Ten Thoughts for Ten Years (PART 2)

Jay HeadshotIn PART ONE I discussed how the ten-year mark gives one an opportunity to reflect on how we got here, where we are, and where we are headed.

6. It’s all fun and games
The best part of my job is that I get to sell fun in a box.  It’s all about getting the right kind of fun to each person.  Events, demo games, open copies, competitions, online reviews and content, are all things done specifically to help each person find the right kind of fun for them.  Just like teaching, each person responds differently to these methods of reaching them.  Some people respond to competition, and hosting elaborate events and tournaments is what will get them most excited.  Others are casual occasional players, who are looking for something unthreatening and easy, something they can convince their non-gamer friends to play.

We are at our best when we are providing opportunities for all kinds of people to fall in love with the right kind of game for them.

It’s also very important to separate my own opinions on games, from what I know others will enjoy.  I may personally think that Catan is a bit slow, that the trading is a bit clunky, and that randomness takes over more than I would like – but I also know that it is an amazing gate-way game.  It’s something a good chunk of the public is familiar with, or has heard of.  It’s developed a solid place in the history of games, and is an excellent game to get people playing, because it hooks them on the hobby. It’s a straight up Hall of Famer, no matter how much I personally want to play it these days.  I will pitch Catan all day long to the right kind of person, and be confident that they’ll go home and love it, and that there is a more than good chance that they’ll come back looking for recommendations: that’s when I can pitch some of my personal favs.

Gamers all have opinions, strong ones.  This game is crap, that company sucks, anyone that doesn’t like ____ is a moron.  But the truth is that this is a big industry, and EVERYONE in the world should be able to find something they can enjoy in it.  It’s my job to help them find it.

7. It’s not all fun and games
Owning and operating a game store is a surprisingly complex endeavor.  As far as businesses go there are more moving parts than I can count.  I have had to become at least competent at handling business things like payroll, taxes, bank-stuff, paperwork of all sorts.  Also I have to establish systems for trade ins, sales and organization of singles, customer rewards, managing store credit, returns, online sales.  I have employees to manage, hire, train.  I have events to coordinate, volunteers to wrangle, prizes to manage, feedback to take, adjustments to make.  I have to sift through the hundreds (yes hundreds) of new products that are released each and every month, research trends, build rapport with distributors, orders to place, customer order to manage, product to receive, walls to merchandise, signs to make.  I have a play space with terrain to make (and fix), customer trash to pick up, floors to vaccuum, and games to sort.  And that’s before we open our doors for the day to the public.

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air that’s for sure.  But it keeps us busy.  It also always gives us something to work on, because there is no way we keep all those balls in the air at the same time consistently. Which is why…

8. Customer feedback is liquid gold
No matter how much I love to hear that people enjoyed themselves, and love our store, I will always make time to address people with constructive criticism.  Sometimes after an event, or shopping experience people leave unsatisfied.  I hate it but it’s true.  Usually these people just silently sit thinking that we let them down, or that our event was kind of meh, or even worse that they’ll never come back – and I never even know about it.

On other occasions people let us know their disappointment.  Sometimes they let me know in person, or they email us, and often they vent a bit on Facebook.  Now I do prefer the direct approach, because it’s a bit painful seeing your efforts diagnosed and critiqued online.  However the FB method has it’s own merits because you get to see beyond one person’s opinion.  Quickly you discover if this is a universal complaint, or a one-time screw up.

As much as moments of it are painful, I love getting feedback, even when critical.  At least this way I can exercise  some diplomacy, ask some questions, and get to the bottom of it.  At least this gives me a chance to fix the problem.  I even get the opportunity to get a second chance from those vowing never to return.

I am always grateful for those brave enough to give me the chance to address their concerns.  Especially because…

9. Reviews are important to my business
Whether on Facebook, Google, Yelp, Yellow Pages, or elsewhere reviews are an important step towards customer acquisition.  My business needs positive reviews to attract new customers.  And I need new customers to stay in business.  That’s not to say that reviews are the glue that holds my business together, but it is an important tool to have.

I hate getting a negative review.  I think most small business owners feel that way.  Which makes negative reviews a great way to get our attention right?

Well…sort of.  You see the problem with giving a place a negative review is that you aren’t all that likely to go back and address it again.  If you have a problem with a business, I would suggest the following: tell them, and give them a chance to fix it, and if they don’t THEN review them negatively.  I can tell you that if you come to me I will absolutely hear you out, and likely will take steps to fix the problem you’ve had.

If you just write a negative review, I will address it too, take similar steps, but your review will almost always remain even after a problem has been fixed, because people rarely re-view their own reviews.  It’s a permanent blotch on my record, one that may not be relevant anymore, one that may not represent the original poster’s current opinions, but certainly continues to hurt my shop.

That being said reviews, both good and bad, are important.  If you have the time, please post a review yourself about BKG – good or bad I will appreciate it.  They create a complete picture of my businesses to others, and it’s my job, and my staff’s job to earn good ones.  Which is why…

10. Good staff are the crown jewels of a game store
Nothing is more important that having good staff.  They represent my store to the public more hours of the week than even I do.  Finding the right kind of people to work for me is tough, because there is a lot to learn, we need reliability and flexibility in hours, we don’t have a huge payroll budget, and they need to have the right personality.

Luckily for us, gamers love the idea of working in a game store, so we have our choice out of a pretty big field of applicants each time.

Unluckily for us, our customers are also important regulars, that we like, and are often friends with.  You need to disappoint a lot of people each time you hire.

We don’t hire often, which I take as a good thing.  It means that we hire good people, and those people stay with us a long time.  I have hired only sixteen people in ten years, most of those worked for over two years with us.  I’ve also always had people in the management level that I could trust, bounce ideas off off, and rely on.  The first years it was Rob, and currently it’s Mike and Tim.  Mike and Tim are opposites in some ways, they project two different sides of my own personality.  Tim likes to think things through, really analyze, and execute over time with all the angles covered.  Mike likes to just get things done, figure it out on the fly, and roll up his sleeves.  They balance me out, and keeping things moving, while also making sure we properly think things out.

I am extremely grateful for the staff that I have had over the years, we wouldn’t be here today without them.  And I am especially grateful for the untold hours of council with Rob, Tim, and Mike.

11. The first ten are only the beginning
We are now in our eleventh year.  So far it’s our best yet.  We have gotten over some financial hurdles, recovered from mistakes, and things are going well right now – but they won’t all be boom years.  What I have learned is that after ten years in business that I love it, and that I can grind my way through the rough spots, and get pack on the fairway.  BKG will continue as long as I remain passionate for it, as long as I feel it’s worth fighting for, and as long as I have great staff, and enthusiastic customers walking through my door.  I can’t wait to begin the next ten.

Ten Thoughts for Ten Years (PART 1)

Jay Headshot

Whew.

That was a hectic few months.  For those that haven’t been following along, we celebrated our 10th Anniversary last month.  I basically used the occasion as an excuse to do all the things that I was meaning to do.  We updated our Stronghold Membership program (it needed it), we rearranged our store, we brought in 10 new product lines, we had sales, draws, an auction, and all kinds of other hype and celebration.  It was a lot of work, so much so that I barely had time to pause and actually take in the fact that Black Knight Games is ten.  A decade old!  As I took some time away with my family this week I finally got to reflect on our place here and now, how we got here, and where we are going.  I have assembled ten thoughts for ten years, here are the first five:

1. Turns out the gaming business is actually a business
One thing that has become apparent to me is that compared to most industries, the games industry is full of amateurs.  Whether it’s the retail side, or the manufacturing side, most people get in to the business because they love games – not because they are great at business.  Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent business people in the industry, there are, but even most of them probably started off in over their heads.  I sure was.  I was only 24 when I opened Black Knight Games.  I certainly planned, I certainly did my best, and I certainly worked my ass off, but I was absolutely a noob when it came to the finer points of business.

I learned my lessons the hard way mostly, through failures.  I got in situations with my taxes, overextended myself, made mistakes with inventory, and didn’t even always handle the scheduling and running of events well all the time (something I felt was my forté going in).  Some of these mistakes were minor, some nearly sunk us.  But, ten years later I can confidently say…that I’m still a noob.  I still haven’t a perfect vision of how to run a profitable business, but I am starting to figure some things out, and even better – I now know where to go to figure a lot of things out…

2. Games Stores DON’T have to be enemies
It is absolutely true that when I first opened I viewed other stores as threats.  I think a lot of people assume that game stores are arch-rivals, and certainly in some places they are.  But in the ten years that I have run Black Knight Games I have learned that other stores can be a healthy resource, they can even be allies.  I have a fairly good relationship with other stores in the area, and a great relationship with some.

Enric owns a MTG-specialist shop down the road, literally one block from us.  His singles selection is great, it’s better than ours.  He was open first, and despite our proximity, here we both are.  It turns out that there is room in this town for the both of us.  The reason is this: in a niche business like ours when you have multiple shops that offer something of value you grow the gaming community.  It doesn’t really matter what my market share percentage is when the pie is growing.  I don’t have to see others fail to succeed.  And it helps that we’ve never resorted to aggressive tactics – we don’t undercut each other, we don’t trash-talk each other, we don’t intentionally schedule at the same time.  In fact we’ve always been friendly, we’ve even coordinated in the past to avoid double-booking.  I hope his business continues to succeed, because I think he fills some gaps that keeps our community strong.

The same goes for other shops in the area.  We’ve got two great board game cafés in town (Mancala Monk & Gameopolis), growing the local community every day by getting more people to try games in an easily accessible environment.  I’ve got Logan over at Dungeon Comics, who is a solid game store owner, and is someone that I have worked with a few times and it always a good guy to talk with.  Beyond the Hamilton area I’ve dealt with the owners of X Planet, The Dragon, Game Chamber, and others on many occasions – even running inter-store leagues and championships with them.

By focusing on how we can build a bigger and better gaming community we make room for us all.

3. I’m NOT the first to be here
I’ll never forget the first time I sat in a GenCon Trade Day seminar, the room was full of other game store owners from all across North America.  I had NEVER really had a lot of communication with other game store owners at the time, and it felt weird to be in a room with so many people that shared my exact profession.  These people all cared about how to get MTG players in their store, how the new FFG terms would affect them, and what the best way to store terrain was.  Cool.

Since then the world has really opened up for Game Store Owners.  What used to be a somewhat lonely career path has really grown over the past five years or so.  There is a wide network of Game Store Owners who run seminars at GAMA and GenCon.  It was incredible discovering a whole world of people who I could actually learn from.  Now there are many message boards and Facebook groups filled with game store owners sharing ideas, looking for advice, showing off successes, and practicing their (our) favorite pastime: complaining.

There are also a special few who have become role models.  Owners who happen to be very generous with their time, and also own and run exceptional game stores.  Gaming meccas in their own cities.  These individuals have given me something to aspire to, and a road map to get there.

4. Just Keep Swimming
Something that I have realized about myself is that I need to always (ALWAYS) have a goal.  Which means I can never really reach it.  I’ll never be ‘done’ with Black Knight Games, because the second I take the foot off the pedal is when I sink.  It is key to always have something new to be working on, some exciting change.  It gives me something to be excited about.

And change is good.  It keeps things fresh, and the changes we make are usually improvements.

Our tenth anniversary was a big example of this.  It was the excuse I needed to make some changes, and to kick myself in to doing some things I had been thinking about doing for a long time.  But now that it is over I can confidently say that there are more and more things that we are aspiring to do.  If you’ve read this far I feel it’s fair to reward you with a few sneak peaks: currently we are working on dealing in used and vintage video games.  We’re looking to unveil a new community out-reach program to assist teachers and community leaders in creating and running gaming groups in schools and clubs.  We are looking to add even more items to our store-brand ‘Strongbox’ gaming accessories.  And, we are still (yes still) dreaming of getting a liquor license.

5. Gaming with a beer in your hand
That reminds me of a fairly big moment in our history, one that I would like to look back on a bit.

Four and a half years ago we moved to our new location.  Some may remember that we ran an indiegogo fundraiser where customers could get cool swag in exchange for helping us raise some money to make the gaming area awesome.  A little known secret about that was that the indiegogo campaign actually cornered us in to spending twice what it earned us, but still it was a great way to subsidize the cost a bit and include our community in the process.  It was pretty fun too.  The campaign offered stretch goals like TVs, and a Foosball table.  The last stretch-goal that was hit was that we would seriously look in to getting a liquor license which would allow those that were old enough to attend game nights with alcohol.

It was the only stretch goal that we didn’t knock out of the park.  That being said, we absolutely did as we said we would do, and pursued it hard.  It turns out that a big part of getting a liquor license is tied to food.  You are required to be able to offer your patrons food options.  These can’t be snacks, they must be hot-food.  To handle hot-food properly you need a kitchen, which requires space, and lots of equipment…you can see why this didn’t happen right away.  So we spent a couple hundred dollars, and hit a dead end.

Since then though, the thought has never fully left my mind, and I have been looking at ways that we might fulfill this condition.  Perhaps selling frozen food that could be microwaved would count.  Perhaps we could handle a small oven, or panini press.  Perhaps we could meet the conditions by partnering with another business.

Well I am happy to say that the first step towards this ultimate goal is now done.  We are now a registered food establishment, licensed, and paid.  This allows us to do more with food, and drops one barrier.  We still can’t quite do the ‘hot food’ as required because we don’t have a kitchen.  But now we can try some things that I hope will ultimately lead to fulfilling the conditions of the liquor license.  The dream lives on.

Join me shortly for more rambling thoughts in Part 2 shortly

Terrain Blog 03: Paint it Black

Today was the first Friday in my new Terrain-Fridays plan, and for some reason I couldn’t get the Rolling Stones song ‘Paint it Black‘ out of my head.  It might be that it’s their best song IMO, but more likely it’s because I spent several hours just painting black.  Over.  And over.  And then over again.

This week was an Infinity Table week, and I wanted to do something dramatic to show some immediate progress.  I decided to paint the big impressive building backdrop of the table.  I figured a couple layers of paint would give the look of a sudden and immediate jump forward in the process.  This, I hoped, would give myself and others reason to get excited about the project again.  Well I wasn’t able to finish the paint job exactly, because the first primer layer — of black – – took forever surprisingly.  There was so much surface area, and so many nooks and crannies, that it took much longer than I expected.  Even more surprising was that even though I wasn’t able to finish the paint job in its entirety it still accomplished its goal!  That simple, flat, finished layer of black made the back buildings look fantastic all of a sudden.  I guess it’s sort of like priming your minis, or even basing them.  It took it from a bunch of mismatched components all stuck together and turned them in to a solid mass.  It was no longer some wood, putty, foam-board, and detailing.  It was now a set of matching buildings.

I had many people come to me after last week’s article to express interest in coming in on Fridays to help out.  And while nobody dropped by today (which was probably a lucky thing since black paint isn’t the most glamorous), I am excited to see others join in and get their hands dirty.  It will be a great motivator for me to keep up the work, and it will give you a chance to learn a bit about terrain building!

Next week will be a non-Infinity week, and I promise it will be more interesting than black paint.  We will be working on a series of swamps for Chris F’s fundraiser perk.  He wanted some swampy marshes to give his gators a cozy home when he’s playing Hordes, and I intend to give them to him!  We will be working on a set of swamps, and will include many types of grasses and flocks, as well as some trees.  And we will of course be using some water effects as well.  Hope to see you there!

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The mono-black buildings, in all their glory!!!

Terrain Blog 02: Let’s Try This Again

Several months ago I started a blog called ‘Summer of Terrain’.  In it I discussed grandiose plans to update and improve our store’s terrain selection.  I’ve always loved good terrain, and I have always making it too.  I’ve long wanted to have a stack of great, matching scenery in my shop.  Beautiful display boards, and plenty of variety were my goals.  I failed pretty spectacularly.  Now, months later, I am left with a New Year’s resolution to restart, and do it right this time.  But while I often have lofty goals, I can be flawed when it comes to sticking to them, so I am hoping to set up a series of parameters to ensure that THIS TIME I am able to carry through.

1.  ‘When I feel like it’ vs. ‘scheduled time’

A big chunk of the problem that I had the first time was that I decided to work on the terrain whenever I had a spare moment (and of course whenever I actually felt like doing so with that spare moment).  Being a store owner there is no end of little tasks to work on, and no shortage of fun distractions as well.  While it was easy to stay motivated early when there was fun and new stuff to work on, it was hard to stay so afterwards.  I plan on fixing this by instead dedicating a specific time each week to the building of terrain for the store.  Every Friday, from 1:00pm – 6:00pm I will be working on terrain, and I would love to have you join me!  If you have an interest about learning about terrain building, or just pitching in, show up any Friday during those hours and you are welcome to help.  This will have the added benefit of making me stick to the schedule as well.  If I can get a minimum of 5 hours of work done one the store terrain each week we will be in good shape.

2. Remaining Accountable

The hardest part about not carrying though with my original goals was that this isn’t my own personal army I’m working one.  It’s not my collection, or deck I’m working on here.  Many of my initial terrain projects were supposed to be the fulfillment of our fundraiser pledges.  Which means that I haven’t fulfilled my end of the bargain to many of our very best and loyal customers.  That cannot do.  I need to do a better job of remembering that, and push through to not only finish their projects, but do so at the quality they deserve.  To those that have waited so long without seeing their ideas completed – I apologize, and will redouble my efforts in the New Year.

3. The First Hurdle

Part of my problem was planning.  I began with the most ambitious project of all of them: Justin’s Infinity Table.  I grossly underestimated the amount of work that would go in to this behemoth.  It has been a very big task to say the least, and it is in part because of this long-term project that I think I fell off a bit.  There wasn’t enough moments of ‘Haha!  I finished!’ to keep the motivation up.  Had I started with some of the smaller tasks I likely would have finished many of them in the amount of time I have put into this one big task.  But it would be unfair to just drop his project to the bottom of the list too.  So I have decided to alternate weeks.  One week I will put towards the Infinity Table, the next I will put towards some of the smaller projects to get them completed too.

Well that’s the plan, and I need to your help to stick to it.  Show up on Fridays, and pitch in a bit.  Remind me and ask me how different projects are going.  Most importantly don’t let me off the hook!  Together we can turn this false start in to a game winner!  Now I’d better get off and get working – It’s Friday!

Summer of Terrain Blog 01: Seven Years

Now that the move is over and we are fine-tuning things here I finally have the chance to begin a project that has been seven years in the making.

Seven years ago Black Knight Games was not in our exciting new location, it wasn’t in the original location, it wasn’t even a registered business.  Seven years ago Black Knight Games was a dream I had, that I was actively working towards.  I was living in Ottawa working as a manager at Games Workshop and taking night classes in the hopes that I might learn something useful about opening my own shop (I didn’t). I had this idea about what I wanted my store to be, it was clean, spacious, and had a fun environment.  People could play all kinds of games in the shop, but our specialty was to be wargames.  And one thing was certain: we would have AMAZING terrain for those games.

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Working at Games Workshop I had acquired a love of really nice scenery, and I had a knack for making it too.  I knew that no matter what my store’s scenery would impress…I was wrong.  Turns out opening a business is hard work, and when you are dealing with mandatory things like ordering inventory, opening a bank account, and painting the walls the fun stuff like store terrain falls to the back of the cue.  So, we ended up with some great pieces, but mostly quick and dirty and functional terrain.  It didn’t match, there wasn’t a great theme to it, but it would do.

Until now.  Now that we have moved, we have upgraded pretty much everything here at Black Knight Games.  We have more space, we have more shiny, and the shop is much closer to the dream I had seven years ago.  So now it is time to dust off my old goal of having amazing terrain for the shop.  I am declaring this the Summer of Terrain!  My goal is that by summer’s end (September 21st) that we will have purged all the old ‘good enough’ terrain, and replaced it with themed sets, matching terrain, and premium tables.  Every week I will be scheduling myself and another staffer to work on new tables, updating terrain, and adding new stuff – and I plan to document it all here so that you can get as excited about the new scenery as I am, and so you can see the process for yourselves.

Justin’s Infinity Table

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There is a lot we are planning to do, but you’ve got to start somewhere and to me the natural starting point is with the terrain and tables that we owe to our generous BUILDER and LANDSCAPER perk-holders from our fundraiser. This will give you a chance to watch our progress as we fulfill the requests of our perk-holders as well adding some transparency to the process.

The first project I will be working on is the first Premium Table.  Premium tables are special display tables that will be set up all the time, allowing us to do all sorts of things we can’t do with usual modular tables.  The first premium table was claimed by Justin who wanted us to address our lack of terrain for Infinity.  He wanted a congested city with lots of levels, and lots of cover and terrain.  This kind of project is a perfect use of a Premium table as Infinity requires more complex terrain elements than a table for 40K or Warmachine, so I couldn’t wait to sink me teeth in to it.

Initial inspiration came from the idea of a crowded, high-tech sci-fi city like in the picture to the right, and movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report, or A.I..  I also really liked the idea of tying elements of Time Square in with advertisements everywhere.  Billboards and signs would be a fun way of taking this table to the next level and playing with the lines of sight.  After exploring websites of companies that deal in infinity-style scenery it became clear that an affordable and very detailed style of terrain, using laser-cut MDF, was very common.  So I have scoured the internet and ordered from five different companies, acquiring a great selection of buildings.  I have also snagged a bunch of great little details like com-panels, furniture for inside the buildings, phone booths, and sci-fi vehicles.  Honestly I may have gone a bit overboard, but truthfully it’s for a good cause as our Infinity players have been forced to bodge together terrain scraps up until now.

I have given the design to Fred who will make us the frame and base of the table which will have two levels to it, as well as a tunnel.  Total price tag so far: $725.00.

Join me next week when we begin to put the terrain together, and hopefully have the base table built!  I will also share details on the layout.

I hope you enjoy following our progress as we quest to have the terrain our gamers deserve!

~The Black Knight

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