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Ode to Swiss Army Knives
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
President, Avalanche Press
March 2011

I used to like shrinkwrap.

Making a little opening in the clear plastic coating over a new game with my fingernail, then pulling it all off with a quick tug. There was fun inside that box, and the anticipation made ripping off the shrinkwrap part of the fun.

That was before I had to repair a shrinkwrap machine. In this metropolitan area of 1.1 million people, there is one electrician who’ll work on a shrinkwrap machine, a Russian immigrant of indeterminate age who actually wears a fedora. I know this because I’ve asked them all. When I could not find Evgeny, it meant four hours with a screwdriver and a one-page instruction manual. Plus strong memories of Evgeny’s advice: “you make sure the plug it is not in, yes.” I did eventually make it work, and even stop setting the wrap on fire.

Those are the moments when I remember that I actually tried to prepare myself for this job. As a teenager, I decided I wanted to run a wargame publishing company, and reasoned that I would need to know about publishing and about military history. Looking back, I’m actually a little impressed with my young self. I went out and got exactly that experience and knowledge, working in newspapers in my 20’s and then getting a doctorate in history from a top program. I was even a Fulbright Scholar.

It’s not that either of those has proven useless; very much the contrary. It’s just that the reality far exceeds my youthful anticipation. An old girlfriend lists her job description on LinkedIn as “Swiss Army Knife.” Officially, she’s a television producer, explaining “that’s what I do when nothing’s blowing up.” That’s a pretty good description of my 16-hour day: I design and edit games when nothing’s blowing up. Sometimes literally, when the shrinkwrap machine is setting games on fire, but usually figuratively, like when a shipping company decides to pay itself twice out of the company bank account and check after check proceeds to bounce.

For a brief and wonderful interlude most of that left my sphere of responsibility, but the company’s stewardship under a business manager ended abruptly a few weeks back. Now it’s back in my lap. We’ll keep most of the new policies, and over coming weeks I’ll hand over most of the daily management functions. But no one cares about your business like you do, and so I’ve had to take a direct hand in shipping and assembly and all sorts of functions. Soothing creditors and angry customers, or trying to anyway, arranging printing, payroll, wholesale sales, wholesale customer service — more than I can list.

For all of that, the company’s situation is much better than it probably should be. Voluntary attrition took care of the hard decisions I wasn’t willing to make. Sometimes you simply have to fire or lay off employees, as this guy writes in The New York Times. But time and again I wouldn’t, and unlike Mr. Gould I wasn’t keeping even the sixes around. Instead I just figured I’d work harder and spare myself having to do something I don’t like. Spreading staff around the country wasn’t the brightest move, either.

We’ll stay at the barest possible staff (just four of us, two of those part-time) for as long as possible, with everyone in one location. I can’t keep up the double work-days forever, so we’ll have to expand a little eventually. With a lot of help, we’re actually looking like we can keep up a product-a-week schedule. That’s going to require two things: helping hands and cash flow.

The first of those is definitely here. I wrote a series of pieces a few weeks ago seeking help with a variety of tasks and the responses poured in. I’m still trying to decide how to best use most of the offers. Some won’t pay off for quite a while. Others are going to help almost immediately. And I’m impressed with both the speed and quality I’ve seen so far: The scenarios in Orange Waters are as good as anything in either naval series, the output of a first-time developer. We’re going to be just fine in terms of product quality, and probably better as we integrate a wider creative pool into the process.

That’s allowing us to place proportionately more effort into shipping stuff, which had fallen badly behind and has taken up a huge chunk of my waking hours lately. We’ve become much more cost-efficient thanks to Janet’s new computerized system of price comparisons. Unfortunately those savings and then some more are getting eaten up by increases in fuel surcharges (which, curiously, never seem to come down with the price of oil nearly as fast as they rise with it). But when I look at the differences in some of these shipments and think of the money wasted by years of just flinging packages into the UPS pile (like, a replacement half-sized counter sheet sent UPS for $7.95, for a game for which we received $8.00 wholesale, because “it’s easier and hey, it’s not my money”) I truly want to weep.

And it’s cash that rules this plane of reality. Even with all the many savings, we have to get our hands on more of it and then spend it wisely. Far too much was thrown away on excess staff, a palatial ehouse and a huge list of other fripperies. Those days are over, but to complete the rebirth of Avalanche Press we’re still going to need money. And that means selling stuff, shipping it, and then selling some more.

As already laid down, the current priority is the so-called “low hanging fruit,” books like Go For Broke and Winter Soldiers. And there’s one boxed game tantalizingly close to realization, really needing just a stretch of a few days without warehouse work or crisis-of-the-day drop-everything-and-fix-it emergencies. I can write the books and scenario supplements in hours stolen here and there, but Frontier Battles needs a lot more concentration.

Right now, every order helps get things back on track. The company survived a hard year in 2010, and to make that happen I did things I really did not want to. This year, we need to improve sales and marketing: the new catalog is a step in that direction, but we need more effective sales efforts than simply begging you to buy stuff to keep us operating. We did that in December and it probably kept the doors open; now we need more effective means. Online play should help, as will a revised Gold Club and some other long-overdue steps. And we have a number of new volunteers who should allow us to make Daily Content truly daily again.

So anyway, if you can help out, I’d still love to hear from you (mike@avalanchepress.com): There are a lot of partial offers that could turn into very nice projects if I can put the right team together. And if you’d like to place an order, that would help, too.