Thursday, June 30, 2016

In the UK Last Week / Brexit Thoughts

 I was in the UK last week on business and also got to observe the Brexit Vote and shocked reactions on Friday morning with the results (more on Brexit below).

Here's the view form my office at one of our portfolio companies (Clear Score) which is located near Lambeth bridge in London.  Typically sunny British weather.

My apologies to my UK gaming friends but I just didn't have any free time in my schedule - hopefully I'll plan better when I'm over again.
We currently occupy the "Bell Building" which just been refurbished and is a nice space for tech enterprises with the exception that the power goes out once a week!
The highlight of the trip was taking in my first cricket game at Lords.  It was a 20/20 format game pitting Middlesex vs Somerset and I must say I found the game fascinating and a lot of fun.  I'm planning to take in some more games when I'm next in London - what a fun game!

I think I'm becoming a cricket fan.

OK, this is how the weather really looks like most of the time and is a more fitting setting for the somber reaction in London to the news of the Brexit vote.  It's not my place to comment on the right or wrong of the vote - that's an internal British policy decision.

What I can comment on is an extreme disappointment with the way the campaign was conducted on both sides.  The leave side was basically racist in it's depiction of immigration and the stay side portrayed immediate armageddon and execution of all puppies and kittens upon voting to leave.

What's more disappointing is the apparent lack of planning on what to do next if the vote was to leave (when jumping off a cliff it pays to peak over the edge and plan for the landing).

Countries evolve and immigration is a very important factor in keeping a society vibrant and supporting a growing middle class - especially in societies with declining birth rates.  We often have overly optimistic memories of how good the "old days" were or fall to ease of blaming subgroups for our current problems.

As an investor, I really have no idea what the outcome will be of the "Leave" vote but suspect it will be mildly positive for the UK short term but then turn negative as the weight of losses from the migration away from London as the European financial hub and the unending grind of the demographic reality of an aging population take hold.  I still really like the UK as a market but will raise the bar on investment returns to compensate for the increased uncertainty.  By the way, anyone who states they "know" what will happen post leave isn't really being honest.

As an US citizen who spends a lot of time in the UK and has a deep affection for the nation, there is one silver lining from the conduct of the Brexit campaign and the Leave vote:  My British friends have forever surrendered the high ground of making snide comments about the US's national disgrace of Donald Trump.  I'm afraid your just as bad as we are BUT here in the US, we've still got a chance to send Mr Trump packing in November.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Its the First Day of Summer! How do I know?

 There are several ways to tell - First a Terrapin in the Pool!
 and sent upon his way!
 Second - flowers!
 lots and lots
 of flowers!

 Even more flowers...
 Third - peaches, plums, apples and figs!
 Oops more flowers
Fourth, "Free" produce!
 and Fifth - strange noises in the Wysteria
which upon further inspection
appear to be Cardinal eggs.

I love living on the Chesapeake Bay all year long but summer is really special.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sectional Terrain: Shorlines Moved inside for detailing

 The shoreline pieces have been moved inside for detailing (and some raccoon related repairs).  Just a little bit more to do but they're looking prating good.

 A shot of the shorter (2 ft) "beach" section where the shipyard will be.
 I also scratch built a simple dock which is where the wasp will be tied up for the game.  The pink foam cut-out is the size of the Wasps' hull.

 A rough layout of the shipyard - there are still some detail parts to add but we're getting there.
 The building is a plastic Perry kit.
 I think the boat looks a little too clean and will need a light wash.
Almost there!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sectional Terrain: The Secret to My Productivity

Yes, I must confess that I've used trained raccoons for years as terrain builders.  They are especially skilled in terrain design and placement as you can see in the picture - Rocket the Raccoon was caught working with a cutout to figure out the proper placement the ship under construction.  Terrain making seems to bring these tranquil and industrious creatures true joy.

Is the employment of trained raccoons legal?  Well probably no, but sometimes you gotta break some eggs to make an omelette....

It seems me terrain workshop was broken into buy a hungry raccoon at 3:00am the other night.  He did a good bit of damage to the long board.  Apparently he thought there was food hidden under the foam - a mistake I'm sure were guilty of at one time or another.

Despite waking at 3:00am and wandering down to the garage to see who was rummaging around my house all ended well.  Rather than shoot said offender which "technically" illegal in a residential area, I elected to open the garage door and send him on his way.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Sectional Terrain: The Shoreline Takes Shape

 The framing and contouring for the shoreline sections was completed this Sunday.  The game table setup needs 6 feet of shoreline which will be made up of one 4 foot section and a smaller 2 foot one.
 The initial foundation is made of pink extrude polystyrene foam (insulation foam).  The smaller section will have a sloping beach and be where the shipyard is located.

You can see my primary foam hot wire cutters in the picture - the trusty Proxxon table based cutter and my 20 year old Woodland Scenics hand held cutter.  Both are extremely helpful tools if you want to make terrain using extruded polystyrene.

 I added a bit of 1/2 inch scrap plywood to provide a little more support to reduce the chances of cracking while in transport.

 I decided to use a product called sculptamold for the beach surface - we'll see how this works out,
The longer section will be mostly rocky shoreline with a small beach area on the right.  The two sections are designed to line up on either side of one another to give a little variability in use.

After the scultamold dries (24 hours) I'll cover with the grout/glue mix and add sand for the beach sections.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Shipyard Details for Historicon

I managed to finish up some terrain detail pieces for the shipyard this weekend.  Destroying the shipyard will be one of the objectives of the attacking British force.

Starting from the top center:

- 2 plastic buildings from Renedra - these are nice kits - very easy to build and customize
- on the white card are some rope coils that are still drying (they've been soaked in diluted matt medium)
- A well from Architects of War
- Some scratch built mast piles and anchors.  OK the masts are just some dowels cut to length but there was some effort put into the anchors.
- A pile of barrels (Renedra) that will be a used as powder kegs
- Some cut wood
- A ship under construction.  The ship is scratch built from bass wood and mounting board and I think it came out nicely.

Next up tree plates!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Perspective on Architects of War

Yesterday, I received an "Order of Discharge" notice related to the Architects of War (AofW) bankruptcy process.  It reminded me that a number of people have asked me for my thoughts on AofW (AKA Alien Dungeon / Robot Peanut Studios) and it's bankruptcy.  Why ask me?  I was an investor in the business and may have a better understanding than most of what went on and how the business came to unravel.

Side note: The notice I received related to the Baker's personal bankruptcy, the dissolution of the business is still ongoing.

One point to make upfront is that, as an investor, I lost money when AofW went under.  My losses came from two sources - a direct equity investment and a partial guarantee on a bank loan to the company.  Losses in business investments are nothing new to me as my "real world" job involves being a partner in a Venture Capital firm that invests in tech and financial services companies.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't - it comes with the territory.  While disappointed in the outcome, especially the personal toll it took on the Bakers, their trade partners in the miniatures industry and AofW's customers, I'm not mad and, more importantly, I wasn't cheated.  As the man says in investing "You pays your money and you take your chances".

Out of respect for Barb and Ernie's privacy I will refrain from specific numbers but my losses were not insignificant but they are also not material to my financial well being.

Lastly, while I have tried to be as even-handed as possible these thoughts are my personal opinions and may not be universally shared nor agreed with -  in other words, "your milage may vary".  

The Bankruptcy:
Both the company and it's owners filed for bankruptcy in the 1Q' of 2016.  Bankruptcy is not something to be taken lightly - it's public and exacting in it's toll.  During a Bankruptcy process, the remaining assets of a business are given over to a court appointed trustee whose job it is to sell those assets (liquidation) and recover as much value as possible.  The proceeds of the liquidation are then parceled out to the creditors based on their preferential order.  Not all creditors are treated the same as some have "secured" rights.  In AofW's case there is a bank loan that has a significant amount outstanding that has to be settled first before any proceeds go to other creditors.  The general order of preference is:

- Court and Legal Fees (lawyers always get paid first - they're rather adamant about that!)
- Secured creditors (there's only one - the bank loan)
- Trade debts (obligations to suppliers / customers / employees)
   -- There is a fairly large amount owed to suppliers/vendors (mostly related to All Quiet) very little to customers (again mostly related to unfilled pledges for the All Quiet Kickstarter)
- Investors

I'm doubtful the net proceeds from the liquidation will fully pay back the bank loan but we shall see.

What Went Wrong?
One of the core issues faced by AofW (and just about any other small business) was a of a lack of growth capital.  In addition to the funding levels there were some challenges that were unique to the business itself including (1) a lack of experience with technology/social media and how to use it to  drive direct retail (online) sales and (2) a under estimation of the operational and logistical challenges of bringing the "All Quiet on the Martian Front" product line to market.

When it first opened it's doors, AofW was a specialized miniatures dealer that had it's own line of resin terrain pieces and sold historical miniatures from other manufacturers (namely Perry Miniatures and Gripping Beast).  The terrain pieces were top notch but expensive due to the cost to manufacture and ship (resin is heavy).  All the products were designed by Ernie and cast by a local Maryland vendor.  The historical lines were great for a gamer like me but the margins involved in selling other companies miniatures are less than 10% - they generate lots of top line volume but no profit.  AofW carved out a nice niche in the historical market but never generated a profit as a historical vendor.   What the company didn't expect was the impact that cheap laser cut terrain would have on it's resin product line.  The advent of 4ground and other laser cut manufacturers really cut into the product demand for the higher priced resin products.

Ernie correctly believed that the way to drive both growth and profit was to create his own game IP and expand into the much larger fantasy/SciFi market.  He went about learning how to do so by first writing and publishing the ACW skirmish ruleset "Uncivil Wars" and then doing his first Kickstarter for a fantasy skirmish game "Fanticide".  Both games were moderately successful but never "caught fire" a sales perspective.  One of the things that limited their potential was not really understanding how to use social media to drive both attention and a following.  Social media is a business skill that needs to be learned and understood by any miniatures manufacturer.

Based on what the company learned with it's previous game design projects it embarked on the "All Quiet on the Martian Front" game.  As a design idea, I thought is was brilliant - great concept, interesting period and quasi historical.  AofW went about the creating the game with a recipe that couldn't loose - get name brand game designers to write the rules, check!.  Take a well know work a fiction and make a game out of it - check!  Put a great deal of thought into the product design - check! Run an apparently successful Kickstarter to fund the thing, check!  How could it go wrong?

Despite raising a little under 305K for the project from 1,003 people the project failed -why?

A series of inter-related missteps.

(1) Kickstarter Discount Was too High:
During the course of the kickstarter, the offer was sweetened to appease several vocal individuals who wanted a "better deal"  There was one particular individual who kept whining that the kickstarter was priced for the 1% and, therefore, unfair to people like him.  He was as rude as he was min-informed of basic economics.  It was decided to throw more freebies in to "sweeten the pot".  Making these midcourse changes proved to be catastrophic as they significantly decreased profitability and increased the complexity of the project fulfillment.

(2) Production Delays:
AofW relied on sub-contractors for all its manufacturing including metal / resin casting, the plastic molds/casting down to the printing/binding of the hardcover rule books.  All of these activities were overseen by a very small team with deep product design skills but limited production management experience.  The design and production of the plastic components went well but the initial costs were under-estimated.  The contractors for the metal and resin proved to have over-stated their abilities and under-costed their bids - delays crept in as new subcontractors needed to be found.  The delays from these missteps built upon one another and delays cost money as staff still needs to be paid.  Remember while there historical line was still in operation it never generated excess cash so there was no financial support from there.

I do share some blame here as when Ernie asked my advice on when to set the initial delivery date for the kick starter, (which ended on June 3, 2013) I suggested December of the same year.  It was theoretically feasible but didn't build in any cushion for delays.  Dumb advice from me.

(3) Shipping Costs:
The impact of the production delays forced the company to decide break the shipping up into several "waves" which proved to be a material financial hit as the shipping costs more than tripled.  It was a decision that was based on trying to get the product both in customers hands and out to market at the same time.

(4) Direct Sales Never Took Off:
The overall marketing strategy for the product outside of the Kickstarter significantly relied on developing trade sales through brick and mortar game stores.  This tactic proved to be costly to implement from a manpower allocation and not very fruitful as game stores are very stressed from a business viewpoint and can't afford to take chances.  Too little was focused on building online buzz and community about the game.  In the end, both direct and "trade sales" never really took off.

(5) Poor Customer Communications:
In late 2014 a decision was made to limit communication to the kick starter backers to just "official announcements" from exhaustion and frustration.  I can understand the frustration one can get from dealing with gamers as anyone who looks at TMP or some of the comments on the All Quiet kickstarter page will understand.  Sadly, that's something a small business person can't afford - if you don't communicate all that's left is the small minority who want to vent.  I tell the CEO's of businesses I invest in that bad gossip sells better than good gossip and you don't have the luxury of ignoring it and not communicating as something worse always fills the void.  More importantly for every ranter there are many more customers with legitimate issues and grievances that need to be acknowledged.  Any communication from a customer is a chance to improve and shouldn't be passed up.

Don't get me wrong - ALL businesses make mistakes as they bring a concept to market.  If it was easy, everyone would do it, but it's not.  The core issue for AofW was that it didn't have a big enough capital cushion to weather any misstep, let alone multiple ones.  As the mistakes piled up the company tried to stay afloat by taking successively risky steps - from selling kickstarter product early before the backers got it first, selling the existing historical inventory at ever steeper discounts, delaying payments to suppliers, moving to PA to a much lower cost environment and to be closer to a potential manufacturing partner and ultimately changing the payment terms and disclosures to take money upfront even when out of stock.  It was a death spiral.

Some of those decisions were bad judgement but none were done will ill intent or from a desire to defraud.   Others, like taking money upfront for out-of-stock items should never had been enacted.  I think you'd understand how this type of thinking can occur if you either owned or were involved in a business that had deal with a dire situation - tunnel vision and a desire to succeed can outweigh more reasoned judgement.

So What?
I think there are some key learnings that one can take from this experience

Perhaps more a personal observation from me, but a hobby is a stress reliever and a business is a stress creator.  I think it's very difficult for a hobbyist to make the transformation to a business runner especially with something as esoteric as miniature gaming.

Starting a business is not for the faint of heart nor the short of funds - having access to enough capital is the single biggest lever one has to be successful.  Capital can come from savings, friends or investors.  Starting a business under the assumption of "if I build it, investors will come" is really risky.  If you're afraid to ask people to fund your dream, then keep it a dream and move on.

There are a lot of strong opinions about Ernie and I'm not going to editorialize here.  I will say Ernie is a superb product designer with the gift of imagination.  As an operator he had to learn lot on the fly and was too willing to believe his subcontractors initial promises.  Perhaps another way to put it is  that a small business owner needs to have the same scrutiny bar for good news as they do for bad.

All business endeavors make mistakes and start ups make even more as they are pushing into new frontiers.  Accept that fact and embrace these mistakes as the critical teaching tools there are.  If you don't accept the mistakes as yours then you really can't learn.  More importantly,  incorporate some cushion into both your production and financial plans to reflect there will be unanticipated setbacks.  See point number 2 above.

Kickstarter are neither good nor bad.  They can be used as a sales finance tool but should never be used to fund pre-production products.  As a financing tool a Kickstarter can be used very effectively to fund inventory build for a product's introduction and to gauge market receptivity.  The key to using Kickstarter wisely is understanding your production costs and timelines so you can both accurately gauge the discount to offer and know the time to delivery.  Neither of those were known for All Quiet and were the cause of it's downfall.

Brick and mortar retail outlets for historical miniatures are dead - some may be hanging on right now but their prognosis is terminal.  If your coming out with a new product for the miniatures market you need to really understand how to drive sales through online channels.  If you don't, get someone who does or find something else to do with your time.

Do so even if you've just got bad news.  As stated earlier the void is filled by some who are practicing "recreational outrage" and others who have legitimate concerns.  All shape your brand and need to be attended to.

The Post-Kickstarter noise:

The is still a lot of angst from the Kickstarter community about fraud / suing / talking to states attorney generals, etc.  All I can say is to remember that failure isn't fraud and the the company exerted a more than legally sufficient effort to fulfill on its obligation and completed 80% or so of the project.  Given that the retail price discount was 40% it's hard to see any net harm.  Don't get me wrong, I'm disappointed that I will not get all my stuff (the Goliath was a really cool design) but I don't think I was cheated.

More importantly read the damn user agreement with kickstarter - you don't get the huge discount without taking some form of risk and one of those risks is that the project fails and you don't get your toys.  If you can't accept that risk, don't play the game.  Whining, stomping your feet and posting about the unfairness of the world really doesn't get you much.

Closing Thoughts:
At the end of the day, I'm heart broken for the Bakers who literally lost everything in an attempt to build a business.  I can only wish them the best in their future endeavors whatever they may be.      Ernie has his personality challenges (which is not all that rare in our little tribe, is it?) and some of his decisions while running AofW burned bridges with other industry players who are justifiably angry at how things turned out.  For those of you who wished the Bakers ill from this adventure - congrats you got your wish in the form of extreme personal stress, public failure and financial ruin.  That is a very steep price to pay for attempting to bring a dream to life.

I think our hobby is lessened without the presence of AofW and I, for one, will miss them.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sectional Terrain: 3 Panels done

 The three 2x4 terrain panels for Historicon are done!  All thats left to do is a 6 ft x 1 ft shoreline. With the shoreline, I'll have enough panels to make a 15 ft x 6 ft playing area for the land portion of the game.

After Historicon, I'll need to build some panel storage racks but thats a project for another day.

The basic ground cover is a mix of two types of Woodland Scenics Static Grass - 2 parts Light Green (FL364) and 1 part Dark Green (FL636).  The affix the static grass to the board I put down a think layer of undiluted matt medium.  Work in relatively small areas (18 x 18 inches).  The static grass is applied by placing it in an old wire mesh strainer which I tap against my hand (like a terrain making tambourine).  The strainer is held about 3-4 inches above the panel.  Once one section is done move onto the the next.

When brushing the matt medium along the edge of an existing section it's best to only brush away from the sceniced portion (in the second photo  it would be to the right or top of the picture frame).  You'll pull some fibers into the new area but those will get covered up by the new layer when it's  applied.

You can also use standard white glue as an adhesive.  Ive found matt medium to be a bit better as it never yellows - sometimes white glue will yellow over the passage of a few years.

Take your time and move section by section.  I like to leave bare spots to break up the visual pattern but never plan them out.
 Once all the flock is laid down, the next step is to seal it with diluted matt medium (50% water / 50% matt medium).  This part requires two simple steps.  First lightly wet the board tops with spray water that has a drop of dishwashing soap in it - the soap breaks down the waters viscosity and help it low evenly.  Once a section is wet spray the diluted matt medium over it (even the base areas).  The water will "pull" the matt medium through the applied flock and when it dries its set and will stand up to aggressive tabletop action.

You want to wet the top but not soak it - if you've got water dribbling off the edges of the panel then you've put on too much.  It's not really a problem but greatly extends drying time.

I use spray bottles from old household cleaners to apply both the water and the diluted matt medium.

All three boards drying.  It takes about 3-4 hours to dry and set.  You can see I still need to paint the rock face on the hill panel (center).  I'll do that when I move the boards inside and can work on them in better light.

Please notice how I've pulled the panel apart - thats so they don't get "glued together" while the matt medium dries.  As with most useful terrain making hints, I've learned this one the hard way.

The shell holes were also finished after the edging grout had set.  It was easy - paint the edges using the same medium brown paint and then used some "soot chalk" purchased years ago from Bragdon Enterprises for my model railroad.  It's easy to apply - just put a little in the center of the crater and rub it in - the friction from the rubbing causes the material to adhere to the surface.

Let me know how you think the craters came out.  In the fall, I'm planning to do a "WW I themed panel" with trenches and craters do this was a little bit of a test.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sectional Terrain: Craters

I got a little bored making the terrain panels and decided to add some shell holes in the corner of one of the flat ones just to add some interest.  Sometimes these spur of the moment decision end in disaster but this one may work out.

Making shells holes with an extruded polystyrene material is easy - just use a heat gun to "melt" a depression and the base form of the creator is done.  I've used a heat gun to also break up the flat contour of larger panels.

Safety Note: Do this outside for both ventilation and fire control risk.  Polystyrene is flammable and one wants to do this where in the odd change it catches fire you can let it burn out on its own.  Doing this in an enclosed workshop or even worse a basement doesn't give you that options.  Outside also vents the fumes.

 The next step is to build up the crater edges and for that I use my trusty pre-mix grout and white glue mix.  I ring the depression with the grout/glue mix and then carve some slots with my custom crater making tool in the upper left.  OK it's just a wooden paint stirrer but it get the job done.

I then use my finger and a little water to smooth out the slot and make it look like the earth was ejected out of the crater.

And their done - a little creative painting and I'll have some craters.

I also managed to paint all three panels with the basic ground cover.  The grout edges of the crater haven't fully cured so I'll need to touch them up today.

Next step - apply ground cover (mostly static grass).

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Battle of the Buffet - After Action Report

 First a shot of the opposing army - as you can see I am greatly outnumbered plus this horde of future dental surgeons is commanded by a most fearsome leader - my lovely wife (extreme left of the first row).

I doubt I've ever seen a more fearsome order of battle.  Obviously, we were using the ruleset "Hordes of the Things" for this battle.

 As with any siege,the most important factor that determines success or failure is supply.  We laid in a significant food store including this table for the main supplies...
 A secondary table for the warmed food - what's in it?
 Quiche made by yours truly.  In this tray are my quiche Lorraines and some ham-n-cheese quiches.
 In the second warming tray are the vegetarian ones - some have broccoli other asparagus and one test one with artichokes.  The artichoke was a hit.  At the risk of sounding pompous, I am the King of Quiche.
 A secondary defensive food line was made in the kitchen with finger food
 And finally the redoubt of last hope - the desert table.  Hopefully three interlocked defensive lines would hold off the impending assault.
 An advance party of the enemy shows up under the guise of helping to set up.  These women warriors are most crafty indeed.

 Battle is joined and in the time it takes me to roll double sixes the walls are breached and the enemy floods into my kitchen to sack and plunder.

 Oh the carnage....

 Unlike many barbarian tribes these amazon warriors pride themselves on good table manners and
 a proper sense of decorum while plundering a city.
I think I can recall this conversation "oh Dr Reidy, you must be so proud of your husbands miniature collection"....

 My wife addressing her victorious troops

and they are held in rapt attention - perhaps I can make my escape whilst these blood thirsty warriors are enthralled by ministrations of their leader.

 Drat I've been spotted by Oxanna!  Hmm they seem to be giving my wife some form of tribute

 Noooo!!!!!! its gardening related which means more work for me!!!

Alas, we must bid a fond failure to the graduating class.  I shall miss the young lady on the left in the first row the most - she makes a wonderful peach pie.

Thus ends the game which was ignoble defeat for me.  You ever have one of those games you knew you were going to loose before the first die is cast?