The Machine

At a fundamental level, your business consists of the following:

  • A location.
  • Some goods or services offered.
  • Policies and practices that you have instituted and/or allowed to continue.
  • Decisions you have made either as exceptions to the above policies and practices, or as expedients when a situation outside of the routine requires them.

Your business is a machine for which you, the owner, are solely responsible.

The distinction between things that are inside of the machine and things that operate outside the machine is important.

In a conversation on a friend’s social media feed, someone gave the anecdote of a toxic player saying something very cruel at the end of a card game tournament. My friend’s friend said that when the owner was told about this, he stated, “I can’t kick him out. He buys two booster boxes every set.” Do the math on a customer like this, and you’ll find that if they drive away ONE customer who would have bought three or four booster packs per week, then it’s a bad deal for the business. The store owner in this story kept an unpleasant jerk in his community so that he could lose money.

Another anecdote involved a female sports team trying out a new bar and being driven away by a leering regular who made inappropriate advances. The owner cited the long-term relationship with the customer, as if misbehaving somewhere long enough excuses misbehavior. The sports team picked another bar and meets there weekly. What did the owner give up to save a bad customer? How many times was this allowed to happen?

Your customers may offer suggestions or make requests, but in a healthy organization, they should operate outside the machine. Even their own personal habits in proximity to your business will set the tone for the entire operation if you allow it. They will not be grateful that you turn a blind eye to their misbehavior, and you will gain little or nothing in return for your misguided long-term tolerance. How many times have you over-invested trust and favors into what turned out to be a mediocre customer, only to have them vanish (or worse, become an advocate for your competition) without even saying goodbye? Good, bad, regular, and infrequent customers all come and go.

The machine offers customers functionality in that your business should be offering a carefully-considered value proposition. If they accept that proposition, they are welcomed and appreciated at the business. If they reject that proposition, then they can go eat rocks. They get to interact with the machine, but they don’t get to make changes to the operation, add parts, remove parts, or stand nearby and throw pennies into the gears.

Inside the machine, the decision about who turns the gears is important.

You may have employees who are empowered to make changes to the way you do business, or who are trusted to make decisions when you’re not around. Regardless of the independence with which those employees operate, they serve at your pleasure, so they’re unquestionably part of the machine.

I have allowed bad employees to stay too long because I cared for them. By the time they were gone, they had done real damage to my business. They were a part of the machine as they should be, but I allowed them to turn the gears in ways I would not have chosen. As employees, they are parts of the machine, and malfunctioning parts should be corrected or replaced. As people, their time spent in jobs that were not suitable for them was not a net positive in their lives, and the seemingly cruel early firing would have been a mercy to them in the long run.

Examine every part of the machine.

I see posts from business owners all the time in which they state that they’ve HAD IT with a vendor or supplier. Six months later, they are still grumbling. They have taken for granted that certain parts belong in the machine. If a product line isn’t performing, reduce its footprint or kick it out. If an entire segment of your business is costing you money, make a plan to improve it or get rid of it. It’s better to lose a part of your business that you love than to allow your entire business to fail because of it.

If the problems are annoying but do not threaten the operation of the machine, then learn to love the Dirtbag Dividend. It may be that there are mitigations to the problems that part of your business is experiencing. Friction is a problem in machinery, and even if it’s perfectly designed, it will probably still need oiling to function correctly.

If you spot a gear in the machine that works against the others, spins uselessly, or doesn’t spin at all, it’s your responsibility to change or remove it. The successful operation of the machine is more important than your idea of how it was supposed to operate.

Protect the machine.

If you step away from the machine and it manages to produce the desired result, then you have rolled the dice and won. A rudderless ship may occasionally travel someplace useful, but usually not. The most beneficial decision you can make for the operation of the machine on which you’ve bet these years of your short life is that you will approach as many aspects of your business as possible with intentionality and presence. I think that we have a tendency to wish that difficult decisions would go away, and that frequently manifests in delaying decisions until an outcome is already decided. Choosing to not turn a gear when its position is changing is still a choice. Deciding to step away and let things sort themselves out is a decision. Give some thought to which parts of your business could use your hands on the gears this week.

Snowflake Store Ownership

Warning: There are some brutally offensive words used in this blog post.

It’s late 2017. Celebrities and politicians are dropping like flies as it is suddenly realized that the rich no longer have comfortable control over the popular narrative and the public recoils against the abuses of people who have never been told no. It’s a bad time to be lecherous, and I believe that the shockwaves are spreading beyond Hollywood and Washington. Like a lot of outrage-driven social changes, this one built up pressure quietly but is now spreading so quickly and comprehensively that we’re not sure how we missed it before.

It’s on the national news, it’s happening in Magic, and now it’s happening at my little store.

In November we expanded, opening a small dedicated game space attached to our retail operation that is easily the nicest place to play for hundreds of miles in any direction. Our in-town clubhouse competitor closed up weeks later. I like to think that they saw our game space and immediately decided to close in despair, but they were on the ropes already and it may have just been the month when the money and patience ran out. Either way, they’re gone, and we suddenly were faced with the prospect of their tiny customer base joining ours.

My managers and I had meetings on the topic of how we were going to handle this. We’d been watching from the sidelines as some truly egregious things happened over there, and though we disagreed about how to approach it, we all agreed that the market had spoken and we didn’t want our store to become any more like theirs. We agreed that all current store bans would stay in place, and that we would ban the most-recent owning partners from the play space in response to their tolerance of vile behavior and their unprofessional conduct in the local market.

I figured that I’d never have to deal with it because those guys hated my guts anyway, but less than a week later one of them was in my store asking about playing. I had him banned, and the floodgates opened. The rage I witnessed in local social media was everything that I’d feared and worse. Nearly every player on our “give them one more chance” list blew it within hours. There was one word in particular that kept being used about my staff and I both in regional groups and in screenshots of other groups that I received later: Snowflake. It’s an interesting insult when applied to a lifelong conservative-turned-libertarian who attends a Baptist church, but here I am.

The intent behind calling somebody a snowflake is traditionally pejorative, but since I seem to always have it directed to me when I ask people to exercise a tiny bit of care in the name of human decency, I’m taking it back and claiming it as my own. Here are a few simple truths that I’ve accepted as part of Snowflake Life:

  • When the word “nigger” is acceptable in your game store, you assure that not only will you lose every minority customer you have, but also a ton of them that you never knew you could have had. You’ll also lose anyone else who doesn’t want to select their friends and colleagues based on something as arbitrary as ancestry.
  • When the word “faggot” is acceptable in your store, you not only drive away any openly-LGBT individuals you may have had, but you also inflict a pretty substantial amount of stress on closeted, questioning, or denying homosexuals in your community. The percentage of the general population that are in that group is between 2% and 4%, so I can almost guarantee that you cross paths with someone in this category, even if you don’t know it, and even if they don’t know it. All they know is that the slurs uttered in your store make them intensely uncomfortable. They’ll soon find a reason to spend their time and money elsewhere.
  • When you allow your players to make casual jokes about rape, you are creating an environment that makes light of the sexual violence experienced by 20% of women. You will not find many women who will stick around for that particular brand of levity.

It’s not enough that a player not act this way in my store. If someone’s behavior in public or on social media is bad enough that word of it consistently gets back to me, they’ll find themselves unwelcome in my establishment. It’s been my experience after a long road of many mistakes that most toxic individuals are unable to compartmentalize their awfulness once they’re regular customers at a game store. I agree with them that it’s not my place to police anyone’s actions outside the store, but I do get to police the quality of player that we host here. If they can’t behave like human beings when in public, then I’m happy to let them play at whatever clubhouse opens next to receive them.

In stores that accept toxic behavior, this sort of bad player drives out the good. What remains? About 30% of the population, minus the gay ones, and minus the ones who are uncomfortable with awfulness? I’m in favor of making businesses welcoming to straight white males, given that I am one of them, but I want more. I want everyone’s money, and the best way to do that is to treat people like people. The bar is shockingly low, which is why I believe that it’s becoming socially acceptable to expel those who manage to slither under it.

Which brings me to the final Snowflake Life truth: The toxic players haven’t been missed, and the decent gamers who have been driven away from local game stores by toxic behavior are out there in greater numbers than I ever would have expected. After the ridiculous drama and my definitive responses on social media late last week, we had a raft of new players for Unstable weekend. Many of these were couples, most were already playing kitchen table Magic, and several commented to me that it was great to have a nice game store to frequent. Given that my store has been open nearly a decade without drawing these players in, I must assume that some combination of our new premium play space model and new insistence on humane behavior had something to do with this growth segment in the playerbase.

You may think that your toxic players are indispensable. You may rationalize their behavior as “rough around the edges” and plead that you can’t afford to lose them. I’m here to tell you that if Net Income is your goal, you can’t afford to keep them.

Come to the Snowflake Side. We have disposable income.