I said that despite taking me away from virtually every other interest in my life, being obsessed with a start-up is worth it.
In thinking it over today, I realized that 7 Generation Games meets every possible desire I could have
Mental – making a game truly challenges me both intellectually and creatively every day. It began with creating, with my partners, a vision of a virtual world – what would the people look like, the scenery, what would they do? How would this dovetail with math? How can we make it interesting enough that children keep playing it? On top of all of these questions is how to write the code to get it to run, record data and for all of the parts – database, 2D program, web input forms, 3D programs – to work together. There really isn’t anything more satisfying in life than seeing something that started out existing only in my brain becoming real. It’s exactly like being a parent except that 16 years from now the games won’t tell me I’m ruining their life by refusing to sign them up for a club soccer team.
Emotional – there is the good part of the emotion of working on 7 Generation Games. We are sincerely striving to make it easier for more kids to learn math. When our games succeed, students improve their chances of passing grades, graduating from high school and going on to college because math is a hierarchical subject. If you don’t understand division, you aren’t going to get fractions. If you don’t understand ratios you’ll fail geometry and statistics. They also learn Native American history, pick up some words in native languages and even increase their vocabulary in English. There is also the elimination of the negative part of working many other places. I can make my own hours and since I am allergic to mornings, I can get up at 10 a.m. Because I telecommute, I almost never have to drive in LA traffic. I seldom have to wear a suit. I work only with really smart, motivated, interesting people. The teachers who use our games and provide us feedback are a delight because they are the ones who are on the forefront trying new things, and not shy about giving their ideas for improvement.
Physical – if we’re going on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this is the basic ones, food, shelter, heat, etc. While our Chief Marketing Officer joined up because she expects us to make a lot of money, and I’m not averse to that, we do make enough to cover the bills. We’re not yet making what we would be if we had taken corporate job offers, but it covers private school for The Spoiled One, trips to see Darling Daughter Number Three continue to dominate the world in mixed martial arts, wedding expenses for The Perfect Jennifer and visits to The Even More Perfect Grandchildren. My goal is to be like Bill Gates, both in making software a billion people use and in giving away a billion dollars.
Today I worked on making a game more fun for kids. Tomorrow, I will work on putting in new ideas, new challenges for helping kids learn more. Yes, I actually get to do this for a living as a grown-up. How awesome is that?
The number one thing not to do is other things. If you find yourself saying a sentence that ends with “but we’re going to keep working on the startup,” you are in big trouble…. We’re taking on some consulting projects, but we’re going to keep working on the startup. You may as well just translate these to “we’re giving up on the startup, but we’re not willing to admit that to ourselves,” because that’s what it means most of the time. A startup is so hard that working on it can’t be preceded by “but.”
In particular, don’t go to graduate school, and don’t start other projects.
As my co-founder, Maria and I discussed today, that is absolutely true but it’s also true that it may take some time to get to the “Nothing but the startup” point. In our case, we had existing contracts we needed to fulfill, mine with consulting clients and hers with ESPN and Fox News Latino. You also have to be in the financial position that you can afford to not only work at a reduced salary for years but at the same time pay for expenses – artwork for the game, animation, travel expenses to demonstrate the game. As you grow, there are other expenses for tech support, promotional items like the posters the teachers put up in the classrooms, the $25o I just paid to have a table at Women 2.0 Founder Friday in Los Angeles.
Paul Graham’s article was the second-best advice I have read on starting a business. The best was a book by Paul Hawken I bought over 20 years ago called Growing a Business. He advised a couple of things. One is that you learn how to do as much for yourself as possible instead of paying for expensive “experts”. Justin Flores does our artwork, with occasional contributions from Gene Wilson, because I totally suck at art. Other things, whether it is CSS or sound editing with Garageband, I just learned. I took a class at MacWorld one year, bought some books. Yes, I took several books out of the library, too, instead of buying them. Hawken’s other advice was to keep your operating costs as low as possible, thus making it possible to follow the advice of Graham 20 years later which is to just do your start-up.
We have an office upstairs where The Invisible Developer works, shielded from all human eyes, and an office downstairs where I work and so does Marisol, Maria when she is in town and the occasional intern. Because we have been in this location in Santa Monica for over 30 years and the city has rent control, the rent for our space comes up to under $500 a month. The down side of that is that it is not at all feasible for us to move. The Spoiled One would like us to move to Ojai. I’d really like to live somewhere we could have a dog, but it is not in the cards.
Doing “nothing but a startup” means saying “No” a lot, and saying “Yes” to the right things.
It’s good to be learning new stuff in a new area, but there is also new stuff in the old area – like the SAS model selection procedures, that I really wish I had time to learn. I’ve been writing on my blog less. I quit teaching at Pepperdine University as an adjunct because I just could not commit the time to showing up once a week for four months straight.
It’s absolutely beautiful weather most of the time in Santa Monica and I rarely make it outside because I am working. I’ve quit volunteering nearly as often. I teach judo once a week at Gompers Middle School and several times a year, I have to get a friend of mine to substitute for me. I’ve resigned from all non-profit boards I used to be on except for one, and when the board chair term expires this year, I’m stepping down from that.
As consulting contracts have expired, I haven’t renewed them. I’ve turned down several offers to teach classes, present at conferences and take on new consulting clients.
I wrote a book on matwork for judo and mixed martial arts last year, but I’m not working on another book.
All of this has now enabled me to spend 8, 10 or 12 hours a day most days doing nothing but working on 7 Generation Games (while only getting paid for less than half of those hours!) and the result is that we are progressing far faster than we were a year earlier.
Is it all worth it? Yes.
When I add up all of the ad revenue from this blog on top of the business it garners, in a good month it might average out to $30 an hour and in a not-so-good month maybe $10. Since my consulting rate is a heck of a lot more than $30 an hour you might wonder why I bother. If you read this blog regularly you can guess that it is the same reason I do most things, for the hell of it.
However, occasionally there are some perks that are priceless. One of those was the opportunity to be on the call this morning on the White House call with Sam Kass, Executive Director of Let’s Move. Thanks a million to Blogher for setting this up. I am SO-O not a morning person and the call was at 8 a.m. Pacific time. I almost tried to get Maria to fill in for me but she tactfully pointed out that it would be hard for her to pass off for me because she did not sound sufficiently old.
So, barely awake on my first cup of coffee, I still learned a lot on this call. There were many bloggers, with diverse interests, and the question and answer session at the end revealed that. A nutritionist asked about the likelihood of stopping junk food and soft drink sales in schools. A food blogger asked about the quality of school lunches. When Sam Kass mentioned documented higher math scores among students with free breakfast programs, of course I perked up and asked for more details.
Now, I’m good at math and I thought if three hours after school are important – often the time between when kids get out of school and their parents get home – and you have at most one hour of physical activity, what are kids doing in after-school programs in the other two hours. Surely, they can’t spend two hours just eating fruits and vegetables, right?The most interesting part to me was the lengthy discussion of the three hours after school as being vitally important. This is a personal interest of mine, since for the last three years, I have volunteered at an after school program teaching judo. (The daughter in the middle started that judo program five years ago and taught it for the first two years.) It was also interesting, though, because he mentioned the importance of 60 minutes of physical activity a day, at least 30 minutes of it occurring in school seems to be a goal.
Our games are used in a couple of after school programs, and that’s great. However, the games we have available now are aimed at mathematics in grades 3 through 6. What about older kids?
I visit a lot of disadvantaged communities and one of the disadvantages students have is that they don’t really have much idea of the type of opportunities out there for future careers, what people do or how they get those jobs. So … I thought one thing I could offer immediately is an inside look at making computer games. Not one to let grass grow under my feet, I sent an email this evening to 30 teachers I know and linked to a few parts of the game we are working on now. These are in pretty rough form. However, if the students check in every day after school they can see what we have done in the past 24 hours. It should be fun for them to see how the game takes shape. Some of the pages don’t have sound yet. They don’t have the bells and whistles and “yoo-hoo” that comes up when a student passes a quiz or goes up a level.
That whole “Take your child to work day” isn’t available to a lot of students, and if they live in a small rural community, the kind of jobs they can be taken to is limited. So … I decided to reach out to students after school and take a whole lot of them to work with me for the next six weeks. Too often, whether it is software or scientific research, students are presented with the final product and think it is made by people who are far smarter and more talented than them. If they only saw how rough it is at the beginning and the amount of hacking into shape it takes — and now they will.
I attended Survivor 8, the Tech Coast Venture Network fast pitch competition last night, and I thought I’d give my thoughts in case you are considering attending a similar event in the future. In keeping with the 30-second format, I’ll give you my take away now – it is worth it if you have an extra $50 and a few hours of time. If your main goal is to win the advertised $25,000 prize, I wouldn’t bother.
How it works – you give a 30-second pitch, then 10 companies are called back to give a three-minute pitch and then three of them are called back for a ten-minute question and answer period with the judges. If you have not been to an event like this before, it is interesting to see the types of questions the judges ask.
The point I missed before going – and it was totally my fault – is that this is a competition for how well you pitch your product. Of the three finalists, it turned out at the Q & A stage that two of them had no actual product. Questions with one went like this:
“How have results been with your prototype?”
“We don’t have a prototype.”
“You don’t have a prototype?”
“Yes, we do have a prototype.”
“What have the results been in your lab?”
“We don’t have a lab. We are looking for lab space. However, we did a literature review and a study with 12 people in Spain found …”
No question, though, the three-minute pitch was terrific, before they got to questions about actual product.
A second finalist, when asked if their demo was an actual working product replied,
After we placed second in another start-up competition we put up a website to take pre-orders. We are negotiating now to bring in a team member who is a developer.
The people at my table found all of this highly amusing, since most of us had actual products, even if only in the beta stage. The person next to me laughed,
We didn’t realize you didn’t actually have to be able to build anything! Next year, we’re coming with an app that will bring about world peace.
I’m not faulting the Tech Coast Venture Network. They had advertised it as a pitch competition and that is – sort of, what it was. I say “sort of” because I was confused by the third finalist and eventual winner – a good company, that did have a product and had put in $500,000 of their own money. As far as stage of development, they are about where we are with 7 Generation Games. However, I did not think their 30-second pitch was good at all, nor was their three-minute pitch all that impressive, so while it was very clear why they were selected among the three finalists, how the three finalists were chosen was not as clear. I think (and I assumed this before I came so I was not upset) that more than the actual presentation is part of the judging.
This is the fourth open event I’ve attended where people pitched their companies. I pitched our company at this one and at one over a year ago when we were just beginning development on our first game. The other two, I just went as a spectator. This is admittedly a small sample, so take the following statistics with that in mind.
Of the four events, only one implied that the winner would receive an investment from the venture capital group sponsoring the event. The one last night gave a cash prize. The other two received meetings with venture capitalists.
- Of a combined 26 semi-finalists, none were black or Latino, although there were black and Latino founders at all of these events.
- None of the four winners were women.
- Of the two events that had semi-finalists (two went straight to finals, so I lumped them in the semi-finalists above), only last night’s event had any female-owned companies – there were two out of ten and neither made the finals. That was an improvement because the event I attended a couple of years ago had zero out of ten.
- While all but one of the finalists/ semi-finalists in the previous events were under 40, there were at least two companies in the Survivor 8 semi-finalists who were definitely over 40, including the eventual winner.
- With 120 companies presenting, your chances of winning the $25,000 prize are less than 1%.
Since between Maria and I, we probably took the equivalent of two days of our staff to prepare, was it worth it? In statistical terms 1/120 * $25,000 = $208 . Subtract the $50 for the dinner and your average cash value is $158, which is far less than I make in two days. I am sure many of those pitching spent more time than us preparing. The answer many people would give me is that if you don’t have the optimistic attitude that you’re going to win that you have no business being an entrepreneur, so my statistics don’t apply.
That’s not the reason I thought it was worth attending. It was an opportunity to meet people we might want to work with in the future, both as collaborators and investors. I was very interested in speaking with people from a few companies who are doing video editing, because I can foresee a need for that.
Events like these not only give the investors a chance to meet you, but also give you a chance to meet and get to know the investors a little bit. While I’ve met some perfectly nice people, and a couple have given me some very useful advice, there are also a few people I’ve decided would not be a good fit as investors for our company. Deciding to accept investment is a two-way street, and neither party should be making that decision without getting to know the other first.
It’s been a really productive two weeks in North Dakota, installing our game in schools on two reservations, in tribal schools and public schools. I didn’t write this post to talk about that. Rather, in keeping with some of the really useful posts I’ve read about start-up failures, I wanted to share with you the one thing that didn’t go right this week.
Just spoke to the Chief Marketing Officer for our 7 Generation Games start-up and she told me we did not get accepted to the playco lab accelerator. She felt bad about that since she really does think we are a terrific company, we already have traction with games installed in the schools and paying customers, and the fact that she lives in the Bay area meant it would have been very convenient for her.
The Invisible Developer and I had mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, we think our company is awesome and going to be incredibly successful.
We’re really pleased with the work we do and an accelerator (or anybody) saying they don’t want us gives us kind of the same reaction when somebody calls your baby ugly – how dare you!
On the other hand, we’re just coming back from two weeks away from our cocoon-like home offices by the beach, and The ID has said approximately 2,982 times that he doesn’t like to travel. When I told him that Maria had called and said we were not accepted, he did a reasonably good job of hiding his glee.
I don’t mind travel but I am mindful of the sage advice I received from Jenny Q. Ta of sqeeqee to never give up a half a percent of your company before you have to, and we are not at the point where we need outside money. Although having some validation from an outside group might be nice, it might have helped our marketing to have access to a network within the acceleration, we still have 19 months of SBIR funding, as well as our own funds from The Julia Group. All of that being said, yes, it does bother me that we didn’t get it, because, I think we’re awesome and I want everyone on earth to share that view. Also, whenever I read these articles about people who cannot find start-ups outside Silicon Valley/ with female/ minority founders and they are supposedly really looking , I think, “Gee, we must really suck because we are all of those things and they don’t want us.”
Then reality sets in. I am a statistician, after all, and not too many people know regression lines better than me. (Yes, you may be a far better statistician than me , but 99.99% of the population has no clue what a residual error is and the fact that I just made that percentage up makes it no less true. Try to parse that statement for a moment.)
Years ago, I was listening to (okay, eavesdropping on) a “top executive” at a Fortune 500 company who was discussing his next career move, he said,
“It has to be perceived as bigger, better and then I’m still on the path to CEO. If it’s seen as smaller, worse, then I’m fucked.”
Maybe that is true in his career path, but in my experience as a statistician, small business owner and human being, life seems more like a regression equation. Even though you may have a straight line in one direction or another, there are ups and downs. Take for example the regression line I just happened to have laying around with 100 data points
Overall, the trend here is very positive – about .70, to be precise. If you looked at either of the two low points shown with arrows, you’d say, holy shit, the trend is really going down, I’m failing. In fact, though, if you compare the initial low point, you can see that each of these new lows is higher than the previous one.
In my life, I have seen far more trends like this one, if you are lucky, and really none where every single point falls on the regression line.
Statistics imitates life. Or maybe it’s the other way around. How about that?
There’s been quite a bit of discussion on twitter lately regarding generalists versus specialists. This article on KD Nuggets reported an even split in their poll numbers regarding whether companies try to hire a generalist who has knowledge of all areas required by a data scientist, as opposed to those who said that they hired a team of individuals, each one with some of the skills. In case you are wondering, the required skills were:
- statistics/ machine learning
- industry/ domain knowledge
There was even some discussion as to whether the Data Scientist possessing all of those skills is indeed a mythical creature like the unicorn. (This irked me somewhat because it is not the first time I have been mistaken for a unicorn. Not only do I possess all of those skills, but I am also a Hispanic grandmother running a start-up. )
This is NOT, however, a post about my awesomeness but rather about the value of both generalists and specialists even in a small business.
I highly recommend reading this Wired article by Samuel Arbesman, Let’s Bring the Polymaths – and the Dabblers – Back . I do agree with many of Arbesman’s points. Universities are NOT the bastions of innovation that they like to believe. Although some innovators may start at universities, they almost invariably leave. There are multiple reasons. One is, as Arbesman notes, is that universities demand specialization. You are a professor in a specific department and specialize in middle school mathematics education. You publish articles in journals on middle school mathematics. If you have an idea for a computer game, well, that is the computer science department. If you think it would be cool to have an adventure game that is set in a historically accurate pre-European contact North America, well, the History department or Native American Studies are where you do that.
I completely agree with Arbesman that both video games and start-ups are stitching together diverse areas of specialization, and he describes our start-up , 7 Generation Games, pretty well.
The part where I disagree is with some people who seem to think that we would be better off to replace specialists with generalist. True, if I had to pick one or the other, it would be the generalists, and, as I wrote on the 7 Generation Games blog, I am about half of our development team currently, as well as CEO, and, despite the doubters, it suits me.
However, even as a small company, I think our strength is in having both generalists and specialists. I am pretty good at statistics and programming, know enough about databases and quite a bit about mathematics education and teaching in disadvantaged communities. I’m a good writer and I can give presentations at conferences and pitch at start-up events.
However, again, we have The Invisible Developer who is an amazing programmer and even more amazing still, quite modest about it. He has been referred to by friends and family alternately as Code Warrior, Computer God and The Rocket Scientist (now retired). Almost all Dennis does is software development, with the occasional pitching in on tech support.
Ernie does technical support. He may pitch in to do some video editing or game testing in a pinch, but mostly he does tech support from one end to the other, testing compatibility with different operating systems, answering user questions, maintaining the tech support site, writing documents for tech support.
Maria does marketing. Both Erich and I have presented at conferences, Dennis or I might blog about what we are doing, but overall whether it is making slide decks for investor pitches, a one-sheet to distribute at conferences or selecting which incubator application to submit and when to pass, it’s Maria’s call and her work. Again, she can review contracts, do voice over for video or pinch-hit in other ways, but mostly, she’s writing, blogging, tweeting, meeting and organizing all of the aspects thereof.
Marisol is probably the only real generalist in the company – she does everything for powerpoints for presentations to mailing packages to making Easter egg movies that pop up in the game.
While Erich is mostly providing cultural expertise on Native American history, meeting with the schools to coordinate testing and advising on how to improve the game for the school sites, he also does some editing and presenting at conferences.
Then there are those who are strictly specialists – Justin and Gene do artwork, Danny does animation. The rest of us may crop an image now and again or animate a character across a page as a sound plays, but we are no artists and we know it.
We need generalists – Maria and I meet weekly and try to scope out where we are, where we’re going and keep all the pieces together. On the other hand, without the specialists – people like Dennis who will spend two weeks on trying to get the water in the game flow like real water, or Erich who will drive to Belcourt to get someone to record a story so that the grandmother talking sounds like a real grandmother from Turtle Mountain – our game wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is and I don’t believe our company would be nearly as successful.
And we don’t even want to mention what my artwork would look like …
This post is a public service to these people who tell me that they are going to write a blog and make money “from the advertising revenue”.
In short, it’s a bad idea.
Perhaps you have amazing things to say and you will be one of the tiny, tiny fraction of bloggers who make a lot of money from blogging. I write two blogs, and contribute to a third. This one, I started because I wanted to remember the ideas I had about statistics and programming and have them recorded somewhere I could access from wherever I happen to be traveling. For example, I had a problem with AMOS saying something about “illegal path” every time I tried to calculate estimates. I don’t use AMOS all that often and I wanted to remember how I solved that for next time it came up. (My next post is on that.) I worked at a large organization where I was told that no one cared what I thought and if I wanted to express my own ideas I should start a blog or something. I started a blog. Also, I quit that job and went to work full-time as president of The Julia Group. Best decision I ever made besides the one to have children.
My second blog I started because I also teach judo and I thought people who read my judo blog would find occasional forays into relative risk calculation with SAS to be confusing.
According to the web hosts, I get a combined 130,000 visits per month, with significantly more going to this blog than the judo one. HOWEVER, according to blogher, which pays me based on some algorithm of theirs, the “real visits” that are not spam bots or web crawlers are less than half of that. Accepting their figures, that still means a half million times a year, someone reads what I ramble on about – and here is the clincher – I make less than $2,000 a year directly from blogging.
I hasten to add that I put almost no effort into SEO marketing or really hustling to get people to read my blog because there is a lot more fun stuff I can think of to do than tweet every fifteen minutes – hey, look what I wrote, hey, look at me, LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME !!!!
If you think that google ad sense is the answer – I have had ad sense on my judo blog for five years. This year, they sent me a check for $104. That’s this year, not this month.
An area where I could probably triple how much I make would be sponsored posts. These typically pay from $50-$150, although some are more or less.
What is a sponsored post? I can only tell you my experience – I get an email from someone who says they have a client interested in a post on X. Nine times out of ten, I have no interest in X and I delete it. The only two sponsored posts I’ve written lately were for Blogher and Kaplan University. They were on How to hold a job, raise a family and still be sane at graduation and The Midcareer Pivot
Sponsored posts are a good deal when they come along because they were the sort of thing I would write anyway ,with an ad at the bottom. I can see where some advertisers might want you to write specifically about their product, a sort of ad in disguise. I’d have a real problem with that, personally.
I think there are a lot more sponsored post opportunities if you are into writing about cooking or doing book reviews, but the kind of books I usually read, like Professional Jquery or Essentials of Biostatistics, are not the type sponsors are looking to have reviewed. You couldn’t pay me enough to read Fifty Shades of Grey.
In short, if you’re doing blogging for the money, unless you really, really like spending your time on social media promoting yourself (and probably not even then), you’d probably make more money per hour bagging french fries at McDonalds.
SO … QUIT BLOGGING?
- Occasionally, I get clients who have read my blog.
- It’s an opportunity to get feedback on research ideas I’m tossing around.
- I can use my blog to disseminate results from research to a far broader audience than read refereed journals.
- It’s a nice break from “the real work” of programming, writing grants and reports.
- When I wrote my book on matwork, I posted a lot of rough drafts on my judo blog to get comments.
There are several reasons for blogging … but getting rich quick isn’t one of them and anyone who tells you it is probably plans on getting rich from money people like you giving them money to learn the non-existent secrets.
Perhaps people wouldn’t be so hesitant to change careers during mid-life if they paid a little bit more attention to start-ups. Having been in start-up mode for the past few years, I’ve read numerous articles with titles like,
- “Five things you should know about start-ups”
- “Eleven reasons start-ups fail”
- “Six keys to start-up success”
- “Nine start-ups founded by flesh-eating aliens from Planet Zargon”
(Okay, well, maybe I made up that last one.) How does start-up advice apply to mid-career switches? One piece that resonates with me is,
Accept that the company you end up with will bear little resemblance to the one with which you started.
7 Generation Games is a company that sells adventure games that teach students math. Our focus is upper elementary and middle school. The games are historically accurate, with consultants from the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation and Turtle Mountain Chippewa.
Four years ago, I wanted to create an online program to teach statistics to community college students. I had a lot of cool ideas about routing students to instruction based on the right or wrong answers they gave. Here is what happened – the district administrators I talked to said that they really needed a program to intervene earlier. In many areas, there was a lot more political pressure for public K-12 schools to change than at the community college level. In short, there wasn’t nearly as much market demand for what I wanted to do as for something else in the area of using technology to teach mathematics.
So, I did what most start-ups do when they find the market isn’t there. Pivot. If you’re finding a lack of demand for your skills in the workplace – the job openings for word processors, administrative assistants or middle managers are just not there anymore, then maybe you need to think of yourself as a start-up. As Tom Peters calls it, You, Inc. There is also a really key lesson here for mid-career shifts. Notice I did “something else in the area of using technology to teach mathematics”. I love math and programming and I don’t think I would be happy in a career that did not involve those two things.
Similarly, we hired a Chief Marketing Officer who had a decade of experience in journalism. She’d probably be bored programming and hate it. She writes most of the company blogs, our marketing materials and press releases. Since we’re a small company, she also lends a hand co-authoring grant proposals and scientific reports and writing scripts for some of the instructional videos.
The keys to a successful pivot, whether you’re a person or a start-up, are
- Identify a market.
- Identify what you really love doing.
- Don’t give up before you get really good at it
The intersection of those three is where you want to be. I’ve had people argue with me about each of those points, but I’d argue right back.
If you really love it, a market shouldn’t matter - Um, no. Maybe if you are independently wealthy. If there isn’t a market, maybe it’s a bad idea. Maybe no one really needs embroidered toaster covers. If you can’t make a decent living at it, it’s a hobby.
It doesn’t matter if you love it. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame said that his boss advised against loaning money for someone’s passion, because passionate people aren’t objective about the bottom line. There’s some truth to that, but it’s also true that if you love what you are doing, you’ll stick with it long enough to make it through what Seth Godin refers to as The Dip. In our company, that was a period of several months when the founders worked without pay as we developed our first game. For students, it can be that middle of a graduate program when the excitement of starting has worn off, graduation seems a distant haze and final exams loom right around the corner. If you really love providing health care, teaching or whatever your field, you’ll power through. The other reason it matters if you love it is that you only get one life. I spend 3/4 of my waking hours in my office. I want to spend them happy.
So what if it takes you five years or even seven years to get your degree? When you walk up to graduate and they hand you that diploma, it’s not going to have a note on the bottom, P.S. It took him seven years. You’ll walk across that stage a college graduate.
Our company didn’t take off making educational technology in 2011, but we’re doing it now, and that’s what matters.
Whether you’re seeking further success in your current role or a new opportunity, Kaplan University can help you prepare for the exciting possibilities ahead.*
As an accredited university built on more than 75 years of experience,† Kaplan University offers a wide range of career-focused programs designed to develop the skills and knowledge leading employers seek. Our focus: to offer you the most direct educational path to achieve your goals.
Are you ready for a change? Learn more at kaplanuniversity.edu
* Kaplan University cannot guarantee employment or career advancement.
† Kaplan University is regionally accredited. Please visit http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/about/accreditation-licensing.aspx# for additional information about institutional and programmatic accreditation.
If you haven’t read this post by Shanley Kane on toxic lies about start-up culture, you should check it out.
One value in this post is it reminds me of what we DON’T want to do at The Julia Group, as we start up a new venture with 7 Generation Games
1. We hire people who are a cultural fit. Shanley says this often means
“we’re all white, mostly male, mostly college-educated, mostly young/unmarried, mostly binge drinkers, mostly from a similar work background. We tend to hire within our employees’ friend and social groups. “
Part of that is true for us. We do hire within our employees’ friends and social groups, which is why we have a staff that is heavily Latino – 100% of our design team (3 out of 3) and 80% of our administrative staff (4 out of 5). The educational staff is 100% Native American (3 out of 3). Our staff is split exactly 50-50 between male and female. Our three co-founders and senior consultant are 2 men and 2 women.
On the other hand, we hired our second white female ever last year as a summer intern, and our first white male ever as this year’s summer intern. With the exception of our intern, everyone has a college degree, and 75% of our staff are married. (Yes, one of our co-founders is white and male, but I’m married to him and if you are having sex with me before joining the company, I don’t think that really counts as an open hiring process.)
So, although it is a different culture, we do tend to hire people like ourselves. For example, when we needed someone to work on the curriculum for the next game, Fish Lake, based on the Ojibwe people, we asked our cultural consultant, Dr. Erich Longie, to recommend someone. He recommended two wonderful people, both of whom we hired. Like Erich, both are grandparents, live on the same reservation where they were born and raised (albeit a different reservation from him), were raised by parents who spoke their native language in the home, and both have experience teaching. One of them, like Erich, has a doctorate.
There may be some fabulous young people living in Minneapolis or Winnipeg who speak Ojibwe, learned it at college and would be a great resource – but Erich didn’t know them as well as these two and so we never considered them for a job.
Maybe we really DO need to look beyond our own social networks in hiring. On the other hand, I think our entire staff is brilliant and talented and I have no complaints about any of them - so maybe we don’t.
Anyway …. this post on start-up culture has given me a lot of food for thought, so much, so, in fact, that I wrote about another point, “Meetings are not evil” on our 7 Generation Games blog.
My heart goes out to whoever is writing the blog, “My start-up has 30 days to live”. It’s the truest thing I’ve read about business since Paul Hawken wrote that the reason most small businesses fail is that they have too much money.
It’s funny, because I was on the Forty Women to Watch over Forty list that came out this week as “Gaming the System, by her Bootstraps”.
We did the opposite of a lot of the choices this failed entrepreneur made, in part because this isn’t our first time around the merry-go-round and partly due to that, angel investors weren’t beating down our door. The only one who looks less like the Mark Zuckerberg – Bill Gates – Steve Jobs demographic start-up than me is this guy:
I wrote a post We’re grandparents doing an awesome start-up and Logan’s Run can bite me in which I pointed out that people over 50 may be perfectly poised to be entrepreneurs. Three of our four children have their own careers and are doing quite well. The Spoiled One received a scholarship to La-Di-Da Prep Boarding School (just because she’s spoiled doesn’t mean she isn’t smart).
In short, we were able to bootstrap 7 Generation Games. A big part of the cost is programming and we have two programmers right here. Rather than take angel investor money and hire a programmer or two, we cut out the middle man, did the work ourselves and lived off a combination of retirement income from The Invisible Developer, who had worked things out to retire at 56 (we’re GOOD at math) and whatever statistical consulting I felt like doing.
I received conflicting advice. Some people told me that venture capitalists don’t take bootstrapped companies too seriously. The best advice, though, came from a VC at a Women 2.0 meet-up who told me not to let go of 1% of equity any sooner than I had to. Because it was our own money, we were spending when we hired artists, animators or administrative staff, we made damn sure we needed them. I really watch our budget. When we picked up $21,000 from Kickstarter, some of it was from family and friends and some was from people who I know the $50 they kicked in was hard-earned so I feel a real responsibility to make sure not a dime is wasted. We still don’t rent an office. Mine is downstairs in our house, The Invisible Developer is upstairs (no one sees him).
We applied to one or two accelerators, were not accepted and were told flat out by a couple of venture capitalists that our target market wasn’t big enough. I’m a statistician and it seemed to me that a 50% probability of making $5 million a year was worth more than a 1% chance of making $100 million.
“Cut out that pesky client that generates 80% of your revenue”
That comment from the dying start-up blog sounded familiar. The really lucky thing for us not being part of one of those accelerators is that we went right on doing what we do well – developing games to teach math. We started taking pre-release orders this week. Starting next month, I will be meeting with each of the schools that will receive free licenses. In our Kickstarter campaign, we promised to donate a license for every one purchased. Most of these schools are on or near American Indian reservations, which is where most of our employees live. One grant funding agency called our decision to focus on low-income Native American students “inexplicable” since they weren’t a large enough population to bother with. Fortunately, the USDA disagreed and gave us $99,000 in Small Business Innovation Research grant money.
The same start-up blogger says that he didn’t build his company with generalists, he built it with perfectionists who could build beautiful things. We have perfectionists who can build beautiful things, but they are on contract and paid a set amount per task. They could probably do it better for more money but as I often quote to Darling Daughter Number Three “The Best is the Enemy of the Good”. We have a budget and the people who make beautiful things have to work within it. The people who can do 15 different things are on salary.
My point is not that we are so smart and the man closing down his company is not. Quite the contrary. As I read his posts, at many, many points, I think That could have been us. Maybe if angel investors had been more interested earlier on, before The Invisible Developer turned to me and said,
“You know, I can work on this for free, well, forever”
we would have taken angel funding. I’m not dissing angel investors, by the way. I attended a few Tech Coast Angel events and learned a lot.
What I’ve been reflecting on lately is the fact that because we were an older, atypical start-up, we were passed over by a lot of the fast-track resources.
And that just may have saved us.