Hello people! Before we start, this post comes with prefixes again! This blog is about starting your business, developing digital products and generally being an entrepreneur. I love talking about my job, I love talking about my company – in fact – I just like talking in general; but do remember that all of the things I’m writing about, I’m still learning too! Secondly, I’ve tried to make this presentation as generic to business as possible, but it is adapted from a talk I did about getting into games, merged with this previous blog post about starting up a games company, so forgive me if I drop the ball now and then and start waffling about games and techy stuff… I am in fact, deeply nerdy.
So for those of you don’t know me – I’m the managing director, Rob. I am a student, a programmer and a web developer. I’m coffee fuelled and 100% pure geek. I started an indie games company called Static Games Ltd a couple of years back, and we’ve won more than our fair share of awards and plaudits, both nationally and globally. I then founded a digital engineering agency called Square Flame, and we make lots of really cool techy products for some really big clients, most of whom I can’t mention due to NDA. I was briefly involved in an online gambling website, though I left due to ethical differences… And now I’m opening up an e-commerce site selling models, textures, sound effects, etc to the games industry. So that’s my background. And the following, are 11 thoughts on starting your business…
Running a business is a full time job. Marketing is a full time job. Product development is a full time job. And being a student is a full time job. Business requires you to wear many hats, but unless you are superman the weight of all those hats on one head will break your neck. You aren’t going to have all the skills required, and you certainly aren’t going to have the time. If you are a freelancer, and you are selling your time as a temporary employee, you can probably get away with it, but I would hesitate to call it a business as it isn’t scalable. When you’re starting up your business, make sure you identify all of the positions needed and then find people with complimentary skill-sets to your own in order to fill those roles. Don’t just hire your friends – find the best person for the job. Yes you need to get along with them to a degree, but it’s better to have someone who is going to push the business forward and who shares your drive and ambitions. Out of interest, do you intend on being the MD for your company? Well, I’m currently the managing director at Static Games and here’s the dirty little secret. Power comes with a price – I have contributed to the coding and development on occasion, but developing games isn’t actually a part of my regular day job, and in all honesty, it probably isn’t ever going to be. This is to say that I’m not a part of developing products any more – I simply develop the company. Luckily, I am in fact a boring, emotionless, number-crunching kind of guy, but for those of you reading this who would rather work on the fun exciting products than the business itself – remember to bare this in mind!
Your first business is not Sony or Ikea… Yet! It’s okay to have long term goals, but for now, focus in the short term and building up a foundation. It’s not about losing sight of where you want to go, it’s about working within the time-scales and resources you have now and ensuring you make something that’s feasible and achievable. Before I can consider goals like being published by Sony, I need to be hitting goals like building the foundation of the software, sorting all the bugs, finding play-testers, etc… Remember, survival is key, so find yourself a niche (gap in the market) and push it. If you try to be the next Sony at start-up and you start developing some kind of 3D, virtual reality, touch-screen, thought-powered super computer, you’re going to run out of time and money quickly, and you’re never, ever going to ship. If you don’t ship, you make no money and your company fails. Don’t be that person. It is okay to grow, but do not try to be all things to all people. Keep your goals reachable and within scope. Shipping the product is worth infinitely more than trying to make the next big thing.
I’m absolutely certain that you’re all a lot cooler, funnier, smarter, and more popular than me, and because I’m bitter and twisted, you’ve definitely got more friends. But when you start up, do not, do not, do not, do not, do not, work with everyone. Only take on the people you really need. I love our team at Static, but this was a major oversight on my part when we started up. Survival is key during start-up, and the fewer people you have on board, the easier it is to survive. The smaller your costs are at start up, the better; and if you can make your product with fewer people, then do. It is a lot easier to make the sales and revenue required for two people to live than it is for five, six or seven people. Think of it like this. If you make £40,000 off of your first product, and your development team was two people, you’re both taking home a decent chunk of pocket change. But if this game was made by a team of seven, like us – that money isn’t going to go very far! Unless someone is absolutely invaluable to your company or they can speed up product development by a really significant amount of time, it might be worth considering whether you really need them and potentially omitting them from your plans.
Tell everyone you can, as loudly and as frequently as you possibly can. There is absolutely no point in making a product or offering a service if you never tell anyone about it! One thing which we really neglected when we started Static Games was to market our products – and we still haven’t truly gotten this down! But if I’ve never heard of your product or company, and if you never show me it, how do you propose to make me buy it? To go all business on you for a minute, marketing is really your one opportunity to try and boost your sales and increase your chances of success – do not squander it! Marketing doesn’t have to cost anything, and with the internet making it so easy to get your name out there there’s no reason not to start marketing immediately. So many people get so caught up in building the product or business that they neglect building a fan base or letting people know the they exist. If you release a product which no-one knows about, your sales will reflect this. You might have developed the most amazing product in the world, like a game in which jousting, cosmic unicorns battle for control of the galaxy, but if you want me to buy it, you need to tell me that the game exists! In fact, if you do build that game then you have to let me know immediately because that would be fucking awesome and I totally want to play it… Anyway, it takes time to build hype and excitement around a product, but it costs nothing to set yourself up on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social media. You should also look into Hootsuite to save you some time posting across social media sites. I’m sure some of you may already have websites, but if not, use Wix or WordPress and set up a site for free. Email press and outlets like YouTubers – they’re surprisingly friendly, it costs you nothing and they secretly want to hear from you. They need something to write or talk about, and if you give them a story, you’re making their job easier! Marketing will take a lot of time, but you need to put a lot in to get a lot out of it. If you’re going to spend months building a product or company, for God’s sake make sure you do everything within your power to make sure you can sell it!
A lot of businessmen I’ve met have been super-duper hesitant to talk about what they’re doing or what they’re developing in case someone steals their idea, and I’ve gotta say, I’ve always felt that this was just dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. I’ve always found the successful ones to be chatty, community driven and more than pleased to talk about what they’re working on. The fact is that the more people know about your product, the better. That’s more people to spread the word and get excited about it, more people who can give you feedback and advice on it, and more people who can inform you of any opportunities that it could offer you. I often get the sense that people are scared of others stealing their ideas, but really, with millions of other businesses and products out there, the likelihood is that your idea just isn’t that original. But if someone did release a product like yours and you have a back catalogue of updates and screenshots on your website, most people will look at their product and go, “Hey, that looks like [insert product name here] by [insert your name here]”. You don’t lose anything from announcing what you are doing, but you do stand to gain from all the related marketing you’ll get. Just keep that in mind.
Static Games did not need any money when we started up. We all had a student loan, a laptop to work on, some open source development software and a great sense of enthusiasm and opportunity. However, living costs money, and your internet provider probably doesn’t take smiles and best intentions as a form of currency. You really need to factor in living costs before you quit your day job. Remember that a loan or your savings has to last you a very long time here. This is my favourite part of the blog because I get to be a kill-joy. Okay, so I want you to calculate in your head how long you think it will take you to complete your first product. I’ll give you a few seconds here. Okay, now multiply it by two. That’s how long I think your product will take to make. For a minimum viable product. If everything goes perfectly. If your product takes nine months to hit the shelves (and I’m betting it takes longer than that), you need to have money in the bank to pay for rent, bills, food and drink, travel, entertainment, unforeseen costs and much more. If you don’t have more than enough in the bank to pay for all of this, then maybe think again about starting up just yet. Or at the very least, do what some of our team did and get yourself a part time job on the side. There’s absolutely no shame in it – personal survival has to come before business survival, and if you can’t afford to live, your business can’t either! With that said, for any students reading this – whilst you’ve got your loan, now might be a good time to test the water before you have dependants or a larger number of bills. I’m not trying to put thoughts in your head here, I’m just saying… Give it a go whilst you have a safety net because you’ll never get another chance to try with such easy-going financials!
Static started off with our own IP already in development, and we have made some money off of it. However, it’s worth remembering that you have to make your IP before you can sell it, which can mean long periods with no income, and even then your sales may not make you enough money to live on. With this in mind, it can sometimes be easier, or at least cheaper, to start your company selling a service. Work for hire, or contracting, is something which we do via Square Flame, and it can be much more lucrative in the short term than making your own IP. The money is more assured, and to be honest, there’s something to be said about honing your skills on other people’s products before you start working on your own. I understand that for people starting up who want to sell a product such as socks or TVs, you can’t mitigate that risk… But here’s the upside – your business is much more scalable and I think you can make a lot more money in the long run.
So to quickly address those of you looking at starting a service based business, always remember that contacts give you contracts. When you’re starting up, always meet as many people as possible. Attend networking events and just trust me that they get easier with time. Pester people on LinkedIn. Email the people you want to meet and ask if you can have a chat over coffee. You’ll find that most business owners will be happy to talk to you in one form or another. I always remember being told – you have to ask for the sale; and low and behold, after bugging enough people and having a coffee with probably half of Dorset, I managed to land a few contracts and a severe caffeine addiction. I specifically remember asking Mike Hawkyard from Amuzo Games who I should be contacting for work, and not two days had passed before he began handing me over the contracts that weren’t big enough for his company. This was great and it allowed us to build up a portfolio and a chance to gain contracts through recommendation. There is a definite level of truth to the old saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, so make sure you know as many people as possible! Oh, and if you ever read this – thanks Mike!
So briefly, about finding money. I hate equity and giving away parts of my business. I also hate loans and paying back money with interest, so as a point of reference, these are the places that I would look for money.
1) Competitions – We went through a competition called “Make Something Unreal” prior to starting up. Competitions are a good source of equity free funding and a way of getting your name out there. They also provide a good starting point for people like me who have no exact idea of the product or business they want to create.
2) Grants – An obvious one, check charities such as the Wellcome Trust, organisations such as Nesta or Creative England and local councils such as Poole Borough and Bournemouth Borough, they can provide essentially free money to help you get started.
3) Contacts – A wee bit old school and probably not for everyone but no-one’s gonna believe in you like your nan! Asking friends and family members is still one of the easiest ways of accumulating capital and they don’t tend to attach interest rates.
4) Crowd funding – The most modern method of acquiring cash without having to pay it back, just remember to factor in tax, the platform cut, cost of rewards and cost of shipping on top of the amount you are looking to raise. Also don’t expect to receive funding without putting in a lot of effort into your campaign. Try Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.
5) Zero Percent Interest Loans – Sometimes offered by groups such as Creative England and local councils, they allow you to start up on someone else’s wallet without offering equity and without accumulating further debt.
6) Match funding – If you already have a little in the bank match funding is a great way to throw more money in the kitty without giving up equity and without having to pay it back. Groups such as Nesta or Creative England are more than happy to match your money or double your money at no extra cost provided you match certain criteria.
Self motivation is a really key thing and convincing yourself to get up in the morning can be really difficult at times. Morale can drop if you all work in different places and you can’t see the overall progression of the product or the progress made by other people. With no rigorous nine-to-five schedule, and only self imposed deadlines to hit, you’re probably going to fall behind at some point, and there will definitely be days when you won’t get up until noon and you only work a five hour day. But it’s really important not to let this be the norm. Find something that motivates you, and keeps you working, no matter what it is. Remember that your team members are counting on you and that you can’t be successful if you don’t put the time and effort in! Find something that motivates you, and find it fast, and trust me when I say you’ll want an office as soon as you can get one! Hard work is the only thing that will finish your product, and the sooner it’s finished, the sooner you can start making money off of it. Incidentally, make sure you’re communicating frequently with any work colleagues, because for all of the motivational posters and other crap you’ll read online, nothing will motivate you quite as well as the size ten boot your business partner will walk up your arse when he finds out you’ve taken an unscheduled week off from product development.
Leading on from that, I strongly believe that its simply perseverance that creates success. No-one expects you to start your business and be an instant success and it’s absolutely okay to fail. In fact, I’m going to steal an analogy off of my buddy Oli here because I think it fits in perfectly. Say you use Tinder… You don’t expect to find a great match every time, but as long as you fail with these guys and girls quickly, cheaply and regularly – you’ll find a person you like a lot bloody sooner. So persist, persevere and don’t get disheartened. Any failures you make now are just ones which would have cost you a lot more had you made them further down the road. Also, don’t get disheartened by negative feedback or criticism! Negative feedback is great as it shows you that someone is interested in your product, and it helps you to improve what you’re doing!
When I started Static Games, I knew nothing of business or games development. I just had a positive mindset and a healthy willingness to learn. There’s nothing stopping you starting your business and learning as you go, and truth be told, I think it’s the best way to go. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from anyone and never be ashamed to admit if you don’t know something. Your honesty and willingness to admit that you aren’t perfect is usually enough to convince people that you’re worth helping and that you have the drive to learn to be successful. Also remember that it’s okay to fail, and that any failing you do during start up is simply a learning experience for something which would have cost a lot of money if you had done it down the line when you’re rolling in it! Always look at failure as a way to learn something new and remember that you can’t improve without first failing – just don’t repeat the same mistake twice! And most importantly, if you have asked someone for advice, always use your own judgement on whether to trust them. Other people might well have more experience than you, and it’s unlikely that they’ll deliberately lead you astray, but some of the worst advice I’ve received whilst running Static Games has come from some of the most successful and higher up members of the industry. Industries are constantly changing and advancing, so you will never find someone who knows everything! Remember, it’s your company and you should do what you think is right for you. Good luck!