How Cons Can Help You Get Your Board Game into Retail

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

If you want to get your board game into retail, you’ve probably heard the advice “go to cons.” But what exactly do you do at board game conventions? Why are cons so useful for getting into retail or even launching a Kickstarter?

We will answer these questions and more in this week’s post.

But first, Molly and her company are currently running a Kickstarter for The Million Dollar Doodle, a new creative party game. Check it out here!

Molly's latest game, The Million Dollar Doodle, is live on Kickstarter!
Use the hive-mind to design brands. Pitch your ridiculous companies.
Win a million dollar investment or crack up trying.

Molly Zeff cold emailed me about her board game, Wing It, which is in over 300 stores across the world. I don’t normally answer cold emails, but her story is just too good to leave untold. And that’s how we wound up on an enjoyable video call for over 2 hours!

Below, you will find an edited transcript of our video call, transcribed by Scribie. The original call was over 30,000 words in length but was so information-rich that I’ve split it into three posts of which this is the second. (You can read the first here and the second here.)

What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What exactly do you do at board game cons or trade shows?

Molly: It helps you get into retail if your product, you, or your company, is recommended by other retailers. So getting referrals is important and it’s something that can happen easily at a trade show like GTS, the Game Manufacturer’s Association Trade Show, since there are hundreds of retailers there.

For example, people meet you at GAMA or at another, regular board game convention, they see your game, and if they’re excited about your product they may spread the word to other retailers. A lot of the indie retailers are friends and just in general are a tightly-knit group. Although not as many retailers attend game cons in general, the same principle applies to Origins because Origins has a lot of the retailers from GAMA. Make sure you attend both GAMA and Origins!

Brandon: Yeah, that’s good advice.

Molly: Yeah. Look around for the retailers. Also, if you go to Origins, add a day because there are several board game stores in Columbus, Ohio. If you’re not full time in the game industry and you can add a day off work, try to do that. And if you’re ableto, you can even work a half day remotely and then go on store visits, because they’re more often open during the afternoon anyway.

And keep in mind that retailers will talk. Remember, that’s how we spread from about 11 to nearly 60 stores in four weeks in 2018. It was because the retailers played the game, in fact, a ton of us played it for hours one night at GAMA while retailers there also gave me advice, and then they spread the word.

I’m not saying that will automatically happen. Of course I can’t guarantee that, nobody can, but at least I had the experience of being together with retailers, and then they shared the story. Someone the next day had actually heard what happened the night before with all of us and said, “Oh, you’re Molly, you’re the one with the cheese. I’m going to buy your game.” It turns out one retailer had spread the word. 

And also be authentic. One of the retailers said, “You were authentic. That’s why we liked you, because you sat down on the floor at the bar and you had your cheese.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s just who I am, I want my cheese.” I really like cheese a lot. It’s one of my favorite foods.

Molly at PAX Unplugged 2019

The power of referrals in board game distribution

Molly: You can also do this a little more intentionally. I have a toy store in St. Louis, it’s one of our only toy stores, ’cause I don’t usually visit toy stores, and I found that early on I wasn’t selling too many of them. I was either told [occasionally] or was thinking that our product is a little above age level for these stores.

But guess what? Because we do well at this one toy shop in Boston, Boing! Toy Shop, and Happy Up, which is a toy store in St. Louis, I started talking to the toy store owner from Happy Up and I mentioned to her…

“We’re not really even trying to get into toy stores.” I told her about my trip to almost 70 board game stores in October and all that. And I hadn’t gone on my second Upper Midwest trip yet, and she had ideas about toy stores to recommend to me in the Upper Midwest, and also in D.C. She recommended specific stores, and when I visited those stores, I was able to say, “Shawnta’  from Happy Up in St. Louis actually recommended your store.”

I would even say that when I called in advance. “I’m a game designer and publisher, and Shawnta recommended your store.” And they would say, “Oh, I love Shawnta.” People knew who she was.

Brandon: That’s smart, yeah.

Molly's latest game, The Million Dollar Doodle, is live on Kickstarter!
Use the hive-mind to design brands. Pitch your ridiculous companies.
Win a million dollar investment or crack up trying.

Molly: ASTRA is the toy store world’s version of GAMA. And I thought they were going to be [geared towards an audience that was] too young for me. 

But the first two toy stores Shawnta’ recommended both bought products right in front of me. They made a decision on-the-spot. (That is not normal).

One owner ordered 12 (Wing It) right in front of me, another ordered 32 (of both games) in front of me. They just got on our website and just did it… So I learned, “Oh, there’s a new market I haven’t explored.” And how did I do that? By just chatting with a retailer [the one from Happy Up] and getting the idea that maybe toy stores could work.

Brandon: Referrals are one of the primary ways that I actually get business these days. If somebody is happy, they’ll tell a friend, and then that’s incredibly powerful. And when you’re talking about retailers, I can scale from 11 to 60, like you said, very, very quickly.

Just having somebody’s name to mention is a wonderful icebreaker.

Molly: Also, always collect business cards. Especially if you go to a place like GAMA, but really anywhere, always collect business cards for follow-up.

The biggest way we spread now, as I alluded to or maybe mentioned briefly earlier but didn’t get into much detail, is I go to a city or a region and I just try to cover as many stores as I can in that region. So right after Origins, I visited over 30 stores across Ohio in different cities. I would just look up “Canton board game store”, “Dayton board game store”, “Cincinnati board game store”, and I would figure out my plan from there using Google Maps. Then I also looked at nearby cities like Detroit.

It’s draining. It is really hard, and it’s draining, and I’m really tired on these trips sometimes. That’s okay. You put the work in, then you’re following up with over 30 stores.

Brandon: Yeah, ’cause a lot of times, you’ll just find a whole bunch of metro areas close to one another. It’s hard, in most parts of the US, to get more than two hours from one place to another without running into a major metro with over 100,000 people, which is enough to have a board game store somewhere.

Molly: Just to summarize [from all 3 parts of this blog series], we talked about how to get into stores by walking in the door for your very first stores, in cities you live in or cities have a connection to.

We talked about the GAMA Trade Show and spreading the word among retailers and really playing [games] with them and going to the bar at night and making friends. We talked about cold calling stores.

And then we talked about the personal connection and we talked about getting referrals. Lastly, I got a little into these really big regional trips

Brandon: This has been very good! I’ve got a single question left for you…

This is Molly visiting the store Vault if Midnight in Detroit during her tour of over 30 game stores after Origins, which took her all over Ohio, the Detroit metro area, and a little bit of northern Kentucky. She began going on more of these tours in 2019.

Parting words of advice from Molly

Brandon: What advice would you like to tell yourself when it all started? You go back in time, you get to give yourself one piece of advice, what’s it gonna be?

Molly: You’re going to make a lot of friends and so when it gets really hard, just remember you have these friends who are there to offer advice. That’s what I view it as, anyway, networking is making friends.

I would say it’s going to be really hard, it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have times when it’s financially a strain, it’s okay to pay yourself a little more than the minimal amount you could possibly imagine. And…

Gosh, it’s a really good question. It’s a really good question in that it makes me reflect on what I didn’t know.

And I would say it’s okay to call up the stores that are your friends and just schmooze a little and then see if they want to order. That’s totally fine to do. You’re building a relationship in the best cases that’s not simply a business relationship.

Yeah, also just to learn to take care of myself and to try to go to bed earlier on these big trips because that’s really hard. Getting enough sleep when you’re staying with people and they get up earlier is always gonna be a challenge. So I’m trying to say this with compassion to myself from two and a half years ago…

Reach out to people you can rely on when you need to rely on them, and try to be okay with being human with retailers.

Brandon: Yeah, people are surprisingly decent. You reach out to them with a big idea and most people will be, at a minimum, courteous. And some people will change your life in incredible ways that you can’t even comprehend at the time.

Molly: We do get a lot of advice, we also get support in ways I didn’t expect. One of the retailers I visited in October, who was one of our very successful retailers with Wing It, said to me when I was visiting his store, “Why are you doing Kickstarter?”, and I was like, “Well, because it has marketing benefits and we don’t just have $12,000 laying around.” And he said, “I can loan you the money. I can put $12,000 on my credit card.”

Brandon: Oh my goodness.

Molly: I’m still gonna run the Kickstarter, but he might be a backup plan. We don’t know for sure.

Brandon: That’s good to have, honestly. That’s good to have.

Molly: Yeah. [Back to your question], I think that I would tell myself to try to find ways to take care of myself ’cause it’s something I can do right now. And also just to drag yourself out of bed when needed.

I would tell myself that I have those days when it’s just… I’m really tired and I’m just not feeling super motivated ’cause I’m worn down or because I’m not feeling great or whatever. I would tell myself, “Just try to get up for one hour and just work hard for one hour and just see if that pushes you enough to go,” ’cause I could use that advice a lot.

Brandon: I have a technique for slow days. I call it “just write three words,” that’s all you have to do, you just have to open up WordPress and you just write three words and you can adapt this to anything you do. And it’s like starting small, like what you said, that works. I don’t even know how it does, it just does.

Molly: Yeah, I’ll say when I’m having those days maybe I get up and make three calls and I’m allowed to go back to bed if I really need to…

Brandon: Yeah, but by the time you get to that point, you won’t, it’s like, “Oh I don’t really wanna go running 2 miles,” and you actually get the endorphins and you want to continue it, that kind of thing.

Molly: I’d also say to remember that if I have someone to work with, that really helps. So that’s one of the hardest things, I’d say, of doing this full-time. I have my co-founder by phone, but that’s a little different, you know, by phone or by text. He also has a new baby.

Brandon: Yeah. That makes it hard.

Molly: So he’s launching a child and a new product around the same time.

Brandon: Oh goodness. I don’t know how these folks do it, because I’m engaged, I work a full-time job, I got family, I got friends, I’m like, I don’t know how these folks balance all that stuff, and they have a baby too, that blows my mind.

Molly: You have a partner in your fiancee and my partner has me.

Brandon: That is true.

I’ve asked all the questions I’ve got in mind. Is there anything else that occurs to you?

Molly: People can reach out to me if they need some coaching or support…

Brandon: Awesome.

Molly: And almost everything I said is replicable. I think that was the word you’d used originally;it’s all replicable except for the trips that I do. As I mentioned earlier, you can probably do almost everything else.

It’ll be challenging, and it’ll be hard on top of a full-time job, but if you’re making a game, you’re already doing that on top of a full-time job, so it’s just adding, you know, the sales work.

If you’re nervous about sales, don’t fret about it. Try it out and you’ll get better and it’ll become a skill. You get tougher and find ways to decompress whether that’s playing a rowdy song you like or reaching out to a friend about how hard sales is. You get one good win out of 10 calls, let’s say, or 20 calls, maybe you don’t sell any, and you just pick up and do it again. Just keep plugging through, ’cause you’re your own best salesperson.

Brandon: Pretty much, and yeah, by the time you start really feeling the impact of your work, that’s when things are truly snowballing.

Molly: There you go.

Final Thoughts

Molly has a lot to teach us about how to get your board game into retail, both directly and through distribution! Trade shows like GAMA are really important, as are referrals. Be patient, be persistent, and be kind to yourself. You’d be amazed how far you can go this way!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth, three-part interview! You can read the first post here and the second post here. You can back her current Kickstarter campaign for the Million Dollar Doodle here.

Now go forth and get stocked 🙂

Title photo credit: By dooley, posted to FlickrCC BY 2.0 license.

One thought on “How Cons Can Help You Get Your Board Game into Retail

  1. This is very cool. We are planning to go the route Brandon has been going (focusing on e-commerce and building on online following and audience), but this is great advice for going to retailers and getting games directly onto the shelf. In one of the articles Hit Point Sales is mentioned as a consolidator for small companies. However, in my talks with other designers, their leadership has changed hands and they are less open to taking in small clients. I have spoken to them on several occasions, for example, and they responded that my company is too small for them to work with (we have one game coming out in April 2020 and are launching a Kickstarter for our second game in late Spring/early Summer 2020). So, currently I am focusing on Amazon. I am still doing my due diligence with retailers, but the order numbers yo are throwing seem unreal to me (12, 15, 32 copies…). We are in several retailers, but most of them only ordered 3 copies to start with.

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