Post by: Grant Rodiek
This isn’t a terribly unique topic for a blog post, but it’s something that I think about constantly. We live in an age of great entrepreneurship. Yes, those of us in the board game space can quickly point to Kickstarter as big deal, primarily as a new way for companies to generate capital and market products. But, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are limitless technology solutions for new businesses. Need a way to accept credit cards for payment? Anywhere? Square can help you. Need to do some basic legal stuff? Check out Legal Zoom. Amazon allows you to sell products globally in your underwear from your living room. Honestly, think about how simple it is to have a web-presence now! These are just a few things that make 2013 a great time to start a business.
I don’t run a business, but man I want to. Though I’m not an entrepreneur myself, I am a customer, an employee of a product development firm, and an observer. I think about this topic constantly. Below are what I believe are the characteristics of a great company. What do you think? Share your thoughts and examples in the comments.
Note: I tried to write my characteristics generically, but most of my examples will pertain to the board game space as that is the focus of this blog.
You regularly deliver great products and services. By great, I mean great. And not in the “my wife likes me” sense. If you make games, people love them. Period. You hold yourself to a quality bar that is unwavering. Yes, everyone has opinions, which will differ. But, by and large, you deliver the highest quality products.
For games, this means components, art, good rules, a unique, polished game with high replay value, and customer support when things go awry (confused with rules, broken pieces, just want to email you).
Many folks in the board game space point to the quality components in their games. This is good, but never forget that making a super thick box and linen finish cards isn’t really a competitive advantage, or at least one that is unique to you. Anyone can hire Panda Manufacturing. It’s just a matter of capital. Instead, think of the aspects of your product that are not easily replicated. Think of the special thing you can bring to the table as a company, your competitive edge. Often, these are the minds who make your games and the entirety of your vision.
An example, I’d like to use is Mice and Mystics from Plaid Hat Games (manufactured by Panda, I should note). To save my fingers the typing time, I’m going to share a screen of its components.
My message to you is not that your game needs more stuff. But, let me highlight a few of these. The game has 10 unique miniature figures, each with a unique sculpt to bring the game to life. There are well over 100 cards, all with unique art that is gorgeous. You have a 58 page storybook filled with unique adventures and a delightful narrative. This took years to put together and quite a bit of capital. It also took the efforts of the designer, writer, rules editors, illustrator, sculptor, and a close back and forth relationship between the publisher and manufacturer to get everything right.
This is a great product.
Something a bit smaller on the scale would be King of Tokyo. There aren’t so many games that are that easy to teach, that gorgeous to hold and look at, that fun to play, with that many people, in that short of a time frame.
Great companies hold their products to those same standards, regardless of the scope of the work. Before you put your product up for sale, ask yourself if what you’re making is as good or better than the best thing your target customers can currently obtain. Your answer needs to be “yes.”
Your products or services are unique. They are not easily replaced or mimicked. This could be a result of your unique way of thinking, or even just surrounding yourself with very intelligent, creative employees. Perhaps you have created a truly innovative technology or process that is difficult to replicate. Whatever it is, you know how to create trends and sustain them. Competitors try to follow you, not the other way around.
I can’t help but list a few parallels in the board game space right now. There are some really obvious ones.
- Dominion introduced in a very popular, outstanding mechanic. But, also a great deal of poor copycats. My hope is that we start seeing more games like Salmon Run and City of Remnants that use deckbuilding as an idea, not the beginning and end. One such prototype to eye is Xenon Profiteer by TC Petty III.
- Love Letter opened our eyes to the micro game. Hell, we’re now at nano! I’d love to think we’ll start seeing new things beyond just deduction mechanics, but it’s difficult for folks to ignore the money.
- Risk Legacy‘s concept of a game that grows and evolves with the players is just brilliant. Yes, you can argue the core of Risk held it back, but why aren’t other people taking this idea to explore?
- The Humble Bundle brought forth the notion of pay-what-you-want with a bundle of interesting goodies you might not have otherwise heard of.
Another example I’d like to discuss in detail is Cards Against Humanity. For a second, let’s skip the debate about the quality of the game. I know that’s contentious (Full disclosure, the game has provided me with hours of entertainment). Instead, let’s look at how they keep their product offering and services fresh and innovative constantly.
In addition to the core set and relatively frequent expansions (they just released the fourth), and consistently employing nice, clean, easy to use websites, this year they:
- Held a Game Design Deathmatch promotion.
- Released the Bigger, Blacker Box.
- Came up with Holiday Bullshit, a 12 gifts over 12 days for 100,000 people idea.
- Increased their prices by $5 on Black Friday. Read the linked article to find out why this matters.
They are consistently releasing new products and energizing their community with buzz-worthy ploys, gimmicks, jokes, and great promotions. Notice how much people are talking about their 12 gifts? It’s a very unique way of doing things that isn’t easily replicated.
When you define that edge that makes your company and its offerings special, also consider how long you’ll remain special and how difficult it’ll be for competitors to whittle away that advantage. It took, what, 8 minutes, for Groupon to find itself with a dozen competitors?
You take customer service seriously and understand that your relationship with your customer does not end when you collect their money for the sale. This one is so important and it’s too often relegated to “customer service is really hard” or “it’s so time consuming.” Guess what? You need to buck up and deal with it. Mistakes from your company are one of the best opportunities to stand out with your customers. It’s also the best way to lose a customer forever.
One of the age old maxims of business is that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers. If you look at successful publishers like Plaid Hat Games and Stronghold Games with their great pre-order systems, or GMT with their P500, or the vigorous launches of Kickstarter campaigns by Tasty Minstrel and Dice Hate Me Games, you’ll see I’m not crazy. You need to build and support this 20%.
That means you’re on BGG answering every question like Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games. It means you ship out replacement parts, no questions asked, as quickly as possible. It means you release new content for free or a reasonable price, because you want people to stick with you. Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games, the Summoner Wars Reinforcement Packs, or the new scenarios from Collins Epic Wargames are all good examples.
Even an email that says “We hear you, we’re back up, but you matter and we’ll get to you soon” is key.
There are two things many customers will never forget: outstanding service and poor service. Why sit in the middle or fail here when you can stand out? It’s worth the effort.
You have a good reputation that precedes you. It is something your customers say, not something that is a part of your press release. Your success builds based on word of mouth and recognition that your logo means great things.
You are aware of your faults, even if you don’t necessarily share them publicly (generally a bad PR move), and strive to correct them. You treat failure as a lesson and opportunity, not a moment to dig in.
After some frustrating and lengthy delays shipping Mice and Mystics pre-orders, Plaid Hat publicly revised how they communicate dates. They explained their reasoning and their desire to improve. As a personal anecdote, when the initial printing of Farmageddon arrived with bowed cards (due to a manufacturing error), my publisher said he would make it right. He commissioned me to craft a 15 card mini-expansion with all new art that’ll be given free of charge to our backers. I think that’s pretty cool.
Another good example is the reputation of Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games. He has devoted countless hours to writing about and sharing his experiences with Kickstarter. This is a generous gift and it is also a great marketing device. People think kindly of him, as they should. And if you pay attention, his answer regarding compensation is always the same thing: support our games.
You should notice your reputation is a combination of many of the above points.
- How good your products are.
- How well you resolve customer service issues.
- How you evolve as a company.
- How you stay 2 steps ahead of your competition.
You take care of those around you. By this, I mean employees and partners. Now, many board game publishers, from “indie” up to the big timers have 1 or 2 employees. This is an industry powered by the help of passionate volunteers, contractors, supply chain specialists (fulfillment, distribution, retail, manufacturing, etc.) and, if you’re lucky and successful, an employee or two.
Good companies take care of those around them. For us as board gamers, this means:
- You respond to inquiries from your designers in a timely fashion. Yes, I know there are thousands of submissions. I’m talking about people with whom you’ve signed and formed a business relationship with.
- You provide clear, timely feedback to your contractors. If someone needs to illustrate 100 cards, they have no questions (for long) as to what you want.
- You pay people quickly. It is shocking how many contractors remain unpaid for too long. When they do the work, you pay them. Simple as that.
- You pay people for their work. Far too many contributors write stories, test, edit rules, make videos, and more with little to no compensation. For one, there’s the saying that you get what you pay for. But more importantly, good work should be compensated. That is only fair.
- You give recognition when it’s due.
All of us have been employees at one time or another. We’ve all had bad bosses and bad situations. Think about what you didn’t enjoy, where you were unhappy, and improve upon that. Having a motivated, passionate workforce will be your greatest asset.
So. Where did I get things wrongly? Where was I right? What does it mean to you to be a great company? Share your thoughts below.
This is a brilliant entry, Grant, and I appreciate the mention of Stonemaier Games. I’ve read it a couple times now to see if there’s anything I can add, but really, you covered it all so well. This is a must-read for any publisher, big or small.
Grant, quality post! You really hit the nail on the head in my estimation. I think one things that you pointed out, which I greatly appreciate, is when a company gets back to you immediately when you post/send them a message. Maybe you have a question and they don’t have an answer right now, but at least they acknowledge you and let you know that they are finding an answer. I’m not talking about the automatic email with a tracking number, I mean a real person! You touched on so many other great things, I just want to give my two cents on one them!
Excellent article Grant! Informative for a consumer, entertaining for a follower and comprehensive for an aspiring publisher.
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