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What Small Business Tips Can You Learn From Animal Crossing?

image for Animal Crossing: New Horizons / Screenshot by Andrew Martins
Animal Crossing: New Horizons / Screenshot by Andrew Martins
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch has more small business tips in it than you'd expect.
  • Each in-game vendor embodies different lessons or leadership types.
  • Whether through their work ethic or friendly customer service methods, various real-world small business owners can liken their experience with that of in-game characters.
  • This story is for anyone currently enjoying Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons video game who is interested in starting a small business.

Since the release of Nintendo's smash hit title Animal Crossing: New Horizons earlier this year, many entrepreneurs have taken to the game's tropical paradise and cheery disposition as a means of digital escapism during the coronavirus lockdown.

While it's easy to dismiss the title as a kid's game, there are a surprising number of entrepreneurial takeaways – from business growth to debt repayment – to extract from the cute and surprisingly deep island life-simulation game.

We spoke with several small business owners who are Animal Crossing fans to find out what a startup entrepreneur can learn from the series' cast of colorful characters.

Since the release of the first Animal Crossing title for the Nintendo GameCube in 2001, the series has been a beloved franchise for millions of players. In the span of nearly two decades, the franchise has grown popular enough to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide.

In each game, your character finds itself in a new locale and through a series of circumstances, ends up in debt to the raccoon real estate mogul named Tom Nook who sold you a home, and you are chosen as the new community leader. Though the locales and circumstances for why your character runs the island/city/village/campsite change with each iteration, the overarching series can be best described as a social simulation game that portrays the everyday interactions between the video game's characters. This latest title has your character using Nook's travel company to take a one-way ticket for an island getaway.

What you do during the day – which simulates the real passage of time using the gaming console's internal clock – is up to you. Depending on your level of engagement, you can easily go from catching bugs and picking weeds to designing elaborate living areas for your townsfolk. As you perform tasks and earn Bells, the game world's form of currency, you pay back your home loan to Nook and interact with the various vendors that make their living on your island as furry entrepreneurs. Though each game has a story "end," there's no final boss or end state to the game. Many people in the past have put thousands of hours into their games, thanks to the series' endless replay value, only stopping when a new iteration comes out.

Key takeaway: Nintendo's Animal Crossing is a major part of the zeitgeist because of its relaxing nature during the ongoing pandemic.

While debt management and being a good neighbor are great lessons we can all learn from Animal Crossing, there are plenty of small business fundamentals on display in the game series as well. For instance, Tom Nook's business success has grown over the course of the series, going from shrewd landlord and shop owner to the founder and owner of development company Nook Inc.

Almost everywhere you look, you'll find entrepreneurs hoping to eke out a living among your blossoming town and its people. Their locations can sometimes grow, offering more goods and services, and expanding their physical locations, while other characters value a more ad-hoc approach to their livelihoods.

To better understand what real-world business lessons could be learned and implemented from the digital confines of Animal Crossing, we spoke with several small business owners with experience in both realms.

It's extremely rare that a small business quickly rises to the heights of success. In most instances, becoming a successful business takes years of effort, with some downward trends along the way.

Since Animal Crossing runs on an actual 24-hour scale, time moves at its normal pace. As such, it rewards players that come back to the game every day to complete tasks and reap the rewards of those tasks.

"Animal Crossing encourages you to play every day and do all these small tasks that accumulate to bigger wealth," said Andrea Eu, an Australian teacher who also tutors as a side business. "Being successful requires consistent effort and time."

The internet may have a laugh at Tom Nook's expense by likening the entrepreneurial raccoon's business practices to that of a loan shark, but his can-do spirit in recent titles reflects the hard work he's put into creating Nook Inc. Obviously more well off than his contemporaries by the time New Horizons comes out, he's one of those business leaders that's decided to spread the wealth by helping out other small businesses in his community.

Hunter Wylie, owner of Beyond Blue Media, said the portly raccoon's status in this latest title is a testament to his drive. The level of "hustle" that Nook exudes throughout the game is something Wylie said he can connect with as he grows his own business.

"As time goes on and you build up your house and town, Nook's Cranny goes from being a small business into a superstore," Wylie said. "Tom is always looking for a way to build the community and offer new things on a weekly and monthly basis. He understands the marketplace and runs his store nonstop."

Before starting a business, you must first be able to understand what services or goods you intend to provide to your community. Without a business plan in mind for how your business will eventually become a profitable venture, you'll be starting off on the wrong foot. Being able to find your niche will lead to higher consumer engagement by identifying an unmet need and filling it for your target audience.

The vendors in Animal Crossing each have their own business idea and market that they've cornered on your island. By emulating the vendors' laser focus on serving a need on your previously deserted island, you can find something you enjoy doing while also serving your consumers.

Throughout the game, you use the natural resources available to you to build tools and construct a better living situation on the island. As you make the island nicer, it becomes more marketable to future homeowners and tourists. For Linda Huang, co-founder of Be Boldly PR, that kind of improvisational mindset when faced with challenges can be a huge boon for any small business owner.

"When you start a business, you have to identify a problem and figure out how your product or service can be the solution your customers need. You also learn how to get the most value out of resources available to you," she said. "Working at your business a little bit each day also goes a long way."

Coming from a sisterhood of hedgehog seamstresses, Mable and Sable Able work in their shop every day, designing and selling clothes by hand to the islanders. Through their friendly small talk you learn of the hard work that went into creating their business. Along with their sister Label, who's gone big time and works in the fashion industry as a designer, these prickly trendsetters are who Brigitta Virag, UX designer at Smallpdf, said she relates with the most.

"You can see that the sisters are working hard to create clothing. And as a customer, you feel great about spending your in-game money there," she said.

As for Label, Huang said that sister's focus on following the constantly shifting market through collecting data is a model she relates to personally.

"Label is constantly doing market research and identifying trends," she said. "In PR, much of our work is engrained in identifying market trends and strategizing ways for our clients to be included."

One of the most important aspects of running a small business is customer retention. Though things like the overall shopping experience, prices and other expectations factor into whether a customer keeps coming back to your business, one of the most important factors is good customer service.

When a customer walks into your establishment, they should immediately feel comfortable in their surroundings. By giving your customers space while also being available to handle any questions or issues that crop up, you are letting visitors know that you respect their time and space as a shopper.

By constantly working to make sure you provide the best customer service possible, you put your small business in a better position than those that fail to provide a good experience.

While their uncle Tom Nook runs the show, Tommy and Timmy run the island's general store dubbed Nook's Cranny. These young and diminutive raccoons spend their days tending to their uncle's retail outfit, and they do it without complaint. They're known for having a sunny disposition and a penchant for good customer service.

Though he wouldn't say he directly relates to the two younger Nooks, Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of GetVoIP, said every small business owner should strive to emulate how they interact with potential customers.

"I do admire Timmy and Tommy's dedication to good customer service," he said. "Although they have expanded several times and enjoyed huge success, their customer service is always at the highest level."

By persistently moving forward and keeping a tight focus on the tasks at hand, entrepreneurs can learn to adapt their businesses to meet new challenges and to find alternative solutions, which can help them push through difficult times.

Anne Szustek Talbot, vice president of content at BX3, said both life on her Animal Crossing island and real-world entrepreneurship "share an appreciation for scrappiness," since you start out with "nary any Bells in your pocket."

"It takes grit to arrive on your island, camp out in a tent, and catch enough fish and bugs to build enough equity to have a three-story home and a landscaped island complete with branches of the Able Sisters, a full-fledged Nook's Cranny, and a town hall/business center," she said. "Similarly, entrepreneurs need to make the most of every opportunity and treat them as a learning experience. You have to catch some moths with a bug net made out of twigs before buying a computer. Well, maybe not exactly like that, but there will be humbling experiences in your entrepreneurial journey."

Establishing a strong network of small business owners and other professionals can be a huge help to any entrepreneur starting out. No two business owners have shared the same experiences, but they can offer you advice and impart knowledge along the way.

Though Animal Crossing takes place in a digital space, this latest iteration's "Stalk Market" has an online component. As such, people are networking with friends, family members and complete strangers to find the highest prices to sell their turnips. Since turnip prices fluctuate twice a day for six days out of the week, being able to compare selling prices can mean the difference between selling at a loss and earning millions in profit.

"As a starting entrepreneur, reaching out and being active in your current network will encourage friends and family to spread news about your business through word-of-mouth," said Huang. "That is personally how we secured our first clients starting off, and we were able to grow Be Boldly from there."

Your business's bottom line relies on two things: revenue and costs. While most costs come in the form of physical items you need to operate, the amount of time needed to complete tasks is another cost to consider.

The profit potential question was one that Virag said she quickly recognized on her island, since the old adage "time is money" applied almost immediately.

"It's always essential to weigh profit vs. the time it takes to make money out of something," she said. "For example, it's not worth your time to farm a lot of fruit. With a big orchard, you can produce about 150,000 to 200,000 bells, which takes four days of wait time, time to collect the fruit, and time to manage and sell your inventory," she said. "In comparison, players can make three million Bells easily on the 'Stalk Market,' in two to three hours."

Not all vendors in Animal Crossing are created equal. While most provide an easygoing and honest shopping experience, Jolly Redd is the opposite. This shifty fox periodically visits your island to sell artwork in a dark corner of his houseboat. Located in a hard-to-reach location on the island, the shopping experience is immediately an issue, since it's hard to see the things you want to buy. As you later find out, that's for good reason since many of the art pieces are forgeries.

By selling fakes at high prices, Redd has shifted the profit potential question in the wrong direction. Sure, the cost to obtain a forgery is likely to be scores less than that of a legitimate work of art, but his profit figures will plummet once people realize he's a scam artist. As a result, Yonatan said Redd is the type of businessperson everyone should avoid becoming, if only because the business model is unsustainable (and illegal).

"Redd lies too much. Once he has scammed you, you want to run in the other direction anytime you see him. As such, he rarely retains customers," he said. "That said, I am not sure if his is a business or just a scam venture."

Key takeaway: Animal Crossing: New Horizons may look like a children's game, but it's chock full of small business lessons. Nearly every good vendor in the game hustles to get your patronage, offers a good product and does so in a friendly manner, which are all things you should be doing as a small business owner.