Welcome to Curious Business

Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Mayor's Background, Part 2

One Saturday night in December 1995, my wife and I were shopping for computer games as Christmas gifts. The PC game industry was still robust then, and the aisle was brimming with new games. I was moping about my inability to escape from the MoS into publishing. I commented to Anne that what I really needed to do was get a job playing computer games.

The next day’s classifieds included a small ad headlined “Make a Living Playing Computer Games”. Sierra On-Line, one of the major publishers, was hiring game testers. That was as clear a sign as I’ve ever seen. I applied the next day, despite Anne’s caution that the career potential was equivalent to stuffing envelopes at home. Impressions Games hired me before the week was out, and I started my new career in January 1996, at age 39.

It was a good move. I had no formal training in computers. I was still using a 486 running MS-DOS, having turned up my nose at Windows 3.x. With this new career facing me, I immediately bought a Pentium 120 with Windows 95 and taught myself to use it. I would remain behind the tech curve for the next several years.

The PC game industry turned out to be lucrative and challenging. I worked as a tester, lead tester, writer, associate producer, and finally producer, and then later on as a writer again. We mostly made historical strategy games aimed at brainy adults – exactly the kind of games I like to play. My salary soon caught up and surpassed my meager bookselling income; with bonuses, I nearly tripled my income.

You’d think that the game industry would be a lot of fun. It was not. It was a sweatshop. The hours were grueling and the burnout rate was high, due in small part to bad management, and in larger part to the computer industry’s feudal structure. As proud as I was of our finished products, the process of making them was highly unpleasant. Although Impressions was successful, the corporate masters (Sierra and its owners) were not, and they put the squeeze on us. It became obvious that the company was doomed by corporate incompetence. So it was with great relief that I took a layoff with generous severance in early 2002. I’d never been laid off from a job before, but it seemed to be all the rage in 2002.

Thus began a period of instability. My erratic work life featured more layoffs and failed companies and bouts of unemployment between 2002 and 2005. It didn’t take long to exhaust the very limited PC game employment options in New England. The unstable PC game industry did not inspire sufficient confidence to move elsewhere to take a job. And so I found myself once again contemplating a career change.

I’d been doing a bit of freelance writing and editing, so that was my focus. It gradually became apparent that a white male of my age would never break into publishing without either considerably more education or an inside line on a job. I was unenthusiastic about it anyway. In fact, I really wasn’t much interested in returning to office work at all.

Then my mother died. I inherited some money. Not a lot, but enough to change the direction of my life.

Next: Curio City is born

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Mayor's background, Part 1

Let's start at the beginning: What led me to start Kraken Enterprises?

Like most Baby Boomers, I started out with a pretty normal work life. I had a long series of meaningless jobs in my teens and early 20s, worked my way through college, and finally graduated with a useless Bachelors degree in English. Not wanting to teach, I ended up working in the back room of a B Dalton bookstore in Lansing, Michigan. It was supposed to be my day job while I became a novelist in my free time.


Working with books suited me. Soon enough, my tendency to run things overcame my habitual inertia, and I moved up the short management chain. It wasn't long before I was managing my own B Dalton in Horseheads, New York. It was a comfortable job. The pay met my needs, and the opportunities for advancement matched my limited ambition.

After six years, B Dalton became a takeover target, and I decided to move on. I wound up managing the Lauriat's bookstore at South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Massachusetts. This job theoretically should have been great, but instead it turned rapidly dreadful. Lauriat's was a dysfunctional company that would die within a few years.

I ended that unhappy stint quickly, landing a job as the book buyer at Boston's Museum of Science. The MoS was expanding, and I'd been hired to transform their sleepy little children's book department into a full-fledged science and nature bookstore. The pay was terrible, but the hours were short and the work was fulfilling. Under director Roger Nichols, the MoS was on a major roll, and the staff felt like we were part of something important -- bringing science education to a public that desperately needed it. I was proud of my store. For the first time in my working life, I felt like my work mattered.

Unexpectedly, Roger Nichols died in his prime, and the spirit of the place slowly ebbed under the directionless and reluctant interim director. I hung on, remembering the glory days and hoping for their return. When they finally brought in one David Ellis, we hoped that the old spirit would return.

That did not happen. Ellis inherited an institution that had overexpanded and taken on too much debt. His priorities were necessarily increasing revenue and cutting costs. To accomplish the former, he ditched the adult-oriented approach that had brought us such great exhibits on Rameses the Great, China, India, and Soviet Space. The new focus was on children's shows and pop culture tie-ins. To accomplish the latter, he slashed staff. The MoS had always been an academic environment in which jobs were thought to be highly secure. The massacre came as a huge shock. IIRC, he laid off about 20% of the staff.

Apart from destroying morale and crushing our vision, the effect on me was financial. Previously, my bookstore had been seen almost as a public service. Without rent or taxes to pay, and with salaries low, I had been free to carry many low-markup, academic-type books that you wouldn't find in a typical commercial bookstore. These texts made my store fun to browse, set it apart from its competitors, and gave it a certain gravitas. Chet Raymo called it "a community treasure" in his column. Books might carry the lowest margins, but they gave our store a serious educational feel despite all the high-turnover childrens crap that we sold.

No more. Now the pressure was on to improve turn and margins. Even at their best, books could never rival apparel and toys for markup. Gradually, I lost physical space and budget. As much as I loved the institution and was proud of working there, the handwriting was on the wall. I had to move on.

In the 10 years that I'd been insulated from the larger bookselling industry, some serious changes had taken place. First came the rise of Barnes & Noble and its clone, Borders. With their deep pockets and relentless discounting, these book superstores made it impossible for small, independent, general-interest bookstores to compete -- remember, markup was already notoriously low -- and the industry was in a sad period of dramatic decline. This was also about the time (1996) that Amazon.com took bookselling online, stealing away the independents' last competitive advantage -- their special order services and eclectic selections. It was clear that I could not go back to what I'd done before unless I wanted to join the evil empire (Borg & Noble). I made a serious effort to break into book publishing as an editor or a publicity person. But the publishing industry was also in consolidation and I had no education or experience. That went nowhere.

NEXT: Where I ended up

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Welcome to Curio City

Here, at last, begins the blog that I've threatened for months to start. I hope that it will lead to informal contacts with other entrepreneurs who want to share stories and experiences. I hope that it will not lead to a barrage of people trying to sell me something. I get too much of that already.

Once I get the place fully set up, I intend to post at least once a week with the latest shenanigans from Kraken Enterprises, parent corporation of Curio City Online.

Meanwhile, if someone is already reading this, please visit Curio City Online to see what it's all about.

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