by Yan Cui

The most important lessons I learned from working at an amazing startup

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

I recently left Space Ape Games after a won­der­ful year. I learnt a lot, and worked on some chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

Here are seven lessons that I learned from one of the most well-run companies I have encountered in my 13 year career.

Define what culture you want, and organize yourself to optimize towards achieving that culture

Lots of com­pa­nies talk about how great their cul­ture is, but few talk about what their cul­ture actually is. Worse yet, I sus­pect most end up with a cul­ture they don’t want, because the cul­ture grew organ­i­cal­ly and with­out guid­ance.

To this day, the Net­flix cul­ture deck from 2009 is still the one of the best things you can read about cul­ture.

Real com­pa­ny val­ues are the behav­iors and skills that we par­tic­u­lar­ly val­ue in fel­low employ­ees.
— Reed Hast­ings

Be clear about the culture you want to build from the start. These are the characteristics and skills that we value in each other at Space Ape:

Pas­sion­ate: you have a pas­sion for games, and you want to build games that are fun and engag­ing.

Cre­ative: you are not afraid to stray off the beat­en path and try some­thing new. You accept the risks that come with cre­ativ­i­ty. You won’t let fail­ures stop you from suc­ceed­ing.

Judge­ment: you make smart bets. You bal­ance the risks of cre­ativ­i­ty with method­i­cal analy­sis of the poten­tial rewards to make smart bets.

Depend­able: you are depend­able and trust­wor­thy. We believe in small, autonomous teams. For this to work, we need to be able to depend on every indi­vid­ual in the team.

Focus: when required, you can put aside per­son­al projects and focus on delivering the best game pos­si­ble.

Mas­tery: you are a mas­ter of your craft. You want to become the best ver­sion of your­self and are always look­ing for ways to improve.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive: you work well with oth­ers. You are will­ing to make sac­ri­fices and com­pro­mis­es for the greater good of the com­pa­ny. Game mak­ing is an inher­ent­ly cre­ative and col­lab­o­ra­tive process. We need peo­ple that can thrive in a col­lab­o­ra­tive envi­ron­ment.

Inclu­sive: you wel­come oth­ers for who they are. You treat oth­ers equal­ly and fair­ly, the same way that you expect to be treat­ed.

Reit­er­ate this vision regularly. We find that if it is not reiterated at least once every couple of months, then it starts to slip through the collective consciousness.

Make sure new employ­ees are imbued with your vision. And remind employees of their duty to main­tain your culture.

Culture lives and dies by the people you hire and fire

This shared under­stand­ing of cul­ture needs to filter through to every hir­ing deci­sion.

“Cul­ture fit” is often used to enforce exist­ing bias­es, especially when said culture is nev­er defined up front to begin with. Fortunately, this has nev­er been the case in any of the hir­ing com­mit­tees I have sat on. When­ev­er “cul­ture fit” is raised as a con­cern, you must give clear exam­ples from your inter­ac­tion with the inter­vie­wee.

At the same time, you shouldn’t hire some­one who might be detri­men­tal to your cul­ture — not even when you are des­per­ate for anoth­er pair of hands on deck!

The cost of a bad hire to your cul­ture is too great.

The founders also act as the van­guards for your cul­ture. They watch from afar, but they’re nev­er afraid to step in when they see the dan­ger signs. If a long time employ­ee starts to show signs of self-enti­tle­ment, then expect a gen­tle reminder about the company’s com­mit­ment to inclu­sion and fairness.

Even when you have built a great culture, you can’t afford to take it for granted. It’s the duty of everyone involved to keep that culture strong.

People are your most important product

This is true for most com­pa­nies, which is why it should be a no-brain­er to invest in the peo­ple and help them grow.

Offer train­ing bud­gets to every­one, and pro­vide man­agers with man­age­ment coach­es. The results will be well worth it.

Founders need to communicate the vision of the company openly, clearly, and frequently

Avoid impres­sive-sound­ing but vague mis­sion state­ments. Vague goals that do not define clear, action­able tar­gets are hard to fol­low and apply. Collaboration suf­fers when peo­ple do not have a shared under­stand­ing of the com­pa­ny vision.

Our founders reit­er­ate the com­pa­ny mis­sion at every quar­ter­ly com­pa­ny meet­ing. The rep­e­ti­tion has been impor­tant in rein­forc­ing the shared under­stand­ing of the goal. I recent­ly also saw Ryan Cald­beck, the CEO of Cir­cle­Up, say the same thing on Twit­ter.

Our mis­sion state­ment is “to build a top gross­ing mobile game by own­ing a genre.” Sim­ple, unglam­orous, but easy to under­stand.

Be honest about conflict of interest

Man­agers usu­al­ly have the best inten­tions when they set out per­son­al objectives for their charges. Every­one gets a set of objec­tives that align with the company’s goal. Where is the con­flict of inter­est?

What you might think when you set out personal objectives.

Things seldom work out as you expect, though. What usually hap­pens is that some projects will go more smooth­ly than oth­ers. At the same time, some projects deliv­er more val­ue to the com­pa­ny than oth­ers.

Nod if this sce­nario sounds famil­iar.

You’re work­ing on project X, and your end of year pay raise, bonus, and promotion hopes are all rid­ing on the suc­cess of project X.

A col­league is work­ing on project Y, and he needs you to work on some­thing to unblock his project. Project Y is more valu­able to the com­pa­ny, but help­ing this col­league means los­ing progress on project X.

What do you do?

Do you do the right thing by the com­pa­ny and help this col­league? In the process you might lose the pay raise, bonus, and pro­mo­tion that you have worked so hard for.

Or do you put his request in the back­log and focus on project X?

Hel­lo, con­flict of inter­est.

What actually happens when employees need to collaborate with one another, and often have to sacrifice their self-interest for the greater good of the company.

If you think this only hap­pens in poor­ly-run com­pa­nies, then you’re wrong. Even Google is not immune to this con­flict of inter­est, as is evi­dent in Michael Lynch’s arti­cle on why he quit Google.

Team­work requires will­ing sac­ri­fice.

In foot­ball, a “team play­er” car­ries the con­no­ta­tion of being will­ing to sac­ri­fice themselves for the team. Be it risk­ing injury in a 50–50 chal­lenge, or pass­ing to a team­mate who’s more like­ly to score.

How do you trans­late this to the work place? How do you encour­age peo­ple to make will­ing sac­ri­fices for the good of the com­pa­ny?

You have to start by being hon­est about this con­flict of inter­est.

Your employ­ees are not saints, they are flesh and blood with real world problems. What if they need the pay raise to start a fam­i­ly? And what’s wrong with want­i­ng career pro­gres­sion?

Employ­ees have every right to act in their best inter­est. It is your job as employ­er to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where employ­ees are not penalized for mak­ing self-sac­ri­fice.

You can do this in sev­er­al ways.

The biggest, most effective way is to sep­a­rate per­son­al objec­tives and 360 reviews from performance and salary reviews.

Per­son­al objec­tives are for your per­son­al devel­op­ment only. Your man­ag­er can help you decide what areas to improve on, but the final deci­sion is yours. You’re encour­aged, but not required, to set per­son­al objec­tives.

360 reviews are also for you and you alone. You choose from whom you want feedback, and how to pro­ceed with the feed­back you receive.

The feed­back is anonymous, and only the man­ag­er of the review­er knows who delivered that feedback. This is main­ly to mit­i­gate any unnec­es­sary ten­sion from ill-considered feed­back.

Your man­ag­er and the founders are also there to help you process the feedback if you need their help.

Per­for­mance and salary reviews are based on what you actu­al­ly con­tributed, not some arbi­trary tar­gets that were set months ago.

For us, this unusu­al way of work­ing start­ed with a frank dis­cus­sion about this conflict of inter­est. It has been iter­at­ed upon over time and will con­tin­ue to evolve. It’s been such a fresh breath of air for me to work for a com­pa­ny that not only rec­og­nizes the prob­lem but active­ly seeks to tack­le it.

Marry creativity with ownership

Cul­ti­vate cre­ativ­i­ty from the whole com­pa­ny using game jams and hackathons. But remember that cre­ativ­i­ty needs to be guid­ed, and hypotheses need to be test­ed.

We use a creative funnel to guide ideas from hypothesis to production.

The game jams gen­er­ate ideas to feed the top of the funnel. Every­one can come up with ideas for new games. You have the own­er­ship and responsibility to pol­ish your idea and pitch it to the rest of the com­pa­ny.

Teams form organ­i­cal­ly around ideas that they’re excit­ed about and believe can be top-gross­ing. This is NOT a top-down deci­sion.

The founders are there to offer guid­ance and help with per­son­nel move­ment. Whilst your idea might be great, the founders can guide you on shap­ing the idea to fit your mis­sion.

Is it eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble to build?

What is the mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion like? Is the genre sat­u­rat­ed with high qual­i­ty offer­ings already? Does this genre have top gross­ing poten­tial?

Do we have the tech­ni­cal exper­tise to build it? If not, how dif­fi­cult is it to hire someone with that exper­tise?

The teams that form around an idea focus on pro­to­typ­ing and iter­at­ing on the idea. The idea becomes a playable game, and the rest of the com­pa­ny then plays and pro­vides feed­back.

The team owns the idea, and is trust­ed with mak­ing the deci­sions to keep going or kill it if they no longer believe in it. Again, this is NOT a top-down deci­sion — the deci­sion is made within the team.

Which brings us to the next point.

Recognize that creativity requires mistakes

Cre­ativ­i­ty needs fail­ures to suc­ceed.

Being cre­ative and exper­i­ment­ing with new ideas means tak­ing on risks. If you don’t risk, you will not win big — at least not with­out the mar­ket­ing bud­get and brand that goes with estab­lished franchises.

To let teams take on risk, and to trust them to make the right deci­sion on the company’s behalf and kill a pro­to­type, is hard.

For this to hap­pen, you need an envi­ron­ment where employ­ees are not penalized for mak­ing sacrifices.

We do this by cre­at­ing a safe­ty net for jobs.

Your job is not tied to the pro­to­type. If a team decides to kill its idea, then the team mem­bers move into oth­er game teams, or they’ll stay togeth­er and pro­to­type anoth­er game idea.

To prove this approach works beyond our scale, con­sid­er Super­cell and Clash Royale. The team behind Clash Royale was work­ing on anoth­er idea before they came up with that one. The idea test­ed well in beta, it had good reten­tion and mon­e­ti­za­tion stats. But it was not great, cer­tain­ly not on par with Clash of Clans.

The team made the deci­sion to kill the idea because they believed they could do bet­ter. So they took the learn­ings from the previous game, iter­at­ed on the ideas fur­ther, and they cre­at­ed Clash Royale.

Rec­og­nize that peo­ple and their tal­ents are your great­est assets. Hire and keep great peo­ple rather than hiring for and keeping certain roles.

Conclusions

So there you have it. Seven things that I learned from my time at Space Ape Games.

What stood out most for me is that a company needs to have a clear identity — it needs to know who it wants to be, and it needs to orga­nize itself to become that com­pa­ny.

And while I love the ethos on small autonomous teams, and the flat hierarchy structure, it also has a downside: at this stage of my career, I am accus­tomed to hav­ing a wide range of respon­si­bil­i­ties, and I crave it.

As time went by, I felt that itch for more respon­si­bil­i­ty creep­ing back. When my old friend Bruno Tavares pitched me the idea of join­ing DAZN to work on all the great things they’re doing, it was hard to say no.

With a heavy heart, this is my farewell let­ter to Space Ape Games and the great peo­ple with­in. You guys are awesome! And I hope the lessons I’ve learned there help others as well.