How You Do Things Matters

In my experience, when you do something like interview for a new job, one of the things that's in the forefront of your mind is to not make the same mistakes you'd made before. So a lot of your time is spent trying to figure out if this job is going to have the same problems as the last one.

For me, when I left Electronic Arts, I was looking for a place that didn't have EA's level of stifling bureaucracy, and I ended up at Backbone Entertainment. Backbone had many great people, and it didn't have the bureaucracy, but it was so disorganized it had the same stifling effect. The game we released was also a commercial and critical flop. So the next time I interviewed, I wanted a place with some-but-not-a-lot of bureaucracy, and wanted to work on a game that people were looking forward to. And on, and on. Every time you make a mistake, or find something you don't like, you learn how to avoid that one, and sometimes find out a little bit more about things to avoid in the future.

With Wonderspark, one of the things we really wanted to do was maintain our independence. If I go back & look through some of the early things I'd written (not publicly) about what I wanted to get out of this, maintaining our creative independence & "controlling our destiny" was a huge part of it.

But starting up a company is new to me - even with Self Aware, a lot of the difficult business-y stuff was handled by the fine folks at Social Concepts, our parent company, which we became part of almost instantly after we were founded. (It's a long, convoluted, complex, and unrepeatable process.) But so, learning about starting up a company, it seemed like there were steps X, Y, Z. Pitch to venture capitalists. Raise money. Grow fast.

I didn't even realize that while consciously, I'd had this goal of "controlling our destiny" the very nature of venture money is that you end up inevitably not controlling your destiny, because the endgame for VC money is either failure, acquisition, or going public. None of those are "long-term sustainable independence". You might get lucky if you're raising angel money, but if you're raising institutional money, you're giving away your long-term independence in exchange for $.

A friend of mine pointed this out to me at the beginning of the year, and it was one of those shocking, disorienting, "I'm gonna barf" kind of moments where you realize that what you want and what you're doing are headed in opposite directions. But it was great, because we were still at a stage where we could reorient ourselves, and go down the right path. Though it's a little more complex than that.

If you want to go down the VC path for a tech company, you can read books, websites, talk to folks, get advice, and it's all pretty straightforward. Do X, then Y, then Z, and you'll get a result that looks like every other tech company. But that's not what we wanted. I don't remember where it's from, but one of my favorite sayings is, "To get something you've never had, you must do something you've never done."

To that end, what we wanted was different than what most others wanted. We're not in it for a 3-year sprint to riches or failure. We're in it because we want to build a company that makes things people love. We want to make our employees' lives better. We want to do something we love doing and work with a team we're excited to work with every day. I also happen to think this is the best possible path to having a big success, but I found that's a hard sell to venture capitalists. That's fine - they don't know the game space like I do, and I'm happy to prove 'em wrong. :)

But to get a result that no one's gotten, we have to do things no one's done. That means we had to create a whole new investment structure, with a different audience of investors - individuals who believe in what we're trying to do. We had to write up whole new legal documents, Frankensteined together from not just the tech industry, but other industries as well, where different structures like this are more common. We had to pitch ourselves differently than you do when you pitch to a VC. You have to build a different kind of thing, in a different kind of way.

Which is awesome, because that's what we've intended to do all along. Over the last six months, we've beaten our heads against this problem, and weirdly, the solution in the end is fairly elegant. It looks familiar to investors, but is different enough. It relies on a lot of things that are well known, except where it's different, but that difference is small. We've had more success raising money than I honestly expected to have this fast, and the best best best thing about it is that we've raised money from people I'm incredibly proud to have on our team. I know, every company says that about their investors, but I don't think most companies have investors where the person we have the least experience with we've known for a decade.

A lot of people see raising money as "success". Folks trumpet the millions they've raised like it's a goal in and of itself. For us, we're grateful for everyone who's taking a chance on us. For the advice and support they've provided. For the money they've put in our care. But this isn't a time for celebration, though. It's time for work. It's time to take that faith and turn it into something great.

Let's go.