The Spiel Pro Retrospective – 2016

I’ve decided to continue doing the retrospective format I used last year to look at what has worked and what hasn’t at Spiel Pro in 2017. It was interesting reading last years. Let’s hope this one does the same for me next December.

What went well?

Revenue

  • We doubled revenue this year. I know there are faster ways to do this, but many of those methods come with a fair bit of risk I’m just not interested in taking right now. We have a slow flame on right now. I’m pretty good with this. Doubling again next year would fit nicely into my plans.
  • The percentage of overall revenue from Spielpro.com is growing. This makes me very happy. This means my work on the site at the beginning of last year are paying off.

Setting up others to run the store

  • My niece and nephew helped me run the store fulfillment while I was out of town a couple times this year. This was HUGE in a couple of ways. First, it forced me to put down my insider knowledge on paper. It made me standardize a bunch of stuff that only made sense for me. I also spent a good amount of time organizing and labeling the inventory. This really helped me prepare for when I will need to bring in regular help. Plus, I got to hang out with them a bit. They did an awesome job.
  • I’ve also had some help from a family friend with fulfillment and such. This type of stuff has really helped to dip into a world where others do the work at Spiel Pro, so I can focus on the growth.

Services and equipment

  • Shipstation has been critical to running the business. They provide a way to funnel all the sales channels into one place. I’ve also been leaning very heavily on their insights section to track weekly and monthly sales trends. They also have a phone app that lets me keep track of sales and such though out the day.
  • Spielpro.com continues a record year in sales growth after switching from WooCommerce to Big Commerce. Conversions skyrocketed after I went to a site that loaded faster and was optimized. I no longer have to spend my time trying to keep WooCommerce running. WooCommerce is a great way to start with e-commerce, but I’m glad I switched. The only bad thing about Big Commerce is the have been getting a fair share of DDOS attacks. While this really hasn’t affected me much, it is the worrisome part of having your store on a large platform versus your own server.
  • LOVE my counting scale. This is probably one of the best pieces of equipment I’ve bought. Saving SO much time with big orders. Also purchased a plastic bag heat sealer this year. I’m hoping to set myself up to offer a bagging service in the coming year.

International shipping

  • I’m not sure why I have waited so long to open up international shipping. It’s going much better than I thought. Part of my 2017 revenue plan is to increase marketing to other countries. Here’s how it broke down in 2016.

 

Special orders

  • Toward the end of the year I was getting quite a few special order type of things. Mostly people looking for a 1,000 of this or that. I enjoyed helping them. I’m looking for ways to continue to do more of that.

What needs improving?

Focus

  • Sometime last year I decided I wanted to try publishing. The logic was simple. I was already close to the industry. I understood how publishing worked. I already had the structure and capacity to do my own shipping. So, I looked for some games I wanted to publish and started to work on setting up the brand and such. It seemed to be going well, but then I realized that I might have made a huge mistake. The projects were not only taking time and money away from Spiel Pro, there was a real chance that they could pull me under before I was even on solid footing. I made the very hard decision to maintain my focus on getting Spiel Pro over the goal line.
  • I find myself running 3 businesses. Huntersdb.com, Arizona Game Fair and Spiel Pro. I am always coming up with new ideas for businesses and such. I think I’ve found a way to focus my energies. If the idea doesn’t increase the revenue of these three businesses, I don’t do it. And more than that, I’ve decided this year to pick the ideas that I think can best help each of those companies now….and execute them for 2017. That doesn’t mean I don’t stop coming up with ideas. I just need to write them down. Hopefully they will make the plan for 2018.

Used merchandise

  • I am no longer buying vintage games. The margins were ridiculous on that stuff, but Spiel Pro is a game part company. The collection and listing of the used items was a vast time suck. My only problem now is that I still have a fair bit of inventory I need to get rid of. It’s just cash sitting on the shelf if I don’t do something with it.

Product selection

  • I’m not happy with our selection of products. I don’t know that I ever will. I wanted to build a store I would shop at. Not there yet. I understand why….capital and such. But, still drags me down sometimes.

Out growing the house

  • This year Spiel Pro took over another room in our house. There are some options for continued growth, but I predict by the end of 2017 we will need a warehouse. I’ve already started looking at small offices and retail spaces near our house. I want it to be close, so I can still enjoy going there.

Eliminating the middleman

  • My pattern has been to buy small amounts of items to test and grow them. The theory is I can always get better margins on them, but I lose a ton if they don’t sell. This for the most part has worked out really well. But, this year the cracks started to form. I was hanging on to shitty vendors for way too long. I need to start moving my better selling items to direct from the manufacturer. My hope is that I can replace them as the middleman.

Conventions

  • For the last couple of years, I’ve made the trip to Spiel and BGGcon. These need to start paying for themselves or I can’t see continuing to go. I think I have a plan for BGG, but Essen is a logistical problem I have not solved. I decided not to try to get a booth at GenCon, but I feel the need to go this year.

Marketing

  • Newsletter – I’m learning a ton from Arizona Game Fair, but my email marketing for Spiel Pro is pretty nonexistent. Need to start to work that into our marketing plan this year.

PPC

  • I did some Google Adwords early in the year. They actually worked. The problem is the cost versus the conversion. Instead of optimizing that, I just stopped doing them. Need to get back into that.

Action plan and goals

Continue to increase revenue while maintaining customer service.

 

42% of bullshit is bullshit

Lot’s of people like to tell you that WooCommerce powers 42% of e-commerce stores on the internet.

It’s not true.

I spend a fair bit of my time consuming e-commerce related media. Nobody is talking about WooCommerce. Maybe it’s just confirmation bias on my part. I tried using it for Spielpro.com, but didn’t like how much time I needed to spend trying to make it perform. Despite that, WooCommerce is a stable e-commerce platform that is popular and free. I just don’t think it is a pervasive as POWERING 42% of e-commerce.

Anyways, curiosity got the best of me, today I decided to reach out to BuiltWith and ask them how they came up with the number.

Here’s how Gary Brewer from BuiltWith explained it.

We’ve just added a new method for WooCommerce called ‘WooCommerce Add To Cart’ that will start to populate next week – we might move WooCommerce to Ecommerce (non-platform) shortly because what has happened over the years is theme developers have built WordPress themes with WooCommerce compatibility – the WC signals are still in the code for non-ecommerce sites and I personally think it’s over counting for that reason.

Just because a site is enabled for e-commerce, it doesn’t mean people are actually using it to power any e-commerce. Lots of people download free software like WordPress. Lot’s of people download themes and plugins for WordPress. And the little bots that scrape the internet while we sleep are only looking for bits of code that identify something as WooCommerce. They are not asking if the person is actually using the site for e-commerce.

So, 42% of bullshit is bullshit..right?

Kind of. The number is not bad, it’s just the way people are using it.

Does the large usage of WordPress mean that lots people are near WooCommerce infrastructure. Yes.

Is that market you can serve to make money? Yes.

Is WooCommerce powering 42% of e-commerce stores. No.

So quit it. Quit using that number. And don’t get me started on the inflated WordPress metrics. Does Uncle Bob’s site from 2001 that has one post and two comments really count as WordPress usage?

Things to Consider When Launching a New Product

I found this list particularly useful when thinking about launching a new product.

  1. Exactly what problem will this solve? (value proposition)
  2. For whom do we solve that problem? (target market)
  3. How big is the opportunity? (market size)
  4. How will we measure success? (metrics/revenue strategy)
  5. What alternatives are out there now? (competitive landscape)
  6. Why are we best suited to pursue this? (our differentiator)
  7. Why now? (market window)
  8. How will we get this product to market? (go-to-market strategy)
  9. What factors are critical to success? (solution requirements)
  10. Given the above, what’s the recommendation? (go or no-go)

What’s your go or no-go list?

The Spiel Pro retrospective

I thought this would be a good time to look back on the year and see where I stand. I’m sure I will make a top ten list type of deal, but I want to try the retro question format to get a better handle on the things I should focus on as the New Year approaches.

What went well?

Sales are up.

  • Tracking – Up until the middle of this year, I wasn’t tracking weekly sales. Yes, I’m a moron. I made a very conscious decision to change that by actually writing my daily and weekly sales on a whiteboard in my office. It has really helped me understand a great deal about my cashflow and growth. Although this is now automated with ShipStation, I still post weekly sales in a visible place. I find the connection invaluable.
  • Amazon – Product growth on Amazon is incredible. I wasn’t able to sell in the Toys and Games category last year due to my being new to Amazon. I qualified this year and things have been steadily growing.
  • Spielpro.com – Without much attention, sales on the website have increased. Hoping to grow this in 2016 with the switch to a new platform.

Inventory was in stock

  • For the most part I kept inventory in stock. I had a couple of vendor issues, but I resolved them pretty quickly. As the inventory grows, I worry about keeping track of what is and isn’t in stock. Especially since I really don’t want to keep to much of my cashflow in inventory.

Fulfillment efficiencies

I read once that your business decisions should increase revenue or efficiencies. If they aren’t, you are wasting your time and money. So, I’m glad that I’ve made some investment in fulfillment this year.

  • Local packaging – I found a local packaging supply company within a few miles of the house. This has allowed me to buy bulk packing material at a great price without having to pay for shipping. They carry a range of Kraft padded packaging. Huge win for both efficiencies and margins. They also add a nice professional look to the orders.
  • Label printer – Can’t say enough about the label printer. I can’t believe I was taping every label on an order earlier in the year. I would not have been able to keep up with the orders near the end of the year. I’m also glad I bought the printer that does direct and transfer printing. Although it was a bit more expensive, the printer will be serving duel service as a shipping and UPC printer. Printing UPCs will need a label that lasts longer that the direct thermal printing, which fade after a bit.
  • Shipstation – I had signed up to use Shipstation when I first created Spiel Pro. Unfortunately their business model of charging per channel made it not a good choice at the time. So, I dealt with shipping at each channel website. I checked in with them recently and they changed their model to unlimited sales channels. This change has saved me SO much time in the fulfillment process. They also keep track of sales and orders.

Other misc

  • Branding – I continue to get feedback that people like the branding. I think that will still be defined in the coming year as we finally start reaching out to a bigger market and try to compete directly with other part sellers. I have studied the weaknesses in their brands and hope to compete directly as I fill in my inventory.
  • Shipping errors – I was having a spell of shipping errors that were totally my fault. I addressed these by implementing so procedures like double counting and checking orders twice. These have seemed to work as my shipping error rate is existent coming into the new year.
  • Product expansion – cashflow is allowing me to expand our offerings. This is a much needed improvement, but also a problem I will address in things that aren’t going so right.
  • Sponsorships – I’m a huge fan of Heavy Cardboard and the Meeple Syrup Show. I find them smart, funny, and relevant. I also think they are run by good people who I admire. I have spent a small bit of money supporting them and will continue to do so in the future. I think this model will be a good way for me to reach relevant potential customers, while supporting the boardgaming media I enjoy. I will continue to look for other opportunities like this in the coming year.
  • Accounting – Early this year I worked with an accountant to set up a proper set of books for the business. This was a must.
What can I improve?

Fulfillment time vs biz dev time – As order numbers grow, I need to make sure that I still set aside time to grow the business.

Sales growth – Sales are growing, but not enough. I need to focus more on the things that will bring more revenue in the coming year. These things include: More high-margin products, expanding in to new markets, customer acquisition and retention.

eBay – I need to look at the data, but I suspect that people are abandoning eBay. I still make enough sales there to keep active. But, I need to understand what the long-term strategy is. I enjoy having diverse channels, but I don’t want to feed a dead horse. I enjoy selling the vintage gaming merchandise, but it might make sense to start transferring that over to the website. It will take a bit to reach the market, but it might be worth the investment in the long run.

Unlisted inventory – I have WAY too much unlisted inventory. There it is sitting on the shelf, not making me money. I need more discipline to get those products listed on the various channels. I know first hand how long it takes for those products to gain traction in SEO and market algorithms.

Testing and investing in new products – I spent a lot of time chasing down new product ideas. I’m not sure yet if this is a waste of time or the future of the business. I need to be careful to understand the difference.

Expanding into other countries – I have started doing the research to expand in to Canada, and then I don’t follow through. I’m not sure what is stopping me. Seems like an easy way to gain some growth.

New sales channels, etsy, jet – I’ve opened an Etsy channel, but haven’t really followed through on it. Need to set aside some time to do some testing.

Fulfillment – while traveling – I lost 2 weeks worth of revenue as I shut down for Essen. I need to figure out a way to get fulfillment done while I’m away.

Marketing and social media – I have yet to find a consistent way to reach out to my customers. My social media is sporadic at best. I really need to develop a marketing plan for 2016 and stick with it. This includes growing the mailing list. This is pretty obvious stuff, not sure why I’m avoiding it.

Spielpro.com – This site is slow and boring. I’ve been working on a new site with a new platform that will fix some of the technical issues, such as: load speed, abandoned cart, mailing list sign up. But, it will still be boring if I don’t make an effort to change that. I want and need this site to be my main growth channel.

Accounting/metrics – Although I have a nice set of books, I’m not taking advantage of the power of reporting I could be. As the business gets more complex, I will need to leverage this more to make decisions.

Action plan

The next step from this will be to create an action plan to attack some of the issues I’ve brought up. I will either put that here or in a new post. I need to be careful that I make the plan granular enough so that I can make progress on it.

Rethinking the Hunters Database

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 7.57.18 AMI’ve started working on the Hunters Database again.

Why?

Without ANY marketing or work it had 42,000 pageviews last year. It also has organically gained 400 users. And it has reached near the top ranking on many, many hunting search pages. It’s not HUGE by any means, but if I’ve learned anything in the last year doing e-commerce – that’s a very nice platform to start something on.

Problems still remain though.

  1. There is a small part of the hunting community that I despise. I hate their attitudes about guns, conservation, nature and animal rights. This is the biggest turnoff for me. I’m hoping I can temper my abject feelings about the vocal minority by staying focused on the large part of hunting community that I really enjoy. There are so many great people out there.
  2. The data creation is time consuming. I recently did some testing of virtual assistants to convert PDF data into something HDB can use. It was a breakthrough. VAs are affordable and FAST. This is HUGE. But, it also means if I want to scale the data, I will need revenue sooner than later.
  3. There is NO revenue. I’m timeboxing this to find some revenue by the end of 2016. My first steps are to re-engage the users and understand what they are using the system for. Is it just maps? Do they need other features? What will they pay for? From there it might be a subscription model…or it might just be a nice platform for some e-commerce stuff. With my Spiel Pro​ knowledge I can easily use it to sell maps or other items to the audience. I already have a fulfillment infrastructure built. And it has a nice season pattern..so I have some time to get that in place for 2016.Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 7.31.54 AM

This might be another failure, but the potential is there for another stream of revenue. I would regret not trying to actually trying to make some money at this venture. When Mark Ng and I built the first version of Huntersdb.com, I had NO idea what it meant to be an entrepreneur. I’m not saying I have all the answers now. I do know that I have a better understanding of how to find out if this is a sustainable venture. And in all failures, you learn. This will give me an opportunity to learn more about how to engage with email marketing. This will benefit all of my future ventures.

My one hesitation at this point is that I need to make sure it doesn’t stunt Spiel Pro’s growth. It’s going slowly, but Spiel Pro is showing week or week growth. I want to maintain that growth into 2016.

In the end, I’m proud that something I built is actually being used by people. I hope to continue to write about my findings as the year progresses.

What do you think? Am I crazy?

How Playing Soccer Helped My Business

At the age of 44, I started playing soccer. I was fat, slow and middle-aged. To top that all off, I’ve never been much of a team sport kind of guy. I did play some basketball when I was younger, but I quit the team when I started high school. American football always seemed stupid to me, as younger husky Andrew was usually cast in a position that got hit a lot. I’ve always liked soccer, yet, for one reason or another, I never really got the chance to play much.

That changed last year when a close friend taught me you can play soccer at any age. I have been playing pretty much twice a week ever since. My new hobby has done much for me. I quickly lost 20 plus pounds. I’ve made new friends. And I’ve become more comfortable playing on a team.

It hasn’t been all fun and games. I really sucked at soccer when I started. I was fat and slow and didn’t have any skills. Along the way I’ve learned some things that have helped me become a better soccer player. But, it’s still a challenge that I enjoy.

The other day I realized how much some of the things I’ve learned are helping my business.

To play defense you need to learn some offense
I’m a defender in soccer. I love stopping people from scoring. I LOVE it. That said, I quickly learned that you still need to have some offensive skills to play soccer. You aren’t much good if you can’t convert your steal or block or tackle to help your team score. When I would practice, I would totally avoid any offensive skill practice. I mostly did this because I wasn’t really good at it. I wanted to practice defense. I wanted to get better at defense. But, this left me with some very one-sided skills. I would lose the ball easily. I would miss a pass. I would get flustered when I had to carry the ball. In business, I’m learning that I still need to practice the stuff I don’t enjoy.

Be patient
As a defender, my main role is to stop the other players from getting, passing or shooting the ball. When I first started playing I thought the best way to do this was to run up on the person with the ball and defend them much like you do in basketball. I quickly learned that this is a really stupid idea. Strikers would easily overtake me and often score on me. I soon realized that good defense is not always about attacking. Sometime you need to be patient and concede some ground. You need to assess your positioning, your team positioning and the skill of the forward with the ball.

Business is much like this. We like to think that people are overnight successes, but often they are years in the making. Soccer is teaching me to be more patient. I don’t need to jump in there all at once. I need to build on a structured plan that is focused on the ball and where I want it to go.

Teams are about the right people
Soccer is a team sport. Teams succeed by working together. I would take a soccer team with minimal skills that worked together over a team of high skilled individuals that don’t work together. I think I knew this one before I started playing soccer, but it is becoming clearer to me as I move forward in growing Spiel Pro. I want to quickly work toward finding out if vendors, partners and employees are going to be good teammates.  Not only will this help us win more, but we may just enjoy the experience more.

Attitude is everything
I’m not sure what triggers it yet, but there are days I just want to win more. When these days happen, I tend to play better. I doubt my skill has changed that much. I can only attribute this change in my play to attitude. Something clicks in my head that causes my body to react better and stronger. I’m still learning how to turn this on more often. My business is much like this. There are days when I wake up and I want to own the game parts market, and there are days when I feel deflated and beaten. I predict that this experience is pretty normal for most people. I’m just looking for ways to increase the days where I feel like I’m winning this game.

I’m glad I discovered soccer before it was too late for me to enjoy it. I think the same way about business. My friend that introduced me to soccer once said that we only have so many games in us, we should enjoy each and every one of them while we can.

Happy Birthday Spiel Pro, some things I’ve learned this first year

logoAround this time last year I started Spiel Pro. I made $20 in sales by the end of the month. I’ve learned so much this year that I thought I would share some of the most important things. I didn’t come up with these ideas, but this is the first time I’ve understood them enough to put them into action.

A little history first. Spiel Pro started after I started selling my extra stuff on eBay to make a little bit of cash. I found that I REALLY, REALLY enjoyed selling stuff online. As with other things that I get obsessed about, I began to seek out information on how to get better at it. I read everything I could get my hands on about eBay and online retailing.What people were telling me was simple:

  • Focus on a product niche.
  • Find ways to capitalize on that niche.
  • Grow the niche
  • Use the cashflow to expand the niche.

I had recently begun playing and enjoying boardgames, so I decided that might be a good place to start. At this point I was pretty much just reselling vintage games that I was finding at thrift stores. I found with a little knowledge I could quickly turn some nice margins on these games. I also found that there was a odd market for used game parts.

So I decided near the end of February last year that I would start to shift from vintage games to selling new game parts. This has some huge advantages. Vintage games can be hard to source. They are intermittent and unreliable. I also found the new board game market to be flooded with online retailers that are driving the prices to the bottom. I quickly realized that I didn’t want to sell board games.

It was my success with selling used parts that got me setting up SpielPro.com. So, I picked the parts that were selling the best and ordered some. It started to work almost immediately. Sales have been consistently growing. I did take a  bit of a mid-year break to go work for Eagle-Gryphon Games, but returned this holiday season.

So what are the key things I’ve learned this year?

You aren’t a business until you sell something
I don’t remember the book title, but I will always remember reading this and going WOW.

– “You don’t have a business until you sell something.” 

Spiel Pro sold $20 in it’s first month. That was more than my previous project, HuntersDB,  made in 2 years of development. If I had to do it all over again, I would make HuntersDB a paid service from the beginning. You must sell things. Get to selling thing quickly, because CASHFLOW is king.

Mistakes will happen
I screw up…sometime a lot. The key to success is to remind yourself not to make that same mistake tomorrow. So, I’ve learned to create procedures that help me fix my mistakes. One of my first orders on Amazon was wrong. I shipped the wrong amount of an item to a person. Today, I have a system where I double check the contents of my shipments. I’ve made it a habit. It gets checked when I put the item out, and it gets checked when it goes into the package for shipping. Mistakes are going to happen, don’t let them happen twice. 

Always be testing
Testing is a must. How are you going to find new markets or new product or new customers if you aren’t trying different things? Most of my testing has been done in the amount and mixtures of my products. I also learned that my idea of retail inventory was all wrong. I used to think that you needed to buy a shit ton of product to sell. It’s not true. Buy two or three of something. If they sell, buy more. If they don’t, reduce them and move on. Testing is so crucial to grown. ALWAYS BE TESTING.

Ship today, because..why not!
I was a bit surprised at how much my customers commend my speedy shipping. Is it really hard to ship immediately? What do you gain by holding on to it for a day or two? From day one I have shipped fast and often. What surprised me what how much of an added value this can be. Apparently people are use to getting things slowly. So, my motto now is ship today.

Find a community you enjoy
This was something I learned from my previous project HuntersDB. I like hunting, but I learned that I really, really dislike the hunting community.  Sure, there were some great people that I met and corresponded with. But, it was a daily slog to try to engage a community that I just didn’t enjoy. Now a year later, when I look back on the people I’ve met with Spiel Pro, it all makes sense. I LOVE the board game community. These are my people. I want to make shit for them.

I’ve learned lots of other things, but this is a good start. Happy Birthday Spiel Pro! I’m looking forward to continued growth this year.