Kickstarter Lesson #45: Partnership

14 August 2013

Neither Viticulture, Euphoria, or Stonemaier Games would exist today if not for my business partner, Alan Stone.

Way back in 2011 when I was designing Viticulture, I started asking friends to playtest the game with me. I’m sure many designers know what it feels like to ask a friend to playtest their game. There’s a hint of excitement to it, but that’s overridden by concern that you’re wasting their time.

After one of those playtests, I got an e-mail from one of the participants, my friend Alan. He said that he liked the game and was interested in partnering with me to make it a reality.

This was a new concept to me. I like working alone, and I had never designed a game with someone else. But I also saw the value in having a partner–if I continued alone, there was a good chance the game would eventually fizzle out. There’s only so many times that friends will playtest a game with you.

So I accepted his offer. Almost immediately I saw an improvement and an acceleration in the design process. I could bounce ideas off Alan at any time, playtest the game with him on a weekly basis, and add his perspective to the game. Although I’m still the lead designer on our games and I run the company, Alan’s role has evolved to help out with shipping, which takes a significant amount of time. He sleeved thousands of cards for Viticulture. He also goes to conventions with me–we’ll both be at Gen Con.

The point is, I can’t do everything. I have deficiencies that I couldn’t even see–deficiencies of both time and talent. Alan does not spare my feelings when it comes to design ideas. I need that–I get plenty of positive feedback from friends, but I need someone to tell me when my idea sucks. Alan’s good at that.

What Does This Mean for You?

I’m sure a lot of this might seem pretty obvious, but step back for a second to consider what this means. First, consider the possibility that you aren’t perfect. You have weaknesses. What are they?

Second, consider how much better your product can be if you address those weaknesses with a partner, someone who is strong where you are weak. If you truly believe in your product, isn’t it worth creating the best possible version of it?

Third, if you are not only creating a product but also building a company, consider everything that goes into that company. Can you do it alone? Do you even want to?

A few weeks ago I was talking to a designer who was thinking about starting a company to publish his game. He was worried about all the logistics required to run a company–he said he wasn’t good with business stuff. I asked him if he had considered finding a friend to partner with, someone who not only was good at the business side, but who genuinely enjoyed it. He hadn’t thought of that, which surprised me a bit. I think it seems obvious to me now that I’ve worked with Alan for so long on Stonemaier Games, but it may not be obvious to others. It’s worth thinking about.

How Should You Structure the Partnership?

If you decided to take on a partner (or more than one), you’re going to want more than just a verbal agreement. Sit down to talk about various roles and expectations. It’s okay if you want to stay in control of the majority of the business or product–this is your creation. But be clear about what that means to you and to your partner. For that first meeting, I wouldn’t recommend dividing up shares of the company.  You’re shooting in the dark at that point.

Instead, wait a few months and meet again to review the original expectations. Are they in line with what’s actually happening? Someone might say that they’re going to take the lead on a certain initiative, but if you end up doing all the work, you need to put that on the table. It’s at this meeting that you can more accurately divide up the company.

Financial Partnerships

Things get a bit trickier when money is involved. It can skew perceptions because money is so quantifiable compared to time and talent. You and your partner may each contribute $1,000 to cover preliminary art and design for your project, but if they’re spending 30 hours a week on the company and you’re only spending 10, clearly the division isn’t 50/50. The division will also have tax implications if you incorporate.

You should also be clear about how and when you will each get your money back…if you get it back at all.

***

I’m curious to hear from other people who have either intentionally chosen to partner with someone else or those who have intentionally chosen to work alone. Are you happy with your arrangements? What do you like about them?

24 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #45: Partnership

  1. I totally agree! When I got into the idea of starting a games company, I neither had the funds or any experience running a business beforehand. I was still quite naive at 16 and had only just started looking into the industry. Still, I loved designing games and idea of bringing those games to market really intrigued me. I ended spending much of my time on the Board Game Design forums to further my understanding of designing and publishing games. Eventually, a year later, I approached a good friend of mine, David Inker, and proposed the idea of starting a games company to start publishing the latest games I had designed – Chaos Publishing Ltd was born! We settled on 50/50 agreement quite early on, David was to primarily handle the finances and general business management while I was to focus on the lead design, sales and marketing of the games. Another year down the line in 2011, after much play-testing and development, we produced a small, 200-copy print run of our first game, Medieval Mastery, which we then proceeded to sell-out within a year of its release, selling only direct to customers through our website and at conventions in the UK. After seeing so many people enjoying themselves and after receiving such a positive response about the game, we decided to take the next step and produce in the 1000s. Now our game is in stores around the world and are in the process of developing our next release. None of this would ever have happened without David’s help and support.

  2. I’m employed by a small publishing company, that has been releasing art books for 14 years but wants to expand into board games. It’s not a partnership in the sense that you mention, I give up a lot of control in this arrangement, I don’t own any of the buisiness, the game and if it does well it’s the company that gets rich rather than me. On the other hand I get access to a bank of artists and graphic designers that provide facilities that would be very hard to get through any other route and I have the financial security that I still get paid a decent salary even if the game wouldn’t have supported that. Of course I won’t have much job security if that’s how things shake out. As a whole this deal works for me at the moment, I don’t see things being this way forever but it’s doing me a lot of good right now.

    For me there are two good ways for the situation to develop: In one I stay for years, the games become better and better and become more and more profitable for the company. I get a raise proportional to my contributions and we start hiring more staff, maybe even having access to staff playtesters who’ll reliably be around when I need them, that’d be a cool thing. No matter how well things go I never become rich, but I maintain wide control over the nature of the games I’m releasing into the world and get to develop in an environment most designers can only dream of. That’s good enough for me.

    The other positive way it could develop is if things go fairly well, but we wind up going our seperate ways for whatever reason and I wind up trying to form a company (alone or with others) to make games, in much the same way that you’ve done (and are doing). That’d be somewhat less stable, but the rewards would tie more strongly to my efforts and there’d be a lot of scope for doing cool things.

    Those are dreams for the future though. In the here and now I’m satisfied with the situation I’m in and hope I can make the games do well enough to keep it going for a while :)

  3. I can see both the benefits and the pitfalls of having a partner.

    I had a partner up until about a month ago. We have an awesome creative process, and we work together well creatively. When it came to the business end of things though he didn’t feel like I was pulling my load. Because of that he felt like his time would be better spent elsewhere.

    The end result was a strained friendship and a contract stipulating that he still gets a cut of the game. I believe he deserves his share since this game would never exist without him. Still if I had done it on my own it would have been simpler. I’m sure he feels the same way now that he is working on his own projects.

    That said: having a partner is a huge part of the motivation that got me to the point where I am ready to do this, no longer as a hobby, but rather, as a business venture.

    1. Sarcastic Robot–Well said. While a partner can be hugely beneficial, it can definitely create a strain when expectations aren’t being met. I think that’s where a regular evaluation of workload is healthy for the partnership. It’s not good if one person is building up resentment against the other.

      Also, if you have two people in the partnership who want to take the lead, I could see that being really tough. It works with Alan and I because he has no problem with me doing the majority of the work and having the final say on pretty much everything.

      1. Agreed. There was no clear captain which I think was a big issue. We also didn’t meet regularly enough. The biggest problem was a lack of communication.

        It is what it is. Now have re-established good will and we are both moving on with our separate projects. We are even sending support to each other. Overall it’s a good idea to have a partner. Just be careful to make sure to a) choose wisely b) communicate, communicate, communicate.

  4. Great post. Not only relevant to Kickstarter or even games.

    A business partnership is like a marriage, but even closer in some ways. .. and definitely trickier to unravel.

    So, write the prenup when you start and remember that having someone do the work you don’t like or have time for is liberating.

    Sometimes other people won’t appreciate your back office partner -that is their ignorance, not your error.

  5. I started my game design company Weird City Games last year with the idea that my brother and two closest friends would collaborators and sharing in the design and development process, but not in the business side of things. I started working mostly solo on my game Little Pig and definitely had to work to get friends to playtest it repeatedly. I was able to get it to a good playable level but also struggled at times to stay motivated. In April, my friend Ryan presented a fleshed out design of a game concept that I had pitched to him. Since then we have worked collaboratively on the game design, and development. Our game March of the Ants is now the game I want to publish first as the momentum and motivation of two dedicated partners is much greater than one. I am handling all of the promotion and publicity and will be running the Kickstarter but all in all it has been a very collaborative process and very enjoyable.
    I think talking about money before hand is an excellent idea and setting those expectations. We have had a few conversations and I plan to write down an agreement before launching a Kickstarter so we have an expectation of what will be done with any profits that might be made.
    My other game is still in development, and I have received help on both games from my brother and other friend and hopefully I will collaborate with one or both of them on a future game. For me it is invaluable to have someone who is as obsessed with the game as I am and who I can talk to about it all the time.
    Jamey thanks for sharing your story and opening up this conversation. It is great to hear how other people work.

    1. Tim–Congrats on starting a game company! I’m glad you’re having conversations with your business partner in advance. Good luck as you move forward!

  6. Do you have any advice on replacing a partner? I started my card game over a year ago and my partner just decided to quit and leave me with all the responsibility of finishing the game. I would love to find someone to replace him, but I don’t even know where to begin to look.

    1. Thanks for your question, and congrats on your upcoming game. I’m sorry to hear that your business partner dropped out, though it sounds like it may have been a blessing for your company in the long term.

      I would recommend that you look for someone in your area with whom you can partner on this endeavor—location matters. Try attending local game meetups, game design meetups, or conventions. I think the key is finding someone who is as enthusiastic about your game as you are. That type of person will be the best to help represent the game on Kickstarter.

      I think that’s the best place to start. Good luck!

  7. […] Think you might be in the middle? If you are excited about the journey but there is a part of this whole battle that you don’t think you can handle, maybe all you need is some help. There are many blogs out there, like this one, offering advice on everything from improving your game design process to increasing your chances of successfully funding a Kickstarter campaign. Also, consider a business partner who can pick up your shortcomings. Jamey Stegmaier has a helpful post on that, here. […]

  8. I’m thinking of starting a game company and I have a partner in mind. I’m concerned that he may not have the time, the drive, or that his weaknesses are the same as mine. Also, I worry that I won’t meet his expectations.

  9. I have a friend that has been helping in my game design and he is just like Mr. Stone. He has no problem in telling me what needs to be fixed on my game after several play tests. But my game has become a better game because of it and I am looking forward to posting my first game on kickstarter this year for our company Geekville Games. I also want to thank you for all the information that you have been providing in these blogs. The website is still under construction but should be up soon.

  10. One of the best books I have ever read about how to start bringing in other people into your company like a business partner is Slicing Pie. It basically gives a framework of how to quantify the “worth” of each others contribution and teaches really great ways to avoid those akward conversation about compensation and be a great partner. Its big idea introduces the concept of Dynamic equity – a new and emerging practice proven to be very effective when forming a founding team. I can’t recommend it enough.

    I heard the saying once ,”good fences make great neighbors.” I would change that to say “great (clear) contracts make fantastic partners.”

    It’s too easy to fall in the trap of over trusting a partner only be surprised when things aren’t panning out how you thought they would and live to regret the day you weren’t more clear from the oneset about expectations and what to do when things go wrong. I agree partners can create unmatched momentum though and its truly a blessing to find a partner that you have great synergy with.

    I have found it best to work with potential partners on a project or profit sharing model for a project before equity and shares are being thrown around. You can’t take back what you give people without repercussions!

    Thanks for the great article :D

  11. Annalee: Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the book recommendation–I’m adding it to my list right now. I absolutely agree with your wise words about writing down clear expectations in advance and what to do when those expectations aren’t met. I wish I had understood how important that was when I was starting out.

    The profit share part of your comment is interesting. With Stonemaier, we found rather quickly that we’d rather keep the profits in the company so our cash flow was healthy enough to invest in art and more games. We ended up switching to a salaried system with end-of-year raises if the company did well in the previous year. But I agree that equity shouldn’t be thrown around like candy! :)

  12. Hey,

    I’d like to launch a Kickstarter campaign soon, it’s a 2 guys team and I wonder how can I make it work. The issue is that I live in a country that is not supported by Kickstarter (Poland) and my partner lives in Australia. We agreed on 50/50 split after the goal completion but I think it’s fair that I can’t rely only on his word when it comes to my share. Is there a way to make it all work? How can I secure myself while still staying in my country? It’s obvious that he will get all the money when the funding ends and I might aswell be left with nothing. There is no trademark or anything like that, it’s just a “2 guys want to gather funding for a little game” case.

    1. Brandon: It takes a lot of trust to let someone receive the funds and share half with you. It sounds like the trust isn’t there, so that may be a sign that this partnership won’t work.

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