Monday, June 16, 2014

Big yellow, bent, bananas for sale

A promise to the past
As you get a bit older, you'll learn things. Really! Not schoolbook stuff, but how the world actually works. Or maybe why things DON't work. Half a life-time ago, which seems like yesterday, I had dreams of what to do and what to become. Just like anybody else. Many years still ahead, young, fit, and plenty of time on your sleeves. You're invincible. I would make a popular game. Not tomorrow -naïve is not the same as dumb- but definitely somewhere in the future.

Well, as one after another year passes, I'm catching up with this "future". You get less ambitious, or more realistic. Or both. But it's a sad fact that most boys don't become Rockstars, astronauts, top footballers, or William Wallace. Even starting your own business is a bridge too far for most. You live, you learn, you work, you'll die. And in the meanwhile we make children and hope they get a better chance to realize their dreams.

That sounds a bit demotivating, but it's just true that ambitions slowly fade away. It's a mixture of (lazy) delays, fear, and loss of urgency. When you get older, there is less urge to prove yourself. Especially once you found a job + home + girl. It's just natural. Women cut their sexy long hair and gain six whales once they get married, because they don't have to "hunt" anymore. Same thing for men. Rocky Rooster becomes a Slothy Snoozer. Why run further if you can afford yourself a couch?

Fortunately, I think, I still have the urge to "make something". Not really to prove myself, but just because I hate to waste my time on doing nothing. Watching TV, go fishing, walking from A to B without a real goal, sunbathing like a pig in a vacation resort, sleeping... *shivers*. Nah. Whenever I try to relax, I get chased by my inner-devils from the past I once promised to make something of my live. Although the little red pitchforking voices are starting to get a bit older as well, I still can't just sit down and do nothing. Well, I can sit down very well, but behind a computer, in a machine, over a drawing, or as an exception on a barstool. Programming Tower22, doing over-hours for work, making plans for the house or studying stuff, it's all ok just as long I find it "useful". Whatever that exactly means. Because through the years, you'll also learn that success is relative. What IF Tower22 was finished tomorrow? Would that bring long life happiness? Hot girls? Could I die in piece then? Probably not. Euphoria doesn't last forever, and beating that moment with a next, even bigger, success is probably even harder. As I said before, luck is often in the small, hidden things. It's all about the Road, not the Destination.

House, Bells, and Bliss
But but but! We're not that old yet. Hey. Ho. Cheer up, don't give up, the roulette tables are still open. Looking in my direct circles, we certainly can't complain. My friends still have plenty of dreams, and now and then important steps towards promotions, home-improvements, or "starting your own business" are made. No surprise that my child, Tower22 I mean, pops up in our chats sometimes as well. What's the status, what's the plan, any highlights?? et cetera. Or they ask how about doing something with my programming skills in general. You know, instead of working for a boss, be a boss.

So, I've been thinking about that. More than once. My friends always encouraged me to start my own little business, programming whatever for whomever. And sure, the skills and know-how aren't the problem. Besides half working games, I've made factory machines, harvesters, databases, webservers, camera systems. A wide range of stuff, with a wide range of tools. And since my goal is not to get filthy rich in this life, I can probably do things against a honest, interesting price.

Sounds like business. Then why don't do it already?! What's the hold-up, laziness? No. Not urgent? Hmmm... can't wait forever so urgency grows. Fear maybe? Yes I think so. Having two jobs with plenty of work for the next X years and a not too bad salary isn't the most adventurous way of "living your live", but at least it brings stability. If my mother would still wash my socks and cook my meals, stability doesn't mean much. But if you have a house to pay, and a girl plus (almost two) kids to feed, you can't act reckless. You should make a "money buffer" at least, in case things don't go quite as expected. And be prepared to work hard(er). I don't mind sweat, but loosing spare time for those kids or Tower22 would suck as well. There is more than work.

Doers, Thinkers, Talkers. Jokers.
But maybe I'm even more afraid of having too much spare time. Meaning that there won't be enough jobs or clients to fill your schedule for the next year. See, being talented doesn't automatically mean you can sell yourself. In fact, I dare to say that "skills" and "talks" rarely come in the same person (exceptions there of course). Most guys with a good pair of hands or brains, having specific in-depth knowledge or talents, are humble. If you would praise them with a "You are goddamn good with that", their reaction is usually a giggling, stuttering "uhhh", "sometimes", "they say so". As if they are ashamed to say "Yes. I am goddamn good at this.".

Then at the other end we have people with less in-depth skills. But, to compensate, a talented mouth. Salesmen, chiefs, managers, marketers, et cetera. Not saying they can't have a particular expertise, but you usually don't see them digging into the dirt. Ask a salesman a technical question. Either they just bluff and give a "yes-we-can" nonsense answer, or if they are honest, they'll note your question and answer later. They have "their guys" doing that for them. Yes, the humble nerds mentioned above, and more than once paid less while they know more. Beta boys & girls drive home in a Fiat Panda, Alpha males open their Cabrio roofs.

Thinkers, Doers, Talkers... we joke about each other, sometimes even disrespect each other. But the fact is that we all need each other. Without Thinkers we would miss the math to construct, efficient tools to make life easier, or models to rely on. Without Doers, well, dreams will always remain dreams. And without Talkers, people wouldn't cooperate, nor would there be a buyer for your product.

Probably not a surprise, I belong to the "Doer" category. Fix it, Trash it, change it, mail - upgrade it, Charge it, ... As Daft Punk would say it. And being a Doer, not too lazy to work some extra hours, I always believed that making a game would just be a matter of working hard enough. Or even harder, if needed. Things end where you stop working. Unfortunately, that isn't always quite true, and through the years I learned to acknowledge my limits, and to understand (& appreciate) the role of those darn swift Talkers more.

If I would start my own business -and let's say making Tower22 is a small-scaled example of that- my task isn't just to be good at programming. Of course you'll need to be good at something, and have solid ideas to begin with. But as said, just being good doesn't bring you anywhere. How did most musicians break through? Certainly not by playing a nice tune in the local bar, unless Timbaland or Bono were having a drink as well. That is called luck. Most musicians don't have luck, and will send their tapes a billion times or die trying. In the end you'll need a smoking appearance, big bag of money, or good connections (with a big bag of money). Just sheer talent alone isn't enough.

Buy my medicine
Now the music industry isn't exactly the same as starting your own IT company. But still, no matter how good your C++ skills are, no one will contact you if they don't have your number in the first place. This is where the "Talker" is needed. Humble as I am, selling my product isn't my talent. I already find it hard to promote Tower22 on websites such as Polycount and ask for help (while we really need it!). Unless we have something brand-new to show -a demo movie- I feel people will get annoyed when I announce T22 for the 100th time. That's very sweet, but not a good tactic to break obstacles of course. Everyone hates commercials, and a sane person wouldn't dare to shamelessly shove their crap into non-willing consumers, as if feeding crying toddlers. But nevertheless, it does sell. And ironically, especially the ultra f*cking annoying commercials might be the first ones you'll remember when you are ever in the need of a product in their category.

If you want to start business, shame or compunction is the last thing you can use, and eventually you'll have to throw aboard some principles. I might exaggerate a bit, but being squeaky clean won't help. In some occasions people appreciate a more humble, "underdog" approach, but don't forget even underdogs have to shout about “being underdog!” to get recognition. Although getting older, and more experienced, and therefore getting more confident helps a lot, I would probably need someone to sell my stuff. Whether that is Tower22 or anything else. What you need is a smooth Talker. Too bad though they can't always be trusted. Hence, a good Talker doesn't care if he sells diet pills, Tower22 boxes, or his own mother. I don't have statistics to prove this statement, but I bet Talkers tend to Job-Hop more than any other working-class-species.

And if you have bad luck, they hop along with your ideas as well. Wouldn't be the first time a modest nerd gets his hard-work robbed by a smooth Talker. Here is one more thing you should be when start doing business: Made of iron. Whatever your profession is, likely your working materials can be trusted. Note blocs don’t change letters, computers don’t lie, hammers and saws don’t get sick, and your painting canvas won’t protest no matter what shit you’re about to put on it. But people, they can’t be trusted. None of them bastards. Give them a finger, and they’ll rip of your arm. Whatever your business slogan is, small letters should say “We want to make profit.” And clients on the opposite site want to be treated like Cleopatra for a nickel. Be a jerk and no one will give you that nickel. Be a softie and you’ll never earn more than just nickels.

Now who’s Boss?
I’ve seen chiefs and several directors “in action” quite some times, and I must say I admire their way of acting. But it took a while. Unless you have a real cool boss, the average worker isn’t exactly positive about them. People see “the boss” as an always absent man/lady, who’s hardest “work” is to have lunch with other fast-car blokes. In case you can speak with a boss without twelve management layers in between, his answers are probably short, curt, abrupt. The boss doesn’t care about your daily problems. Nor did he ask you when important changes are made. And as a reward for this behaviour, he earns (much) more than you…?

No surprise, bosses can expect a good amount of garbage talk behind the office screens, and only attract slime-balls, opportunists, or women in need of a rich man, at the New year’s reception. Is that the kind of person you want to become, starting your own business? No of course, you’ll be doing things different. A: You care about your employees. B: You’ll take the “friend” attitude, rather than the “dictator” one. C: You remain nice and calm if your contractor says “sorry, next week!” three times in a row. D: Hard decisions are democratically made, as a team. E: you refuse a nice lunch with clients.

Well, A: maybe, B: better not, C: no, D: definitely no. E: silly bums. Doing otherwise means you’ll be digging your own grave, unless you are surrounded with good, loyal, honest, caring people… which is very unlikely. You certainly don’t have to be an asshole, but what I have learned (by looking at strengths and flaws of directors, and also a bit from leading Tower22) is that you’ll have to be firm. Strict, clear, straight forward, a leader. Dogs follow the alpha dog with the loudest bark. And so do people. This is a highly underestimated quality.

My way or the Highway
To use the examples above, let’s start with A: “You care about your employees”. Of course you should, but to what extent? If you have 100+ employees, it’s impossible to mangle with their personal stories. Make no mistake, bosses do more than lunching with clients. Their work is not to do field-research, weld metal pipes, or program software. Their work is to make the best decisions, based on networks and available information. Good decisions make cash, bad or difficult decisions make sleepless nights. Often the work doesn’t stop after 17:00 or Friday. So should they really care if Mary-Ann has a headache again? Or if Bill bullies Ted during the breaks? He shouldn’t. Chiefs are invented for that.

B: “You’ll take the friend attitude, rather than the dictator one”.
That would be nice, but you’re putting yourself into a vulnerable position. Pick sides, and there will be jealousy or division. Become too close, and it becomes really, really, hard to stand against misbehaviour. And misbehaviour lures when you get too nice. You won’t say No to Saddam Husain when he asks to paint his shed, but a “ah I forgot, next week ok?!” will be accepted by friends. We’re not doing favours for each other here. We’re trying to make this company survive in a harsh world, full of competition. This is also one of the weaknesses within Tower22 development. Because I can’t pay salary, I can’t stand on my stripes. So I’ll try a friendly approach instead, but obviously that also generates a climate for excuses.

C: “You remain nice and calm if your contractor says ‘sorry, next week!’”.
Hearing my bosses talk through the telephone is fascinating. They never say “ok, I understand, maybe blabla bla…”. No. They only say what they want, and don’t take no for an answer. That sounds logical, but it’s really hard to act blunt when they put their sweetest excuse-girls on the phone, or give very understandable reasons why X isn’t possible. Bosses have a very selective listening. They filter out everything that isn’t really relevant, or disrupts their plan. They don’t care about details, they don’t have time for details. Results, that’s what matters.

D: “Hard decisions are democratically made, as a team.”
I’m glad I’m living in a somewhat ahum, democratic country, but I don’t believe that inviting a whole bunch of people leads to good choices. “10 persons, 10 different tastes.”, is what one of my bosses always says. And it is true. Making a democratic choice with too many people around the table, is like mixing 10 colours of paint. You won’t get Green(go!), Red(no!), or surprising turquoise(idea!). You’ll only get brownish smudge. Look at your own politics and you can confirm that democratic processes rarely lead to quick, powerful decisions. It consumes (too) much time, and the result is often somewhere in the middle, trying to make everyone happy but leading nowhere.

The most important task of a boss, is making decisions. Decisions no one else can or dare to take. Sometimes popular, sometimes unpopular, and more often just unknown by most. Not that all bosses make good decisions, but in theory it’s to keep the company, and thus also to keep your workshop & salary safe… even if that means that some other has to be thrown out sometimes…

Now I sound like the boss’s ball licking Chihuahua. Well, I’m not, trust me. But trying to lead Tower22, and sometimes thinking about starting my own business, I know there’s a whole lot more to it than breeding my “idea-egg” into a big bag of cash, and keeping my lazy ass on top of it. And hard work and talent only, aren’t guarantees for a gold medal either. The hardest, maybe impossible, part is that I would need to fill multiple roles. A multiple personality disorder really. Being a pimp of my product, and being my humble honest self at the same time. Focussing on the Bigger Picture, not caring about small details, and being a Do-er working on specific small details. Being strict against personel, firm with contractors, and also being a friend, as I would like to be. What would you chose?