This new weekly series -- Small-Biz Buzz -- explores the customer aspect of small businesses, both from the customer's and business owner's perspective. If you have a small business you'd like to share, please email me.
Today, a look at a pioneering hobby-based Web site that serves the broad needs of game lovers. It's both a vendor of innovative games and a forum for creators, and its clientele is definitely turned on.
: Kevin Allen Jr., 25, a designer living in New Jersey.
Indie Press Revolution, an online network of creators of role-playing games that sells directly to the customer or retailer. The games are both electronic and nonelectronic (book-based).
How did it hook you?
: The philosophy of "provide your customers with the products they want" seems like a no-brainer, but until IPR came along no one was really doing it. The game creators featured on IPR frequently don't get their material into stores ... so these games would be pretty much unavailable.
IPR gathers together tons of different creators in one place and sells everything from a single source.
Now you sell a game that you designed through Indie Press Revolution, but what keeps you hooked as a customer?
IPR is constantly seeking out new talent ... Even if I don't have it in my budget to pick up a batch of new books I still check into the sitepretty frequently to see what new things are out there.
Additionally, IPR offers package deals from time to time that really show they have a keen understanding of their customers
and that they know their products.
What kind of image is it trying to convey to customers, and did it work on you?
Community; camaraderie. There is no other distribution model currently in the market that offers the creator so much in the way of support, profit-sharing and market penetration. If you have a question about something, you can always just email Brennan, the founder.
What makes you purchase its products over competitors'?
IPR is better organized, more comprehensive and better staffed than its competition. While other companies in the field look at what theydo as a hobby, IPR is a serious business that supports a hobby.
What is IPR's greatest strength?
IPR has a monthly podcast, the "Voice of the Revolution," that is a thoroughly entertaining discussion about the state of independently published nonelectronic games today.
Sure, it's advertising, but no one ever tells you "go buy that" -- only "you would probably like that." It's a distinction that's very comforting to a customer.
What do you value in the small businesses you patronize?
Honesty. I want to know that if something isn't worth my time no one is going to shill it to me anyway. I want an upfront explanation of what I'm purchasing, and I want to be able to ask questions about it.
Outside of a brick-and-mortar store, this is usually impossible.
What really turns you off in small-business advertising?
Low production quality. Just because you have a tight budget and you aren't one of the big boys doesn't mean you can't look or act professional. The public got savvy; it's time mom and pop did, too.
I rang up founder Brennan Taylor to pick his entrepreneurial brain. A Web content manager by day, Taylor started IPR in New Jersey in August 2005 as a side project with $1,700 in start-up costs. Profits from last year averaged around $12,000, and Taylor expects a 50% growth increase next year. The only downside? He's had to hire employees long before he predicted he'd need them.
With growth like that, what's your secret?
: I had a market that was not being served at all. I was the first one to get in on a good deal.
IPR avoids the distribution market, raising the amount of money each
game creator gets per sale. We're the first one that started to do this in this industry.
How do you keep people coming?
Most customers rely on retailers to let them know when new products come out. IPR gets all those new products out in one place ... often enough to keep people coming.
So do you need advertising to create buzz?
So far we haven't needed it, but we want to step it up as time goes on. We're still in the growth mode.
How do you think your customers see you?
We're viewed as having good customer service. On other sites, creators can pay a fee and their product gets listed ... you get lots of inferior product
that way. I vet any product that comes through our site.
What has helped most in creating buzz?
Word of mouth and the fact that I have over 40 member publishers that all have their own fan bases. Half my clients sell exclusively through us.
What advice do you have for other small-business pioneers?
Don't splurge on things unless you're absolutely sure you need them.
For example, I didn't need ... advertising because of the pent-up demand.
While indy role-playing games are gaining followers, they are still the ultra-indy little brothers of giants like Nintendo or Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) Report Xbox. So what's in store for IPR?
I'd like to continue to grow the business and try to become a bigger player in the hobby market ... I don't think the hobby market is growing as much as it could.