Retail Podcast 415: Paraic Mulgrew on Innovation in Specialty Games Retailing
Bob Phibbs interviewed Paraic Mulgrew, Co-Owner of Knight Watch Games. In this episode Bob and Paraic talked about how retail can intersect with community building.
Bob: So, just bring me into this. I mean, I know you're an ex-military guy, and so before I get too far, I know that when I was looking to do a store tour of a gaming retailer I stumbled upon your store tour, which was so frigging awesome.
And then I find out you have a GAMA - Game Manufacturers Association - Store of the Year of 2019 so how does that happen? That's quite a long way from an ex-military guy and his wife just deciding to open a game store.
Paraic: Yeah, it's an interesting story. We were in the Army for about eight years and we got married at the beginning of the Army career and the Army did its best to keep us separated the whole time.
There's actually an interesting picture of the two of us. We took pictures of our feet and I was in central Africa and I have my dusty combat boots in the middle of hot, hot sand. And she took a picture of her feet and she was in rubber snow galoshes on the, I think she was in the Alps. So, there was snow on the ground and everything.
And we took that picture at the exact same time and it was indicative of that separation of two different worlds and not really living that married life that we wanted. So, we really started thinking about getting out of the Army and doing something new.
So, it was actually Brenda's idea to start Knight Watch Games. And she said, Well, why don't we start that hobby shop that you always talk about when we go out for coffee? And I said, Honey, that's the kind of conversation that you have after you win a million dollars and we have not won a million dollars.
So, what are you talking about? And she said, Well, you know, I have a lot of business acumen. I've been a business assistant for several millionaires. And then of course, I have a lot of gaming, passion and experience there.
And then some of the skills that I learned in the military about leadership and community building and organizing and all that kind of stuff. So, the two things came together to be really a magical mix of talent. What I'm weak in, Brenda is very strong. And what she's weak in, I'm very strong, so we really complement each other as a team. And I see that as a vital thing when you're doing a mom and pop kind of business model.
Bob: I want to jump in on that because, I know that the successful entrepreneur couples that I know pretty much have the rails around, this is what you do and this is what I do.
And whenever there's a problem, it's usually from one of them crossing that boundary. Would you support that?
Paraic: Yeah. I would give two thumbs up to that idea. There is a stay in your lane mentality. And if that is followed, really good things happen. And sometimes control issues come up when somebody wants to influence the other person's area of expertise.
Bob: So, walk me through this. So here we are. Eight years ago you got married.
Paraic: It's 10 years now. I've been out of the Army for about four years. I was in for about eight, so actually, gosh, now we're looking at 12 years ago.
Bob: So you're a board game guy, or you're a gaming guy and you think, we want to open this. Honestly, until I spoke for your trade association, I wasn't familiar with the world that you are deep involved in and it's quite expansive. It's a lot bigger than I think I ever realized and the whole community building and everything.
So, how do you go from this idea to being GAMA power retailer? That's quite a leap when you're neither one of you are retailers.
Paraic: Yeah. We have no formal education in business. We haven't taken anything other than, you know, your normal economic courses in college. So, it's a great question. How did we rise to the top so fast without formal training? And I think it was a simple question of never forget what you wanted as a consumer.
What was it that you wanted as a customer? And then as an owner of the company, you just make sure that that kind of thing happens and you make that a priority.
Bob: That sounds easier said than done my friend.
Paraic: Absolutely. It is a simplistic answer, and yet the attitude, I think is a crux of the puzzle. So, when we opened up the store a lot of it was me following my vision. What did I want my man cave to look like? What would I want my gaming setting to look like? What was the thing that I always envisioned other gaming stores doing and just making that a reality. And then it was always asking the question of, as a gamer, what would I like to happen when I walk into a game store?
And to answer those questions takes, unfortunately, it takes a lot of money because …
Bob: I thought she didn't win the million dollars though. Wait a minute.
Paraic: We didn't. What we did was we totally invested everything we owned into the business. We liquidated everything. Here's a very modest thing.
I started living with my parents again at the age of 40, oh gosh, 46, moving back in with your parents is, could be a recipe for a nightmare, especially after the army and successful career. But when you liquidate everything, and I'm saying everything, you really have nothing left to turn back to.
So, the family support was vital into pursuing this dream. And Brenda, she liquidated her retirement plan and all her savings. And we just put everything into this idea of Knight Watch Games.
Bob: So, hold on one sec. So, you had well-meaning friends, I'm sure that said, now, wait a minute. You're liquidating your future on this thing you've never done.
And I want our listeners to understand. I think that's great. And I think that too many retailers don't invest enough of themselves either in time or in resources to begin with. So when it doesn't work out, it's easier to blame somebody else or something else. And you, between the two of you, you pretty much said to the future, we're all in, we're going to make this work.
And moving back in with your parents probably reminded you that every day, right.
Paraic: Yeah, absolutely. Surprisingly, I really thought that I would get the most resistance from the parents, but they were one of the larger supporters of the idea and pursuing the dream. A lot of the friends were enthusiastic yet skeptical. I have to admit, we didn't put out a lot of feelers. We didn't try to get a lot of feedback from the people around us. We talked to each other, you know, at depth every day. And the idea was just so pure and the vision was so clear and the criteria that we had to meet was black and white.
It was really just a 100% investment in the future. And one of the driving forces, which I think is really important to this, is when you're coming from the military and you always have a supervisor over you, and you're always being held accountable for every decision that you make. And if you make the wrong decision, it could have disastrous consequences on your military career.
That was an amazing, stressful dynamic to live with. And then to leave that and start your own company where you are the boss and you are only accountable to your partner in that boss is amazingly liberating. It's a freedom of… I can't say how profound it was to be able to wake up and put your own clothes on for your reasons and be able to do the things that you want to do for your reasons.
It was an amazingly freeing emotional time, and I think that joy of life was then reinvigorated, and that was transferred into the business as well.
Bob: So I want to move forward because the world that I think gamers provide is a much more inclusive kind of a place, right? It's a lot of people that may not have fit in anywhere else.
And so, in some ways it's very different from retail because you're kind of developing this whole new tribe, community, whatever you want to call it. And they all talk. And so, you're probably being held accountable by them as well. So, what are some ways that you worked, you know, to build this tribe, to be able to support you so well?
Paraic: Well, it is an interesting thing. I think I'm a little bit of an outlier with your program in the sense that I'm not really retail for retail sake. I'm more of a community builder that uses retail really just to keep the lights on. And, the purchasing of the product is just the mechanism in which we enable the store and the community center to stay open and the games, and we're talking about board games here, not video games. It'd be everything that you could play on a tabletop so that if your opponent is cheating, you can physically slap him across the face and say, stop cheating, which you cannot do with video games.
Bob: A bonus I haven't heard in anyone's marketing before. So that's new. By the way, this isn't Monopoly or that type either. These are strategy games. Isn't that really what it is?
Paraic: It's a full gamut of all the analog type of games that are being published now and yeah, they are echelons above Monopoly and Life and Risk. The game design has really advanced almost in parallel with the explosion of the industry itself.
But there are dice games, card games, miniature war games, board games. There are role playing games.
Bob: Well, I've seen on your site, it seems like people are able to build worlds in your game room, I guess, is that what it’s called?
Paraic: Yeah. One of the pillars of our business is the immersiveness and the escapism from that stress laden reality that we're trying to get rid of.
As soon as they enter Knight Watch Games, we immediately transport them into a setting so they're not reminded of those modern-day stresses. And one of the things that helps facilitate that is a fantastic world. The board games are colorful and the genre is full of fantastic things that let you forget about taxes and schools and bosses and all the things that we're trying to forget about for a while.
Bob: Now would I typically come in there by myself, with a buddy, like, you know, the entry drug has it got to be Dungeons and Dragons and that brings me in on some level. Is it I just moved to the area. I'm just curious how and who you speak to and how somebody would choose your Knight Watch Games over someone else in San Antonio.
Cause I know you're not the only one in the business there.
Paraic: No, no. We actually have a pretty robust gaming community in San Antonio. I think we're at 1.3 million people in the city and we have about nine different game stores that are situated around. And each game store approaches the industry in its own angle. And because they do that, the community that revolves around that particular game or that particular game store is unique to that game store. I have strong theory that when you build a company, the owners have a set of values that they own personally, and they bring those values to the company that they start.
And when you're a community building type of company, the values that you have as an owner that are projected into the company are then invites into the same values of the community. And so, you have certain customers come to you and if they share those values, they feel comfortable with that community.
If they don't share those values, there's some kind of awkwardness that happens and they end up going somewhere else and finding their gaming home somewhere else, and we're totally on board with that. And we really encourage people that don't feel comfortable with Knight Watch Games and how we do things to either adopt our values or find some other place to play. And we hold our community to a very high stake.
Bob: So, I have to ask, can you make an example of what that would be like? We all wear purple or we talk to each other with gutter talk or we, I don't know what it's going to be. So, I'm curious.
Paraic: It's actually kind of basic things. They seem very logical when I point them out, but it seems that they're kind of rare.
And it's the basic values that you would want in somebody that you play games with. So, you have integrity, honesty, selfless service, personal courage, loyalty. A lot of the values that they teach you in the army are applicable to gaming. And it's just the idea that you want to be a good person that is going to facilitate the fun of the experience with your play partners.
Gamers in general have had a bit of a rocky growing up as an identity. Gamers, as you alluded to before, tended to be the ostracized person that had to become introspective and you sort of avoided the realities by getting into escapist pastimes and because they were escapist and they were excluded from a lot of the social norms, they developed their own kind of quirky social patterns of behavior, and they weren't very consistent with the normal patterns of behavior.
So, you would get this stigma of gamers being either overweight or severely underweight, or they would have very poor hygiene or poor communication skills. They were just sort of the awkward person, and that was the stereotypical gamer of the 1980s onto about 2000.
Bob: You reminded me of what we would have thought about musicians as well and others. Right. I mean, it's, there's a lot of people like that. So that's in the ’80s.
Paraic: Yeah. The creative types, the theatrical types. Yeah. A lot of those who have gotten some pushback from mainstream society.
But what we're finding now is that the fantastic genres found in movies and books and comic books, all of that stuff is now becoming somewhat mainstream. You have super hero movies, Dungeons and Dragons is now a major revenue builder. There are online communities that do YouTube videos that show their games out to the public.
And the whole genre of fantastic gaming and swords and sorcery and superheroes, all of that is now being accepted by the general populace. And so, what it's doing is it's liberating what we'd call normies, the people that we wouldn't consider to be gamers, to now say, what is this thing that we've heard about, but we were always kind of worried about and didn’t participate with.
They now feel liberated to come and sort of see what that looks like. One of the critiques I have of my peers in the industry is they're not setting up their stores, their retail spaces, to invite those people in. They're still catering towards the old school gamer and that community can seem very closed off and very cliquish.
Bob: It’s limited, isn't it? I mean, you're looking at a bigger - you're trying to grow the whole pie rather than I'm going to take care of my little slice and be happy with it, and that's a very big difference. Those of you who’ve known me on the podcast, that's the smart thing that most of the businesses we've talked to over the years have embraced, the idea that more means more for everybody.
Paraic: Right. Well. Yeah, absolutely. You have to realize that the pie is growing as well. It's a huge exploding industry and because the genres are exploding and becoming so much more accessible, you have to be the conduit for those people to take that first step into this otherwise strange culture. And so Knight Watch Games does a really good job of that.
One, we visually put you into a setting where you see things that you can relate to via the mass media of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings and those kinds of fantastic stories. But then as customer service representatives, we facilitate the education and the adoption of the culture in a nice, easy way so that you feel welcomed, you feel understood, you're taken care of, you feel safe.
And so, a lot of the demographic that doesn't feel those things in normal retail spaces or other game stores, they gravitate toward Knight Watch Games. And if they are within our value system, this is their home. And the amount of loyalty is so robust, is so profound that I'll tell you some stories about how profound it can be.
But it's unheard of to see these things happening in other retail stores. it's just, it's now a family. It's a community that's got bonds, like you would not expect to happen in a game store.
Bob: To be invitational rather than expecting the newbie to rise to your level, you want to bring them along with you. And I think that's the key to any endeavor that's going to be successful right.
Paraic: Yeah. We almost literally, we'll hold your hand as you enter the store and we will introduce you to the people that we think that you will find interesting.
And all those people that are already established in the community, they intrinsically know that they're there to take care of you as well. And it's a selfish thing on their part. The more gamers that they bring in and nurture within their community, that's more play people that they have to participate in the games that they want to play.
So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy for them to really take care of their own types.
Bob: So would I want to play someone different most of the time, or do I want to play the same guy because he's a fun guy to play with. I never know quite what you know his strategy is going to be, or do you figure people out pretty quick, like, I don't know.
I'm just curious because it's not like chess or to me or checkers. There's a lot more involved in your games, I think, than bluffing and those kinds of things. It's a lot more.
Paraic: Yeah, it's pretty profound. On my own podcast, which is Knight Watch Games Podcast, we actually talk about that idea, Why do people play with the people they do?
And there's several answers, but one of the dominating answers was that people play with the people that they do because of shared values, which doesn't sound like that doesn't fit with gaming at all, but it's really about people across the table, sharing themselves through the narrative of a game, and the game becomes very secondary.
The primary dynamic at the table is people sharing themselves with other people and enjoying a story or some kind of event. And you find that at the end of the gaming session the thing that people remember is who they played with and what they were about, and they barely remember the game itself.
Bob: So it's not about winning or losing, it's about actually being in the moment and the process of the game is that it?
Paraic: It can be for some people now the answers of why people play with other people, it's a full spectrum. So, you do have those kinds of gamers that play games for the sake of competition.
And so, what they'll do is they'll seek out other gamers that are also with that in mind, and they will have a very competitive, enjoyable experience for those particular participants. Some other people that are not in it for the win would find that not very fun at all.
Bob: Because you're on guard the whole time, right?
Paraic: Yeah. It's just a different experience. Again, there's a different value that's being actuated during the tabletop interaction, and so as store owners, we facilitate you being introduced to your tribe even in the larger context of Knight Watch games. There's sub-communities that revolve around different type of games that would quickly get to know you and then introduce you to those people.
And, we'd encourage you to branch out because there's a lot of amazing things out there. But you'll find your comfort zone quite rapidly, and, you'll find relationships that you didn't expect and a profundity to those relationships that goes way beyond gaming.
Bob: Wow, that’s great. Now we are recording this in May a few weeks before we go live, but you have just reopened in a limited basis.
So what was it like to reopen after you'd been closed for what, four weeks? Is that what you were?
Paraic: It’s been about four weeks. We closed the doors. And there was probably about a day of sort of panic on our part where we really did not know what the future was going to look like and what we were going to do about it.
I thought either we're going to fail and the world is going to go into apocalyptic mode and martial law, and we're all running around with Mad Max helmets on, or the government or the infrastructure was going to step up and take care of everybody and everything was going to be fine. I sort of thought one of those two things.
Brenda was really worried that we were just going to die as a retail outlet and that online stores, which have a lot of advantages over us, were just going to take over and it was going to train the consumer to keep shopping online even after the pandemic was over.
Bob: Well I'll just interrupt for one second. This is the narrative that they are putting in the media right now. That this is forever changing retail. No one's ever going to brick and mortar and that the longer we've done it, the more we've learned. And I don't know about you, but I've tried shopping for groceries online once, it was horrific.
I don't need to go online for things that I want to enjoy, I go there for basics. If I'm going to go buy something like a printer cartridge, because why do I want to go to Staples? They take the little scrunchie and unlock it and me buy it. That's not it. Yeah. But the secret is we go to a business to feel we matter.
And that's the key to what you and Brenda have created. Right? So did she back off of that quickly or?
Paraic: No, she leaned far into it. And so we did a lot of research quickly. We learned sort of how to advertise during disaster times. And what's the message that your consumer base wants to hear?
And it's not selling a product. I don't think your consumer is the mindset of, I need to hear about products and the pros and cons of a product. What they want to do is hear that they matter and you as a producer or as a community center really needs to try to stay at the forefront of their minds and make them think.
When I think of games, I think of Knight Watch Games, and that's a positive feeling when they think of that.
Bob: It’s that empathy, it's not sympathy, which is some people went down and that was not so good. I appreciated your marking all the way through it. Like we're looking forward to reopening and all those messages you were able to stay really focused on.
Paraic: Yeah. You’ve got to look forward to tomorrow and it's very hand in hand with your current message of the message of hope and progress. You have to look at tomorrow as something that you need to strive towards and put some energy into, and you just don't give up. You don't sit back and hope that the world is going to take care of you.
The lesson has been learned that that's not the way this works.
Bob: That's not the way it works.
Paraic: You have to be a little aggressive about taking care of your business. And so what we did was we, we tried to keep the communication with community constant. And here's where the magic of Knight Watch Games really came in.
Let me give a little backstory here and a story. So, when we started Knight Watch Games as a community, we really knew that we had to invite them not only to participate in their own geeky interests, but to do it also on the retail side as well, so that we can keep our lights and our doors open. And there's a certain type of customer that understands those relationships for you to sort of reward yourself with the community, you also have to participate on our retail side.
You can't go to Amazon. And also get our gaming tables. Those two things don't go hand in hand, and there's a certain type of customer that understands that, and it's usually a higher echelon type of customer that they're a little more conscientious about things. But the thing that Brenda and I did not predict was the type of relationships that were developed in this retail space.
We've had baby showers, birthday parties, lots of birthday parties, bachelorette and bachelor parties. We had four gamers propose to their significant other while in the store on four separate occasions. We had a wedding here in the store. We just moved all the retail stuff and made this big grand hall of a wedding.
And to bring that whole life cycle full circle, we also had a memorial. One of our customers unfortunately committed suicide and the family was saying that the one happy spot in his life was here at the store. That's the difference between a retail space and a community center that uses retail as its facilitator.
Bob: Well I want to just back up one sec though, because you're not a nonprofit. You're making money. I mean, I want to be very clear that when you talk about community center, you know, some of us have one visual, and I'm telling you that's not this, because this is a successful business but your points are well taken that, you wouldn't have gotten weddings and these other things unless you were integral to the fabric of your customers' lives.
That's what you're saying. And them to you.
Paraic: And that's another profundity that we didn't expect is the impact that they would have on us. It's very much like what you've said before, is that you have to make them feel like they matter. And when they share an interest that you have, it's easy for you to bridge that gap and to really care about the other person.
But the industry is blowing up so big that the community of people that are participating in it, it's the full gamut. I have far right wing, I have far left wing. I have every gender interpretation that you can imagine. They're all represented in the community. And one of the magical things about it is none of those things are an issue.
There's no contentious interaction on a political level whatsoever. Even though there's a intensity of relationship between the members of the community, they know that there are boundaries that they just don't cross because it would pollute what they're all trying to do. And that is, you know, get rid of the real world stresses.
And so there's an interesting core value that's at work. As a community base that translates into how do they, how do they behave as consumers? And that also helps me dictate how do I behave as a producer or a facilitator of retail action. And how do, how do I make that experience what they want as well.
Bob: Yeah, that's quite a calling. I mean, we're more alike than different is what I always say. But, to model that is the devil's in the details, right? Being brilliant on the basics. Well, you've been generous with your time today. I know your next big project is called The Gauntlet.
I want to know what in the world that is and why you're looking for investors. Cause that must be a new iteration of an old dream.
Paraic: It is. It is the concept of, let's see, it's probably an amalgamation of different concepts smashed together, haunted houses. The experience behind haunted houses, the experience behind escape rooms. Are you familiar with those?
Bob: Oh yeah, I would never do that. But yes.
Paraic: And then there is the concept of live action role play, dressing up in a costume and sort of pretending to be something that you're not. We're going to take those three concepts and smash them together into a large venue where you come in and there's going to be a Tavern in which you could participate and eat and drink, but it's going to be all very medieval and Renaissance fair type of food.
But there are going to be characters that are embedding in the setting, and they give you a glimpse into the world of what The Gauntlet is, and there are rumors and there's histories and there's all sorts of scuttlebutt happening and you can participate in it if you want. When you really get involved, you buy a ticket into the adventure.
And the adventure is a series of rooms that are all designed Hollywood level sets where you go in and there is a puzzle involved or there are player characters that you have to interact with and you have to solve kind of a social quandary, or it could be very much like the haunted house in that there's a monster there and you physically fight the monster.
It's a haunted house where you get to, you get to fight back, and it's a series of rooms and there's a whole narrative that gives you a reason to go through the whole story. And at the end the culminating feeling that you have is that you're a hero. You've done some heroic things and it's very physical.
You'll be swinging weapons around and you'll get bumped over the head a couple of times, and you'll have climbed a 10-foot wall and you'll have crawled through a tunnel and you'll get sprayed with icky spider webbing, and it'll be this full-on experience.
Bob: Well you're right on trend. You know, at Disney they had a video, I think on YouTube, and they tried to do something in Disneyland that was really immersive. They wanted to really try to pilot this idea. What does it feel like?
They knew there was something there, but to do it in that big of a scale, just didn't quite do it. So, you're right on what the big boys are trying to figure out, except you have, I think what you have in common is you have that sense of knowing what the game and what the feeling you want at the end. And you can control it with such a way that you can succeed in it, right?
Paraic: Yeah. Yeah. There there's a danger to having a large corporation try to do this because there's an intimacy of experience. There has to be a personal touch so that the customer feels important as you said, that they feel valuable. And so the story and the actors that are interacting with them, they have to be intimate enough that they can react to that kind of thing and curtail the experience to make it personal.
And, when you have a small person like me and I had this big vision, it's easier for me to implement that without the big red tape of a corporation.
Bob: And how are you getting your investors for The Gauntlet? How do you go after them? Is that a crowdsource?
Paraic: It's a lot of networking, I think. One, we want to minimize the number of investors so that we can maximize our control of it. But two, there are certain celebrities now that have sort of, I don't want to make light of this, but sort of come out of the closet when it comes to gaming.
They are multimillionaires and they play Dungeons and Dragons, or they play board games, and that's their hobby. And that used to be a thing that people were not really willing to talk about in public. Well, now we can, and there's no social ostracization happening. I want to tap into those people.
Timmy Duncan from the Spurs is a Dungeons and Dragons player. Vin Diesel. Of course, you have Critical Role who's making it really big on YouTube to watch Dungeons and Dragons. Those people are now celebrities.
And so, we're trying to tap into those types and saying, here's a way of making adventure real so that people physically are doing things and at the end they have that same sense of heroism and achievement that they would get from playing the board game version.
Bob: Ultimately what you're creating is a safe space for people of very different backgrounds to come together, feel something, know something, and practice being human via games.
Right? Isn't that kind of what you’re doing?
Paraic: It really is a facilitator of the core values of humanity and showing that there is more that we have in common than we have in difference. And I think game is a great venue in which you discover that.
Bob: Well, you’ve been a great partner on this journey, I'm sure to Brenda, and I think your community in San Antonio is thrilled that you're there and I can't wait to see what happens with The Gauntlet and how soon that might come to bear with us.
How do we find out more about Knight Watch Games in San Antonio?
Paraic: There's several ways to get in touch with us. One is our website, which would be knightwatchgames.com and then we have an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org and then our phone number, which is (210) 888-1051. And that's the way to reach the store.
Bob: One of the things I ask everybody is, tell me something good about retail. What do you like about it?
Paraic: The relationships built through the facilitating of making people happy. I love being the source of their happiness.
Bob: And now you know what? I think that's the perfect way for us to end my friends. So thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it Paraic and my best to Brenda.
Paraic: All right. Thanks for having me.
Find out more about Paraic here.