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The Choice Between Your Customers And Your Product
Reading time: 4 minutes
I’ve written a few times about the board game shop I used to own, Game Knight.
Game Knight was absolutely one of the most formative experiences for me as a product developer, entrepreneur, and Agilist (despite not thinking of myself as any of those at the time I had the store).
When you’re creating a product, what you name it or how you talk about it in shorthand has a huge impact on who your users will be. And each of those users will bring their own expectations to your product, which the product may or may not meet.
I opened Game Knight for the first time just days before our city held their big annual street festival. Strategically, I timed this opening because I wanted to be noticed - the store was right on the main street, and we had a small carnival ride right outside our doors.
The sign at Game Knight actually read “GAME KNIGHT” but it was arranged on two lines, and I had an anthropomorphized chess knight standing to the left. He held a shield with a big “K” on it, conveniently putting it in position to change the word “night” to “knight.”
I sold chess sets, though my focus was mostly on board games, casino supplies, and Magic: the Gathering cards. I felt that the sign made it clear what kind of store this way, and people who were looking for what I was selling would find their way in.
My customers had their own ideas.
The first day of the street festival, we were packed. I had so many people in the store, I felt like we were sure to be a huge success. But at the end of the day, my receipts told a different story.
I had calculated the amount of sales we would need each day on average in order to break even against our costs, and even on the busiest day I could imagine, we only sold about half that much.
The problem wasn’t that our costs were too high, it was that despite there being tons of people in the store, they weren’t buying what I was selling.
Board games - I sold a few.
Magic: the Gathering cards - a pretty decent amount.
Chess sets and casino supplies - not one sale.
What I did get were lots of questions.
Do you sell comic books? Video games? Miniatures? Role-playing games?
What about this niche game I like? Can you special order it?
I need dice and cards and timers and all kinds of game accessories. Do you sell those?
I got feedback by the ton.
People walked up to the store, saw that sign with the chess knight, said to themselves “I bet this place has the thing I’m looking for,” and they came in. Which honestly, is a huge victory. But that alone won’t make you successful.
I had to listen to that feedback and make choices.
Often we have an idea for something we want to make, or do, or sell - and that idea is very important to us personally. It’s work we want to do, or a product we believe people will want.
But then we find out that the people who first learn about our product or service are not interested. They want something else.
We have to decide if we want to push forward with our idea, and find new ways to connect with that customer we’re sure is out there. Or alternately, we can listen to the people who are already drawn to us, and adjust our offering to more closely align with what they actually need.
At Game Knight, I wound up bringing in comics, role-playing games, miniatures, several niche games, and even clothing, all based on customer feedback. I drew back my commitment to board games, completely liquidated the chess sets and casino supplies, and leaned in to Magic: the Gathering.
The changes started from the first week. I followed the whims of the people who were coming in the door with cash in hand, and started ordering all the things they wanted. Sometimes I had to pull back again as it turned out one customer was an outlier and there was no larger market for the things they wanted me to supply. It was a constant exercise in listening to individuals and larger trends at the same time.
And it worked. A year later, I had to move the store because I needed more space. We were doing much, much better than break even.
In this end, this is another “listen to your feedback” article. But it’s also about acting quickly, and about realizing that sometimes the thing you want to build is not the thing that people want from you.
Making good decisions is crucial. It’s also really, really hard.
Will you be true to your idea, or to your customers?
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