Bankrolling Your Board Game’s Development

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Heads up: I’m going to be talking about money in lots of detail. You need to know this information if you want to self-publish, but I’m giving you a heads-up because money is a very emotional subject. This is one of the hardest, most soul-crushing lessons I’ve learned.

 


 

Creating board games can be an expensive affair. A lot of people do not want to admit this to themselves. In fact, minimizing costs is one of the most compelling reasons to create a game and send it to a publisher instead of self-publishing.

Self-publishing is expensive. My friend, Garret Rempel of Tricorn Games created a small print run of a single-deck card game called Go Fish Fitness. This is the simplest viable game you could possibly make in the hobby board games industry. It cost him close to $3,000.

In this very same article, I go on to say that War Co. cost nearly $20,000 to create. Of this, $7,500 was out of pocket and it took me a long time to make it back! I was working a full-time job in an IT job that I got after graduating with my MBA when I started working on War Co. I saved up a little money every two weeks when I got paid to make this game happen and I still ended up paying quite a bit more than I expected. I paid to create an entire game with high-value art before going to Kickstarter to get manufacturing costs covered.

 

Real Cost of War Co Kickstarter

 

I know not everybody can pay thousands of dollars to make a game with no guarantee of getting it back. I’m by no means rich, but I do make solid money and I live in the southeastern United States where the cost of living is low. On top of that, I live a low-cost lifestyle in a small house with a used car in an okay neighborhood. That’s how I manage to do it, but I know that frugality has limits.

So if you can’t save up tons of money to make a game, you’ve got two options:

  1. Go through a publisher.
  2. Make something lightweight, like a small card game.

I won’t go into detail about the first option. I do know a handful of personal friends of mine who have succeeded taking option two: Garret with Go Fish Fitness and Weird Giraffes, the team behind Super Hack Override. Both of them made modest Kickstarters, succeeded, and are working on their next games.

To be honest, this is a much more reliable path than what I did with War Co., which was expensive because it was a six-deck game instead of a one-deck game with 300 original pieces of art. The massive scale of the game and the variety of art are now selling points of the game, so it worked out okay. Yet it’s more sensible to set a low goal for your first game or two and gradually work your way up to bigger ones. I tilted at a windmill to make a childhood dream come true. That doesn’t mean it was a financially sound decision.

 

Don Quixote Going for a Windmill
Me, developing War Co. out of pocket with 300 pieces of original art.

 

The Limits of Crowdfunding

 

“I can just Kickstarter to pay for all the setup costs, can’t I? I don’t have to do what you did with War Co. I can get them to pay for my prototyping and art!”

Maybe. It’s just incredibly unlikely. Take a look at successful Kickstarters over $2,500 and tell me how many of them do not have the majority of their art done by the time they go to Kickstarter. Your game needs to be 90-99% done before you go to Kickstarter. Your game needs to play well, look beautiful, you need to have an audience, and you need to keep just a little wiggle room for your Kickstarter backers.

Let’s also take a moment to put another myth in the ground. You probably won’t make a profit on Kickstarter. You have to understand, Kickstarter and their payment partners take an 8-10% cut of whatever you make AND backers generally expect a lower price than retail since they’re going to be waiting a long time for a project they can’t be sure they’ll receive. That’s going to put the squeeze on you. Your goal on Kickstarter should be to break even on Kickstarter costs. Don’t try to recoup your equity and don’t try to make a profit. Give your customers a good experience, buy as much inventory as you can with the Kickstarter money, and sell the rest later.

 

What Will it Cost?

 

Costs are highly dependent upon the type of game you are creating. There are costs that come prior to Kickstarter and costs that coming after Kickstarter. If you decide not to use Kickstarter or a similar crowdfunding site, you’ll be bankrolling the entire project yourself with no help. If I had to ballpark the cost of projects, though, here’s what I’d say:

  • $3,000 for a card game with 1 deck and 50 cards per deck
    • $1,000 for set-up costs
    • $2,000 for a modest Kickstarter
  • $12,000 for a simple board game with modest art demands
    • $5,000 for set-up costs
    • $7,000 for a modest Kickstarter

Of course, it’s a little silly to ballpark project costs in the abstract. Every project is different, every set of needs is different. My guesses can only help you narrow down the “order of magnitude” of your project.

Here are some things to consider:

  • How much artwork do you need to buy? (Before Kickstarter)
  • What components are you using? (Before & After Kickstarter)
  • Where will you have your game made? (After Kickstarter)
  • How much will your game cost to fulfill? (After Kickstarter)

 

Before Kickstarter

Development Costs: Depending on what you use to create your game, you might end up incurring a shocking amount of costs in paper and ink. Yes, stationery costs add up! I spent hundreds of dollars printing out War Co. cards before I found the free tool LackeyCCG. Even after I started using LackeyCCG, sometimes I still printed fresh cards because it felt better than using digital tools.

Prototypes / Testing Costs: Of course, at some point before you run your game by reviewers, you’ll need to get a sample of it to make sure it feels good physically. You want to make sure that you can use all the pieces, that everything looks right once it’s printed, and that there are no major accessibility issues. Running a single copy of a game is kind of expensive. Running 10-20 copies for reviewers and then paying for the shipping to send them (even within your own country) can add up to hundreds or possibly even thousands of dollars. For War Co., prototyping for my own purposes and for reviewers was around $500.

Administrative Costs: You’ll want to get a business license before you use Kickstarter. I suggest keeping it simple and being a sole proprietor if you’re a solo dev. Consider an LLC if you’ve got a team of two or more, but make sure you really understand what you’re getting into before you sign any papers. You’ll need a bank account for your business. You might need some software. You might need a new computer or a printer. You might need plastic storage bins for your game. This can add up to unpredictably high costs.

Advertising Costs: Some people use online advertising to draw attention to their business. Costs are highly variable by channel and by your budget, but this might also be something you want to factor in.

 

After Kickstarter

Kickstarter Costs: No matter what, Kickstarter and their payment partners are going to take 8-10% of your campaign funding for fees. So it goes.

Fulfillment Costs: Additionally, it will cost quite a bit to get your game to your customers. It’s not unrealistic to think that it will cost 20-30% of the reward price. Account for that.

Manufacturing Costs: This is probably going to be the bulk of what you use your Kickstarter funds for. Go for the amount of money you need to make the smallest print run that makes financial sense.

Something you should look out for when you’re getting your game manufactured is the “landed price.” If you take your printer’s quote and it comes out way low, you might be missing some details. There are three parts to the landed price: manufacturing, shipping, and customs. Manufacturing is the cost to actually make your game, shipping is the cost to get it to your fulfillment companies or to your place of business, and customs is the price of moving inventory across a country border.

Most places want you to do a run with a minimum order quantity (MOQ) of 500 or higher, so be ready for that. If your game has a landed cost of $10 for each game, that MOQ will cost you $5,000 once all the costs are totaled. Costs start dropping at higher order quantities, but just focus on clearing the MOQ hurdle when you’re starting out. You can use the little cost reductions to add things like stretch goals to a successful Kickstarter.

 

A Special Word about Taxes

This differs by country, state, and city. You need to talk to a pro about this. But I have one ESPECIALLY important bit of tax advice for you. I’m not a tax expert. I just went to the school of hard knocks on this.

Inventory is taxableIf you follow my prior advice of using the Kickstarter to break-even instead of making a profit, Kickstarter taxes won’t be so bad. In general, taxes are calculated like this…

Tax Paid = Tax Rate * (Revenue + Change in Inventory – Kickstarter Costs – Setup Costs)

So if your tax rate is 30% (a good guess in the United States for sole proprietors) and you make $20,000 on Kickstarter, spend all of it on the game, wind up with $12,000 inventory, and it cost you $8,000 to make the game, this is what will happen…

$1,200 = 30% * ($20,000 + $12,000 – $20,000 – $8,000)

That can be a painful experience if you’re not expecting it. Because, after all, you feel like you’re still out by $8,000 since your money is tied up in inventory. But if we simplify it a little more, here’s what’s going on…

Tax Rate * (Inventory Value – Money You Haven’t Made Back Yet)

$1,200 = 30% * ($12,000 – $8,000)

You need to either be mentally ready for this when it happens OR set aside cash.

 

Pinching Pennies

 

It is really hard to start a business. It takes 3-5 years to do it right and it can be a nerve-wracking experience at first. It takes a ton of time and a lot of smart money management. Thankfully, your old friend Brandon has made plenty of blunders so that you don’t have to. There are a lot of ways you can save money on your early game projects.

 

 

I’ll close with six suggestions that will reduce how much it costs to make your game.

  1. Reduce research and development costs by using an inexpensive online game testing tool such as Tabletop Simulator.
  2. Reduce art costs by looking for sophomores and juniors in local art and design colleges. They often will often do work for a much lower cost if you make sure to give them a project that will accelerate their career.
  3. Keep a separate bank account for your business. Try to get big gains and big losses in the same year – it can save you big tax bills if you’re using cash accounting (which most people do by default).
  4. Research fulfillment companies extensively to find ones who will fulfill your Kickstarter for the lowest costs.
  5. Research manufacturing companies extensively to find ones who will create your game at a satisfying level of quality for a low cost.
  6. Instead of paying for advertising, get really good at social media and build a mailing list. Here are some articles to help you out with that.

 

The Board Game Industry: Powers That Be & The Hype Machine

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This is not a post about what you need to do, think, or spend to make a game, nor is it a post about board games themselves. This is a post about the players in a much bigger game: the board game industry itself. It’s time to talk about your potential customers, the eight powerful groups in the board game industry, and The Hype Machine.

 

 

Your Potential Customers

 

It feels unnatural to refer to players as customers when you first do it. This is something you will need to make peace with if you plan to self-publish your game, since they are one and the same. Marketing and promotion is an ongoing process and you can’t shortcut it if you want to sell your print run or crowdfund some of the costs.

To respond to that grossed-out schmoozy feeling you might get from referring to players as customers, ask yourself this question: “why is it bad to be sold to?” The answer is going to be some variation of “I don’t want or need the thing and/or I cannot afford it.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with selling things you work hard on. The weird feeling that comes with selling stems from either selling bad stuff or from selling to the wrong people.

The most ethical way to sell, and indeed, effective way to sell is to have a crystal clear picture of your customers. What do they like? What do they dislike? How old are they? How much money do they have? Where do they hang out? How do they talk? How do they like to be approached? Why do they like the things they like and dislike the things they dislike?

In general, hobby board gamers tend to be males around 30 who have discretionary income. That narrows it down some, but that’s still too broad to be useful. You need to know the specific sort of people who would like your game and you need to know how they think.

“How do I do that?” Here are my recommendations:

  • Get a Twitter (or some social media site you prefer).
  • Create a private list.
  • Find games like yours.
  • Find people who follow games like yours. Look for people within that group who might like your game. Add them to the list.
  • Read what they say for a while. Be a fly on the wall.

Good selling starts with listening. Customer relationships work like friendships and romantic relationships: by attending to the needs of others within the boundaries of what you can reasonably do. Get to know people so well that you can rattle off a description of who they are and what they like.

 

Powerful Groups within the Board Game Industry

 

 

 

Where there are people interested in something, that interest will result in a complex series of social structures. In board games, for the sake of this conversation, we’ll refer to them as the “board game industry.” It’s a bit silly to treat it as a singular monolith, as the board game industry is made up of nothing but individuals. Anyhow, when these people get together, they tend to become parts of eight influential groups.

 

Group 1: The Players

Everything in board gaming starts with the players. Players determine which types of games are profitable and how much they are willing to pay to play. Players gather in different places, ultimately determining which websites are popular, which bloggers are read, which podcasters are listened to, which conventions are attended, and – most importantly – which games are played. If there is one group you need to pay attention to it’s the players. If you make a board game, you want to spend more of your time communicating with players than any other group.

 

Group 2: The Manufacturers

Ever wonder why a lot of board games come with punch-out tokens instead of metal cubes? It all comes down to manufacturing costs. Manufacturers determine which game pieces are cheap to make, and by extension, have a good deal of influence over what players play and what becomes popular and expected. On a more personal note, good manufacturing is critical to your game being well-received, but for now, I’m sticking mostly to industry-level effects. In that sense, manufacturers collectively set expectations for how nice a board game will feel in players’ hands.

 

Group 3: Games Like Yours

Board games work sort of like books and music as an industry. Games tend to complement each other instead of directly compete. This is partially due to the collector mentality, partially due to the “luxury hobby” status of board gaming, and partially because of the “if you like X, you’ll like Y” effect. That said, you have to pay attention to board games that resemble the ones you’re making. For starters, you don’t want to accidentally create a knock-off Catan. Perhaps more importantly, though, it becomes really important to pay attention to games like yours so that you can make comparisons that gamers can understand.

Oh, so your game – War Co. – is sort of like Netrunner and Star Realms…

 

Group 4: The Devs Who Make It

You’ll need to pay attention to the game developers who make it since they influence the thought patterns of players, fellow designers, and perhaps even manufacturers if they do something truly innovative that has a flattering cost/benefit case behind it. The success of Pandemic Legacy is leading people to make legacy-type games. The success of Jamey Stegmaier has led people to start blogs as a form of customer outreach. Watching what other successful people do gives you an idea of what direction the board game industry will go in.

 

Group 5: The Devs Who Don’t Make It

Of course, if you only look at successful game developers, you’re getting about half of the picture. Survival bias makes us think that all we have to do is copy successful people’s behaviors. Not so! You need to pay attention to game developers who cannot get their game Kickstarted. You need to pay attention to people who cannot break 1,000 Twitter followers. Pay attention to people who fulfill their game late. Pay attention to people who run out of inventory. Pay attention to people who go out of business.

They subtly affect the behaviors of game developers in the industry as well.

 

Group 6: The Media

Board game media includes everyone from the juggernauts behind Dice Tower, Shut Up & Sit Down, and Tabletop to the podcasters who get five downloads per episode. There is no shortage of reviewers, bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, and streamers who all have subtle affects on the way that board games are perceived. Pay attention to the trends you see. One popular one I’ve seen lately is “play-throughs” on YouTube that show people what a game is like without them having to read the rules to learn. In fact, these channels have replaced rulebooks for some players entirely.

Reviews hold a massive amount of sway in whether or not people will buy your game. Bloggers have the ability to get people to click on your links at convenient times. Podcasts, for whatever reason, have the ability to get a brand name in your head like nothing else. Live streams, an incredibly underrated tool for outreach, has the ability to get you noticed by small, tight-knit communities of 15 and 20 – enough to start a movement.

 

Group 7: The Marketplaces

Kickstarter and Amazon are the go-to marketplaces for board games right now. When they do something different with games, it creates ripples throughout the whole industry. Kickstarter is a whole community in its own right. Pay attention to what gets noticed on those platforms and others that may take their places in the future.

 

Group 8: The Hang-Outs

Finally, board games are intrinsically social. The places that people talk about and play board games have a huge effect on how board games are sold, seen, and played. Online, there are communities on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Board Game Geek, and probably more places that I don’t even know the existence of yet. Offline, there are gaming stores and board game meetup groups. Get to know some of these hang-outs. Find one that works for you. I’d suggest finding one offline and one online. Pay attention to the trends in the hang-outs you use. Changes to them will change your approach to making and marketing your game.

 

The Hype Machine

 

The Board Game Hype Machine

 

When you get a bunch of people together, passions will run high and money will get passed around. It’ll create movements and excitement. Empires will be born and empires will crumble. A collective “spirit of the times” will rip through the community. In board games, I refer to this spirit of the time as “The Hype Machine.”

The Hype Machine determines which games people get really excited about. The Machine determines which games make $50,000 on Kickstarter and which ones make $5,000,000. The Hype Machine, just like the industry, is a metaphor for a complex mix of decentralized and disorganized factors which together influence people’s attitudes toward board gaming, board gamers, and board games.

 

Part 1: Barriers to Entry & Old Money

Like it or not, board games are expensive to create. They take thousands of dollars for manufacturing alone and thousands more for art. This is not accounting for the immense amount of time it takes to get started. Because it takes so much time and often tens of thousands of dollars to get off the ground, board game companies who have already successfully created board games have a big leg up. These companies meet the economic requirements of what comes next…

 

Part 2: Footholds of the Initiated

Because it costs so much money and takes so much time to get started, only a handful of board game companies and developers manage to survive past the “idea stage.” Board gamers are sometimes jaded to the idea of new game developers, saying things like “most Kickstarters suck” and “new game devs are a dime a dozen.” The flip-side of this negativity is that once a developer or a company successfully publishes just one game, they establish a reputation. If they publish several, that’s very impressive. Having a good reputation and enough money to keep making games are the “footholds of the initiated.” These things impress people and make players get excited about upcoming games from studios they’ve seen succeed before.

 

Part 3: Reviewers & the Hype Window

After crossing a certain threshold, game companies can start to make games that people actively, eagerly await. This is a massive step for a company and it takes a long time for a new developer to get there. Once games reach a certain point in popularity, new reviewers – who themselves are trying to become more popular – may feel uncomfortable expressing opinions outside of the norm. Because of that, game reviews will start to cluster around a certain consensus.

There are lot of great small reviewers who avoid falling into this trap. Many do not. I believe that when reviews cluster around the same basic point range of, say, 7-9 that players start to think “wow, this game is really good if it’s getting an 8 on all these channels.” In reality, reviewers who are just getting started don’t want to step outside of that “Hype Window.” Just as few music reviewers give the Beatles a bad score (even if they hate them), few game reviewers will give Scythe a bad score. Often times, this is simply because they play it more until they “understand the hype.”

There is a fair argument to be made that even the big-name reviewers with established brands are trapped by the expectations of their readers, but I haven’t seen too much evidence to support this yet.

 

Part 4: Second Hand News

It’s hard to get started because of money and time, but once a company has successful games and a reputation, they have disproportionate impact over some not-insignificant portions of the reviewer base. Reviewers tend to be thought leaders whose opinions are repeated in blogs and podcasts, as well as by other gamers. People look at and continue to repeat the findings of these reviews until games are consistently perceived in a certain way by a large population of gamers.

This is hype right here. Not every person plays into it. This is not a neat, linear process that follows immutable laws of nature.

 

Part 5: Spirit of the Hype

Once Second Hand News reaches a certain critical mass, it becomes common knowledge. Twilight Struggle is the best game because people went around saying it was the best game for a long time. Monopoly is terrible because people say it’s terrible. Once these narratives are in place, they’re very hard to change.

 

So Now What?

 

This is a big picture painted with theoretical notions based on opinions I’ve formed over years of time. How can a new game dev learn from this, though? What’s the point?

Understand that you’re part of a bigger picture. The board game industry is a large, decentralized community made up of tons of individuals acting in complicated ways. You’re not going to understand it all in a day, week, year, or 10 years.

Take your time. Not only does it take a long time to make games, but it takes a long time for people to care about you making games.

Get to know individuals one-on-one. The most important thing you can do to get people to care about you is to care about them. Talk to lots of gamers.

Listen.

Don’t believe the hype. Trends come and go. Keep your head steady and form your own opinions. Listen to others, but don’t let go of who you are and what you like.

How to Master Time (So You Can Make Games)

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Game development is a marathon. It’s a long, difficult endeavor that eliminates the unprepared by sapping their endurance a quarter-mile at a time. It takes at least a year, at the bare minimum, to take a board game idea and turn into a ready-to-sell product. Anything less than that is next to impossible, and 18-24 months is a lot more realistic.

Staying organized and managing your time well are critical to self-publishing a game. There are a lot of things to do, a lot of things to track, and a lot of time that needs to be spent. You need to keep your digital and physical files organized, you need to keep a to-do list, you need to keep a project timeline, and you need to make and stick to a calendar. If you do not stay organized, you’ll be pulled in too many different directions and you won’t get hardly anything done.

Let’s start from the top down. I’ll talk about big time-frames and how you can organize your time and your efforts in the long-term and we’ll slowly work our way down to from years to minutes.

 

Wall Clock

 

Years

Accept that it takes at least a year to make a game, and often 18-24 months. Accept that it almost always takes more than one game to make a good amount of money. Accept that by self-publishing, you’re starting a business and that most businesses need 3-5 years to make a decent amount of money.

Years are too big of a time frame to meaningfully organize your activities around, but it’s important to accept the long arc of what you’re getting into. Lots of people make games. Most people quit. You don’t have to be one of them. I feel like the main differences between the quitters and the winners are expectations, passion, and willingness to improve.

 

Months

Game development as a process falls into several stages, most of which take months. They include:

Game design and development. This is the process by which game ideas are crafted into working products. This usually takes at least 6 months. Making the game work isn’t necessarily the hard part. The hard parts are play testing it, getting artwork, and getting the whole product ready for the market.

Artwork. You get someone to do the art for your game. Unless you’re really talented, you shouldn’t do art for your own game. The amount of time this takes is dependent upon your artist’s schedule and the complexity of your game, but even a simple board game could take around 4 months.

Production. You’ll need to print some sample copies of your game to make sure all your ideas translate well to a physical product. This could take a month or more. It could take much, much longer if you wind up having to make changes.

 

Rubik's Cube Taken Apart
It takes a long time for games to come together. Photo taken by Hangsna and posted to Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0 (Source).

 

Reviews. Before you can launch a Kickstarter, you’ll need reviews for people to take you seriously. Reviewers tend to drag their feet, so you should account for two months between sending them a copy and them writing a review. You also need to account for the time it takes to produce sample copies. Budget 3 months for this.

Kickstarter. While most Kickstarters are around a month in length, the preparation before and the clean-up afterward take another month together. You should plan to spend about 2 months on Kickstarter. This is assuming, of course, that you succeed. About half of Kickstarters in the board game market don’t. If you fail, you’ll need to relaunch and that involves more time. Also, if you want to succeed in the first place, you’ll need to have a community built up from several months prior as well.

Manufacturing. It takes about a month to print board games. Then it takes about three months to ship them by sea. Yes, you read that right. You can air ship them, but it’s really expensive and I can’t recommend that you do that in good faith. Plan for 4 months to manufacture assuming everything goes well. Manufacturing delays in addition to that 4 month time frame are very common.

Fulfillment. Whether you ship your games yourself or with the help of third parties, it’s going to take a bare minimum of two weeks to get everything in the mail. Plus you’ll be intermittently solving problems related to fulfillment in the months to come.

Sales. This can go on for as long as your game has a community! Here is the thing, though: this never really ends.

Marketing. Even if you had a game perfectly ready to go, you’d still need to build a community through wise marketing and promotion practices for at least six months, but realistically closer to a year to make even a modest amount of money on Kickstarter.

 

How do you keep track of all of this? One such way is to create a Gantt chart, shown below. Each different stage can be imagined as a row. The columns represent time. This helps you get a feel for how your game’s creation process will work. If you get ahead or fall behind, you can tweak the bars to be shorter or longer and move everything else that comes along with it. I made this chart in Excel, but there are better programs for it.

 

 

Weeks

Every week, it’s a good idea to set goals. Sure, you can have broader goals of “be a good game dev” and “make this game a real thing.” In fact, those are really important to have! But with weekly goals, your focus should be making them specific and achievable. Line up your weekly goals with your broader goals.

I like keeping my weekly goals in Evernote. I set weekly goals every Saturday and I track certain metrics like web traffic, followers, newsletter subscribers, and sales that I think line up with my bigger goals. Here’s what my weekly goals look like right now.

 

 

Days

On a day-to-day basis, you want to make sure you have time to actually achieve what’s on your weekly goals. After all, it’s the weekly goals that link up to the monthly stages of board game development and the multi-year epic journey that is getting published. I suggest using Google Calendar to track your time in 30 minute blocks. You can move these blocks around as you like, but the idea is to actually set aside time every day to work on your goals.

 

Google Calendar

 

Hours

When it comes to setting up time for making a game, it’s not just about putting in long hours. Sure, you might have to put in long hours, but the reality is that you don’t have to put that much time in everyday to make it. You just have to put a good amount of time in most days for a few years.

Make your time count. Only spend time on what’s worthwhile. Try to schedule tasks when your mind and body are capable of doing them well. Always look for ways to improve your processes. If you can outsource work, do it. If you can automate work, do it. Work smart so that when you work hard, it’s worth the extra oomph!

 

Minutes

Focus is critical. Find out what distracts you. Is it social media? The constant buzzing of text messages? Are your kids interrupting you? Is it noisy neighbors? Figure out what triggers distraction in you. Seek to eliminate or reduce distraction wherever you can so you don’t get your precious little minutes stolen.

 

Mindful use of your time is key to success in game development and self-publishing. Set realistic expectations. Have an understanding of what it takes to get from point A to point B. Set clear goals. Keep a schedule. Block off time. Reduce distractions. Improve processes.

You do this and you’re one step away from Start and one more step toward Finish.