My now 94-year old grandma told me a story when I was a kid. The story always stuck with me, because I used to think the answer to it was unsettling. She had 12 kids and every morning she’d make breakfast for them. She’d explain how she had different groups of children with different needs, always one or two too young for school, some of the kids attending elementary school, several going to high school, one of them in university. She had babies, boys and girls and men and women. One of those kids was my mother.
Every morning, she’d wake up early and make breakfast for everyone. She once asked me: “Do you know for whom I made breakfast first?”
Vlambeer started back in 2010, but by then I had run my fair share of larger projects. These were projects with all the fancy tools and methodologies, things called Trac, SVN or Scrum. I knew how to structure a project for a group of people. Some of those projects failed, some of them succeeded and released. Either way, that was my reality for almost six years before I started working with Jan Willem.
In that period, things happened and lessons were learned. That typical Abe Lincoln beard I sport? I have it because age was a serious disadvantage during negotiations before I turned twenty or so. And the time when I was trying to run a twenty-one person team, I figured out Miller’s Law, the rule of seven (plus or minus two). When I was working on another project, someone asked me why the team consisted of only four people and not attempting to grow, I learned to contest that companies don’t need to grow to increase in value in this day and age.
All those years, I was learning business sense. At some point, if I would’ve shaven my beard off, I think I could’ve infiltrated a business school and pretended to have been a student there for years without any troubles. Alas, those were not my ambitions.
Starting Vlambeer changed everything. Trac adds more overhead than efficiency to a two-man team, Scrum almost feels ludicrous at this size. SVN isn’t compatible nor efficient with the tools Jan Willem uses. Like with our game designs, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to see how other companies did it: we wanted to come up with the optimal management solution to Vlambeer. We tried to make it as nimble, lean and adaptable as we wanted Vlambeer to be. The brilliant solution we came up with was basically abandoning all tools for planning or management.
Over the span of a year, we released Radical Fishing, Super Crate Box, we made a deal with Adult Swim to release Dinosaur Zookeeper and started negotiating about releasing Steam games. We gathered a kickass team for a Radical Fishing sequel on iOS, Ridiculous Fishing. We cut a deal to do Serious Sam: The Random Encounter.
The system was working – no micromanagement, just the large goals at not-too-permanent deadlines. Vlambeer was a machine – we worked long hours, we worked as hard as we could and we juggled several projects at once. I did both programming on some games and I took care of all the business – the legal, financial, negotiations, contacts and marketing aspects – answering interviews, taking care of our Twitter, Facebook and blog. Oftentimes, my computer would switch off around 6AM and I’d wake up around 10AM. Things worked.
At that point things came crashing down. A small San Francisco Bay Area company announced a clone of Radical Fishing and rushed to the market before we could release Ridiculous Fishing. We were demotivated, but I was happy that the whole debate got so much attention. We had the perfect chance to make an important point about creativity and morality, but I couldn’t juggle handling that and doing development. After talking to Jan Willem, we decided that he would continue developing The Random Encounter and I would handle the cloning thing.
All our other projects went on the backburner for those three months, almost a year ago, but the deadlines on those projects weren’t shifting. Venus Patrol was going to launch at one point. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter needed to be done before Serious Sam 3: BFE released. Super Crate Box iOS had to release before someone else thought to pull a ‘Ninja’ on Super Crate Box as well. Naturally, by the time Serious Sam was done, Jan Willem was overworked and I was devastated. In the GUN GODZ postmortem, we wrote:
Gun Godz happened right in the wake of a cloning controversy, in which our game Radical Fishing was cloned and rushed to the App Store by some San Francisco company. That entire episode demotivated us, putting our own iOS version of Radical Fishing, Ridiculous Fishing, on hold. Sadly, that demotivation echoed through in our other projects, delaying Super Crate Box iOS, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter and Gun Godz.
As things started to pick up again and our motivation started returning, we were suddenly working on four big projects at once. That turned out to be too much.
By the time we handled everything, we were overworked, overstressed and exhausted. Vlambeer felt like it was in the spotlights: interviews, questions, requests for advice and ‘collaboration opportunities’ kept coming in. Jan Willem was suffering from increasing amounts of migraine episodes. I woke up as tired as I went to bed. We lost velocity and our creative output took a nosedive steep enough to be useful for a zero-gravity training.
A few months later, we felt some energy returning to us. We discussed the situation and realized that somewhere before the clone hit, we had dropped the ball. By not having any planning beyond some distant goals, we had nothing to fall back on for overview when we lost our momentum. We hadn’t been prepared for losing velocity or motivation.
We needed to figure this out quickly, because at that point we were considering calling it quits. We basically halted everything we were doing and took two weeks off. Our Twitter went silent. Facebook wasn’t updated. Only the most important emails were replied to. We worked a bit on LUFTRAUSERS and we started to try and figure out what the things were that were most tiring. Jan Willem decided all the travelling to conventions and working late were the things that were keeping him tired. I love the conventions and the energy there and I have no problems with working late, so that wasn’t my problem.
It took me a while before I realized that managing the company consisted out of numerous tiny tasks and those tasks took more energy to remember than to actually do.
So, I set out to find a good planning tool to dump all that data into. Slowly, I browsed for my old and trusted tools. Trac, Pivotal, Git, SVN, I implemented all of them and they all felt bloated compared to the lawless lands we were living in. These were tools meant for large endeavors, and they were unfit to our workflow. These were the tools for the teams I used to work in and manage.
For Vlambeer, they felt like they would add workload instead of reducing it. I worked on a custom-made tool for a while, but ended up discarding it because making it cost me more energy than I could spare. In the end, we settled on a GTD-implementation called Remember the Milk.
I cleaned up the office while Jan Willem was away for a music festival in Germany. I threw a lot of stuff away, gave all the amazing fan art and items a nice spot for us to look at when we’re feeling a bit down, bought some organizers for all the paperwork that I had lying around. I’ve always preferred chaos as inspiration for creativity, but I needed order for my managing tasks.
We bought a few large sheets of paper and drew calendars on them for the next few months to complement Google Calendar. Slowly, it was starting to feel like we were in control of Vlambeer again. We even reinstated the rule that both of us must make a poster for the office walls every week. We agreed to schedule some blogposts. We want to have more life on our Twitter, more blogposts, more fun news to announce. We started jamming on tiny games again. Things started moving again.
There’s a lot of things I need to rebuild a bit because of the time we spent figuring this out, but I’m glad we did it. If we hadn’t, there might not have been a Vlambeer anymore.
“You know for whom I made breakfast first?”, my grandma smiled knowingly. “Myself, and I’d eat it before I’d start preparing the other breakfasts.” I used to think that answer was weird. Grandma always seemed like a caring, selfless old lady that had spent most of her life taking care of her loved ones. At some point, I remember thinking it was selfish and ego-centrical. Now I realize that if you don’t care for your own well-being first and foremost, you won’t be able to make breakfast for the people you care most about.