Moving past the start-up

Moving past the start-up
June 21st 2013 at 10:20AM

Remode CEO Ella Romanos on how to take your game studio to the next level

Getting through the start-up phase of a company is hard. Most companies experience a honeymoon period, with excitement, energy and big future plans. But sooner or later the magic dust settles down and reality hits hard, marking a shift from just surviving, to having to make realistic plans for future growth.

You know you are past start-up phase when your business is sustainable enough that your survival in the short-term is not such a scary prospect, and decisions need to be made relating to the long-term.

Remode hit that period a couple of years ago, and we experienced the tough transition from a start-up to beyond. It was only once we made it through that I realised that if starting up is hard, this next stage is even harder.

I probably work more hours now, although my time is spent on totally different things. It's more rewarding, but also more stressful, mainly due to the pressure that comes having many other people relying on you as opposed to just you and your business partners, and also a sense of expectation and having larger goals than just being able to exist.

The team is the company

I always knew that building a team was hard. Other people had told me so, and from our limited experience through starting up, we already knew that good people are hard to find. Those people also need to have complementary skills, the right attitude and work well together. The reality of achieving this was so much harder than I imagined, and it was the things I hadn't considered that were the most challenging.

The first thing to understand is that the team is always evolving and changing. Even when you have a great team, people join, people leave, people get ill, people have personal issues that affect the team. Managing people becomes one of the main things you have to worry about day to day, so you need to factor that into your workload.

You will also find that you feel a responsibility towards the people who work for you, and you build personal relationships with them. A development studio is nothing without its team, and in my experience most people in this industry work extremely hard.

At the same time, you have to make decisions that are right for your business, and sometimes the two conflict. Decisions about the team are some of the most difficult I have had to make and it’s difficult to prepare for this without having actual experience of it in your own company.

The decisions you make also affect team morale. It’s important that members of your team believe in you, which means they need to feel confident that you support them, and that the decisions you are making are the right ones.

That’s not to say the team has to agree with every decision you make, or even understand them all, but they do need to believe in you. And that trust is hard to build, easy to lose. It’s also hard to make decisions that you know they won’t understand in the short-term, or that you can’t explain straight away, but sometimes that happens and you had better hope you have a strong enough relationship with your team to still have their support and respect.

Employing the wrong people is a way to lose that trust. Employing people who aren’t up to the job is one issue, as the rest of the team justifiably resent the impact on them. But employing someone who has a negative attitude is a hundred times worse. The impact on the team is much more serious and harder to reverse. It is also much harder to spot and much harder to build evidence so that it can be dealt with.

In my experience, this is one of the most dangerous things to a small business, and we are now very sensitive to only employing people who believe in our business and are people who are advocates of it.

We want people who will be honest and tell us what they think, but at the same time we need everyone to be working towards the same goal, together. It doesn’t matter how highly skilled or experienced someone is, without this attitude they shouldn’t be part of your team.

As the team grows, and you employ people who are passionate, talented and motivated, you realise that the projects you choose to work on, particularly with work for hire, not only matter in financial terms, but also in terms of a happy team. When you start up, you take whatever projects are available to make ends meet. And at that stage, the few staff (if any) that you have, tend to understand that as a start-up this is the way things have to work.

As you get past that point, and you have more people, they will want to be working on projects they enjoy. Whilst no one expects to love everything they do, there is a desire (and rightly so) to create games that they are proud of, which means that you can’t only worry about money - the project itself becomes a decision factor.

This can be tough when you are still a small studio needing to ensure your staff get paid. When a project is presented to you that would be very profitable, but would be not be something the team would enjoy, the decision whether to take it or not is one of the hardest to make.

Do you take it, and then use the money to do something better, like create a new IP, trading the short-term downside for the long-term upside? Or do you not take it, and keep the team happy in the short-term but potentially hurt your cashflow later?

Whatever you do, I suggest being honest with the team about the decision from the beginning, so that they can understand and hopefully support it.

The lesson I have learned overall is that, in this industry, people are looking for careers, not jobs. They want to believe in what they are doing, and in the people they work for. They want to be proud of what they create.

That’s why they are valuable team members. Respecting them, listening and allowing them input and ownership of their work requires a fairly flat management structure where you can talk honestly with them, and communicate your plans as much as you can. At the same time, as business owners there are things that you can’t, or shouldn’t, share with the team, and figuring out where the line is can be difficult.

Your role

When you’re a start-up, if you’re smart you will have someone focused on looking outwards and dealing with building networks, the long-term vision of the business, business development, marketing, and PR.

However, as a start-up it’s inevitable that they will also still be getting involved in production to get stuff done, and you will reach a point where that genuinely has to stop. For us, it was when I was spending so much time away from the office that we couldn’t rely on me being around when I was needed.

This is quite a scary reality because you have to start bringing in managers, who manage other people and projects, make their own decisions and is someone who you trust. And then suddenly you don’t control everything directly anymore, and as anyone who runs a business knows, it’s hard to let go. Delegation is a very difficult thing to do properly (i.e. giving people responsibility and accountability - not just giving them tasks to do), but it’s crucial that you do.

Ironically, you think that hiring more people and wearing fewer hats will make your workload smaller. It is completely the opposite. We work more now that we did when we were in start-up mode, and I can only see that increasing over the coming years.

You also have to really start doing all the stuff you know you should have been when you were starting up. You need to start looking to the future, spending your time building the reputation of the business, figuring out what you need to do in the next year or two to get where you want to go.

For us, the challenge was that we intentionally built a work for hire studio, so that we had a sustainable business upon which we could start making our own games. From the outset we knew we didn’t want to be a studio that only made our own games, and lived or died by their success.

But once we had built that studio, moving to that next stage of making our own games was harder than we expected in reality. We still took the plunge though, because it was the whole reason we had worked so hard to get to this point. It took longer than we had hoped, but we now have two of our own games in production, as well as continuing with work for hire projects.

Act like you are where you want to be in six months

Someone told me this a few years ago, and it’s been one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever been given. It’s also one of the hardest to apply in practice, because it increases the risk of the decisions you are making. Of course I don’t follow this rule blindly, but it does guide my decisions and ensures that I’m always trying to look further ahead than I would have done otherwise.

I strongly believe that if you aren’t growing and moving forward, you’re in decline. There is no such thing as standing still, and having this rule in the back of my head helps me to continually strive for the future.

Problems come around twice as quick as you think, positive things take twice as long

It seems to be a general rule that any time we notice something that we think could be a problem in the future, it becomes a real problem more quickly than we expect. And things that we really want, such as a contract that we’re negotiating, always takes longer that we expect.

The lesson here is, never put off dealing with something as soon as you spot it, even if you’re slightly pre-empting an issue. And always plan for everything good to take twice as long as you estimate or are told they will - mainly regarding your cashflow!

Getting business perspective

It’s really important that you can take a step back and be honest with yourself. Try and see how other people would perceive your business. Being able to recognise your weaknesses is perhaps more important than being able to recognise your strengths. Be able to take criticism and actively seek out advice. With Remode, we (hopefully) recognise ours.

Our strengths are having a sustainable studio that people trust. Our weakness is that we haven’t had that ‘hit’ game yet that defines us, and we know that this is what we need to do to take the next step in our business, and that’s what we have spent the last year, and will be spending the foreseeable future, working on.

Conclusion? It’s hard but it’s worth it

If you think establishing a start-up is the hard bit, the next stage is even harder. Thinking about the long-term vision as a start-up is one thing, acting on it and making it a reality is harder. We haven’t got through this stage yet, but we’re very much in it and have learned so much already.

We can’t be certain we’re doing the right things yet, but we are staying true to our vision and we continually question ourselves and reassess our position. Having conviction and goals is important, ability to act on it, whilst being agile enough to pivot and be pro-active (not just reactive) within that is a skill that you must learn.

But after all the headaches, all-nighters and learning from mistakes, if you can build the right team, look ahead with a clear vision and act on it, cope with the highs and the lows and use your time effectively, you will be in a good position to go from start-up to established studio.

Good luck to you.

www.remodestudios.com