Monday, March 17, 2014

Better Terrible than Mediocre

Most people do not like criticism. They do not want to hear what they are doing wrong, and would rather believe that they are doing well. Compliments feel good, so we want them. I am no different, and I love to be told I'm doing well, but a compliment is like candy, pleasant but not healthy to get too much of it. I want to get criticism every chance I can get it. Masochistic? No, allow me to explain.

The title of this post is "Better Terrible than Mediocre" because if you are terrible at something, you probably know, or at least people might tell you. If you are mediocre or adequate, people probably won't tell you. Why upset you when you are probably doing a good enough job? But, if you do not know what you are doing wrong, you do not know where you need to improve.

When I managed Gamingetc, I had a very short time to become a very good manager. I worked for a woman who was very quick to criticize and point out flaws and errors, and she wasn't nice about it. Emotionally it was overwhelming, but professionally, it was one of the best and most valuable experiences I have ever had.

If this is how you imagine yourself,
how can you findways to improve?
Achieving excellence is like carving a sculpture. You remove all the material that is not statue, and what is left is statue. Likewise, if you remove everything that is not excellence, what you have left is excellence. Before you can know where to apply the chisel, you have to identify what must be honed, and criticism is the first step of this.

The prerequisite for any of this is humility, and humility was the most important thing I learned working for Gamingetc. Humility means understanding that no matter what you are doing, no matter how experienced you are, there is probably a better way to do it, and someone else may already be using that better practice. You are not yet the statue, but still the block of wood. Before achieving that humility, you will always be surpassed by that other person out there who is better than you, but if you are humble enough to understand that improvement is always possible and often necessary, then you will seek to improve, knowing that improvement means finding your own flaws. 

Ultimately, rather than measuring yourself by how good you are now, you will only measure yourself by how much better you are today than you were in the past. This means that if you have not identified a flaw to work on this week, you will not be able to look back next week and see improvement.

The fact that I can now work as a consultant and run my own business was made possible by that experience. I don't have a boss who can tell me what to focus on, what I am doing right and wrong. This is not the first time I have tried consulting. The last time, I spent two months following my plan before I realized that the plan had a fatal flaw: there was no monetization step. I was so proud of myself for making something myself that I wasn't looking for flaws and I didn't see one so big that it nearly drove me broke. I was a block of wood that thought he was a carved statue.

ConCardia is a convention based
card game in which players collect
cards while exploring the convention.
More info at

Feedback and playtesting welcome!
I would much rather hear a little criticism than have to look back and be figuring out why I failed. In producing ConCardia, I am always seeking feedback for how the game could be better. An influential and highly knowledgeable fellow in the game and convention worlds was generous enough to sit down with me and work through the new rules, and he tore them apart. Over half a dozen major changes suggested, some were somewhat fundamental to the rules. He suggested we change the way we print the cards. He suggested changing the basic card drawing mechanic of the game. 

I could have gotten defensive about the fact that he was suggesting so many changes to the game that I had made. After all, it was mine, from my own creative mind. That course of action would have resulted in a highly mediocre game being produced, and probably getting the same feedback from players after we had committed to certain printing and design choices and it was too late to fix them. Instead, I wrote down each suggestion, and almost every one of them on reflection was excellent. The game is vastly improved for his input, and I took that input before it was too late to implement it.

How I must see myself at the start of every day.
A blank block, ready to be carved into something
better, removing everything that is not excellence.
I think that many people do not like criticism because most of us do not understand growth correctly. We see growth as competence built on competence, like building a structure, one block on top of another. In this mindset, criticism would be like pointing out the flaw in a block, requiring you to move backwards, removing a block and replacing it. But if you use the wood sculpture analogy instead, you realize that your growth requires constantly identifying flaws so as to chip them away to the excellent that is underneath. 

Finally, let me remind you of one more very important thing. If someone doesn't care, they'll tell you it's fine and you are good enough. Giving good, useful criticism takes effort. People only put in that effort if they care about your improvement... or at least they care about what you are doing and care enough to be sure it is done right.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Do Something Impossible, Then Do it Better

There are two kinds of people who are really into cars: those who want power and performance, and those who are really excited about practical things like fuel economy.

I am in the second category. I really have no use for a car with over 200 or so horsepower. I have absolutely no use for a car with less than 20 MPG. This is why both my cars are 40+ MPG Volkswagen Diesels, and this is why I think that Tesla Motors is the most interesting car company to exist in my lifetime.

Tesla is in the news this morning because New Jersey officials have announced changes in regulations to make sure that the existing dealer infrastructure, who has donated large sums of money to officials, gets to keep taking their cut out of the car market at the expense of an innovative company that wants to sell directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man. Of course, if you have been to a car dealership ever, you can likely imagine why Tesla does not want to allow the average car salesman to try to explain the new concept of the Tesla to customers.

But I'm not here to comment on politics, much as I enjoy doing so. My point in writing about Tesla is that Elan Musk makes a habit of doing the impossible. After making his fortune with Ebay, he started three companies. One makes electric cars with a range similar to a gas car and a battery that can be charged in half an hour, which can drive from New York to L.A. without ever being out of range of a charging station, AND the company is profitable. The second is a commercial space travel company. The third is a more mundane solar energy company called Solar City.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Series, there is a place called Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Their slogan is "If you've done three impossible things this morning, why not top it off with breakfast at Milliways." Mr. Musk must have a frequent diner's card there.

Remember the future that authors like Heinlein, Clark, and Asimov described? Elan Musk lives there and is wondering when we're going to be joining him.

So, what is it that allows him to push the limits of technology and make money at the same time? Not just once but multiple times. Of course, I can't be sure, but from what I have heard him say in talks and read in his writings, I would conclude it's because he doesn't believe in impossible. He seems to have suffered some kind of brain damage that deactivated the part of the brain that says "that can't be done."

I have no doubt that he will prevail in New Jersey in the long run. He cannot imagine any other outcome, and when the leader cannot envision failure, those who follow cannot either.

How much easier is something to do if you know it can be done? When you get furniture home that you need to assemble, and you discover that the instructions are in Japanese, you don't give up. You give it a shot and figure it out. Why? Because you know that it was built to be assembled, and clearly it can be done. Even if you don't have the instructions, you're sure you can figure it out.

It's like you've read the last page of the novel and you know that the characters come out victorious. Reading the book is just to find out how they did it. What if you could read the last page of the novel of your life and know that you will be victorious? If you knew for a fact that you would succeed, you would certainly never give up. Why should you? You know you'll win in the end.

Why not live your life as if you had read the last page and knew you could not fail. Maybe you won't revolutionize transportation as we know it, or maybe you will.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Who is Your Audience and What do They Want?

Tigers rarely actually eat
cereal. They also rarely
wear neckerchiefs.
They say that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Well, if you lead a horse to a nice, juicy steak, you will probably not only fail to feed your horse, but probably spook him. Save the steak for your pet tiger. Lead the horse to grass.

As a consultant, I work with a number of different fan conventions and businesses. Most businesses think they know the answer to the question "Who is my audience and what do they want?" Do they really? Or do they just think they do?

Let's take Steampunk World's Fair, for whom I am Sponsorship Coordinator, as an example of one who does it right. Their primary audience is people who are interested in Steampunk, which is a subculture that includes literature, clothes, and a bit of music. That is who they are, but what do they want? The obvious answer is that they want great performances by bands and other performers that they enjoy and a great array of vendors. But, hose bands play a variety of venues and most of the vendors have online stores, so why do thousands of people make the trip to New Jersey for the Fair?

First and foremost, people go to a convention for an experience. They want to have fun. They want to be among their own people, having a relaxing and enjoyable time. You could have the biggest names and the best dealers, but if the vibe is bad, the event will be bad. Steampunk World's Fair creates that fun, engaging environment. From the web site, to the decorations, to the program book that looks like an old Victorian newspaper, to dozens of other little details, for one weekend in May, two modern hotels are made to feel like a great enclave of an age that never was.

Steampunks in their natural habitat: Piscataway, NJ
Among the work I do for this event is coordination of sponsorship. A sponsor has a very different perspective on an event. Many sponsors do attend the event, and, as an attendee, they love all the event has to offer. As a sponsor, however, they care about very different things. The fantastic program book made to look like a newspaper is exciting to them because its uniqueness will cause attendees to keep it, and the ad the sponsor bought in it, for years to come.

As a counter example, let's consider another business I have worked with. It is a game store in the Northeast United States. For those of you unfamiliar with game stores, they tend to be part retail store (selling board games, card games, trading card games, role playing games, and the like), but they are also part community space. Almost anything you can get at a game store, you can get online for less. People are willing to spend their money at a local game store because they enjoy spending their time at their local game store. The natural conclusion to draw about a store is that people go there for products and prices. For a game store, one would be mistaken. People go there for the experience. The products are just how the store monetizes that experience.

This game store, however, is very large and has become focused on product rather than experience. They have come to think that the customer cares only about price and event prizes, so they focus on what is on the shelves but fail to address the experience of the customer when he is in the store. They mistake a lack of other options in the local market for customer loyalty, believing that customers come back because they want to rather than because they have no other option. Customers say things like "There's something off about that store" and "It's not a comfortable place to hang out." The result is that in a business that used to demonstrate spectacular growth year after year, growth has slowed to almost nothing.

The goal is to give the customer what they want, not just what you think they want. You may be wondering how you find out what the customer wants. It's easy. Ask them. People love to talk and they love to give their opinion... if you ask for it.

You should also keep in mind that people are giving their opinion to everyone else. In the example of this store, all of the other stores in the region know what people think of them. Other customers know what people think of them. Random people on the Internet know what people think of them. Don't you want to know at least as much about your customer's opinions as your competition does?

It's a simple two step process:

Step 1. Just get into a conversation with a customer and ask "What do you think we do well? What do you think we should do better?"

Step 2. Shut up and listen.
Step 2a. No, seriously. Do not speak. Just listen.

You may be tempted to address their concerns, explain your choices, or even argue with the customer. Don't. Thank them for their input. Possibly ask questions to be sure you understand what they are getting at. Did they say something that surprised you or doesn't sound right? Ask a few more customers at random. If they all say the same thing that sounds wrong to you, it's probably not the customer who is mistaken. At the very least, you have a messaging issue.

Tigers like steak. Horses like oats. Mix them up and you're liable to be kicked by the horse and eaten by the tiger. What does your audience want?

Do you enjoy reading this blog? Follow me on Twitter @michaelthehouse, click the like button on the side of the screen. Most of all, please share the link to this post so your friends can enjoy it as well.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vending Victory from the Jaws of Vending Defeat

I had a mentor who told me a story which changed the way I approach almost every challenging situation. At the time of the story, he owned a store that sold collectible card games like Magic, Pokemon, and Yu Gi Oh!, and he was going to GenCon, one of the biggest non-electronic gaming conventions in the world. He had spend thousands of dollars to be there, and had brought a fantastic selection of all the card games he carried. Everything was set up and ready, but as the first day progressed, sales were terrible. No one was buying. Few people were even looking at his booth.

Vending with Worlds Apart Games at
Arisia in 2010
(That's Dan in the hat)
If you are a vendor reading this, you may have been in this situation before. What did you do? If you have never experienced this, ask yourself, what would you do? For many, including myself before hearing this story, I would have tried to make the best of the weekend, sell as much as we can, maybe slash some prices to move some stock, then limp home, lick our wounds and try to figure out what happened so we could do better at the next event... if we could even afford to attend the next event.

Our hero could not afford to fail this weekend. He had invested more than he could afford to lose, and he wasn't ready to lose. During the course of the first day, someone had come by with a large trash bag full of Heroclix and offered to sell it to him for $20. He'd never heard of Heroclix, but it looked like a lot of whatever it was for little money, so he bought it.

Having an already disastrous weekend, and having bought this bag. What would you do? Some would just throw the bag in the back of the booth to take home and figure out what it is next week. After all, this weekend is a disaster, who needs another thing to deal with. Others would see the bag differently...

He didn't know anything about Heroclix, but he knew that he had just bought over 100 of them for $20, so he grabbed an empty bin, dumped the figures into it, and put a sign on the front that said "$1". Within an hour, the bin was empty.
Heroclix Superman figure
For more information on Heroclix,
visit the Wizkids Website.

He proceeded to go around the convention, looking for other people unloading their bulk Heroclix collections, and by the middle of the second day, his original stock was pushed to the side to make room for an entire table of Heroclix figures. The event was more than profitable for him.

This story teaches a very important lesson. As long as there is still time on the clock, there is still time to play and win, but not by pressing a losing strategy. The more important part of this lessons is to realize is to think about how long your decision cycle is. When I was vending at conventions, I would think during the week prior as to what I would bring, how I would display it, and what the strategy would be. By the time I arrived at the convention and set up Friday, the die was cast. I was committed to that strategy, win or lose. No matter how Friday went, I stuck to it all weekend. My decision cycle was a week long.

His decision cycle is hours, sometimes minutes. You can always reevaluate your strategy on an ongoing basis, not just when the event is over, but a few hours in. When you get home on Monday, it is too late. When you walk out of that sales presentation, it is too late. When you lock up the shop at night, it is too late.

Don't wait until the game is over to tally your score and figure out why you lost. Figure out while the game is still going how you can win.

Do you enjoy reading this blog? Follow me on Twitter @michaelthehouse, click the like button on the side of the screen. Most of all, please share the link to this post so your friends can enjoy it as well.