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.
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?