10 March 2017 business bucees lessons_learned
I’d never stopped at Buc-ee’s before, which my girlfriend thought was insane. We were heading to east Texas to see her family around Thanksgiving when she brought it up. I didn’t see what the big deal was.
She said wait and see.
If you don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a convenience store chain setup around the gulf coast in Texas. (I hadn’t heard of it and I’ve lived my whole life here, so there you go.)
My girlfriend was right though, Buc-ee’s is insane. They’re not convenience stores, they’re convenience malls. Each one of them is a roadside cathedral. They sell everything you might want from a typical convenience store, gas station, or bodega (beer, condoms, gas, Monster Energy drink, $0.99 DVDs), but they also sell toys, t-shirts …patio furniture. When we headed down around Christmas time we picked up wrapping paper and gift bags for the kiddos on our way and then wrapped the presents in the car.
All that’s fine and dandy. It’s a huge shop, they sell Buc-ee’s branded “Beaver Nuggets,” which are delicious, and they sell Buc-ee’s branded Cherry Sours, which are on my desert island top five favorite candy of all time list1. They sell Buc-ee’s branded everything. They even sell traditional heteronormative-colored toy shotguns.
None of that is super impressive though, since pretty much anyone can slap a logo on a thing Made In China and call it theirs. I mean, their inventory is impressive in that they’ve essentially turned a string of gas stations into mini-Wal-Marts.
But what’s really impressive to me are the bathrooms.
Buc-ee’s has the all time, hands down, bullet-to-the-bone, balls-to-the-wall best bathrooms you’ll ever see in a convenience store. They’re not pretty good. In fact, they’re not just good for a convenience store. These would be good for Barnes & Noble on a quiet day. These are the fucking best.
Why are they the best? First off, they’re god damn huge. A few dozen urinals huge (83 in the New Braunfels location). All of them have stone walls that go up to the ceiling and out past your ass. They’re all clean. In fact, there’s an attendant in the bathroom 24/7 to make 100% sure they’re clean. They have hand sanitizer dispensers along the wall like fucking sconces in a medieval chapel. They even won the coveted “America’s Best Bathroom” award in 2012. What did your bathroom do in 2012? Fucking nothing, that’s what.
No, see here’s the thing. When you’re building a business, especially in a crowded industry (and it doesn’t get more crowded than convenience stores in Texas), you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else around you.
Joel Spolsky, creator of Trello, talks about this in an excellent article about the difference between having an Amazon business model and a Ben & Jerry’s business model.
If you’re going into an established market, getting big fast is a fabulous way of wasting tons of money, as did BarnesandNoble.com. Your best hope is to do something sustainable and profitable, so that you have years to slowly take over your competition.
– Joel Spolsky, Strategy Letter I: Ben and Jerry’s vs. Amazon
His main point is basically that you need to understand the market that you’re in. If you’re in an Amazon market, one where you have no established competitors, where you have a technology that no one else has, you need to grow as big as possible as fast as possible and damn the cost. This makes sense, because if you don’t grow big fast, someone else will get there and they will overtake you. You can make mistakes, you can have a shitty work environment, because a new round of funding is just around the corner if you stay ahead of the pack and you can just hire better people later. He’s not making an argument that this is a fun place to work, just that this is how you should do it if you’re in that market.
The other side of the argument is where you get your Ben & Jerry’s business. These are small companies heading into an already crowded marketplace (like board games). Spending a ton of money is a waste of time, because there are already people at the top doing more than you and they already have the customers. It’s a huge waste of your money. Like Spolsky says, your best hope is to do something sustainable and profitable, so that you have time to take over the competition.
The big mistake is not knowing which of those you are.
Ah! That’s right, back to the point. The point is, Buc-ee’s knows which market they are in. They are as Ben & Jerry’s as it gets. The Texas landscape is literally littered with closed-down gas stations and convenience stores. And how does Buc-ee’s survive?
You’d think, well isn’t their business the gas? Or maybe the candy and snacks? And you’d be right. That is their core business. But they can’t do their core business better than the giants in their field. They can’t compete on price, because they don’t have the volume yet. Well, they didn’t, they sure as hell do now.
What they could compete on was the bathrooms.
No one starts at the top. You must start at the bottom to build a great company, then a great brand.
– Arch “Beaver” Aplin, Founder of Buc-ee’s
Gas station bathrooms are shitty because they pay one person minimum wage to man an entire store and its not a great job. Also, you’d have to lock up to really give the bathrooms the kind of attention they deserve as family after family and trucker after trucker stop in and bomb the place out like a DMZ every hour on the hour, not caring to clean up after themselves, because they’ll be across state lines like Bonnie and Clyde by the time you get around to finding what they left you in there.
And that’s where Buc-ee’s pulls away from the pack. If you know, for a fact, that the bathrooms at Buc-ee’s are cleaner than any other. That you can pop a squat and finish a chapter of a book in there without fear that someone is going to come knocking (because there are 83 other stalls in there and no one has to knock ever and some campers went missing in the bathrooms once in ’92 and were never seen again, sorry I digress). If you know for a fact that it’s not going to be some SAW 3-esque experience, getting a key and having your shit directed by Eli Roth, you’re more likely to stop there. Every time.
And people choosing to stop at your convenience store over the other convenience stores is the entire game in that business. That’s why they’re called convenience stores.
You’d think the most important thing about publishing board games is making great board games. And that’s not true. That’s the more important thing about designing board games. But the most important thing about publishing board games is to make enough money to be in business next year and the year after that. “The bidness of bidness is bidness” as my middle school social studies teacher Dr. Scott liked to say. And he was right.
But today we’re not talking about the money. We’re talking about what your business offers to customers outside of its product. The board game is the product. Obviously if every time you go to Buc-ee’s and take a shit in peace for the first time in a month, if you went outside to your car and found out they’d put sugar in your tank, you’d never go back there again. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that your board game is essentially a commodity, that one is as good as the next, and that in this super crowded Kickstarter market, if someone has any reason to not like your game they can just get another one (they can). That there’s always another hot game coming down the pipeline to displace yours (there is).
How do you distinguish yourself in that crowded kickstarter marketplace, other than by your products?
Jamey Stegmaier does it by making it a moral imperative to run the best goddamn kickstarters on the planet. Absolute amazing communication. Pitch perfect shipping and logistics. And then communicating about the whole thing. Michael Mindes did it by reporting on every part of the process in a series of blogs, teaching and bringing up a whole generation of new publishers with his ascendent rise to the top. C’MON does it by putting out absolutely drop dead miniatures. I heard a story that Cards Against Humanity ran a panel at the GAMA Tradeshow entitled “Why You Should Use Traditional Distribution.” Their panel was a powerpoint presentation with one slide: “You shouldn’t.” Tim Fowers eschews even having a brand name other than his own, and ships all the product out himself.
At TKG we’ve been focusing on getting good games out, reliably, and on time (which has been a challenge) and learning the ropes of how to grow a small business. I think we’re distinct as a company in our personality, in our games, in our approach to design (both game and graphic). But, I don’t know that we have a distinguishing factor in how we do business. Something that sets the experience of buying from us apart from all the others.
But it’s something we’re working on.
Along with Brach’s Rocks, Kazoozles, Gummy Penguins, and those Gummy Raspberry/Blackberry things that are always so hard for me to find. If you’ve got a line on them, let me know. Yes, I know that’s a lot of gummy for one list, no I don’t care that there’s no chocolate on it. Make your own list.↩︎
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