Mar

6

If you are planning on working in business in any way, whether you are still in college, two years into a start-up or thinking of joining a young, growing company,  read this book – The Hard Thing about Hard Things. I just saw it is the number one business book on Amazon and deservedly so.

Two words describe it best – honest and accurate.

However, this is a blog, not a tweet, so I’m going to add a few more.

It was great to read his discussion of the times when the software was not perfect because we face that every day. Last year, we did our very first alpha version of Spirit Lake: The Game and was it ever a rough draft. Thankfully, we were working with some schools who were very cooperative and having a person on site to step in and fix problems was a godsend. This year, we are in a lot more classrooms and every time something is not perfect, I catch myself thinking, oh, God, why didn’t we wait until we had the all in one install? Why didn’t we add the read-it-to-me function before we put it in the schools? Why didn’t we …

Then I realize, just like in the book, that you HAVE to release less than perfect code because your customers will help you see what really needs to be changed. Also, you just can’t wait because other people will move into the market and take the customers while you are working on your perfect code.

While too many business books present successful businesses as one success after another, that’s not real life and Horowitz is honest enough to say so, to talk about the large customers that they lost, the drop in stock value, the customer that was furious with their quality problems. The truth is that companies who succeed have problems along the way, and if you don’t realize that, you’re going to panic when your company inevitably has problems with cash flow, quality, changes in the market.

One thing that Horowitz just teaches by example is the intense focus that goes into running a successful start-up.

It’s almost never that  a book causes me to change my behavior, but this is that rarity.

As I wrote earlier, I have been dropping other commitments to focus just on 7 Generation Games. After reading The Hard Thing, I have gotten much more emphatic about it. No, I cannot take your consulting contract. No, I don’t know what you will do now. Reading about the hours Horowitz had to spend to save Loudcloud, and with three children at home, no less, made me certain that I was on the right track. If this company is so important to me that I want people to buy from us, investors to invest in us, then it can’t be less than a total commitment.

The other encouraging part of the book was how their corporate fortunes went up and down. At one point, it seemed that EVERYONE used Netscape. I wrote my first website using Netscape Composer. Now, Netscape is a thing of the past but Horowitz and Andreessen are not. If your thing you are doing is no longer viable, then you don’t lament or decide you’re a failure. You go on to a new thing.

While our company is in the technology sector also, I am guessing that anyone running any kind of business can benefit from reading this book. Whether you’re writing software or baking pies, you need to hire people who fit the job and sometimes they were great when you were part of a huge grocery chain but now, spun off as Jo’s Pie Shop, they are not making it and you have to let them go. I suspect no matter what business you are in, the first months, years even, are full of decisions that are not optimal because you had to start delivering your product or service when it was due not when it was perfect.

Thanks to years of speed-reading classes at St. Mary’s Elementary School (seriously, thanks), I read a book or two every evening before I go to bed. That’s hundreds of books a year. This book is the best one I’ve read in years.

Disclaimer: No one gave me diddly-squat for writing this post, not even a free book. I bought it on Amazon.

 

Mar

4

Yesterday, I did the Happy Dance in my office when we finished version 2.2 of Spirit Lake.

I said that despite taking me away from virtually every other interest in my life, being obsessed with a start-up is worth it.

WHY?

In thinking it over today, I realized that 7 Generation Games meets every possible desire I could have

Julia16Mental – 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?

Buy our game. It’s awesome. Best $9.99 you’ll spend today.

7 Generation Games Logo

Mar

3

Really useful advice for start-ups on How Not to Die from Paul Graham emphasized

 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.

artwork from the gamePaul 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.

If you are  doing “nothing but a startup”, it is not just that almost all of your time and attention is going to be focused on that, but almost all of your decisions, too, are based on “how will this affect our company?” This can be something like can we move or more amorphous like the topics you learn more about. I did a lot of SAS programming for over 30 years and now I’m doing much less of that and more javascript. I’m skipping the SAS Global Forum for the first time in several years and will probably go to an HTML5 conference in San Francisco instead.

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.

 

 

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