Everyone’s a CEO

Anyone can be a CEO on paper. All it takes, formally, is a few hundred dollars to file some paperwork, get a business license, be on file with the Secretary of State, State Taxation Department, and IRS, and BOOM, you can list yourself as Chief Executive Officer of a Company of One. It’s not difficult, and an extra $20 in business cards will allow you to pass out little bits of high weight paper that honestly truly represent that you own and run a business.

My business cards read “Founder and CEO”, which technically is true, since I did all of the above, and first and foremost, my primary job is to run a successful company. However, there’s a lot I leave off the table with that description. I don’t just sign contracts, set vision, hire people, and ensure that we have cashflow. I’m actually also the Lead Software Developer, the Lead Game Designer, head of HR and Recruiting, the Lead Concept Artist, the only Production Artist, COO, and head of Marketing. I am, wisely, outsourcing music and audio production, as well as video production, to highly skilled contractors far more talented than myself.

A friend called recently to ask my opinion of an opportunity he was presented with. It only took ten seconds for my alarms to go off, as the company he described was executive heavy and contributor absent; it was literally a company with a CEO and a CFO, neither of whom were well informed about their technology nor product space, but who wanted to hire my friend so that he could then go hire up a full team to do the actual work of making stuff to sell. I’m sure plenty of businesses start that way, but I get shivers just thinking about it, as I’ve seen far too many failures with that formula.

When I was Director of Technology at Novel, we had a team of about 20 people, all of whom were very bright and talented, but few of whom were very experienced. We spent a long time with a large staff focusing on the wrong things, and there was a large overhead at the top (myself included) who spent a lot of time doing things that neither contributed directly to revenue nor to a great product. We did raise some money, which is a measure of some success, but it wasn’t enough. When I left in September of 2011, I predicted the company would run out of money in about eight months. Novel shut down in April of the following year.

About a year ago, I met up with a peer Director from my Novel days, and we discussed where the team went, as well as what we could have done differently. In retrospect, we both agreed, we should have slimmed down the team considerably. Instead of being high level Directors, he and I, we should have focused more on actually creating the product ourselves. We could have been as productive (or more) with an experienced team of about eight, with far less overhead, as we were with a team of twenty mostly green employees.

When I look at the indie games that I really enjoy, like Braid, FTL, Kerbal Space Program, and even Fez, they were all made by teams of people who dove in and actually made the games, not by executives who outsourced or hired other people to build something as part of some title-inflation driven business plan. That’s the template that I want to follow personally, and it sets the baseline for a good set of questions if you’re evaluating a startup or small company yourself. Sometimes, you have to be like the Bobs from Office Space, and ask people at this prospective employer “just what would you say you do here?” If the company size doesn’t justify high level management, and the answer isn’t “make great games,” then perhaps you should look elsewhere.

Alternately, make your own great product. Then you too can be the CEO, and everything else.

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