Reflections from selling a startup after 7 years
Serial mistakes seriously suck
I ran 2 startups in my life that I would consider “real” startups:
They had employees
They both ended and my first one Adpics (a SaaS picture archive service) crashed into the wall, but this post is about the other one, a board gaming café, online store. Not a fancy tech unicorn.
Yeah, a board gaming café, really. I founded it in 2015 to marry my knowledge of tech with my other passion, board gaming. I sold it 2 months ago successfully with a 4.9 average rating on Google after receiving millions in $ for handing over board games at the counter for 7 years. Exit.
Ironically the lessons from this startup were far more defining and relevant for tech than my first one for my career so let’s dive in:
Originally I founded the store to combat some very obvious problems: there was no good supply of English boardgames inside Switzerland. It was and is historically a hassle to order games from across the border. Problem identified.
I also introduced some unusual monetization ideas. Games inside the café are free to play but you pay rent to sit down at the tables. Originally people were able to order anything with me. Had a special idea? Order it with Leah!
I stopped that at some point, there was a customer group that was far more interesting:
They knew they wanted board games mostly for social activities but they had no idea what to get. Most of them knew what they loved but not what to get. “Can’t you just recommend me something?”
People started to trust my recommendations so I pivoted after 1 year from being a generic english boardgame retailer to having only good English boardgames.
Every game that was taken up was played, signed off, or had stellar reviews on review sites. No matter what you grabbed from the shelves, the game was good.
We also started to sort the games by difficulty rather than player count or price. Those 2 things mattered for our customers, not the price or that we had “everything”.
The brand started to kick in and the happy customers left reviews. One 5* review after the other rolled in with time. Profitable after 14 months.
The lesson here is that you should dare to pivot your offering. Your initial idea probably isn’t fleshed out enough anyways or not specific enough.
Listen to your customers and if you pick up on a trend validate it with your other customers to see how pressing it is. I never paid attention to my competitors after the store started to run and I’m glad I didn’t.
Your ICPs are King, your customers are not
Every time you pay attention to a customer that is not part of your ICP (Ideal customer profile) by going above and beyond you kind of betray your ICPs. But the customer is King Leah!
Absolutely not, your ICP is king, not your customer. You should bend over for your ICP because for them you’re doing the entire thing. I started to have customers that wanted to haggle and I guarantee you that if they haggle once they haggle 20 times in the future.
I didn’t give way for 2 reasons:
I know what my service is worth, the ability to just pick anything from the online or brick-and-mortar store was something I monetized. If this was about price comparability then I would have undercut my competitors.
Haggling doesn’t scale. It takes a lot of time and cuts into your profits. “But some profit is better than no profit”. No absolutely not… there is bad revenue for your business. It’s the one that took you too long to get, the one that introduces more headaches in the future.
Interestingly, this is the same behavior that you see when dealing with Sales. Whether you sell or they sell to you. The hagglers are there. And it’s not always tied to whether your prices are too high.
Habitual hagglers haggle. And it’s their sport also in their private life. Having good sales that know when to let it happen is key here. Even as a boardgame retailer you have to deal with bigger distributors so the relationship goes both ways.
The lesson is, if your customers don’t see your value enough to pay you then don’t bother. Don’t even try to make them happy. Your business is with repeat customers and those that recommend you. People with bad habits will recommend your store to other people with bad habits. I didn’t want to attract more of them.
Focus on your ICP like crazy. Welcome the business of adjacent groups but don’t go out of your way for them if that doesn’t scale.
Hiring happiness in customers
I hired two guys in my entire 7 years that stuck with me like glue. I recruited them both from my customer base. The only thing I paid attention to is how they interacted with other guests. They had a fire in them for board games and helped other visitors out just like that. Originally they were regulars, constantly showing up. They made others happy around them.
So I started to pay them and offered them to take over parts of the business day to day. I knew they are great at keeping others happy with their honest and direct opinions, and the administrative crap I could teach them.
Both of them didn’t have any retail experience and I would have never found them if I hired looking for a store full-time employee.
Considering that they both stayed as long as they did with the store should tell you enough about whether it was the correct decision.
I asked myself the question back then “Would I love to be served by either one of these guys if I was a customer here?” Absolutely. They knew more about board games than me.
What didn’t work
Replacing your passion with business
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Leah’s ProducTea to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.