I’ve been reading Gary Ray’s blog, Quest for Fun, for years and years. When I saw a post go by on Facebook that Gary was interested in collecting his retail wisdom into a book, I elbowed my way to the front of the line, making the pitch that Gameplaywright, the non-fiction imprint about games and gaming that I founded with Will Hindmarch eight years ago, would be the ideal partner to bring it to press. Almost exactly one year after Gary and I first spoke about the idea, we opened pre-orders.
If you love games, like the idea of being your own boss, and believe in the power of community, Gary and I hope you’ll give his new book, Friendly Local Game Store, a look. Here’s a short excerpt.
—Jeff Tidball, Publisher, Friendly Local Game Store
It’s a trap!
You don’t need this book to start a game store. You need shockingly little to start a game store, it turns out. Stores open all the time with a handful of folding tables and a binder of Magic cards. There are parents who think opening a game store would be a great experience for their young offspring, so they fund a hole-in-the-wall store in a sketchy part of town with a month-to-month lease.
The game trade has a lot of problems, but a high barrier to entry is not one of them. Anyone can start a game store without much money or experience, or even literacy. There are few books on starting a game store and there is no market for consultants for starting a game store. That’s because anyone can do it and gamers — who comprise the vast majority of game store owners — don’t like people telling them how to play. So don’t let me hold you back.
You could certainly start a hole-in-the-wall store, but I have to ask, why would you want to? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. That low barrier to entry in starting a game store is actually a trap. Without proper planning, proper financing, and a clear vision of what you want to personally accomplish, the danger is not that you’ll fail at starting a game store. You would be lucky to fail. The real danger, the trap that will freeze your potential in carbonite, is that you’ll somehow succeed.
This exact thing happened to me with my first business. I was the co-founder of a magazine called CyberSangha, a publication about Buddhism and computers that spontaneously sprang from the BBS era, before the web was popular. After two years of publication, including getting nationwide distribution in Barnes & Noble and Borders, I finally got around to speaking with an industry veteran who understood the numbers. Because my partner and I had no business plan and weren’t properly capitalized from the beginning, we had failed to invest enough initially to establish a strong circulation.
We were two years in with what was essentially a binder of Magic cards and some folding tables. Oh sure, we could have continued publishing, but nobody would ever be a full-time employee of that business. The business foundations were fundamentally flawed. That’s the danger of an improperly planned business. You can do it, but done wrong, it’s more a burden than a boon, sticking you with a wicked sunk opportunity cost when you could have been doing something else, or better yet, doing that same thing but properly.
This book takes the position that if you want to start a game store, or any small business, you should plan to do it right. Most endeavors in life have a clear-cut success or failure to indicate whether you’ve made it or not. Running a game store doesn’t necessarily give you that important feedback.
Doing it right means establishing your personal goals first and then building the business around those goals. The lucky ones who haven’t properly planned will fail early. To truly screw up your life, your small business will linger on, almost but not quite making it. That’s a terrible position to be in, let me tell you. A successful store will not only stay in operation, it will meet your personal financial goals. If you want to take a vow of poverty, join a religious order. If you want to run a small business, start with your financial goals.
We’ll discuss a clear concept of success. Specifically, we want you to make a comfortable middle-class income. But we’ll also talk about a clear idea of failure, with an exit strategy. It’s important to develop an exit strategy, your personal definition of failure. Your friends and loved ones will be more willing to support you and your small business goals if they know you won’t be going down with the ship, taking them with you. Draw a line in the sand in the beginning and don’t cross it. Will you use credit cards? Will you lose the house? Know your limits.
One of the key ideas behind this book is that you’ll start a business with grown-up financing, rather than on a shoestring budget. Anyone can start this business on a shoestring budget, as I mentioned. That’s not how you succeed in this field. This approach assumes you have access to capital, which we’ll discuss later.
Some veterans will scoff at this “big money” approach. There are successful game industry veterans who will tell you they started their store with some folding tables and a binder of Magic cards. That they did it on a shoestring budget. Those people have great stories. They should write books too. However, they are outliers.
There is very little luck in small business, so these outliers clearly worked hard, learned the trade well (many before they opened), reinvested continuously, and made something of their stores after a number of years. Over coffee, they might tell you how they wish they had done it differently, how they wasted years of their lives fumbling around, but I don’t want to take away from their success. However, you can’t plan to be an outlier. My hope is that you’ll succeed in a more straightforward fashion, hopefully saving you a lot of time, pain, and awkward coffee conversation later.
This book includes many of my own stories about how I started and ran my store over the last 14 years, including the last 11 years I’ve also spent blogging about the industry. These stories include mistakes, some personal sacrifice, and some unusual, sometimes singular factors in my survival and success. My store, Black Diamond Games, has been around for 14 years and now does a million dollars a year in sales.
My store is probably in the top 10% of stores nationwide by revenue. I say probably because there are no reliable statistics in this trade, no data widely available, just what one learns from one’s peers. A million dollars might sound like a lot. However, as I write this, I’ve got $682 in the bank and an $8,000 rent payment due in five days. I don’t know how we’ll pay it, but we’ll find a way. “We’ll find a way” should be our motto.
Gary L. Ray writes Quest for Fun, the tabletop gaming business’s most influential retail blog. He is president of the hobby game store Black Diamond Games in Concord, California, which began as a tiny starter store 13 years ago and has since then grown to become a million-dollar-a-year business with nine employees. Gary also writes for the Wizards Play Network, and can be found giving retail presentations at trade shows across the country. His goal is to run a world-class game store from a beach, whether an actual beach or a metaphorical one.