Picking a Business Model for TTRPG Publishing

With a completed Business Concept in hand, it’s now time to pick a Business Model.

This post will cover what a Business Model is, why you might want one, and how I chose mine. Geared towards publishers of print TTRPG products, but I reckon the information may be helpful to others. 

Before I get too far, what is a Business Model anyways? Investopedia defines it this way:

“A business model is a company’s plan for making a profit. It identifies the products or services the business will sell, the target market it has identified, and the expenses it anticipates.”

They go on further to talk about attracting investment, motivating management, etc. For my purposes, this isn’t applicable. I’m not looking for funding, or to build some kind of company that I would sell at a later date. This is the more like a mechanic fixing up and selling vintage cars on nights and weekends, then selling those at car shows. 

Still, a Business Model is quite useful. It can help you focus and test key concepts of your business. In my past experiences, I spread myself thin by focusing on too many things. Many inexperienced business owners tend to do this. It's natural because we're hungry for that first customer or client, and don't want to leave anything out. Hell, this is my fifth business and I still have that tendency. 

It’s good to explore different ways to conduct your business. But it’s a lot easier to learn from those explorations if you focus in on one at a time. You test one model out for a length of time, then assess how it is going. If there’s room for improvement, explore a new model and see if you can apply those new elements to what you’ve been doing so far.

Let’s take a look at my initial list, and what I landed on. I’ll go through each of them, and what I think about them in relation to publishing and selling TTRPG books.

There are four business models I will experiment with for Scraps Burgers. 

Cross Selling 
This model is about selling stuff outside of your core offering. Scraps Burgers takes influence from the shameless sprawl of Fast Food Empires. Mainly, their tendency to make whatever the hell they want outside of food. There’s a rich history beyond the usual corporate merch like shirts, hats and mugs. They make toys, video games, a romance novel, and now a tabletop roleplaying game. All these other elements are in place to strengthen the brand as a whole, and though it can be problematic, it doesn't have to be.

This Model is appealing to me for Scraps Burgers because I am in a lot of ways emulating those Fast Food tendencies to go wild. The scale is tiny in comparison, but the spirit is there. Even though this isn't the Model I picked, it will be present.

Mostly it's a reason to pay my friends to make cool things.

For Scraps Burgers I’m planning to sell online, in-person at market events, and in limited retail spaces. Cross Selling is great for this. It allows me to capture various price points, which can help turn would-be customers into actual customers.

Many people have a budget in mind when they are shopping, especially at market events. At markets it’s often a hard budget in the amount of cash they took out from the ATM. There’s no negotiating above what that total is like when someone is shopping with a credit or debit card. The more options you can provide the better your chances are of snagging a sale. If you have something for $5 or less, some people will even buy it just for taking up your time visiting your table or pop-up shop. 

Long Tail 
This model is about selling a decent amount of niche products over a long period of time instead of relying on hugely popular ones. This is quite appealing as a publisher of niche products. There are games I want to publish that I know have customers, but connecting with them will be a challenge. The Internet makes it easier, but only when people would even think to search for that particular game. If they don’t know to search for it, you’ve got to find a way to make them aware it exists. 

Though Scraps Burgers will indeed be making niche products, I’d like to find a way to not have a lot of inventory. I don’t want to be sitting on hundreds of books for 5 or 10 years as sales slowly trickle in. I want those books out of my house as fast as possible. The less time I have to store them the less time I will stress about saving books during flash floods. Any inventory I have to hold for an extended period of time I want to be manageable. 

This is a fairly common Model for tiny businesses to switch to once they grow and can’t keep up with the weaker areas in their process. The focus is on the main “things” the company is good at. Everything else is carefully outsourced. In my case, my strengths are in graphic design and marketing. Eventually, I’d like to get to the point where that’s all I do. For now though, the only outsourcing I’m doing is hiring artists, game designers, a printer and a lawyer. Everything else, and there’s a lot, falls on my shoulders.

The beauty of this Model though is you can put things in place at whatever pace fits your budget. If things are going well and you have cash, you can divert some of that cash to outsourcing the tasks you are least good at. For me, that’s accounting, and the first thing I’ll hire out. Good accounting is a crucial foundation, and if you hate doing it as much as I do, trust me in that it’s worth paying for.

Open Business Model
And at last we have my personal favourite, the Open Business Model. I think of this one as the “Make Friends and Do Good by Them” Model. What I mean by that is, every person I exchange money with, I will search out if there is a way I can help *their* business beyond becoming their customer. I want to do business with good people, and will work to find those good people along the way. 

A simple example of this would be talking to my printer about putting their logo and information in or on the book. The printer I am working with makes beautiful books, and I’m proud to be using them. To me they are a value-add for the products I’m making, because I know they will do excellent work. So for me, I’d put that logo and url in the book anyways, because I want everyone to know where they can get their own beautiful books made. And when I talk to them about ways to lower the price point, I’ll offer to put their logo right beside mine on the credits page. I’ll put the logo in there anyways, but maybe they will knock a few cents off each copy. They too may have their own ideas, and I hope they do. 

Not every business is open to working this way. In my experience the bigger they are the more automated the experience will be, even when dealing with a person instead of a form. So I’ll be looking for the high quality indie operations out there. Their teams are smaller, their offices are smaller, everything is smaller. Often they make up for limited production capacity with exceptional relationship management. A lot of the time you might be talking to the owner of the company, and that's about as good as it can get. Because the further down the chain your point of contact is, the less they can actually do to work with you even if it's to their benefit.

So, what now?! 

Well, it’s best to focus on just one Model at a time, especially if you have ADHD in the same flavour as I do where you want to do every single thing. My first approach is kind of a cheat, and I'll be breaking my own rule and pursuing Cross-Selling with my main focus as the Open Business Model.

At this scale and with my boundless desire to help everyone I meet, it will best match what I’m trying to do here. Each person will have different needs, a different path they are on. I don’t want to force anyone to conform to what worked well for someone else. Every relationship will be its own journey. Finding the best way my time and energy can help that person through our time doing business together. 

If I hire an artist, I don’t just want to give them money for art. I want to get them more work. Shout their name from the rooftop. Drop their portfolio and rates in the hands of my friend looking for art for their own thing. I want to keep finding ways to buy more of their art, and will invent products just for that purpose. 

The same goes for everyone I might work with. I’ll buy games from the designers I hire that I had nothing to do with to sell right beside my own products when I have a table at a market or con. We have a lot of Red Mages in the community, and I'll bring their art, music and whatever else they make along too. I’ll promote the printers, and yes, even the accountants. Anything we can think of together that I can do I will consider. 

Everything I do in this way I will log in a spreadsheet. When the first project I complete is over, I will revisit the spreadsheet and see how things went. If things went well I’ll keep going. If things went wrong, I'll see what I could do differently. I'll consider whether it’s worth trying again with what I’ve learned, or if it would be better to explore a different model.

What do you think, hearing all this are you interested in trying to apply a business model to your own efforts? Let’s be honest, plenty of businesses have succeeded without going through this process. Many people will just go out into the world and do their best without one, and they will do just fine. That is how I have always done it before now! This is my first time going through this process. So if this doesn’t sound like it’s for you, you’re probably right. Don’t think this is the only way, or even a guaranteed way, to succeed. After this entire process I could fail. 

Next time, I’ll be going over Strategy. This is where things start getting crunchier and jargonier. I’ll do my best to address the jargon from the start, but please reach out if something isn’t clear. 

You can stall yourself with endless strategy, never getting anything done. As someone that enjoys strategizin’ for a business just for fun, I’m prone to going overboard and this will be a challenge.