Trust but verify

Photo by Concrete Jungler101

I ran across the Mistake Bank for the first time today (HT Tim Berry via Execupundit). It’s a Ning network where you can post stories of your memorable mistakes. Looking through the contributions drove home a lot of lessons, so I thought it was about time I gave back and shared some of my own screw-ups.

Back when I worked in the game industry, my first job in the US was at a small but established company. It was towards the end of a grueling project, everyone had been working long hours and there was a lot of discontent in the ranks. The manager of the project came into my office and closed the door. He asked if I wanted to join him and found a new company, explaining that I was key to his team, and most of my colleagues had signed on. He painted a picture of a family-friendly, creative environment where we could build games the way we’d always wanted to. He’d talked to some big publishers, and had a contract to produce an NCAA version of a popular NBA basketball game. I’d had dinner at his house, met his family, and felt a lot of affection and trust towards him, so I was excited by the idea and agreed.

With all the good-feeling I had towards him, and the way he always talked about ‘our company’, I never stopped to think about actual ownership. Since I was alone in the US for Christmas I even volunteered to help unpack and set up the office furniture over the vacation, throwing myself completely into making the company a success. The first week we all started it rapidly became ‘my company’, because after all he was the sole owner, and none of us had any stake. He’d needed our resumes to convince the publisher to give him the contract, but after that we were overhead, and far too fussy about quality. He bought a second house and a Mercedes in the first couple of months, and fired or pushed out the experienced artists to make way for untrained people keen to make it into the industry, willing to accept sub-$20,000 wages. He demanded relentless hours, with my personal best topping out at 92 in a week. I finally knew I had to leave when my parents visited for 2 weeks, and I was only able to see them twice in the evening. Another strong memory is seeing a colleague chewed out for being late on a Sunday! I stuck it out for a year, until the end of the project, and then left to start my own business away from games.

The lesson I learnt from this was to never make a deal that relies on good will and assurances. No matter how well you know someone as a friend, the pressures of money and power are very strong, so you need to look out for your own interests. Now when I’m evaluating an offer, I assume that everyone will work within the rules to maximize their own position. Looking back, my mistake was listening to his words instead of evaluating his actions, and not demanding anything concrete to verify he’d deliver on the lofty promises.

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