I’m writing this post because I need to take my mind off of what’s going on out there.
Out there, my company is having its first real day on stage. Out there, Habitat has just been released on Steam’s Early Access program, and while I was principled (some would say egotistical) enough to pen a manifesto about how we’ll try to bring order to chaos of pre-release development, the reality still looms that it’s the Wild West in the world of indie game development, with backward-spinning wagon wheels and barfights and shooting the piano player and everything.
Now, of course I’m proud. My team has done amazing work. This year alone we went from nothing to a prototype that raised $64,000 on Kickstarter with over 1500 backers, showed at four national game conferences, has been mentioned in over 200 press articles, and got us signed with an amazing publisher to bring our game to market. And now, the first ready-to-play version is out and the training wheels are off.
Naturally, we’re thrilled. I mean, come on. But there’s a surreal element to all of this; a feeling like out of millions upon billions of possible outcomes of all of life this particular reality of having our own game reach Steam’s 70M subscriber base feels distinctly remote.
The natural question presents itself: Could it be luck?
Yes. In fact, it more than likely is.
So why doesn’t that scare me more?
Because it turns out that luck is my job. More specifically, probability – the measuring, inferring, prioritizing, and decision making based on probability is a fundamental part of my leadership role here at my company, and while it took me a while to realize that fact, it’s come into clear focus as I look back at all the decisions, occurrences and consequences that steered us to this incredible place – a beginning, really – for our little studio.
And while you know I take my inspiration about building belief and excitement from a certain little F-O-R-G (sic), when it comes to taking the helm of luck to come out on top, there’s only one hero for me.
Jack Ryan, from the Hunt for Red October.
Say What? (Or, I Could Crap a Better Hero)
I’m not kidding. Yes, I’ve seen plenty of heroes on the big screen, and some of them are pretty damn impressive. I love Ripley from Alien, John McClane from Die Hard, the one and only Henry “We Named the Dog Indiana” Jones Jr. – you know I do.
But there’s something about Ryan that makes me at once admire and empathize with the man – and it’s about luck.
I call his way of doing business the “Ryan Rules”, and there are three of them. Just three.
Ryan Rule #1: Get Back to Fifty-Fifty.
“I had a fifty-fifty chance and I needed a break.” – Jack Ryan
Jack Ryan’s had a long day. He’s fought with four-star generals, nearly drowned getting on board the only submarine that has his quarry in sight, and now is seconds away from losing it all because – quite rightly – a grizzled sub skipper doesn’t believe his hunch.
Ryan knows this is the moment – and it’s all about the odds. Right now, they’re against him.
How does he turn it back to a win? By stacking the deck – because it’s all he can do.
Starting a company is an unnatural exercise. Regardless of how floral the wheels of American pro-business government want to make it sound entrepreneurship and small business is a loss-stacked proposition especially in saturated industries dominated by multinational corporations often with unspoken and unaccountable collusion designed to keep the entry costs to small fish artificially high.
You can forget meritocracy. You can say hello to The Market.
I had a dream, sure. That dream informed what Habitat has become and will grow up into. But that dream was informed by the nasty lessons I had to learn walking into The Market with my eyes closed for two years before realizing how badly the odds were stacked against small studios in that ecosystem. I would have killed for a fifty-fifty chance at making my investment back, but my odds in the mobile market were far worse than even the riskiest angel investors were willing to spring for (They assume 90% of their ventures fail. I would have killed for those odds, too) and that should have been my marker to get out.
Eventually, it was. I moved to the PC games market (higher % chance of spend at higher $ rates), I embraced a strategy of getting into a curated market (Steam) rather than an open one (App Store) to reduce competition and increase eyes and conversions, and took a hybrid strategy of our own Kickstarter marketing combined with finding a publisher to drive early interest and get marketing costs off our balance sheets.
The goal in all that strategy wasn’t to guarantee anything. Because that’s impossible. The goal of strategy – at least in my view – is to turn impossible odds into possible odds, to get as close to a fifty-fifty chance as possible (better than fifty-fifty is just wonderful to think of, but don’t pay money to anyone promising you that).
Then, it’s all up to the coin flip.
Ryan knew. He knew as he confronted Captain Mancuso on the USS Dallas. There aren’t any apologies he or anyone else needs to make for that being the reality of our world, the game we’re stuck playing.
All we can do is make that game a little less like slot machines, and a little more like poker. Get to the showdown with one opponent, similar cards, and a big pot in the middle.
Then turn ’em up.
Ryan Rule #2: Fortune Sometimes Appears. Don’t Waste It.
“Sir, I think Captain Mancuso has found the Red October.” – Jack Ryan
It couldn’t be possible. Ryan knew the odds were astronomical. An American sub, nearby, in a sea of hostile warships, was the only one that sniffed out the nearly-silent submarine he was hunting.
Yet here he was, just a helicopter ride away, and if he was wrong – so what? Looking foolish was nothing if it meant grabbing at that one glinting object that turned out to be the needle in the haystack.
At this point, he couldn’t afford not to take the chance, no matter how improbable – because good luck had turned up right in front of him.
Business is a long game of poker. For me, it’ll last my whole life – I know that much about myself, if nothing else.
But what I also know about my life, my circumstances, even as hard as they’ve been and will continue to be, is that every once in a while, unexplainable good luck crops up and it doesn’t make sense when it appears.
When it does, I have a standing order to capitalize on it with almost no reservations. I have a rule here at 4gency that I like to follow: “Allow for glorious accidents.”
Now, according to Rule #1, I set up systems that bring those glorious accidents to me: I keep a large network of contacts. I do favors for people. I keep my mind open. I ask people to introduce me to others they know. I congratulate people publicly on their successes and quietly counsel them on their troubles.
But I have few questions when that good fortune comes back to me. Sure, not every opportunity is the right one, but you know when you’ve been given the signal.
Ryan knew. He knew when he heard about the sub reporting a “magma displacement” that for whatever reason – who even cares why? – the opportunity was put right in front of him.
And like Ryan, the next step is often the one right in front of you. Question it only long enough to trust your gut.
Then step through the door.
Ryan Rule #3: Decide.
“…” – Jack Ryan, on deciding to take the assignment of finding the Red October
“…” – Jack Ryan, on deciding to end Loganov’s nuclear sabotage
“…” – Jack Ryan, on deciding to “turn that goddamned wheel” to 315
As these choice quotes above imply, none of our strategizing or thinking or concerning or turning-our-attention-to-the-mattering is going to do anything unless we decide to take action.
You can choose not to flip a coin. But once you’re in a coin flip – you always pick a side. Heads or tails. When that decision comes up, we’re all able to make it happen.
This past year, I’ve felt like the real lessons for me have been about how to reduce complex choices down to coin flips, and have the courage to make the call, take the action, stick with it.
I’ve served in multi-headed, monolithic organizations that trumpeted a great deal about decision making but then devolved into whatever the business equivalent of YouTube comments is when faced with a difficult multidimensional problem.
What I’ve had to unlearn – and what I’ve had to cut through is that haze of uncertainty. It’s been all about getting better about just making a damned decision.
Not every choice is going to be yours to make. Sometimes the world is going to make the choice for you. In fact, we’re all players in a much, much bigger game than we can do a damn about.
But we’ve got to understand when it is our choice, and when that choice comes, we decide, and we take action. We need to know when the time comes. And we need to know when it’s on us.
Ryan knew. He knew each and every time that even if he got it wrong, he had to choose, one way or the other.
And like Ryan, we know that not choosing is making a choice. And it’s almost always the worst one.
Welcome to the New World, Sir
You don’t have to worry. I’m well aware that everything I’ve built could come crashing down tomorrow, even though I’ve worked hard to build a strong team, a strong product, a series of support systems and failsafes.
I’m superstitious just like many of us, especially of hubris. Nothing I’ve said above means I’ve mastered anything or have the answers to anything other than my own questions about what I’ve been learning this past year, why I like Jack Ryan so darn much or how those two concepts are interrelated.
It matters to me. And, in spending my time today, trying to look ahead and not see the primal, madness-inducing terror that is the now of Habitat’s first day on Steam Early Access, I felt there to be value here, in examining how I might measure up to this character I respect and admire so much.
If it’s mattered to you too, it’d be great to hear from you.