Chris Dammacco bought his first video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, at the age of 6. His grandmother gave him $100 as a birthday present and told him to go buy an NES.
From that moment on he was a gamer.
That passion has never faded. Last year Chris started Windy Gaming, a business around vintage, or retro, video games as a side-project while working full-time. Today the childhood passion and side-project has turned into a full-time ecommerce business that yields him about $1,000 per week. What’s even more amazing is that he’s managed to accomplish all this with a basic website, a modest following on social media, and a very DIY approach to product photography.
We document that journey and draw out the lessons you might apply to turn your own passions into a successful (and profitable) full-time business.
Step 1: Tap Into Your Community
If you were a kid in the ‘80s, then these games probably bring back some after-school memories: Duck Hunt, Zelda, Contra, Super Mario Bros., StarTropics, and Donkey Kong.
Some people grew up and never lost touch with those memories.
Chris started Windy Gaming in October of 2012 while he worked full-time as a cheesebroker in Chicago. A friend shipped him a big box of video games from Japan, and he wanted to sell them online.
He tapped into retro video gaming forums online, where he was already an active participant and where potential customers were congregating. He posted about the video games he had, and people immediately started to buy them via PayPal. This happened a few more times before he realized there was enough demand to set up a Facebook page to better handle orders.
When orders continued to pile up, he knew that he needed to upgrade to an actual ecommerce website.
In only three months Chris reached self-sufficiency and no longer needed to keep putting in money to invest in the company. And soon afterwards, he found himself being able to pay his monthly bills with this revenue.
Here’s the lesson: If you participate actively on an online discussion board around a dedicated topic, it becomes easier to identify product opportunities based around what people need and what people lack.
Plus, adding value to the community will help you build goodwill and relationships that will come in handy when it comes time to make your first sale.
Here’s some places to help you discover where your community hangs out online:
Reddit is the largest social media news aggregator and online community site on the internet. It describes itself as the front page of the internet and has millions of active users. Reddit has thousands of “subreddits” which are sub-sections of the site about various topics and and areas of interest.
Simply type your keyword(s) into the search area and Reddit will return a list of sub-reddits related to your niche. Chances are you’ll find an engaged community waiting for you there.
You also start to find product opportunities based on the questions and pain points they identify.
Alltop is a news aggregator that offers a curated list of the top blogs from various categories across the web.
You can search Alltop for a list blogs related to your niche that you can use to engage with people in your community by being active in comments or even guest posting.
Finally, there are thousands of independent forums online with people discussing every topic imaginable.
To find forums related to your passion, simply search for “[keyword] + forum” and you should find a number of good places to start interacting with your target audience.
Step 2: Listen to Your Community and Improve Your Offering
It’s not just that Chris has found a deep fanbase for his products. He listens to them actively and is always figuring out new ways to adapt and please them. And that makes for good business, too.
For example, he observed that most game sellers were charging too much, delivering too little customer service, and weren’t always true fans themselves. He felt that a lot of the sellers were there to make a profit and rip up off fans. He wanted his customers to know that he's one of them.
Chris has tried hard to treat his customers very, very well. That means not being condescending when they talk about their interests and not plumbing for a sale at every opportunity he gets. He also regularly prices his games about 10% to 15% less than what you might find on eBay.
Listening to his customers and engaging with them regularly are useful not only because the people who want retro games will be more likely to buy from him, but it also means that he has a finger on the pulse of the community, which gives him a better sense of what’s in demand.
“It’s because I’m on the forums that I know that some of the early shooter games are popular now,” says Chris. “Games like Gradius and R-Type that are really big now.”
His reward? A dedicated fanbase which trusts him as a knowledgeable dealer and knows that he’ll give them what they’re looking for.
Here’s the lesson: It’s not enough to find the deep community around the product you’re selling. When you engage actively, you get instant feedback which helps you improve your product offering and your business.
Step 3: Be Creative With Product Ideas and Finding Suppliers
Chris has had to get most of his merchandise from Japan simply because that’s where most retro video games come from.
But there are a lot of cool product opportunities overseas. Far too many people stick to selling things they can source locally instead of exploring more broadly for product ideas.
Don’t be afraid to test out new markets and new ideas. There are still many underexplored areas. One of these areas include bringing over goods from overseas.
Chris started Windy Gaming by giving a few hundred dollars to a friend who was in Japan and asked him to send him some retro games back. He got a big box of games, as well as a broken PC Engine LT. He sold all the games, fixed up the PC Engine LT, and then sold that for $700. Once his sales picked up, he started contacting suppliers directly. At this point Chris has a sophisticated network of trusted intermediaries.
Not all of us have friends abroad who can help out like this.
There are some amazing opportunities from out of the country. Pura Vida Bracelets brings bracelets back from Costa Rica. SokoGlam imports beauty products from Korea. And inkkas sells handmade shoes from South America. Try to make international contacts, or just make keep an eye out for interesting products the next time you leave the country. And even if you won’t go abroad any time soon, there are lots of places to look for finding interesting products.
For example, take a look at Alibaba, a site that offers goods mainly from China and also from around the world. You won’t find most of these things in such quantities on Craigslist.
Here’s the lesson: Don’t be caught up by the idea that only the businesses on your doorstep are good suppliers. Very often you’ll find something better further away if only you’re willing to do the legwork. Take a look around.
Step 4: Show Customers That You Care – They Can Tell
Windy Gaming goods are imported in batches from Japan. They’re not sold individually and shipped from Japan every time someone makes an order. So Chris is able to be offer the newest imports at the lowest prices to his customers. But he doesn’t really identify price as a key business differentiator.
“Treating your customers really well means delivering a good experience,” he says.
Chris uses only fresh cardboard for his shipping boxes, and handwraps all of his merchandise in bubblewrap. With each shipment, Chris includes two business cards (the second one is for a friend), and most importantly, a handwritten thank-you note.
“The handwritten notes have paid off in spades,” says Chris. “I’ve had people show me the notes I’ve written them. “They seek me out at conventions and show me what I’ve written them.”
It’s not price, but these little touches that turn fans into dedicated customers. It’s all part of showing people that he cares. He may be selling more cheaply than the dealers on eBay and he may know better than anyone what the community is thinking at any moment, but showing his customers that he cares about them is his truest competitive advantage.
“I want to treat everybody like a human being. You should really get to know your customers and deliver stellar service. They’ll feel it and appreciate it.”
Here’s the lesson: Your customers know when they’re being treated well. There are lots of ways to show that you care, from handwritten notes to checking in with the product experience. These little touches further endear you to your community.
Step 5: Take It Offline
If you’re active with all four of these, great. But there are other opportunities beyond the usual online marketing tactics. Think of these as the beginning, not the end, of your marketing.
Chris knows that video gamers like to meet not only on forums and discussion boards, but also in person for conventions.
Chris goes to these conventions, not only because he’s a passionate gamer but also because he wants to meet his customers. This is just one more way he connects with fans and stays ahead of trends.
He uses these conventions as an opportunity for offline marketing. He’s started to give out “Windy swag”: t-shirts and and stickers with his logo. These have been enormously popular, which has come as a surprise even to him.
Chris has an unconventional PR strategy. Instead of going after print media or even niche blogs, he’s been talking to Youtube hosts who have shows about video games, many of whom don’t have huge followings. He’s been interviewed at some prominent gamer conventions, but more importantly, video bloggers are eager to offer testimonials for him, and to discuss what it’s like to get his games.
Finally, just as businesses sponsor athletes at sporting events, Chris sponsors gamers who display his logo at competitions.
Here’s the lesson: You shouldn’t stop your marketing efforts at writing content, putting out ads, and engaging on social media. Figure out where people gather in the industry and who the trendsetters are, and go after them to promote your products.
What happened in a year? Chris has turned a passion project into a profitable full-time business. He started by selling Japanese video games, has recently brought in American video games, and is about to roll out big video arcade machines later this year.
“Chase the dream,” advises Chris. “Don’t quit. As long as you’re passionate, you can make this work.”
Chris is no longer a cheesebroker. Instead, his childhood passion is now his day job. The business was self-sufficient in three months, and he went from making $1K a month to $1K a week. Soon he’ll be expanding his business and bringing even more great retro games to his fans.
Chase the dream, guys.