If you want to get your board game into retail stores, it helps to set small, achievable goals. What could be a more achievable goal than getting in one store? Just one board game in one board game store!
Even this can be a huge step for a game developer, and I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know where to tell you to start until recently.
Enter Molly Zeff. She cold emailed me about her board game, Wing It, which is in an estimated 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.)
What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Molly & her first two retail customers
Brandon: What was the first store you got your games into and how did you do that?
Molly: Well, we had just two retailers pledge on our Kickstarter and I’m going to name them in a moment. And those two are actually the first of around eleven.
Why eleven? I was able to get into about 10 or 11 stores by just walking into them in 4 different cities, most of which we had some kind of connection to. These stores bought from us before GAMA last year [in 2018] and that was a really big deal, actually. The Uncommons is one of the first [retail supporters] ever. It’s in the Lower East Side [of Manhattan], it’s this cute little game store. Everything’s up against the wall and way up to the ceiling.
They were one of our first two stores. The other is The Brooklyn Strategist – a game store that’s pretty near where I was live in Brooklyn. Because I lived in New York City, I walked into a bunch of stores around town to ask them if they wanted to pledge on our Kickstarter, and those were the two who said yes.
Brandon: Well, that’s fantastic! And I would advise anybody who’s just living in an urban area, if you’re running a Kickstarter, why not just pop into the store and talk to folks? Doesn’t even have to be New York City either, like most places that are reasonably good-sized will have three or four board games stores around.
‘Cause about everybody I’ve talked to… They’ll say, “I live in Lincoln, Nebraska and there are five game stores.”
Molly: Indianapolis has many, and LA has a lot.
Brandon: I believe that. It blows my mind that Atlanta doesn’t have a whole bunch of them because that’s a huge market… That’s like one of the top 10 cities in America. It kind of blows my mind that they don’t.
This conversation continued for several minutes as we discussed game stores in different cities we’ve been to.
How do you get your board game into retail stores?
Brandon: How do you reach out to retailers?
Simple loaded question.
Molly: The first answer is very simple. You walk into a store that’s local, that’s where you live or that is in a place you’re visiting early on. First you just google a city with the words “board game store.: For example, Washington D.C. Board Game stores, okay, there’s one. When I went to visit D.C. last February, over a year and a half ago now, that’s how I got into the Labyrinth Game Shop.
The first way you get into retail is you just go to your local stores, as many designers seem to do. If you don’t have any, that’s harder, but you wait till you go on trips, and you add stores to that trip, so if it’s a small number of stores, you may need to add a day or two to visit stores. If you’re going to San Diego, for example, you can hit six or so in an afternoon.I’ve done that. From early afternoon to evening, I hit six or seven and just made my way back to LA for the night
You also look at toy stores if you have something like a party game or lighter strategy game. You see if the toy stores carry board games first and whether they have some games for older kids, teenagers, or even adults Their audience matters. Some toy stores for example, felt like Wing It wasn’t a fit for their mostly young customers.
The second big way [to get into retail] is you go to the GAMA Trade Show, the Game Manufacturers Association Trade Show. And I feel like this has got to be one of the biggest secrets of the industry for some reason.
How GAMA got Molly’s board game into retail in a BIG way
Molly: So this is where the interview gets the most exciting. This is a fun story.
I went to the GAMA Trade Show last year because it was either Origins or GAMA that I would go to, and in 2018, I had a second cousin once removed’s Bat Mitzvah in Brooklyn, and it was during Origins, and it was likely the only family event I’d ever have in Brooklyn, so I decided not to go to Origins. Because of a fluke, I ended up at a trade show instead [GAMA] that totally changed our lives.
Because if you go to a consumer show, you meet people, individuals, consumers, who can buy your product and you can do really well and you can make a few hundred, maybe a few thousand dollars for some of my game designer friends.
You go to a trade show, you meet retailers who can make your business sustainable. And that’s basically what went down. We were actually advised us to go to Origins but couldn’t, which was a great thing it turned out. First of all, hen I showed up at the GAMA Trade Show, I luckily was able to work with Hit Point Sales [our consolidator] at their booth. I got a $75 badge from them. But the exhibit hall at GAMA is only two days. It’s like six hours for two days. It’s very, very short. What I did… And this is where I want people to really learn from my process, and this absolutely is repeatable.
I had missed the networking event the very first night, that Monday night because my flight was delayed. It was such a bummer. So I got into Reno really late. I went to my hostel. I was staying at Morris Burner Hostel because it’s very cheap. I saved money by memorizing the 10 Principles of Burning Man and reciting them when I checked into the hostel for a discount!
And then the next night, I went to what was essentially a networking event, but really an event for retailers. I showed up that Tuesday night at a bar with a bag of groceries. I had walked 2.4 miles back from the store to see Reno and well, ’cause I was saving money on Lyft – I had literally my rent plus $25 in my bank account at that point. Running out of my savings, basically. That’s when we were in 11 stores. Maybe 10.
Four cities; I felt pretty good about that, I even mentioned that in the retailer session I went to Wednesday.
Anyway, that one night at the bar changed my life, and I love this story so much. What happened is, that I saw people from one of my St. Louis retailers outside the hotel/casino, and we were all going upstairs to the bar at the casino and resort that most people were staying at. So I walked with them and I first just got a free drink.
“Oh, how’d you like the event?”
“I wasn’t at the event.” (Someone who may have been sponsoring the event gave me a drink ticket anyway).
I go into this little inlet of retailers and just start sipping my one drink and… My one free drink, right? And I started chatting with Matt who’s a store owner out in Vancouver. Matt and I are now friends and we became friends out of this event and this night.
I didn’t know that these people were part of a group of friends and colleagues who all own about 50 or so of some of the largest indie retail stores in the United States. I was just chatting with Matt.
After a little while, Matt said, “Tell you what, why don’t I take a look at your game while you eat your cheese?” I had cheese I really wanted to eat; I hadn’t eaten enough for dinner. And he looks at the back of Wing It. He looks at the thing and he looks at the back, and within moments he said, “Are you on PayPal? ‘Cause I’d PayPal you for 10 of these right now.”
That was a good size order at the time. I mean, it’s still pretty good, but people were ordering 24 later. He said, “I can sell five of these tomorrow. I could sell five of these right now, watch me.”
He starts playing with everybody. They ended up playing and giving me advice for hours.
They get Andrew Zorowitz, who owns Foam Brain Games out of bed, and he and the others en up telling me to raise our MSRP and giving a ton of other advice.
Laterthey call over two distributors to chat. One distributor they were gonna have me pitch to and it was Mark Aquino, who’s now a friend. He was like, “Wait, are you trying to pitch to me? ‘Cause I wanna get to my drink.”
And it’s funny ’cause we’re friends and joke about it now. But the rest of them were just playing and giving me advice. It was around 2:15 AM when I left that night. It was like a dream come true. So that was my one first full night at GAMA.
The next day, someone said to me after a session I was at with retailers, he said, “Oh, you’re Molly, you’re the one with the cheese. I’m gonna buy your game.” It was strange that people knew who we were. And we started making sales. I started getting emails for orders. That day I got an email from across country from someone who couldn’t come to GAMA that year who wanted to buy the game. And then we just started selling every day. I’ve never had it that easy since. People just knew who we were and emailed us to place orders.
It turns out Matt had written a story about that whole night on Facebook and I was part of that story of what happened. So because he had posted on Facebook about that night together at the bar, all these people knew [about Wing It] and they all just started buying the game, often by the dozen. Sometimes 20, sometimes 18, sometimes 12, whatever, it was great. And we thought it would end soon, we kept thinking this can’t last, and it ended four weeks later when we ran out of copies and we’re already taking backorders.
Getting into board game distribution by finding a consolidator
Molly: The way to get into distribution initially is to have a consolidator, and Hit Point Sales is obviously the main consolidator that works with small companies. I say “obviously.” Are you familiar with Hit Point Sales?
Brandon: No, I’m not.
Molly: No? Okay, so they’re the consolidator that you work with if you’re a small company like ours. And by the way, if you hadn’t asked this question, I would have gone into all of this anyway so it’s basically what I would’ve…
Brandon: No, no that’s good, that’s part of what I wanted to happen [with these open-ended questions].M
Molly: Yeah, so Hit Point Sales is a consolidator that sells to distributors on your behalf, but you still need to create demand among retailers. I decided to start going on these big trips to cities or regions. Last August and September in 2018, I visited about 39 stores in three and a half weeks [on one of my first big trips], but I also along the way got to see family and friends and celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and travel between fromLA to San Diego to Seattle for PAX West, And then onto the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, you’re covering San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, and I actually went to the South Bay as well. Those trips have become a big part of our business.
Another way we meet retailers is at conventions]. At the end of the convention, sometimes before or after hours, but oftentimes at the very end of the convention, I go and I introduce myself and offer them a demo copy.
If you can’t offer them a demo copy, maybe it’s a mini promo version. It’s easy, to be fair, to offer,a full demo copy or a mini deck of each cards [for a party game]. At a convention you basically have that one-to-one face conversation, you hopefully exchange cards, and then you follow up with them, and what’s key is that follow-up call.
Basically I want to teach readers to view each convention as an opportunity to meet retailers who are also exhibiting. It might be three, it might be five, [so it’s not many, but] it’s not that hard. We do it each time and it’s an easy way to get face-to-face connections without adding an extra trip to your itinerary throughout the year.
The lost art of the cold call – getting your board game into retail by phone
Molly: Another way to get into retail by giving them demo copies and reaching out but without actually going in person is the old-fashioned cold call. Some people think the cold call is dead and it’s really hard, which it can be. And there are times you won’t reach the right person, for sure.
What I do is I ask, “who’s the person who’s your game buyer [or ‘who does your game selection] because I’d like to send you a demo copy? Were you interested in a demo?” And I tell them, “This was called one of the biggest successes of GAMA last year.” (You figure out what to say that may get them more interested in your game than they might be for any publisher who calls them up at random like this).
Now I do have some things to say that make it easier now to approach them. Out of all of my regional outreach to stores in a specific region, I’ve actually only done this [cold calling] once. I have a list of around 30 stores that I sent demos to and I’m gonna look at it right now; they are across the south, ’cause I just hadn’t gone to the south or southeast on my own in person. So I look, for example, at the stores in the Orlando area, I look at stores in the Houston area, in Dallas, Fort Worth.
I do it [my outreach] geographically by city. Whether I’m visiting or whether I’m calling, it’s all geographic. I look at the game stores in Asheville, [North Carolina]. There’s a ton of stores in Asheville. So I concentrate that way and then I offer them a demo, I send them a demo, and then I do follow-up repeatedly, and that’s probably the hardest part is a lot of follow-ups, a lot of calls.
You have to have a little bit of a tough shell for it which I don’t know I have, but not because people are not rude to you. Almost everybody is nice, but they’re busy and they might not have gotten to your game in a few weeks or [or months!] whatever.
You have to be ready to hear that a lot. I even called someone recently who hadn’t even opened up the game I sent in eight months. (That’s unusual, by the way.)
Brandon: But, I mean, yeah, you run into stuff like that. Cold calling is a numbers game in a lot of ways and a game of endurance.
Molly: Today I probably called about 17 [stores I’ve worked with OR sent demos to in the past], which is still a lot. It’s draining. You do have to be tough about it and you have to be consistent. I would recommend to people who work full-time that if they’re on the East Coast, they try to call stores from the west and far west, basically the Colorado Rockies region and stores on Pacific Standard Time because if you call them at 6:00, it’s still 3 o’clock their time. I try tocall either mid to late morning or in the afternoon before schools let out since they’re likely to be less busy.
You can probably call five to eight in an hour, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but even that’s hard. And if they’re not opening ’til 12:00 or 2:00, you’re still reaching them at a reasonable time.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s funny actually, just coincidentally, I had an intern complete a post on cold calling, and of one of his takeaways, what he got from doing the research on his own, is that cold calling is a bootstrapping tool.
If you have no contact with anybody at all, you can make them aware that you exist, and you don’t even have to necessarily spend money to do that. And there aren’t that many different techniques for marketing that you can use to just get the word out there in such a powerful way as a cold call. So yeah, it might seem outdated in the age of the internet, but it’s really, really not. It’s got a place.
Molly has a lot to teach us about how to get your board game into retail! As you can imagine – there’s a lot of hustling. In addition to creating something retailers want to stock in the first place, it helps to go to conventions, visit stores in person, send demo copies, and even pick up the phone for cold calling!
Stay tuned for part three of this interview next week. You can read last week’s post here. We’ll be talking more about how conventions can help you get your board game into retail next week.