.

Like most realms of geekery, gamers constantly engage in the authenticity debate. They wish to weed out posers, put others on pedestals and place themselves somewhere in the hierarchy in their mind. Geekery was hard won for older gamers, unlike nowadays, where learning and engaging requires time and an Internet connection. Regardless, geekery comes with yardsticks for measuring and tests of purity. Perhaps it's the ease of information that makes people grasp so hard at their hard earned geekery. You can't just know it, you must own it. You have to have a take.

If you're focused on one game or type of game, you lament your lack of well rounded geekery. If you flit from one game to another, you wish you could focus in depth on just one thing. I had that exact conversation a few years back with another game store owner. Me, wishing I had more time and interest in more games; him, wishing he could focus on one thing as I did. And me again, wishing I could go farther, deeper. Even right now, I'm not sure I'm worthy to talk about these things.

There's a love for games, so there's a desire to do it all, but there's also the darker, underlying, nebulous worthiness that we're all trying to live up to. As if we're caretakers of a precious treasure that requires a higher calling, a stronger dedication to The Cause. So many games, but only one lifetime? So unfair.

Criticism is one way we see gamers flaunt their stuff. The daily conversations I have about minutiae, such as art in role-playing books, or the purity of dice with rounded corners, is exasperating. Nobody is getting rich on these games. Many of these games are produced by a guy who does it because he loves it. It's time taken from his friends and kids and his lonely dog. You're going to bust his balls over one piece of artwork, or a feat in a book of feats? Or a miniature pose? Really, a pose? I've seen people denounce entire games because of one card.

Add on that the moaning of the height of the prices and it's a bit too much to bear sometimes. Do you think guys go to sporting goods stores and moan about the price of golf clubs or skis?  Does this happen? It's part of the uneasiness of the lifestyle justification. I know I'm buying a $60 box of army men or a book on how to make my imaginary wizard more powerful, but I just want you to know I'm on to your scam to satisfy my needs. I see what you did there. I am a discerning individual, now hand me six shiny packs and that unicorn deck box; pronto mister.

Nowadays, gamer culture has gone so mainstream that you can arrange your life completely and exclusively within it. You've got conventions and shows of not just games but celebrations of pop culture and costuming. The pervasive Internet contains every conceivable interest, and everyone with that interest available for you to follow and interact with. If you choose where you live, you can even have fantastic game stores and game communities. I moved to the Bay Area for similar reasons. In this modern cocoon of personal interest, you might never leave the confines of gamerness, never have to hold a conversation with those who don't hold your interests. It's probably at the expense of the larger community, the country at large, but that's another debate. This is a bit unusual for those of us who grew up pre-Internet.

Back in the day.... here we go ... geekness was hard earned, it required finding odd zines or cork board notices where you would send away for your next bit of potentially interesting geekery, dollar bills hidden in first class envelopes or money orders issued by the many locally owned banks found on every corner. It was a crap shoot. Often things didn't come, or they came in battered boxes from foreign countries that were so intriguing that your family would gather round the kitchen table while you opened your exotic package. Perhaps it's how you started collecting stamps. Remember stamps?

Or perhaps you found your gamer goodness in a store, like the cookware store I rode my bike to (without a helmet) that had a corner of forbidden lore because the owners son played Dungeons & Dragons. The smell of a cookware store still floods back memories of those wonder years. They should make incense with that smell.

You would take your forbidden lore to school to show your friends, but secretly, not because your teacher would confiscate it, like today with fistfights over Yugioh cards, but because that guy who shook you down for your lunch money might beat the crap out of you, for being you. Geekery took some guts. Meanwhile, we  still had little league practice, learned musical instruments, and went on dates (I'm told). Geekery was smaller, I think, a closet interest, rather than a lifestyle choice as it tends to be viewed today.

My point is, it's all good. We engage at the level we can, like all things in life. We're hardest on ourselves, but we needn't be. We definitely don't need to judge others in this area. We need more hobby gamer geeks, not fewer. The herd is no longer big enough for such indiscriminate culling. Give yourself and everyone else a break (but especially yourself) and enjoy your geekery without so much judgment. As we move into game convention season, let the old guy talk about how his first hobby board game came in a plastic bag (Car Wars), or how it took him five years to get his fighter to 10th level (Jerlea the Third -- don't ask about the first and second). Be thankful for the rich geek culture we live in today. Geeks have won, and you are gamer geek enough.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It Just Works

In my last life, I was a network engineer and architect. Among my certifications was the MCSE, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (now referred to as Solutions Expert). As a solutions expert, I was expected to come up with technology that solved business cases, usually in a Microsoft environment.

As a business owner, my priorities are different. I don't really care about the environment, the infrastructure, or whether the solution has a certain technological purity to it. It started with phones, the iPhone being my gateway into the Apple world. It was the most revolutionary bit of technology I had ever encountered, allowing me to keep in touch with my business anywhere in the world. I recall the wonder in logging into my server at work while my wife was driving down the 101. Plus it naturally fit with my marketing efforts, sharing photos and status updates on our Facebook store page, now one of the top game store fan pages in the world, by fan count.

I'm not concerned with rooting my phone and running alternate operating systems like my tech friends with Android phones. Nor am I interested in the various arguments over the evils of Apple. I want to be socially responsible, but there's plenty of evil to go around. I have a business to run, not a team of geeks to impress (although I suppose I still have that).

Then there are laptops. My first lesson in large store security occurred in 2007 at our new (current) location, when a homeless guy with gold teeth snuck into my office and stole my creaky old Thinkpad T40. I had neglected to secure the area, faith in humanity still existing somewhere within me. The Thinkpad had been my trusty companion for seven years, and the replacement laptop was already on order. The Thinkpad was solid, worked perfectly, but had grown painfully slow over the years, despite reinstalling the operating system multiple times. Seven years is a good run, and back then, speed was the main driver for laptop replacement, not durability.

My next two laptops demonstrated what the PC laptop industry had devolved into. I had carefully researched them, but they were tragically flawed and unreliable. They each lasted a couple years before dying, the last one, a high end Samsung, would send an electrical short through the system if you touched it without being grounded. I had a little ritual at the store where I would rub the metal band on the display case before touching the laptop. I still find myself doing it with the new one. I'm convinced the PC laptop industry is beyond redemption, shown by my willingness to spend anything to get a good laptop, with serious disappointment following.

Then there's Windows 8, an operating system nobody wanted configured for a device that doesn't really exist. Gah. If I had to learn a new, frustrating operating system, it sure wasn't going to be that. If I wanted a PC laptop, that was likely what was going to be pre-installed. It doesn't help productivity, but instead focuses on media consumption. Did I mention I also just bought an iPad?

So last month, following the success I had with the iPhone, and happiness with my iPad, I bought a MacBook Pro. It's mostly about hardware, which is how I justify the price tag that's at least twice as much as my last laptop. The theory here, according to my friends with Apple products, is while the PC industry was dumbing itself down with cheap, commoditized hardware, Apple continued to use high quality gear. So although you pay twice as much for a laptop, a 4-5 year run is expected. It's essentially the old Thinkpad model. You spend more; it last longer.

As for the operating system itself, it's not the Mac of my youth, with the hidden architecture, minimum configurability and no available software. My MacBook is essentially a Linux box (BSD to be more accurate) running a very slick, highly supported shell. It's easily as complex, rich and configurable as a Windows machine. I can pull up a system window and mess around with the command line, if it pleases me. It generally does not. I really don't care about any of the technical bits. I have work to do and the MacBook just works. There are no compromises, no applications that I can't run on it. Even with third party PC emulation software running Windows 7 installed, I prefer not to use it. 

And now I get to see how it is on the other side of the Mac debate. The ridiculous criticisms of Apple and Apple users has always been part of IT culture. There have been the accusations of "drinking the Cool Aid" or "dumbing down." I feel I owe my old Mac friends an apology, although many of my IT colleagues have since gone to the Mac, at home at least.

Today was the first time I saw the debate put into a political context, with someone accusing Apple users of ceding control to others. Huh. Bottom line though: Mac people don't have these discussions. They're busy creating stuff, or building their businesses. They don't have time to discuss how oppressed or conformist you think they may be for the tools they use. Nobody discusses the political ramifications of the hammer or the screwdriver.

As for the future, I still have a Windows server at the store, which will one day be replaced by a $300 box the size of my hand. The POS is the most annoying bit of tech at the store. It runs Microsoft Retail Dynamics, a stable system that Microsoft would like me to pay expensive maintenance fees if I would like their consultants to work with me. Perhaps there's an Apple solution for that as well.

What I got: Refurbished 15" MacBook Pro 2.6GHz Quad-core Intel i7, 
Retina Display, 8GB RAM, 512GB flash storage, along with a 2TB Apple Time Capsule.