Play Satellite was lucky to sit down and speak with Douglas Costello, co-founder of Wyrmwood Gaming in Massachusetts. Five years ago they launched their first Kickstarter and now Wyrmwood is a well respected brand for high-end gaming accessories, made by hand, to order. Their products communicate that tabletop gaming is here to stay and meant to last a lifetime. We asked Doug to pull back the curtain on his business, to help us to understand what crafting products for people’s passions by hand means to him. As you read what Doug has to say, you will see that Wyrmwood is becoming pivotal in cultivating the passion that keeps this industry alive and thriving.
Play Satellite: What do you do and how did you get started?
Douglas Costello: I am one of the founders of Wyrmwood Gaming. I graduated from art school, which is the start of it I guess, and quickly realized that I had to do something; typical, ‘graduate from college and what now?’ At that point, my brother, Ian Costello, who is also one of the founders of Wyrmwood, was in a traditional apprenticeship, a woodworking apprenticeship, south of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, called Padanaram. Lot of hand skills, lot of making furniture with chisels and handsaws. There was a real hand tool emphasis. I went into school thinking I was going to get into the video game industry, but the thing about the video game industry is you need to be ridiculously, ridiculously talented, and also a little bit masochistic in some way. I, luckily, had the self knowledge to realize I was not good enough to make it in that industry, so I joined this apprenticeship and found another outlet for my creative inclinations.
PS: And there is another founding member alongside you and your brother?
DC: Yes, Ed Maranville. What he had was an excess of time. He went to college, got out of college, and was trying to figure out what to do, just like me. I had this woodworking and art background and Ed had this real love of gaming. And I’m a gamer too. Ed and I game multiple times per week. So Ed helped me a lot with developing the products and testing the products. He’s a really talented, intelligent guy.
PS: You mentioned earlier not being good enough for the video game industry. I think that feeling is something a lot of people can relate to. Did you have a moment where that really frustrated you or upset you?
DC: No, not particularly. If you want to talk about the design process, failure is an integral part of the design process. Design is repeated failures towards a goal. When I got out of school, I read a book called A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook. Ian read it during his apprenticeship and he gave it to me to read. That book made the transition easier. It gave me a goal. It’s the story of a man, James Krenov, who’s a famous furniture maker. It’s the story of his life with craft as a solitary, lone craftsman, working not for a mass market appeal but for himself- doing the best kind of work he can do. That was a very romantic and persuasive vision that I was able to latch onto quickly. I sort of traded in one goal or aspiration or dream and jumped into the next one. I didn’t really wallow in self pity for too long. Books can be very inspirational, and change people’s lives! It’s a fine balance. You do need grit and determination. That’s an important part of success, but you cannot say those are the only things. You need to know when to pivot, when to stop beating your head against that wall and try something else.
PS: How did the business get started? What was it like in the beginning?
DC: I finished my apprenticeship in woodworking and I had to, unfortunately, get a ‘real job.’ I worked at a bank for a number of years as a teller while I was building my workshop. When the workshop was done I decided to take the plunge and be a full time custom furniture maker just like James Krenov. So I took the dive and quit my job. I was living alone in my workshop with my newly married wife and we found out that she was pregnant. Great timing. At that point I was talking seriously to Ed and he brought the idea of gaming accessories to the table. Ed was like hey, look at these game accessories and hey there’s this website called Kickstarter. We launched our first Kickstarter five years ago and there was instant success.
The reason we started off in accessories is, when you do something small, it lets you ship it anywhere in the world for not a lot of money. Making something small that’s easy to ship, for a maker, is a nice place to start. Furniture is big and clunky and the shipping is expensive and the whole thing is daunting. So we started in accessories, really out of necessity. Kickstarter, plus gamers, plus my skill set, equals Wyrmwood. As a gamer and a craftsman, I looked for the intersection between the two and used Kickstarter as a way to reach other gamers who care about craftsmanship. We primarily do accessories, dice trays, dice vaults, dice towers, DM screens. That’s the majority of our business, but now I’m going back to my roots and we’re doing furniture which is nice. For me, that’s coming full circle.
PS: People recognize the quality and want products that will last a lifetime. It’s satisfying to know this company exists and is appreciated.
DC: I think you’re right. I think it’s not only in Wyrmwood but with my wife and I, we get most of our food from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). We go to a farm to get our vegetables once a week. That’s the same idea and we pay a premium for that. To speak to the success of Wyrmwood, it used to be just me, Ed and Ian. What’s great to me, is we now have thirty craftsmen working with us. They are going through apprenticeships, learning skills, building skill sets, and if I have my way and people continue to support us, these apprenticeships will turn into lifelong careers. It used to be crafts and working with your hands were commonplace and hopefully, maybe in the future, it will be more commonplace again. We are building that back up. The success has been exponential.
PS: Your company seems to be a marker for the growth we’re seeing in the gaming industry and even continued growth.
DC: You want to sell to people’s passions. What people care about. What people are spending their time thinking about. When people are getting out of work, what are they doing? Whatever that is, you want to be a part of that because whatever that is, that’s their passion. And when people personally identify with something, and are personally very passionate about something, people are willing to invest more of their money.
PS: Why do you enjoy handling exotic woods?
DC: Why are exotic woods, woods that come from tropical rainforests, so drop dead gorgeous? They’re gorgeous because, when you’re in a humid climate, you are always fighting fungal infections, rot and insects. Those trees are pumping themselves full of essentially anti-fungal and anti-insecticidal chemicals and those chemicals are brilliantly colored. When you go up north and you cut down a pine tree, it’s had a nice cold winter and the cold winter keeps all the bugs and fungus relatively at bay. The tropical woods, because they live in a steam box, and are fighting to preserve themselves, are just full of gorgeous colors. We do not use exotic woods to save money. Woods like rosewood and mahogany are a luxury. We use the woods because of the working characteristics. They are different and they are exceptional. When you look at the size of our products, we use fairly little of the material and we charge a fair bit for this luxury, taking a portion of those sales and using them to help preserve the rainforest. If the forests go away, Wyrmwood goes away. This is a symbiotic relationship.
PS: I’d like to ask you about Geek Chic from a business perspective. What to you attribute to the biggest differences between your company and that one?
DC: Geek Chic’s model was a lot of different table designs with different price points. At Wyrmwood, we have one design that we worked really hard on making. We offer different types of woods and there’s different price points in that way. With Geek Chic’s designs, each of those tables needed infrastructure that had to be built for those designs. In terms of a business strategy I think that wasn’t a very smart move, because it’s very hard to run a production environment that way. When you’re working with only different wood types, while some need to be treated differently, it’s still the same fundamental design. I approach Wyrmwood and business as a woodworker. I think the owners of Geek Chic were more entrepreneurs in a sense. They had a vision, and went out and got venture capital funding. Wyrmwood does not carry any debt. We are 100% solvent. It’s so hard to do anything in today’s world without going into debt. You can’t even get an education without going into debt. Debt introduces fragility that can cause a lot of problems if the scales tip in the wrong direction. Geek Chic had millions of dollars worth of debt. On their sales, if they weren’t making any money on the sales, they quickly turned into liabilities and you can go out of business very quickly that way. To their credit, I think they were trailblazers in this space. They basically came up with the concept of a game table. They deserve a lot of credit for that. But the way they approached it, leveraging the risk, killed them.
PS: What’s one of your favorites things about Wyrmwood?
DC: I consider Wyrmwood one of the only modern companies that I’ve ever run into. I’m just gonna toot my own horn here for a second. Inside the company, we have complete transparency. Everybody in the company knows what’s going on in the company. Everybody in this company has flex time. They get to make their own hours. We’re a manufacturing company. This is not like software, high tech, anything like that. We’re not looking to make a killing, we’re looking to make a living. It was a series of fortunate events that led us here and we’re just trying to make the most of it.
Interview conducted by Jennifer Graham-Macht and Rachel Barry. Images provided by Wyrmwood Gaming