Jo Smedley, Red Herring Games, Grimsby
With the tagline ‘There’s something fishy going on’ – and not forgetting their trusty mascot, Sherlock the fish – Red Herring Games is an award-winning business specialising in bespoke murder mystery games and events. We spoke to the founder, Jo Smedley, to find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career before running this business?
I trained to be an occupational therapist and was working happily in the NHS, specialising in stroke care, until I went off on maternity leave. By that point, in my opinion, the NHS had become a statistics machine and the joy just wasn’t there anymore.
I’d been writing as a hobby for some time, so I spent a lot of my maternity leave focusing on it, hopeful that I might eventually get some purchase with a book or screenplay. To my joy, I even had an agent for a few years, but I found out they were bogus when the police called me up pursuing them for fraud!
The thing is, the more you write, the better you get, so they did me a favour, as I had begun writing more and more, and improved my skills, even if I was still no further forward getting a book in print.
What was it that inspired you to start such a niche business?
When it came to working out what to do after maternity leave, I fell on my baking skills and followed the idea of running a coffee shop. I found a property, pulled together a business plan and approached a bank and their immediate response was “no”. I had no capital to invest, so they wouldn’t fund the purchase, especially given my lack of experience in running a business. And I thought that was that.
I was drowning my sorrows with friends that evening when they suggested trying to sell the murder mystery games we’d been playing with friends for a number of years. I’d started writing the games originally because the church youth group I was running wanted to host one, and all the boxed sets on the market contained unsuitable plot lines for ‘tweenagers’.
But after trialling it with the parents it became a big hit, and I was writing a new one every six months or so. I’d never even considered selling them, but with their encouragement I started looking for a route to market them and found a firm in America that was taking on authors.
I signed up, but realised quite early on into the arrangement this wasn’t going to net a deposit for a business any time soon.
I was lamenting the firm’s poor customer service, the frustration of having to force my games into their templates and the ways I’d change their business if I could run it myself, when they simply said: “Why don’t you?” And I thought: “Why not?”
They were web designers, and between us we hatched a plan to launch my own murder mystery company in the UK. We would pay the authors a better royalty, focus on customer care and usability and sell the games the way I knew would be easiest for the customers to run them.
How important is branding?
For me branding is very important. Our top Google search is for our brand name – which means word has got out and people are searching for ‘Red Herring Games’ or ‘Red Herring murder mystery’ to find us.
When we launched, we were competing with a lot of firms who had ‘murder mystery’ in their names. This meant they had a head start on us when it came to SEO on their website URL.
However, we felt if we were unique enough, the URL benefits those competitors had would be quickly overcome – and that proved to be the case.
We launched our Red Herring fish mascot when we started running murder mystery events as a social media tool to market that side of the business. Sherlock – that’s the fish – has worked well for us and is popular with our actors as well as guests. He’s currently in need of a re-stitch and some new felt, so he’s been out of circulation a bit.
Have you had any business nightmares?
Oh yes… We lost nearly £16k in sales due a breakdown in our website a few Christmases ago. And that, coupled with two bad business decisions within that same year – one, to expand into wholesale too quickly and two, employing a sales and PR agency who didn’t do what we paid them for – meant I got into debt faster than I could get out.
I had some dreadful moments that year with threatening solicitors letters and debt recovery agencies contacting me, but managed to negotiate a phased payment system to clear the debts, reduce our staffing levels and take other cost-saving measures to keep our head above water.
I was very fortunate in that my main suppliers were really supportive and held off their own invoices to allow me to get to the next peak sales season before I needed to clear their bills. Without their support – and that of my husband taking out some private loans and a loan from my mother-in-law – I wouldn’t still be here.
It was galling, as I knew the business model worked and our business was viable and profitable. I’d just made some poor decisions and not fully considered my cash flow. I could see the money on the edge of the horizon but it was just out of reach.
When you have a seasonal business, a sales failure over peak season really can make or break your business. Most small businesses lack a financial cushion to cope with glitches, so a break in sales can sink them really quickly.
What advice would you give to other small-business owners?
The most important advice I can give to other small-business owners is to spend time getting to know your suppliers. And always pay them promptly when the invoice arrives, not at the 30-day deadline.
Make sure you form really good business relationships with them, helping them to find other clients, referring them work etc. Even better, join a business networking group and connect to your suppliers through that, as you’ll meet them regularly both for business and socially.
If the rubber ever hits the road in your business, having a good business relationship with them will help you no end as they’ll cut you a little slack and help you get back up on your feet.
The other important advice is to walk the extra mile for your customers. Always strive to improve their customer experience.
Good service is nothing to write home about these days, but if a business goes the extra mile for you, you will recommend them. And that’s what you want from your customers.
Word-of-mouth referrals are both the best and the most costly to get in terms of your time investment – but they always pay off better than pay-per-click on Google.