Do yourself a favor and read this terrific post, The 10 Biggest Mistakes I Made as a Start-up Founder. Given the miasma of bad start-up advice out there, this post is a breath of fresh air in a pollution of stupid.
The Julia Group is doing well, and our latest venture, 7 Generation Games, which started last year, particularly so. In part this is due to having avoided many of the mistakes Chima describes so honestly in his post. (Don’t take this to mean we never made any of the mistakes he mentioned, but this isn’t exactly our first time around on the merry-go-round. We’ve been in business so long I just refer to it as “being in business a long time” as opposed to “serial entrepreneur”. Uncool, I know.)
1. Don’t choose the wrong co-founder
When 7 Generation Games desperately needed another technical co-founder, The Invisible Developer had just retired from 30 years in software engineering. Chima says more effort should go into choosing a co-founder than picking a spouse. In my case, the exact same amount of effort went into it. This is the guy who, when we were dating, my college students referred to as “Computer God”. Obviously, we can get along and negotiate conflict, since we have seen three daughters through adolescence and are now on the fourth. When he expressed interest in finding some new software project to keep him occupied, I immediately said,
“I will pay you, give you a share of the company and have sex with you, too.”
Prompting The Spoiled One to run from the room with her hands over her ears chanting “La la la, I can’t hear you!”
Seriously, if you have an opportunity to co-found a company with someone people call “Computer God” and you don’t, you’re probably going to fail no matter what you do.
The other co-founder we brought in was Maria Burns Ortiz, a journalist with a decade of experience at Sports Illustrated, ESPN and published hundreds of times in two languages in three countries. Her latest venture was the social media beat for ESPN.com. We needed someone to do marketing and when Maria stepped in and helped run our Kickstarter campaign that raised over $20,000 I knew we had a winner. She is also my oldest daughter so I knew full well how driven she is to succeed.
Working with family members can have its own unique set of challenges and advantages, as Jon Peltier, commented on twitter. One advantage in our case is that we all had established our careers separately, so when we came together it was as a group of equals respecting each other. We were all professionals at the start. If Maria had come to work for us right out of college (as I offered) rather than ten years later, it would have been a very different dynamic. A second advantage is, honestly, we have a very good, functional family, the kind that I used to see on TV when I was a kid and did not believe really existed. I seriously think that The Invisible Developer was raised by Ward and June Cleaver, but that’s a topic for another day.
2. Don’t build a business you can’t afford
I love this piece of advice from Chima because it is the opposite of what I have been told by many potential investors, and I think he is right and they are all wrong. We have been looked down on for “boot-strapping” our business. We’ve worked for free for many, many hours. Because our consulting side of The Julia Group does well enough that we could work every waking hour, if we work twenty hours a week on the game, that is 20 hours of consulting income – each – that we are foregoing. Quite a bit. On the other hand, the equivalent of a full-time programmer including salary and benefits (health care, social security, workers comp etc etc) is going to run at least $100K a year and we did not have to pay that. On top of that, we received $120,000 from a combination of Kickstarter and SBIR funds.
There are two advantages to using our own funds. First, we don’t have to answer to anyone. I’ve sat in meetings where someone wanted us to go in a direction that I thought was completely wrong, for example, spending six months on usability testing rather than putting our game in the schools, and I had the freedom to say, “No.”
As Erich once said to someone explaining a decision he and I made regarding my last company, Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc.
“We own 100% of the company so we get 100% of the say.”
Second, as Paul Hawkens said in Growing a Business, which I still consider the best business book that I ever read, the reason many businesses fail is too much money. Because this was our hard-earned cash from other projects that we were investing, whether it was artwork, animation or project management, at every turn, we asked whether or not we really needed this.
3. Your business should reflect your personality
We all love different aspects of the business. Every one of us loves children and we have six kids among us to prove it. Two of us LOVE math. Two of us care deeply about educational inequality and supporting schools in disadvantaged communities. We have a world judo champion, the first female pole vaulter at not one, but two different high schools, two people who graduated from college well before they were 21 and one who taught himself Calculus in the eighth grade and then spent high school teaching himself physics. We’re unapologetically smart and not the least bit reluctant to test boundaries and wander off the beaten path. Our game and our company is exactly like that.
As for me, yet another point in this post resonated
4. Set goals for yourself
I’m trying to finish the game design for Game 2 so that’s all for this post. (Yes, we are designing and developing simultaneously, but that is a post for another day)
For you -
Go read the article. It’s great. Read Growing a Business, too, while you are at it. You’ll be glad you did both.