Why I Decided to Do a Start Up

I woke up early this morning and haven’t been able to sleep and my mac is in the other room, so I thought I’d take some time to jot down some notes on why I decided to do a start up.

Three years ago, I was living in LA working at Insomniac Games.  I was the Lead Gameplay Programmer on Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, the fifth game in the series and the third Ratchet and Clank game that I had worked on.  There were some good things about the situation and some bad things.  One of the most obvious bad things was having worked on sequel after sequel and being able to code up Ratchet gameplay mechanics in my sleep.  Moving onto the PS3 made things a little bit more fresh, but not much.  The up side wasn’t bad, though.  I was making more money than I could possibly spend which convinced me into buying a fancy car and property, which currently looks like a disasterous move.  I worked with a lot of talented people at Insomniac who really taught me so much in terms of technical ability as well as pure determination.  However, with a team of over a hundred people working on the project, I had quite a flow of unpleasant human encounters.  Back then, I used to refer to is at the jackass count.

When Luke and I started considering moving to London to work on LittleBigPlanet, one of the most attractive things was the team size.  Going from a team of over 100 people to a team of 30 sounded absolutely amazing.  I remember Luke saying, “There is a number of people that if the team grows above, and the number is lower than 40, I will have to quit.”  For me, the formulation was slightly different.  For me, it was, “If I have to deal with more than a certain number of jackasses daily, and the number is less then 7, I will have to quit.”

Looking back on it, though, jackass is definitely the wrong concept.  I’ll admit, sometimes it was that people were simply jackasses–not necessarily absolute shit, but nowhere near as good as they acted like they were.  However, in most situations, this was not the case.  It was usually a consequence of infrastructure: too many tiers of management, too many meetings, gamable accountability, decision by committee, highly skilled workers being promoted to managers, and various other factors.  The key is, though, it was far less often the case that there was a problematic individual than a problematic placement of an individual or a problematic process.

I decided that I wanted to get out on my own because I wanted to build the right team with the right infrastructure with the right culture.  I knew that as long as it wasn’t my company, all I would ever be is another annoying voice in the ear of upper management.  It’s not that I think I’m so brilliant that they should listen to everything I say.  It’s the fact that I am an individual who is never satisfied with the way things are and will always want to know if things could be better.  I want to try my ideas and see if they sink or swim.  I want to stay fluid and really focus not on just finding the right people, but finding the right roles and environments for the right people.

To me, the worst thing is stagnation, and from my experience, without finding the exact right process for a company, it is the natural consequence of human endeavors.  For every bad hire that isn’t fired and for every promotion that shouldn’t have been given, a company loses options.  For every unnecessary policy or invalid internal metric, a company loses options.  The more mistakes a company makes, the more it is forced down a certain path that makes making good decisions more difficult and more mistakes inevitable.  For me, the key is having a culture where the perspective is more like the scientific method than a series of goals.  Running a good company is about making and testing hypotheses, not about setting goals and succeeding or failing.  When a hypothesis turns out to be false, you have learned something valuable and saved a lot of time because you need to go no further with it.  When you fail, there is always the risk that an ego gets in the way and wants to hide it or present it as a success.  Facts–true and false–are objective.  Quality-success and fail–are not.

I am starting a company because I want to build something that is evaluated not by what it has done, but by how many doors have been left open and how much it still can actually do.  I am starting a company because I want to find out how many other people share this passion for means over ends.

    • Slim
    • January 22nd, 2010

    I like to think I’m a goal oriented person, which is at first glance, ends over means to me. When I step back from my tendency to over-simplify though, I realized that I naturally draw a line between macro and micro. I still think I can honestly say that I believe in ends over means, but only at a macro level. If I have the opportunity to start a company one day, it will be in order to create an amazing product that the team can be proud of on as many fronts as possible, regardless of sacrifice. I think I came close to this on my recent team. We made a crazy and unlikely goal at EA of all places and we all surprised ourselves with how far we came, especially considering the guantlet of obstacles we overcame. However, when I think back on all the fun and not so fun moments, we really tried our best to make sure everyone was feeling good about what we were doing. I realized that nomatter how cold and dead-set on success I think I want to be, I always end up taking as much time out to spend talking and (try) listening to ppl nomatter the short term impact on the project or schedule. At this point, I am starting to be conscious of the value of this and not gonna bother fighting myself in my head about it anymore. At the end of the day, it is critical to me that ppl care, and that we take the time to align that passion. All guided by a frame of ends over means :)

    • I definitely don’t think that ends are completely useless, but I don’t think they have the flexibility, depth, or long term value as means. It’s always good to make a great product and all that, but unless you know how you did it, you’re stuck with second album syndrome and are stuck with no option than to repeat the end rather than repeat the means. So with the example of Insomniac, copying the Ratchet formula over and over rather than doing another iteration of the creative process and team building process that created the first title (still my favorite).

      To me, ends are just the things you see flying by to see if you’re on a reasonable course. The course is the important part, but you’d have no idea if the course was any good if you had no landmarks by which to gauge your progress.

    • stubborngorilla
    • January 22nd, 2010

    Evil Slim and Good Moo have an internet conversation…awesome!

    • Gavin Clifton
    • February 10th, 2010

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog and I’ve found this post to be really inspiring. On the internet I read so many posts with people complaining about how wrong things are where they work or how their life is so rubbish because they don’t get to work on the things they want to work on (usually blaming someone else as the cause). It’s refreshing to actually see someone do something about it to make their life better in some way, even if that does mean giving up the security [read:money] they had before. I’ll definitely be checking your blog to see how things are going. I hope everything works out the way you plan it to.

    • Hi Gavin. Thanks for the support. I’ll definitely be doing my best to keep this blog updated even when things get hectic.