Making the hard choices when starting up a studio

Making the hard choices when starting up a studio

By Shahid Ahmad

May 10th 2016 at 10:31AM

Former Sony exec and independent dev Shahid Ahmad offers advice for new developers just setting out

Beginnings are beautiful.

The laws of physics were established shortly after the Big Bang. Before the laws were established, the Universe could have become anything.

A blank canvas is a licence to create. Feared by all artists – whether they be composers, poets, novelists or programmers – a blank canvas is also feared by the creators of a new business. As a start-up founder, you get to create the laws of your universe. Who you hire, which sector you will operate in, how you’re funded – all of this is down to the founders. You are the composer of your new business. So what kind of music will you create? 

It’s not for me to advise you on what you should make. I would, however, strongly counsel boldness and audacity. What is the point otherwise? Is your purpose just to make a refinement of what already is? If so, then prepare yourself for a ton of competition. 

It’s tempting to go in the direction that so many others are headed, but what if they’re heading for a cliff? What if the leaders are the only ones who are going to succeed while the followers are going to get blocked at the gate? If you’re in an established business, it’s difficult for you to radically change the course of that business. In 2012, I described it as “steering supertankers”. When you’re a start-up, you have one chance to set the direction before momentum that can only be interrupted by a cash flow crisis will carry you away to your destination.

Make hard choices at the start. Only hire people who live your mission, not necessarily the ‘best’.

Make some hard choices at the start. Only hire people who totally live your mission. Recent studies have shown the importance of teamwork over star performers, so it’s not always necessary to hire the ‘best’. Sometimes that will mean turning down excellent candidates.

Consider what makes you unique. Consider the itch you want to scratch. Maybe others want that itch scratched, too? Patricia Ryan Madson puts it best in Improv Wisdom when she asks: “What would not get done if you were not here?” 

DREAM BIG

There has never been a time in history where the route from dream to reality has been so short. What is virtual reality if not lucid dreaming? Before too long, literally anything you can imagine will become ‘real’ around you. If you think that’s fanciful, you might want to ask yourself how you’re so sure you’re not in a form of virtual reality at the moment. After all, we never perceive total reality. It’s filtered by our data sensors, otherwise known as the senses. As VR approaches the bandwidth of our senses, the lag between dream to reality could approach zero. So dream, and make your dream a reality. 

You certainly don’t need decades of experience for this. In fact, the young have a definite advantage. The pace of technological change is now so furious that the knowledge you gained five years ago is practically out of date. It’s because everything is new every year – and again, this means the young have an advantage here.

From having created the laws of your own universe, let’s come back down to earth; you’re creating a business, and what is a business without customers? Your biggest challenge is in finding out what your customers want, and they don’t always know. Eric Ries in his highly influential The Lean Startup demands that: “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”

That was Steve Jobs’ way. He dared to “think different”. He made difficult choices in the short-term like radically simplifying product lines, that paved the way for the success of Apple in the long term. Now it’s your turn.

Shahid Ahmad is an independent developer, and previously director of Strategic Content at SCEE. You can find him on Twitter at @shahidkamalArticle originally published in the May 2016 issue of Develop.