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So You Want to Start Your Own Company...

It is time to lay it on the line. Here I'm going to give some advice on starting your own company, but I need to preface it a bit. I'd originally written this for an industry-only email list, but after the strong favorable response, I decided it should be published on RPGnet. This way, it will reach a wide audience, and anyone wishing to reprint it need merely email me for permission.

But it also means, given that the audience of RPGnet is of diverse nature, that I need to lay down a little background as to why you should even bother reading this advice. After all, why should you listen to me? The simple answer is that what I write can be easily checked and verified-- a good reading of basic economic and marketing texts, plus study of the current industry success stories, lends support to what is presented here.

And, none of this is theoretical. Some of it is experience from our RPGnet work and from launching Metagame (the only magazine devoted to all aspects of live action roleplaying, *plug* *plug*). Some are from years of freelancing for magazines that all too often folded, and from work with companies that survived. And from wearing many hats in my professional work. And from accidentally co-invented the game "Tales from the Floating Vagabond" back about 20 years ago (a story for which you'll have to buy Lee Garvin or myself a dinner to get the full telling). In short, the same kind of eclectic background many industry professionals get after many years of lousy pay but great fun.

The impetus for writing this came from industry advice saying "do not start you own company now!". While good advice, I felt it was rather negative, and ignored a lot of the possibilities that exist in starting up a new venture. Namely, that timing is everything-- and right now, it is a very bad time to announce a new company. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything. In fact, now is an ideal time to produce.

Stealing from DP9's excellent advice-- always have your first three products ready for production before you even announce you exist-- I recommend that you start your work now. Just not your company.

If you have a great game idea, or a mostly-finished book, then by all means finish it. Also, write the first two (at least) supplements for it. That'll probably blow a half year of time.

Next, build your ad campaign. Make the first few ads you plan to run in print, on the web, and at Cons. Sure, you may come up with catchier, more 'trendy' ads after you launch, but having ads in the can now will really help out when things get going. And this can easily take 2 months.

Next, get your website built. Don't put it on the web, just get it built on your local machine so that when you do launch your company, you can have a fully alive and vibrant website up within 24 hours. Even if you contract out, this will take a month.

Go over your business plan (you did write up a formal business plan, right? If not, take the 2 months or so to do so). www.sba.gov has great templates and information on how to do this.

You'll notice that all the above stuff is over a year's worth of work. That's one year you won't have once you launch your company and suddenly have to contend with selling the darn thing. So get it done now, at your own pace, before that release schedule clock starts ticking.

Finally, read the trade magazines (Comics Retailer, FS, the online sources of news, the GPA list, etc). Attend any distributor open houses you can make it to, just to walk the floor and scout out the scene. And go the GTS next year to schmooze and make connections. But don't tell anyone about your game yet.

Okay, where do you stand then? You've spent a year and a half working on the product. People know you exist, but no one knows that you're starting a company. And hey, it's a year and a half later, and since you've been reading the trade magazines, you'll have a good sense of whether the market is viable for starting up now!

So ship your first book to the printers, then announce your company exists. But you're not like most small press startups. Within 24 hours of the first announcement, you have a complete, thriving website (and shop) up. Ads immediately start appearing in some publications because, hey, you already wrote your ads. You're now spending all your free time talking to distributors to get them to carry your books, and working the retailer circuit to drum up interest. Your big splash, being so thorough and well-coordinated, gets you some free press as everyone talks about 'this amazing company that's come out of nowhere and seems to have their act really together'. You announce that the first supplement for your book will come out a mere 30 days after the main rulebook returns from the printer. And that the second supplement will be 2 months later, and that you'll have one every 2 months like clockwork after that. And you can do that-- you already have the first 2 in the can.

You're releasing teasers from those works, so people realize "my god, it's real, they're not just making this up." And the distributors and retailers find out that you actually ship on time-- that your promised release dates actually mean something. They start basing orders on that. You don't miss a convention debut with the lame 'the book isn't quite done yet' because it's done, so you can use conventions to market and hype things. Indeed, you're spending your time actively marketing, promoting, and selling your work.

You're the next success story. You sell enough to hire a contract sales person, contract account, and part-time secretary. Having put your stamp on things with books #1-3, you can freelance out supplements for the rest, so you can meet the schedule you've set.

So by all means plan to start a company, and get to work. Just don't start the company part yet. Skip that immediate-gratification-followed- by-burnout-and-disillusionment cycle and approach it like a proper business startup. Create first, do business later.

If I were to start a company, heh, that's what I'd do. Of course, I couldn't ever tell anyone about it, by my own advice-- but I wish I could have told it to myself ten years ago.


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