Making a Strategic Plan for a new TTRPG business

So now that I've picked a Business Model, it's a good time to dive into a Strategic Plan.

This may conjure up full board rooms with charts and graphs, endless spreadsheets of data, and bloodshot eyes. I've sat in a room like that in day jobs and it's just not for me. That doesn't mean the general practice isn't valuable, and we can handle it in a more manageable way.

To start let me try and simplify what a Strategic Plan is.

Your business has many paths to follow to accomplish its goals. A Strategic Plan identifies these paths, and compares them to what your business is best at. 

This is good for many reasons, but for me it's most useful for marking certain paths as "not for me". There's a temptation to follow every path. We don't want to miss out on the customers down those paths and explore them all. This wastes resources, and unless you have a ton of free time, weakens how well you do on every path.

What we want to do is pick just a few of the paths available to us. This allows us to focus our efforts, and each path will be easier to manage and succeed at.

A simple example of this is choosing a social media platform. Sure, you could try and build relationships on 10 different platforms, but, do you really have the time to do so? Can you devote enough time to every single one without other aspects of your business suffering? Doubtful.

In general, we want to spend as little time on any given task as possible. The process of operating a successful business is one of refinement. How can we achieve our goals by doing the least amount of work. This means picking one or two key platforms, and sticking to them. 

That idea of picking one or two things and sticking to them is what the Strategic Plan is all about.

Just like your Business Model, it's something you will keep testing and tweaking over time. Markets change, customers change, and chances are so will your business.

The trick here is keeping things as simple as possible. Like I said before, if you enjoy strategy, you can get lost in this step forever and never get to implementing anything. And if you don't enjoy strategy, the simpler it is the more likely you are to complete the process.

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Let's get started!

Step one in this process is doing a complete inventory of the resources available to your business and how they exist in the market.

It helps me to think of this step like creating a character in a TTRPG. 

You've got Stats, Traits, Hard and Soft Skills, Knowledge, Affiliations, Reputation, Relationships and Expertise.

Because I'm a huge nerd, I'm going to make a whole dang Character sheet for myself. This will serve both as a tool to remind myself not to spend too much time on weak areas, and as way to track my growth.

Step 1.1 is similar but more about the economic side of things. 

I'm talking about Tools, Money, Work Space, Assets and Supporters.

I'm going to approach this the same way as the first step and have a second sheet, but for the "entity" of Scraps Burgers itself. Which in my case, is this fictional head office I'd love to have someday, parked in a sunny corner of my yard somewhere.

The toughest part of this is being honest with yourself about where you are now, and not where you want to be.

Your assessment of your resources needs to be as brutal and truthful as possible. But don't worry if your filled out character sheet isn't as amazing as your dream version of yourself is. It will be, and this is a way to keep track of your progress to getting there.

Step 1.2 is for me, quite difficult. Now that you have self-assessed where you are, share your personal resources from step 1.0 with two or three people. Pick people you trust that know you well enough to spot any inconsistencies with how you've rated yourself and how things are. This is a big ask of them, too, because it's not easy to tell your friends if they aren't exactly as they imagined. It might be better to choose someone less close to you, it's up to you to decide.

I went with people that know me well enough, but aren't close enough that I or they would have issue with this transaction. And you know what I found out? I was over-estimating my own experience in several areas. 

A common mistake. I mistook education for experience.

I made the mistake of thinking that knowing about something is the same as knowing what to do with it.

Now this is the beauty of a Strategic Plan. I can take these areas I thought were strong, and look at the rating I gave myself as a goal to hit.

Two key areas I over-rated myself were Marketing and Publishing. Out of a possible 10, I rated myself an 8 and a 7 respectively. After talking to people about this though, I realized in reality it's more like a 3 and a 2.

That's a massive difference, but I agree with it.

This may not apply to everyone, but for me, the education I have in Marketing and Publishing, in reality, give me 1 skillpoint. In the case of Marketing in particular, I might even be able to make the case for 0 skillpoints. 

For my learning style, I only learn by doing. I can memorize 4 years of textbooks and projects I completed and passed somehow. But for me that has no inherent value outside of familiarity with the terms. It's like reading a TTRPG book from cover to cover and writing about the system as you read it. Doesn't mean you'll have a clue how it actually plays. You have to play it! At least, I do.

That brings me to the reality of my skill ratings. 

As much as I thought I knew about Marketing, in real life, I've only got 4 or 5 years experience doing actual applied marketing. Some of that time I scraped together from businesses I started before I knew anything about it. The rest is from running a small side-hustle on nights and weekends doing marketing for a local business. And you know, I learn a lot in this humble position, but it's a service business. And at the core Scraps Burgers is a product business.

The reality is, I have a lot to learn about marketing products, which is the biggest part of what I'm doing. More than learning to market products, what I really have to learn is to market an idea. I'll go more into this later.

For now, let's finish up the first step with Step 1.3, which is understanding your marketplace.

You want to get a clear understanding of the businesses you'll be competing with, both now and as you get closer to where you want to be.

In my case, right now, I'm pretty much a nobody. That means my competitors are other nobodies. Right now I have three small products in the pipeline, and I have yet to secure the retail partners I'm looking for.

So the people I need to be aware of are other people in that same boat. People that are working on products, that want to be in retail locations, but aren't. These are my immediate peers. I need to find them and learn about how they operate. At this stage it's not always possible to get a lot of information as it's rarely on display. My future competitors put a lot of this information into the world for free in blogs, social media, youtube, podcasts, etc. 

My plan here is simple. I've ditched the competitor mindset altogether. Instead I think of everyone in my marketplace as my allies. A customer may have to choose between my product and theirs, but that doesn't mean I have to choose to be against them.

And you know what happens when you start seeing people as allies? They become your allies. Maybe not all, but the ones of the same mindset will help grow each others business and your entire industry will benefit as a result. 

As I get closer to where I want to be as a business, things change a little bit. Presumably, all my allies have grown beside me. We're carving out a beautiful post-capitalism world of sharing and mutual promotion. We'll have grown enough to enter into the market with those who came before us.

Some of those people will embrace us, some may even let down a ladder to help us get there faster. 

Some of them won't.

I'll need to be aware of each of them just the same.

That's it for the first Step.

Step two is about where you want to go in the future and how you're going to get there, and the all important vision you have for your business.

This, my friends, is about goals. Not the reality of where you are now from step one, but the beautiful, fully realized entity you imagined you could be.

To start this out we're going to make a Vision Statement.

I won't lie, if you go searching for examples, many are cringey. Often the bigger the company, the more cringey it will be.

But a Vision Statement is not inherently cringe, in fact it's a great thing to have to fall back to in times of uncertainty. 

So, what is it? Pretty much it's a short line or two that speaks to your bigger goals, used for internal purposes. You don't have to show it to anyone, but craft it well and carry it close to your heart. 

Think about the core services and/or products you'll provide and how you'll fit into the world.

I will share my Vision Statement here.

Scraps Burgers is a lifestyle brand that designs, markets, and promotes TTRPG products. We make books, clothing, and accessories for people that love games that are books. Our aim is to expand awareness and recruit new designers to the greater community.

That's not so bad! Barely any cringe at all. 

This simple paragraph is something I can refer to whenever I get a new idea or if an opportunity presents itself. I can look at this paragraph and ask myself, will this lead me to becoming the entity I've described in this Vision Statement?

If the answer is no, it's a good indicator that I should not pursue the idea or opportunity.

With my Vision Statement in place, I can now come up with appropriate goals that will get me where I want to be.

I have four goals in mind right now, and each are labour intensive learning experiences on their own.

Build relationships with retailers
This is a big one for Scraps Burgers because I want to draw people from outside of the space into it. If I can get someone to pick up one of our books, I might be able to get them to come to our website. If I can get them here, I have a chance at selling them on ideas. Which leads me to my next goal.

Expand awareness of TTRPGs in general
Right now we're not as visible as we could be. We're still on the fringes of the marketplace, and I think we could be right in the thick of it. More than selling games, I want to sell people the idea that making and playing games is a good use of your time, and pretty cool, actually.

I'm taking a lot of inspiration from skateboarding and snowboarding brands. At one point, both those sports were on the fringes of their marketplace. They weren't content to sell niche products, and started selling the idea that you could be part of this world. They partnered with each other, fell in and out of friendships, built and destroyed businesses. But in the end they essentially invented a new category in the marketplace. 

That's the same thing I want to do with Scraps Burgers for the TTRPG industry. To be a part of making it bigger and accessible to anyone that wants to be part of it. To open doors to people who up until this point haven't understood this industry, or haven't seen what it has to offer.

Bring in new members to the designer community
The way snow and skate brands created a new category for themselves was genius. They welcomed a new generation of athletes into their world through events and media. They created buzz and shined light on the people who were doing great things. They showed you how you could do those things, too. 

And it worked. More and more kids bought in, not just kids, but teens and adults, too. Supporting businesses popped up, new categories of businesses emerged again.

This all happened from increasing participation. If you look around at the rise of these brands you can see how amazing they leveraged media.

When one brand was leaning into the punk aesthetic, soon another would pop up and lean into the hip hop aesthetic. And metal. And surf. Electronic.

They tapped into every group they could think of, pulling new people in. 

That's what I want to be a part of. Not just creating new consumers of TTRPG products, but new designers. New artists. New podcasters.

Operate without waste or losses without exploiting labour
Ah yes, sustainable operations, that old legendary creature we're all after. It's a given that everyone participating in a Capitalist marketplace will be out to make money, not lose it. 

The key to adding this goal here is the addition of the without exploitation of labour part. Cuz that's usually on the top of the idea pile for how to make more money.

And that means paying proper wages. That means having to find a way to succeed paying substantially more for our product than many pay.

That makes it all the more difficult to win the sale when a customer is holding our product up against someone else's.

And that's it, those are the four goals in my Strategic Plan. With these prepared it's now time to come up with some Objectives to start achieving them.

For each Goal, I have a set a main Objective. 

Make good by Retailers
To build relationships with retailers, I need to be a benefit to their operation. If they have our products in store, I will promote the hell out of those products at those stores. If someone in the area of said retailer approaches me directly, I'll point them to the retailer. Hell, I'll go further and promote the retailers own promotions outside of Scraps Burgers. Scraps Burgers itself will become an advocate for each of them.

Sell more outside of the community than inside of it
If I want to expand awareness of TTRPGs I plan to put TTRPGs in front of people where they are not used to seeing them. These people won't know what "TTRPG" means. They may have a vague awareness of the giants in the industry, but they won't likely know much about what these games really are. 

This is a huge undertaking, because education now becomes a part of selling process and marketing process in a basic way. I have to explain to them first that what they are picking up may be a book, but that what lives inside is a game.

This is feeds into my next objective.

Create content promoting the activity of designing and playing games
I want to be making content not just to sell people on buying games, but to sell them on the idea that they can make games, too. I will show them that it can be fun, it can be cool, it is worth doing. The ultimate purpose of Scraps Burgers is to advocate for mass participation in games. Games are accessible to everyone, and the beauty is people will design them to perfectly fit their own existence. This content needs to inspire people, no matter their station in life, that they too can contribute as a game designer.

This is something that will end up being a big part of my marketing efforts. In its raw form it's Content Marketing, only instead of doing it for my business I'm doing it for the entire hobby. 

This is a difficult objective to measure compared to the others, because the effects will be small and gradual. Unless I achieve runaway success and popularity, I may not even see the positive effects of my efforts in the time that I'm doing it. I could well run out of steam and bow out before my peers and the industry get where it can be.

But as I often say, I'd rather look the fool doing something great than looking cool not doing the bare minimum. Which, through the lens of capitalism, the bare minimum is my last objective.

Accurately Price and Sell 100% of every product we release
This is easier to do when you do it on a small scale, and that's what I plan to do. 

Scraps Burgers won't aim to sell tens of thousands of copies from a small stable of games. Rather, it will aim to sell hundreds of copies from a large and varied one.

This is important to me not just because I don't want to lose money, but because I believe no product needs to be infinite. 

What I mean by that is maybe a controversial opinion, but, games should have a shelf life. A planned obsolescence and exit to make room for new life. 

The fact is, games are a part of human history. They are more than a mere toy on a shelf with an ISBN on the back, they are an expression of our current day. They are bigger than what Capitalism has turned them into.

When you make a game, you are contributing to culture. You're making a new artifact in the timeline of human history. I don't know about you, but I think that is pretty damn amazing, and I want to make as much room for more artifacts on our timeline as possible.

Many suggest oversaturation to be a problem in all forms of media today, but I think that's wrong. The more individual voices we can give agency to through publication and promotion the better. We live in an incredible age where this is even possible, and I think it's irresponsible to hoard seats at the table to a select few. 

With all these lofty ideas out of my system, it's time to get to the Strategy part of the Strategic Plan.

You can see already how this part of the process can reveal your ideals. These ideals will, along with your objectives, goals, mission and vision, shape your strategy.

I'm keeping my strategy simple, with three main topics.

Identifying gaps in resources and how to overcome them
This looks at the resources you have both as a person and as a business, and what you're lacking. Wherever you are lacking in something that will be integral to achieving your goals, you must find and accept help.

In my case, there are a lot of gaps. As a part-time business, it's going to be slow going if I want to do this right. The more people I can find to help me, the faster I can go.

Creating Action Plans for each of the four Objectives
For each Objective, I will make a separate Action Plan. This is nothing fancier than a checklist of steps to take from start to finish to achieve one.

As simple as it is, I will probably make another post just about Action Plans. 

Creating and abiding by a budget
Please don't close the page yet. I know I know, budget is not an exciting word, but when you're a tiny ship in a big ocean you need to use your resources wisely.

Every dollar you spend, you want to plan to spend. If you're ever spending money you didn't plan on spending, you need to adjust your plan to account for this expense in the future.

This is the best way to ensure you don't lose money, by knowing where it's going to go in advance. 

A budget will have an interesting side-effect, and you will start finding ways to save money. And when you're ready to hire an accountant, getting setup with them will be a lot easier if you're already prepared.

Next time I'm going to talk about my favourite thing, Marketing!