One Year Later

I don’t have anything insightful or entertaining, but since my resume links to this blog I felt that an update post was prudent.

The job search following my career restart post-Nerdvana was rough. I submitted over 800 applications, which led to about a dozen phone screens and a couple of in-person interviews. We had decided that Philadelphia was the city in which we wanted to make our comeback, but it wasn’t until I started listing my location as Philadelphia that I started getting solid bites. My plan was to rent an Airbnb for two weeks out of every month so that I could honestly say that I was a local candidate, but by the end of the first two-week stay I already had a job offer.

I was picked up as a contract Data Analyst by a F100 telecom. I’ll leave their name out here for purposes of searchability, but my LinkedIn profile is linked here so you can figure it out quickly if you’re of a mind to do so. Several friends who have worked in tech warned me that a behemoth telecom would likely be a shock after the unconstrained productivity of self-employment, and they were right!

Still, I liked my team, they liked me, my work got great reviews, and I replaced the output of multiple contractors who’d preceded me. What was going to be a three-month contract-to-hire became a “someday” contract-to-hire because of COVID hiring freezes.

I lived in an Airbnb, then a Sonder apartment, finally renting a real apartment and living in it with a desk and a folding mattress until my wife and all our belongings came to join me in May 2020. Have you ever been in a studio apartment with no toilet paper and 3500 calories to your name on the first day of a lockdown panic in a major city? Have you ever flown cross-country with an elderly three-legged cat during a pandemic? I can’t really recommend either of these things.

I’d typed a long description of what happened and why I decided to leave this excellent job, but the short version is that my output was prolific and reviewed as excellent, but much of it became speculative after the fact for business reasons. Not being able to have much impact on the organization’s work left me deeply unhappy. I told my managers that I wasn’t going to take the conversion offer after all, but would work hard buttoning up and documenting my work until we reached an easy transition point, which ended up being January 15th, after more than a month’s notice. They showered me with kind messages and gift cards on my way out.

I left a good job with good people. Someone who can do good work that might not always be used will get that job, be great at it, and have a long future with the company. I left on excellent terms and I can’t wait to see my friends from that company in meatspace once the pandemic has lifted.

It’s not lost on me that I moved to a higher-cost-of-living city in the midst of pandemic and civil unrest to stay in my apartment and never meet my coworkers, but I have no regrets. We acted on the best information we had at the time, Philadelphia is where we wanted to be from the start, and we know that the things we loved about being here pre-pandemic will still be here post-pandemic.

The second job search is going much better having proven my work with excellent references from an excellent company. I’m getting multiple calls most days, and though the processes are moving slowly at the start of the year, I have enough promising irons in the fire that I need a spreadsheet to keep them all straight. We continue to be blessed with the fruits of my successful work in the business I sold last year, so we’re not worried about our immediate financial future at all and can afford to look for truly great opportunities.

Speaking of the store, I’m told that it’s still doing well, having been carried through the worst of the crisis by a combination of the hybrid business model I built and the small business relief measures. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m positive that the new owner is not doing everything the way that I would do it, but that’s okay. Our businesses become an extension of our own character, and I like to think that I laid an excellent foundation for his work to make the enterprise his own.

What does it mean for the future of this blog? I still have some game store content rolling around in my head, but much of that has been obviated by the amount of time since I was relevant in that industry and the changes that 2020 brought to it. There’s some Data Science stuff I’d love to talk about, given the time and energy available after my job hunting and professional development. I think ultimately that I have to land on being unapologetically sparse with content here and leaving the archive up for the people just entering or still in the game industry.

If you’ve got data work (or work relating to information security, a long-time hobby of mine) then I can be found in the usual place.

Thanks for Taking My Card. Here’s the Greatest Hits.

If you’re here because I handed you a card and you were interested in the URL, then this post is for you. Thanks for your interest and for treating me like a human being. The blog title is a reference to a short story in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love about a man who hated wasteful and unpleasant effort so much that he made excellent choices and succeeded wildly.

If you’re interested in my professional history and qualifications, you can find them on my LinkedIn page. I am at a crossroads, professionally, so I’m pursuing multiple avenues and allowing my path to be determined by which place hires me first. My current interest is in development and IT, but for an interesting opportunity I’d be happy to look at other occupations.

If you’re interested in a guided tour through my approach to business and problem solving, you can browse some of my favorite posts:

Spending Twenties to Chase Fives – This was early in the life of my custom-written Point of Sale solution, and I was just starting to discover that being able to solve business problems with code could save all kinds of time and money.

Defining Game Store Success, Survival, Failure, and Collapse – The independent game store business is a rough one, with most entrants under-capitalized and completely unprepared. Worse, they sometimes don’t know how bad they’ve got it. I urge my peers to take a hard, honest look at their livelihoods.

Emergency Used Video Game FAQ – In the Fall of 2016 Magic: The Gathering hit a rough patch after several awesome years. Many retailers who had gotten started during the good times were suddenly thinking about diversification. I was a vocal proponent of hybrid business models, and in my not-so-humble opinion I was doing the used video game business better than almost any other single-store independent retailer in the country. I was getting a lot of messages asking questions, so I wrote a FAQ.

Magic would stabilize somewhat in 2017 and most of the surviving retailers were never willing to commit to the business process changes that the crushing volume of used video games demands. I did end up getting a couple of messages years later from retailers who told me that I saved their businesses with this post and my trade show presentations on diversification. That was neat.

Stop Closing Early (You Must Be Present to Win) – I know that this sounds ridiculous, but one of the chief controversies in retailer groups that month was whether it was okay to close your store early if you wanted to go home. I argue that there are costs greater than one day’s lost revenue for retailers who don’t treat their business like a business.

Variable Trade Value (Fair Payouts, Great Stuff) – This automated trade-in value algorithm was the cornerstone of my entire business and can be fairly blamed for the lion’s share of my current modest success. I explained it here hoping that POS/e-commerce providers serving the industry would equip video game and collectible card game stores to do likewise. Several did through implementation of user-defined rules, but to my knowledge nobody copied the implementation directly, despite its superior robustness and simplicity.

Self-Deception and Breakfast in Your Bathrooms – This is a ridiculous post that highlighted my rage at otherwise-competent retailers who could never nail down the processes and documented procedures to prevent awfulness in their stores. At trade shows after this post I wasn’t approached as “the guy who knows video game diversification” but as “the guy who ate a chicken sandwich on his bathroom floor for a blog post.”

Snowflake Store Ownership – In response to an organized effort by the more-toxic elements of our local playerbase to normalize their despicable behavior, I abandoned efforts to be a store for every type of person and doubled down on decency. This was a turning point for our store and our community became much more amazing in the final two years of my ownership.

Point of Sale: You Need a Hot Inventory Process – Most retailers in the game trade do inventory once a year, if that, and they do it in the most painful way possible. Again, I’m mostly talking to software developers serving the industry here, but the ability to do inventory while the store is open is a game-changer for an industry with so many SKUs.

Famous Last Words – In which I announce the sale of my business and beg for a job.

Point of Sale: You Need a Hot Inventory Process

This post is not truly actionable for most retailers, but I’m making it anyway. Taking regular inventory is an important part of maintaining accurate counts, which is crucial for all kinds of reasons, but many of you are doing it in the worst possible way because there’s no good process solutions in your toolset. I’m not providing that solution to you today, but my hope is that in describing a solution, I’ll equip you to ask more of your current point of sale vendor. If you’re a POS developer, particularly in the game trade, I’d like to hand you what should be an easy-to-implement killer feature.

How it’s usually done

For most small retailers the solution involves clipboards and handwritten notes about how many of each item was found. Inventory Day is an all-hands-on-deck affair, with the whole store being turned upside down by everyone on staff, who then turn in their notes to a manager or owner, who frets over entering the quantities into the system late into the night.

This is expensive, because the store is usually closed for this event. Retailers can’t have quantities changing while they’re being counted, so the doors are locked. I’ve seen retailers set aside a day or more every year for this nightmare, frequently starting on New Year’s Day. Nothing starts a new year off right like a day of disappointed customer door-tugs and a payroll percentage of infinity percent!

How we did it

Let’s do a simulated inventory of concessions. SURELY you want to inventory these more than once a year, right? We’ll do this in my development environment, since I kind of sold my store and don’t have access to production anymore. I still have a non-exclusive right to the POS software I developed.

Employee selects Inventory from the menu.
Employee selects Concessions from the list of categories.
Employee counts our simulated and very small inventory of concessions.
Disaster! Another employee just sold a soda!

This is where an inaccuracy would creep into a manual inventory process, but our point of sale system checks to see what items from the category being inventoried have been transacted against during that inventory count. There’s no trivial way to know whether the count took place before or after the customer took their item from the shelf, so the software asks the inventorying employee to check that item again.

The employee grumbles to themselves and re-counts the Mountain Dew, finding that there’s 19 this time. If another transaction impacts the category while they’re re-counting, the cycle repeats until there are no possible transaction timing issues.
And we’re done. The reports screen indicates that all ended up being well with the Mountain Dew count, with the only discrepancy being an overage of one Sprite. Usually this happens because it was counted incorrectly the previous time, but in this case I intentionally introduced the error.

Get it together and break it down

Doing this sort of inventory well requires software smart enough to work while the store is open, but also an inventory that can be broken down into small enough chunks that one employee can inventory an entire chunk in a reasonable amount of time. If your store carries 30,000 board games and they’re all in a giant “Board Games” category, you’re going to have a really bad time. Furthermore, a too-large inventory chunk can cause an infinite loop if an employee can’t possibly re-count ambiguous items faster than customers can come mess with them again.

My store kept board games in one category, but we were not primarily a board game store so it was manageable. You may want to break games into genres, or do this by manufacturer. It seems like a bad idea to me, but you could even do it by starting letter. That would work okay for Magic singles but poorly for a large video game collection. Then you have all the old problems of categorization: Are Citadel paints included in Hobby Supplies with the other paints, or in Miniature Games with the Warhammer miniatures they’re intended for? There’s no one right answer and a bunch of wrong ones, but if this is the thing keeping you from being able to do Hot Inventory, you’ll find that finding your solution makes the rest of your store run better, anyway, so do the work.

Reap the benefits

If you’re closing your store to do inventory, the primary benefit of Hot Inventory is easy to see: What kind of sales volume would you expect to have on the days you’re counting inventory if you were open instead? Not to mention staffing normally instead of calling everyone in.

Being able to inventory while the store is running moves the taking of inventory to an apocalyptic event to something your employees can do on a slow day. This means that not only can you stop hurting sales with the closed-for-inventory day(s), but you can do inventory much more frequently. On slower-moving categories like Board Games we did inventory quarterly. We inventoried Concessions every other week. If a new employee messes up the process on a set of Magic cards or Sega Genesis games, you can inventory them ahead of schedule instead of living with unreliable numbers until Inventory Day.

You have not because you ask not

If you’re using QuickBooks or some other POS, you’ve already got to shoehorn your business into the capabilities of your one-size software solution, so I can’t help you. If you’re using something industry-specific, then you are probably capable of finding the ear of your POS developer. Ask for Hot Inventory. Tell them I sent you.

In an industry where retailers making a middle-class income are considered wild success stories, the money saved by addressing the pain of Inventory Day can make a big difference in owner income, and that’s the most important thing.

Famous Last Words

Oh yeah. I used to be a salesman. It’s a tough racket.

I sold my store in December 2019. I inflicted a many-pages-long post on some of my retailer friends about the why and the how, but the short version is that I’d solved all of what I found to be the interesting problems, but that left some boring, frustrating problems that would always be a part of that particular kind of business. I found a buyer who is willing to work on those problems in exchange for an obscenely profitable buy-a-job. He’s a smart guy. I hope he doesn’t mess it up.

I’m still young enough to start a fresh career. Thanks to the profitability of the store, my dirt-cheap standard of living, and the lump sum I received on sale of the debt-free business, I have time to look for interesting work, or maybe boring work in interesting places. I’ve got a broad range of competencies across management, finance, and technology. I’m looking for something with “analyst” in the title but for the right company in the right location I’d happily start with “technician.” If you think I might be a good fit for your company, I can be found in the usual place. My wife and I are exceptionally mobile. We can relocate without assistance, and for the right opportunity I can start anywhere in the country with seven days of notice.

There are few posts rolling around in my head, still. I’d like to get them published here, but I refuse to be one of those guys who perpetually apologizes for a lack of activity. I hope you’ll forgive me if posts pop up out of nowhere with no context or overarching theme. I’ll work on them if and when I feel the urge.

In the mean time, I hope you’re making good decisions, and I challenge you to take care of something at your business that you’ve been putting off this week.

GAMA Trade Show 2018 and Friendly Local Game Store

And now, for abbreviated reviews that I should have written two weeks ago.

GAMA Trade Show 2018

After swearing in May 2017 that I was done with trade shows for a while I turned around and attended the next GAMA Trade Show. With a brand-new game room expansion and Magic’s slump giving room for the rest of the industry to catch up, I felt that I owed it to myself to give the show another chance in hopes of learning things that would help the tabletop portion of my business make sense.

The venue: The Peppermill is vastly superior to Bally’s. My base-price room was clean, comfortable, and quiet. I didn’t hear any shocking stories of used condoms under mattresses or butt-prints on windows, which were a yearly staple in previous years. The staff at Bally’s treated us as an annoying side-event, while the staff at Peppermill was unfailingly friendly and helpful. There are tables, chairs, and sofas throughout the building at Peppermill, where at Bally’s you had to trespass into conference rooms carelessly left unlocked if you wanted to have a relatively quiet place to meet with someone. There is WiFi available. Good WiFi. It’s easily the best internet connection I’ve ever had while traveling. At one point to test it I started a streaming video in my hotel room and took a 15-minute walk to the other end of the resort. It never hiccuped.

The technology: The projectors available in retailer seminars were a huge let-down, starting with (I’m totally serious) some $70 clearance-bin RCA projectors that were never intended to serve a large room. Eventually some of the hotel’s projectors were wheeled out, plenty bright even if they were the best technology 2003 had to offer, and many retailers found themselves scrambling to adapt their equipment to work. There were emergency Best Buy runs involved. Retailers, my advice if you are presenting next year: Bring your own projector, or perhaps buy a bunch of adapters and extension cables and make bank selling them to panicked presenters. You’ll make a mint.

The town: A couple of years ago a friend observed that Las Vegas is the anti-Paul: I don’t gamble, I don’t like sightseeing, and I don’t like crowds. By the end of each week on the Las Vegas Strip, I could feel it closing in around me. Reno is the same flavor but scaled way, way back. Think the Alliance Open House in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but with slot machines. Some retailers who previously used the trade show as an opportunity to write off a week in Vegas have complained bitterly. All I can tell you is that, when it looked like weather might trap us all there for the weekend, I was not worried about my comfort or productivity. Which brings us to…

The weather: Getting ready to go to Las Vegas feels to someone who lives in Tennessee like preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Reno is a different climate altogether, with lows reaching into the 30’s at night. At the end of the week Reno experienced what I’m told is a very unusual Winter storm. The airport there is well-kept and most of us who flew out had no trouble, but there were a few cancelled flights. Retailers from California who drove over Donner Pass either left early in all-wheel-drive vehicles or got stuck at Peppermill for an extra couple of days. Much was made of the weather disaster, but I really don’t think that they’ll be likely to have these problems every year.

The cost: The price of airfare for those flying coach was significantly higher. Those flying first class found the cost only marginally higher. Many retailers who previously had nonstop flights from their hometowns to Las Vegas found themselves in Layover Hell, especially risky since most flights in and out of Reno are on American Airlines. These cost increases were mitigated by low hotel costs, waived resort fees, and two free nights comped by GAMA. There was talk of the free nights going away next year. If it were up to me, I would rather keep the low hotel cost and significantly cut back the box-o-freebies that retailers receive in exchange for sitting through a dozen hours of publisher presentations.

The verdict: Reno is a tremendous upgrade from Vegas, or at least from Vegas at the budget that an organization like GAMA wields. My understanding is that outgoing board members Travis Severance, Paul Butler, and Steve Ellis had a lot to do with the improvements in the show and the programming offered. It really can’t be overstated how big a difference was evident at this year’s show, and incoming board members will have to work very hard to have the kind of positive impact these gentlemen had on the retailer side of the show and the organization. I know that everyone crazy enough to serve on the board is going to give it their very best shot.

If you consider yourself a professional game retailer, have never been to GAMA, and won’t have to close your store to leave town for a week, you should go at least once. Was it worth it for me, personally, this year? Well, before I left I confided in my wife that I figured on a 30% chance of positive return from the trip, but that our game room expansion was such a potentially massive shift in the way our business works that there was enough upside to take the risk. Whether it pays off this year and whether I attend next year will depend on how tabletop does between now and then. I certainly don’t intend to be a passive bystander during that time, but I’ve failed at this before.

Friendly Local Game Store

My friend and retail spirit animal Gary Ray has published his book, Friendly Local Game Store. The subtitle is “A Five-Year Path to a Middle-Class Income” which goes to show you that it’s nearly impossible to horrify someone out of getting into this business. Gary doesn’t hide the grueling hard work, the disappointments and setbacks, or the crunchy math, choosing instead to present a frank and honest picture of his business and the industry, Speaker for the Dead-style. This probably sounds like criticism, but it’s not: There are aspiring retailers who will be frightened away from this line of work by this book. He’s doing them a tremendous service. Those who remain convinced that this is their calling will either internalize some of the lessons in the book, specifically the bits about capitalization and having a business plan, or they will fail.

Established retailers who have been doing this for a long time will probably find out some new things about the way Gary approaches some of the challenges of the trade, but I think that most of the value for them is in commiseration.  Giving the book to your managers will likely result in better understanding of the business, which will lead to them either cutting you some freaking slack once in a while or demanding more professionalism from your work, depending on how things were going before. I think that carrying the book in your store for the benefit of customers who aspire to open their own stores will lead to lots of them looking at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears. If they listen to Gary, they’ll either understand that opening a zero-capital clubhouse to give the community what they really want is a path to ruin, or they’ll open a competing store that grows the pie instead of trying to swipe slices. Many of them probably won’t listen to Gary, but this is the game trade. It’s standard in the industry.

I read half the book on my way to the show, half of it on the way back, and spent a good portion of my time with Gary in between, so it all kind of runs together, but overall I would say that the influence helped me to zero in on what I think is important in my business. We do this work because we like it and it’s mostly what we want to be doing, but at the end of the day, we have to get paid. Go work towards that.

Gloriously Alone: Three Months with a Zero-Friend Facebook Account

I am in an abusive, manipulative, on-again off-again relationship with Facebook. Not everyone has the problem-set that I have, but combined with a lack of self-control and discipline, it is a very real obstacle for me. There’s a fix, but it’s not without cost.

Facebook is, first of all, a time suck. It has frequently been the first thing I checked in the morning, and the last thing I checked at night. I have compulsively checked it, sometimes reading all of my notifications and closing the app only to open it again to check my notifications before realizing that I am acting like a crazy person.

I frequently do not like who I am on Facebook. Facebook brings out my worst affirmation and attention-seeking behavior. Any time I crack a joke, or see something adorable, or do something that I think is impressive, my first instinct frequently is to document it on Facebook. This isn’t healthy. I sometimes joke with my wife when I see her taking a photo of something that “this ought to be worth at least… twelve likes.”

I do not like who my friends are on Facebook. I don’t mean that I didn’t like the people. I like them plenty. What I mean is that everybody responds to the pleasures and pressures of Facebook differently, and some become dramatically different people with the distance and barrier of a keyboard or phone between them and the rest of the world. It isn’t the only issue, but I think I only have to say “2016 Election” for most of you to know exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Almost all reason, patience, and love vanished on my Facebook feed on both sides from August 2016 to January 2017.

I tried to moderate this in my immediate sphere of influence with an annual event I called Frienderdome, where I posted ridiculous, over-the-top callouts in hopes of showcasing how ridiculous my behavior and that of everyone else was on social media. Nobody got the joke. They just cheered me on while I was mean on the internet, and the worst part was that I really enjoyed the attention. I rarely lost anyone during this event, because brutal behavior is what everyone is used to, anyway, and nobody wants to wimp out when the pain can be perceived as a test.

So over the last several years I came to hate Facebook, but I was restrained from leaving by my business. I needed a Facebook account to manage communications with my millennial employees, to administer the store’s page and ad accounts, and to communicate with what I consider to be my very tiny actual-peer group.

On August 18th of 2017, my affection for Facebook was at a particularly low point, and I woke up early with a thought: What if I just unfriended everybody? It was an immediately appealing idea, and a few hours later, I culled everyone. My wife wanted me to unfriend her last. I made a short public post explaining my decision and left it up for anyone who navigated to my profile. I created a copy-paste template to use in responding to messages from concerned users, explaining that I was okay, but that I’d decided to set some boundaries between myself and social media.

I kept Facebook itself, with Messenger, the business tools, Events, and Groups. The only change I made was to drop my friend count to zero.

Facebook gets really confused when you remove all Friends from your account. A zero-friend account is assumed to only happen when an account is brand new, so despite having an eight-year-old Facebook account, every morning I got a set of “Welcome to Facebook” items in my feed. I had to close more intrusive tutorial pop-ups on the desktop site about once a week.

Because Facebook assumes that you will never want to friend someone that you’ve previously unfriended, the suggested friends algorithm gets thrown for a loop when you unfriend everyone you ever loved. I’ve come to believe that, in addition to never suggesting that you friend former friends, it also filters out friends-of-friends even if you’ve never unfriended them. For the first few weeks I only got suggestions for what I think are friends-of-friends-of-friends who I’d never unfriended. This was an interesting set of users for me that was comprised mostly of people who hate my guts, either from my former pool of fellow police officers, or from the pool of game industry retailers and publishers, or local gamers and people involved with my competitors. Imagine a suggestion list of ten people composed entirely of your worst enemies. After a time this cleared up and Facebook just started suggesting that I friend fairly obvious fake sexbot-type users.

Groups became one of the few places on Facebook where I seemed to exist to others, but having no friends complicated matters there, too. You have to be friends with someone to invite them to a group. There was frequently confusion as users saw my temporary friend request, saw that I had no other friends, and assumed I was an automated malicious bot impersonating their buddy.

Of course, the real cost is in loss of connection to and coordination with other people, and the cost is greater than it would be if you went back in time to a pre-Facebook era, because people depend on social media to the exclusion of other forms of communication. You’re going to miss announcements about life events. You will lose connection with childhood friends. You’ll miss opportunities for social get-togethers, and traveling friends will sail through your town without stopping to have lunch.

Still, misanthropy strikes deep, and into your life it will creep. You might have missed your uncle’s announcement about his dog dying because you unfollowed him after a series of political posts. You probably didn’t have that much in common with your childhood friend, now a dentist who doesn’t believe in washing his hands. You hate parties, and who has time for lunch, anyway?

The cost of disengagement is high. It’s probably too high. In November while on a retreat with friends I was talked into adding Facebook friends again. I carefully selected who from my previous list would make it. I ended up with about 80 friends, down from 130 before my experiment and close to 500 at the peak in 2015. Of the 80-ish current friends, about a third are people with whom I authentically want to connect. Another third are people I love but don’t particularly want to spend time with, and the remaining third are people I’m friends with out of obligation, like family members and church friends. If you think this sounds like I’m immediately veering back into dissatisfaction with Facebook, you’re right.

This week I unfriended two long-term friends following their posts in response to the recent school shooting. Their posts were not designed to change minds but to berate those holding different viewpoints. The posts of those who nominally agree with me on that particular subject aren’t much more productive. On the walls of my more friend-count-rich friends, I’ve been called a unpatriotic scumbag by right-leaning people and a Bible-thumping fascist by left-leaning people. There may be people who thrive amid this sort of discourse, but I’m not one of them. Those arguments are not actionable or beneficial in the same way that most news stories are not actionable or beneficial.

I’m totally open to the possibility that I’m doing it wrong, have the wrong friends, am just fundamentally a broken human being, or all three, but I’m having a very hard time believing that I’m alone. Facebook is essential. Facebook is useful. Facebook is fun. Facebook is a waste of time. Facebook is counterproductive. Facebook is agony. I’m going to give myself a week to decide if I’m going back to a zero-friend account.


Pop and Pivot

Magic, as we know it, is dead. The “as we know it” part is important, because Magic isn’t going away completely anytime soon, but it appeared that Wizards heard the complaints about the ridiculous release tempo of their product and the declining quality of WPN stores, and in response doubled down. That’s a big raft of products being pushed out in a few months, hot on the heels of Masters 25, which is being presold by many retailers at 30% off.

Magic is no longer the “press button, receive bacon” product that it was five years ago, and the butcher’s bill is real, with 100+ game stores closing in 2017. Undiversified binder-and-table stores that existed only to push Magic boosters across the counter are being squeezed on one side by customers who are fatigued and disillusioned from the fire hose release schedule, and on the other side by competing retailers and para-retail sales channels racing to make less than 10% margin on product. I recall a retailer after a TCGPlayer presentation at a trade show lamenting that he can’t set his buy prices higher than everyone else, his sell prices lower than everyone else, and make a living thereby. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the Invisible Hand smacks the snot out of free riders every single time growth stops. For these low-effort, low-investment retailers the good times are over, and I can hear their plaintive wailing in the WPN Facebook group even from the outside through the closed door.

Could it be that Wizards is bleeding Magic in order to save it? Possible, but unlikely given the shareholder interests at play via Hasbro. In either case, it doesn’t change my store’s next move.

Magic is still a part of our business, but it’s no longer the only thing propping up the tabletop side of things. We built our premium game room expansion last year amid the flames of Magic’s self-immolation, much to the concern of my employees, but it’s paying off. RPGs and Pokemon are both shocking us on a regular basis, with casual players and parent/child teams demonstrating that they will cheerfully flood into and pay premium rates for a nice place to play run by people who are happy to be there. Board Games and Miniature Gaming are slower to take off in the aftermath of shaking off the scummier side of the local community and the drama that followed, but the more level-headed from those communities are poking their noses in. I suspect that these other categories will hit critical mass quickly as the first few test the waters and find a supportive, healthy environment amenable to community growth.

None of this would have mattered if Magic had remained the powerhouse it was in years past. We would have been too busy keeping up with that one line to make sure that the rest were healthy.

In light of these developments I’m leaving my island long enough to take a chance on the GAMA Trade Show. There are things I want to learn about running a tabletop game store that I never exposed myself to before, since I didn’t have the space to pursue the techniques that are successful for others. To be very honest, I don’t know if it will be fruitful for us or not, but I’m eager to give it a chance. Perhaps the present chaos is not a pit, but a ladder. It’s possible that the decline of Magic is giving many of us a chance to finally run a better game store.

Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time, Wizards.

Well, now they’ve gone and done it. DCI-banned dirtbag Jeremy Hambly, with his libelous allegation that the Wizards Judge program is full of pedophiles, has done tremendous harm to Magic, which of course appears to be his intent. Not content to weather in dignified silence the ravings of a disaffected millennial memelord, Wizards of the Coast announced today that they’re requiring all WPN locations to conduct background checks of all employees and keep the results on file. It’s in the new paperwork, and we all need to have it done by February.

As Gary Ray says, it’s a problem because they’re basically passing the burden of an absurd allegation onto retailers at their expense. I have a different objection: I don’t expect WOTC to enforce it.

WOTC doesn’t want us to send them proof that we’ve conducted background checks on our employees. They want us to keep proof on file of the background checks, and make that proof available on request. It’s a great way to shift responsibility, because it adds no administrative burden to the publisher while still allowing them to say that they’re doing something. When some tournament organizer or store owner is inevitably caught doing something bad, WOTC can request the background check and act really surprised on the revelation told that no background check was performed. Then they can revoke the WPN status of the store, watch it go down in flames (to the extent that the offending event did not already doom it), and grant status to the next no-plan, no-capital card shack weeks or months later. That there is no actual protection against harm is beside the point. What’s important is that Wizards of the Coast is able to shrug and say that it’s not their fault that someone didn’t follow the rules.

Compliance with this new rule is going to cost my company about $100 per head, not counting the time spent having each employee fingerprinted, which conservatively brings the total to $150. I own a very small store, but I have six employees, plus my wife and myself, so this will cost $1,200, or approximately $400 more than my nearest competitor appears to have spent on the retail buildout from which they sell $85 booster boxes.

This is a requirement with very high compliance costs to my professionally-operated business, but zero costs to a clubhouse owner who wouldn’t know a profitable business  model if it came up to him in traffic and tapped on the windshield of his Ford Escort. The shacks can’t afford to spend the money to be compliant with the agreement. In most cases they couldn’t even afford matching folding chairs.

Please, Wizards of the Coast, I’m begging you to make a big deal out of enforcing this correctly. Have us all sign the thing saying that we’re going to conduct background checks. Six months later, out of the blue, start calling for proof, and revoke the WPN status of stores that aren’t compliant. I double-dog dare you to actually do what you’re only intending to appear to do.

I suspect that Wizards of the Coast won’t do this, and so the policy will be effectively unenforced. I’d really like to be proven wrong.

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.