What Business Are You In?

23 July 2018 | 20 Comments

This weekend I watched a movie called The Founder, which is about the start and growth of McDonald’s. It’s a fascinating film, and I would highly recommend it to any entrepreneur.

There’s a pivotal moment in the movie that I knew I had to share with you. It’s about midway through the story when Bruce Wayne (aka Batman aka Michael Keaton aka Ray Kroc), is successfully franchising McDonald’s, but due to his contract with the McDonald’s brothers and the expenses of running the chain, he’s losing money.

So Bruce Wayne meets with Ryan from The Office (aka B.J. Novak aka Harry J. Sonneborn). I’m not sure how the meeting when down in real life, but in the movie, Ryan looks at the McDonald’s accounting and says, “You don’t seem to realize what business you’re in. You’re not in the burger business. You’re in the real estate business.”

Bruce Wayne replies, “I’m Batman.”

Okay, I made up that last part. The first twist was enough for me. Here’s how it works: McDonald’s buys the land on which its franchise restaurants are built. It then leases the land to the franchisee at a profit.

Sure, McDonald’s makes some money from burgers. But in the US in 2015, it also made $3 billion dollars from rent alone.

Wow. That completely changed the way I though about McDonald’s. And it made me wonder if my company, other publishers, and Kickstarter creators should be asking the same question: What business are we in?

There’s certainly the Simon Sinek version of this answer, which focuses on why you do what you do. At Stonemaier, our “why” is that we seek to spread joy to tabletops worldwide.

But what business are we in? Customer service? Publishing? Design? Development? Visual design? Marketing? Project management? Localization? We dabble in so many different areas.

I know what businesses we’re not in: We’re not a promo company (we make promos, but Meeplesource and our localization partners do everything else). We’re not a realistic resource company (again, we make them, but Top Shelf Gamer handles everything else). We’re also not a Kickstarter company–our last campaign was in 2015.

So I don’t yet have a revelatory answer for us. But I thought it was still worth telling the story and raising the question for you: What business are you in?

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20 Comments on “What Business Are You In?

  1. I really thought there was a lot to learn from this movie – about how to make a great drama out of business history, as well as about business itself. Interesting to read what you got out of it.

  2. I watched a Dice Tower video a few months ago. Some kind of top 10 list which was basically advice to new designers to avoid. One was to figure out if you’re a game designer or a game publisher, and not to try to be both. Not being either myself, I’m guessing that’s generally great advice – but at the same time I immediately thought of Stonemaier, and how admirably you, Jamey, do both so well.

    I think that would make a great blog topic (maybe you’ve already written it?) – when did you decide to be both, or to continue doing both after your first game – and how easy or hard (or necessary) it is to separate those roles over the course of your work week.

  3. I think most board game publishers are in the business of storytelling. Whether they build on someone else’s story or create one of their own, the end goal is providing some level of immersion and departure from reality. Even the most abstract games nowadays need a pasted on theme to help with storytelling.

    1. I like that point- Although I understand that board games are a physical product I’m purchasing, I’ve never looked at it that way in terms of what I’m spending the money for. Rather, I’m buying an experience (and, I suppose, the anticipated memories that will go with that long term). Don’t get me wrong, the physical item ties in very powerfully to my memories of the experience. As I’ve always thought of it, the “Old Colonel” version of Stratego that I spent hours playing as a child is the one and only version of Stratego that is fit to exist but the actual experience of playing it, and the related nostalgia, is what makes me feel that way about it.

      1. I agree. The experience, story, told by the designer all centered around fun. I am in the business to create FUN.

  4. The thing is we’re in 2018: so many “dreamers” from that age to Steve Jobs are a fantasy story today, useless if not just for some “lateral inspiration”.
    In those age, you could live also the present.
    Now YOU HAVE TO live in the future, there’s no “now”. Too many ways of getting informed and globalized. :)
    So, in the end, I think it’s a good film (I saw it couple of months ago).
    But it’s not a news that you have to understand what you’re doing when you do it. ;)

  5. Jamey,

    Thanks for this article! This has been on my mind a ton.

    I started working professionally as a graphic designer and illustrator in 2000. In 2007, I started my own company to publish my own design creations. One of them was a game. Since then, I’ve been a designer, developer, writer, illustrator, and more. (And yes, this path is neither easy or advantageous at times!)

    More to Jamey’s thoughts though: McDonalds came to life in a different era, when businesses were less ambiguous and could be defined by a single mission. That single mission affected everything – the how, the who, the why, the when and where – all of it.

    As game designers, we’re living in a much more uncertain, ambiguous, and complex time. Anyone can have an idea and make it happen with hard work and tons of (free) tools at their disposal. That’s a great thing!

    At the same time, audiences are SO very distracted and marketed to. There are just too many entertainment options to choose from. The measure of success we achieve is greatly affected by this. I think our greatest enemy as indie designers is obscurity.

    All of this leads me to a similar place as you I think, I don’t have a finite answer. However, there’s so much value in knowing what we’re not. That’s something I’m clear on at least!

    Thanks for initiating these convos!

    -E

    1. Eric: That’s a really interesting point about how it’s perfectly fine and normal for a business to be more than one thing, and that our approach to the audience is much more important (and difficult). Thanks for your comment!

  6. Jamey,

    I have watched the movie and the part that you mentioned about “not knowing what business you are really in” reminded me of what Simon Sinek, which focuses on why you do what you do and that people don’t buy WHAT you do, people buy WHY you do it. So, when I read that at Stonemaier, our “WHY” is that “We seek to spread joy to tabletops worldwide”. From everything that I know I would say your WHY is spot on.

    Once again, another great article! I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s work and it looks like you are also.

    –John

  7. I’m fortunate to be only “in business” regarding the board game arena. I’m an analyst with the government, so my focus there is providing timely and accurate information to myriad customers. In the board game arena, I’m a developer ~ which means my focus is on editing and proofreading and playtesting. Now, with having served a dozen designers, I can focus solely on those things I do well, and not concern myself with trying to delve into areas for which I don’t possess the skill-sets.

  8. The issue is not what business you are in. That is what the film says, but it does not mean solely that you need to know what you do.

    Sure knowing your strengths and focusing on specific aspects of your work is important, but what it more important is knowing what your business model is, and that includes far more stuff that just what you sell or what your activity is.

    A lot of the big companies appeared because they questioned the standard business model that other companies operated on.

    Look fr example Uber and Taxi companies. They provide the same service. Some taxi companies even have similar apps. So what is important is not what their core “product” is but rather everything else, i.e costs – Uber has not car maintenance costs, while in taxi companies it is one of the major cost centers.

    There are numerous other examples of companies catering the same customer need (airbnb-booking.com), but as in the case of the movie, its not only what the core offering to the consumer is all the other stuff as well (cost sources, income sources, main resources, value proposition, target market, ways you use to reach your target market etc)

  9. Jamey, your blog reminded me of the comment about British Airways as a financial Behemoth running a £16 billion pension fund that has a nice little side-line flying planes.

    I tend to look upon it less as ‘What business are you in’ and more like ‘What is your core competence’. So many times people and businesses enter into ventures for which they have no competence but they convince themselves there is a synergy between the new venture and what the original venture is involved in.

    Strategy is as much about saying ‘No’ as it is about saying ‘Yes’ . In our own games business if we cant see how we can leverage our competence, no matter how interesting the opportunity, we say ‘No’.

    Fortunately for McDonalds their leasing imperative became a core competence and as you so rightly said a key component of the value proposition for the company.

  10. That’s a really interesting spin on how to view McDonalds, as well as the numerous fast-food places which manage to sit at every corner. If I had to think about gaming that way, the physical equivalent to the burger would, of course, be the game. But what we’re really purchasing and gaining our biggest profit from is time. We all have different motivations for creating games, but we are all vying for time. Time is limited, and if a person enjoys a game so much that they’re willing to spend it, they are also going to be willing to spread the word and bring in more people willing to spend time on that game. I think this is the key to the board game design business.

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