17th June 2021 | 9 minutes
One evening in January 2021, my wife came up to me and asked me:
Hey, I saw people are selling Animal Crossing items online. Could we do that too?
Little did I know that I had just been nerd-sniped harder than I have been in the entire past decade.
Some of you may have come across the breakout hit of Nintendo Switch games in 2020 -- Animal Crossing: New Horizons! It's a wonderfully weird game about moving to an empty island and building yourself a town to live in with anthropomorphic animals.
As part of this you collect a lot of items, furniture and crafting materials as well as all your favorite cuddly villagers. Given the nature of this kind of game, it takes a long time to get all the things you want. And where there's grinding, there's people profiting from making the grind time shorter.
Before my wife asked me that all important question I mentioned above, I had learned that there is such a thing as "treasure islands" in the Animal Crossing community. It's a simple concept: You pay the owner of the island some money and you get to spend a certain amount of time on their island. The island is usually filled with a ton of furniture and other items that the game has to offer. During your scheduled time you can visit as often as you can possibly fit. Many sellers tend to hang out on Facebook or Etsy.
Our goal was to set up one of those treasure islands ourselves. However doing so manually would mean an unsustainable amount of work. Luckily we managed to gather some information from a seller that my wife used to talk to and we had a rough game plan.
We'd need to modify save files on the Switch. The easiest way to do this is via homebrew software.
I was lucky! I had done Homebrew hackery on a Nintendo DS Lite when I was a teenager. So this should be easy, right?
Things have changed drastically since the olden days of inserting an SD card into a modified game cart. For the Nintendo Switch, you have to exploit the recovery mode of the integrated Nvidia Tegra processor. The annoying part is: The exploit only exists on older Nintendo Switch consoles. I'm not going to describe the process here, but anyone curious can find out more on relevant sites.
Sadly, our existing Switch was not compatible, so we had a choice to make: buy a seperate, used Switch for the price of a new one or stop right here. Personally I was rather hesitant as I didn't want to invest that much money in what seemed like a very risky idea.
My wife, however, had just gotten her tax return and was more than willing to invest the money into the idea. And so we went to our local classifieds website and shopped around. Eventually we found a compatible Switch for the price of $350 and bought it. We christened him "Rodney".
As soon as the Switch and all the necessary equipment arrived, I got around to setting things up! First we had to make backups of the Switch's existing OS with an Animal Crossing save file on it. This was fairly easy, but took a relatively long time as the dump of the Switch takes up roughly 30GB.
Next, we had to find appropriate tools for decoding the backup, extracting/re-injecting the save file and an Animal Crossing save editor. Here the GBATemp forums proved very helpful! All in all it took me about 2 days of fairly intense after-work fiddling to figure out the entire process.
Since we now knew how to deal with the Switch and modifying the game itself, our next problem was figuring out marketing and distribution. After doing some competitor research we figured that the best place to go would probably be Etsy. We found that there was a small community of sellers there, so we had a pre-established market. All of them had 50-100 sales logged in their account so clearly customers were willing to use Etsy to get what they need. We just had to start our own little shop.
While I am decent enough at dealing with tech topics, I am not one for creative matters. This is where my wife took over and started showing her prowess. In short order she created a brand identity, designed three seperate islands using the save game editor and created marketing materials for it all. Within a week we had our brand and our islands set up.
Say hello to Mama Tita's!
Setting up a shop on Etsy is a fairly painless process. Just fill in all necessary fields, add your bank account to get the money and submit your tax information. Finally on February 10 we pushed the magical "Go Live" button and our shop was out there! Exciting!
As further marketing measures we also established an Instagram account.
Our first order actually came in the very first night that we were putting ourselves out there! What a rush! We got to setting up our island on the Switch and asked the person to come on over for their trip! She had booked an hour, enjoyed a great time and we made our first $5!
As it turned out the amount of marketing required on our part was actually very little. I'm not sure how it works exactly, but Etsy did an amazing job of bringing in customers for us. This actually worked so well that within two days we sold a total of 10 orders!
We kept hitting fascinating milestones at a breakneck speed. Within three days of launch we surpassed $100 in revenue. Within six days of launching we passed 40 processed orders. Eight days after launch we had made back our initial investment for the hackable Switch! Within 12 days we had gotten bestseller status on Etsy! Two weeks in we had over 100 sales. It was freaking wild.
Then we started noticing that more and more customers were referred to us by friends and we started being booked out for almost a week in advance. More and more this "side-business" of ours was taking over our days. We spent a lot of time scheduling slots with customers, converting times from our local UTC+1 to various other timezones and just supporting customers with any and all questions they had.
This became quite stressful, and we both spent a lot of time balancing between working on our real jobs and dealing with customer requests as well as setting up the Switch. Although setting up the Switch was really the smallest part of the job. But clearly, we needed a better way to deal with scheduling. If only one of us was a programmer. Oh, wait..
As an aside, all of our traffic at this point was brought in either by Etsy or word of mouth. We did zero marketing of our own.
After trying to setup a Calendly and deciding that it is way too complicated and restricted for our use case I sat down, went to Namecheap and bought a domain. Time to build a scheduling calendar! I whipped up a Laravel project together with Tailwind and Livewire and a day or two later we had the first version of our booking calendar.
While in the first version the user still had to manually select their timezone this calendar got more and more functionality. Eventually the timezone was read straight from the user's browser and the time was automatically displayed in 12/24-hour time based on their preferences -- We had a few incidents with American customers confusing 03.00 for 3pm instead of 3am. That was good fun!
Also just for fun I added a Telegram integration that would ping us every time a new reservation for a treasure island visit came in. I had to mute that one fairly quickly.
Around this time (we're talking roughly end of March), we had almost fully automated the most intense parts of the business. At this point customers were picking their preferred time without any manual intervention on our part and we were regularly booked out for days ahead. All we had to do was occasionally reset the Switch and load in the new island. The total amount of effort this took was ~5 minutes per customer.
In general we were able to process between 12 and 16 orders every single day.
Since we were seeing so many sales come in, we eventually decided to open up our calendar from just a few days ahead to a whole month ahead. And people took to it like crazy. This lead to the peak point of us having roughly 60 open orders in our Etsy account.
The problem with this is that Etsy has some seller protections in place. Many of our orders were marked as overdue since people were booking weeks in advance. Eventually this lead to Etsy putting our shop on a forced break as we "appeared to be struggling with fulfilling orders", even though we really weren't.
We learned at this point that one can update the shipping date in Etsy and we could have prevented this. Oops! So we had to spend two weeks working through all our orders before Etsy re-enabled our shop. During this time a few close friends also kept pushing us to increase prices, so as to reduce the workload and increase profits. We fought them tooth and nail on this as the price range in this niche is very tight, but eventually we did raise prices by about 40%.
When we came back with the new prices business picked up again straight away and while we had less orders, we were still making roughly equivalent money. Better than we had feared!
I wish I could tell you that we lived happy ever after running a massively successful shop on Etsy on the side forever and ever. Sadly, Nintendo had a word to say about that and on April 24th we noticed that we were receiving no orders in the evening, which was highly unusual. As we were rather tired that day we didn't mind so much and just went on our merry way.
Then we received a message from a customer: "Hey, where can I book my island trip?". We informed them to just purchase one of the available Etsy listings.
Okay, but I don't see any listings on your profile
Wait, WHAT!? We immediately checked into our shop page and it was true! No more listings on our profile. Etsy had taken them down! We were extremely confused as to what happened, because there was no notice in the UI. So I told my wife to check her email for any message from Etsy.
And there was a new email.
Information regarding a DMCA infringement
Oh, no. We always knew that our business operated in a shady area in regards to Nintendo's Terms of Service. We knew that they might actually notice our shop if it gets too successful. But it seemed like a distant reality. But here it was.
The email was quite polite and in it Etsy informed us that they had taken down our listings due to a copyright claim by Nintendo of Europe. From what we were able to tell they weren't approaching this from the angle of us violating their terms, but rather they took us down through the fact that we seemingly used protected materials to advertise our service.
At this point we had a discussion and decided that we don't want to risk any further trouble with Nintendo. It wasn't an easy choice, but we decided to refund all remaining orders and end the shop there, before things became serious.
This is the story of Mama Tita's. The shop ran for a total of 2 months and 14 days. In that time we made $2,386 in revenue. If you subtract our initial investment in comes out to a fairly even $2,000 in profits.
It was an incredibly wild ride and it showed me that you can find success in the most unexpected places. And while we do miss the shop and the joy we brought our customers, we were also rather glad. Being "always on" for customer requests can be quite exhausting, even if most things are automated.
I'm grateful that we were able to do this and for all the customers who became friends along the way. And next time my wife comes to me with a wild business idea, I'll definitely join her again!