This is How Startups “Level Up” After Raising Money

Even if you are not running a start-up, this is a must-read: This is How Startups “Level Up” After Raising Money by Mark Suster. I’ve seen too many emerging leaders fail to “level up” by refusing to release the reigns, trust their teams and adjust to the growing scope of their project or company. Don’t make that mistake.

So my counsel at this stage is often: build out your senior team, let them do their jobs, become a leader more than just a doer, allocate your time to the higher-level tasks like setting company goals, managing investors, talking to partners, managing the press, etc. And mostly your job anyways is to be chief psychologist to the uber-talented team you’ve built rather than being chief dictator.


Why you should NOT treat your employees like family

Family first?

Is treating your employees like family a good idea?

Have you ever heard a company say “we treat our employees like family“? I used to think it was a good thing. After all, we typically associate good things with the word “family”. Things like unconditional love. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Safety. Comfort.  There are many articles written on why companies should treat employees like family.

But now I think they got it backwards.  You don’t treat your employees like family to build better teams. Instead, you apply some of the same principles both in family and in organizations to achieve excellence and loyalty in teamwork.

I think a better analogy would be “treat your employees as players on a sports team” because it captures the essence of the team building principles.


Team Huddle

Sports team analogy works better for businesses

Principle #1: Don’t get comfortable

The point of being a part of the family is that you will be accepted no matter what. Your family is your safety net. You can fail, you can be lazy, you can be at your worst – and yet the family will forgive and accept.  The very safety and comfort of the family environment fosters complacency and content. It’s not a good driver for innovation and team excellence.

Instead, tell your people you expect them to step out of their comfort zone, push their own limits and believe they can be bigger and better than even they themselves realize. Only by challenging yourself and those around you the team can achieve greatness.


Principle #2:  Don’t tolerate mediocrity

As harsh as it may sound, a great team does not tolerate bad performers. If one player is continuously failing it affects the entire team in a profound way. It not only lowers the chances of winning, but also breeds resentment, low morale, lack of pride and distrust in leadership. It can very quickly destroy the team from within.

When you tell your people you will treat them as a family, you set a certain expectation on how you will deal with bad performers. And that expectation is that bad performance is acceptable. After all, you can’t fire your grandmother.

Note that I am not talking about someone making a few mistakes here. Making mistakes means they are trying something new – it’s a good thing. I am talking about a consistent and continuous failure in one or more areas of team performance (cultural, moral, technical, etc). I am talking about the kind of failure that cannot or would not be corrected by coaching or by adjusting the responsibilities and the role of the individual (read:  my understanding of success).

If you embrace this principle, everyone on the team can be sure of their own value, can maintain high self-respect and respect for their teammates as well as the leadership. Moreover, they can maintain a sense of pride of belonging to this team.


Principle #3: Demand open and honest communication

Sometimes your wife puts too much salt in your meal but you eat it anyway so you don’t upset her. Sometimes you tell your husband that he’s an excellent handyman to make him feel good even though that faucet has been leaking for over two months now.

While this kind of communication sometimes works in a family environment, it’s toxic in a team. If you don’t have an open and (sometimes painfully) honest communication your team misses out on chances to improve. Therefore it’s of the essence to foster the team’s ability to give and receive feedback openly (but respectfully). They must put egos aside for the good of the team. Which brings me to the next principle…


Principle #4: Put the team first

This is the only principle that I feel ties well with the family analogy (people tend to put family first).

This is also the most important principle of building excellent teams. In great teams individuals put their own interests aside and focus on team’s goals instead. They have each other’s backs.  They leave no one behind, even at personal disadvantage.

Even though this goes against our immediate instinct to self-preserve and is difficult to achieve with consistency, any team that has this mindset is destined for greatness. All other principles become easy and follow effortlessly if you put the team first.


If you’ve successfully applied these principles, you will have a highly efficient, engaged, loyal team that has a great sense of  pride and belonging. A team like this can achieve greatness.

It doesn’t matter whether this team is built within the framework of a business, sport, army or family. The principles, I think, are the same.


Requiem for Molten Games

Note: This post is about my experiences at Molten Games, a San Diego based game development studio. If you have objections to any materials posted here, please let me know and I’ll remove them. 
See this post on Gamastutra.

How it all started

It all started about a year ago, around the time when it became painfully obvious that my project at the time will not be able to raise funding it needed to go into production. The day was more stressful than usual when I received a phone call from my friend Blaine Smith. He started with some small talk, but I impatiently interrupted him…. “What’s all this about? Let’s get to the point.”  That’s when he told me he was starting a new company in San Diego and whether I wanted to join in…. After a quick lunch with Blaine and John Fitzgerald (aka “Fitz”, the Art Director), I was sold on the idea. There was no office, no computers, no email, no WIKI, no employees – just the game idea and a pitch video Fitz put together. We were to build the company from ground up.

Blunderbuss original pitch video (screenshot)

Blunderbuss original pitch video (screenshot)


Building the team

Over the next few months I learned everything there is to learn about recruiting. I’ve scoured through LinkedIn, sent countess in-mails and talked to many candidates over the phone. Heck, I’ve even started using ATS. At first, it was very difficult. How do you convince a server engineer to join when you are interviewing him at a restaurant in Pasadena instead of an office in San Diego?  How about interviewing 3D modelers in the hotel lobbies? But somehow we did it. There was something great about the idea and the people at Molten that attracted industry’s best developers.  One by one, Molteneers began to assemble.

Our first in-person company meeting at Hyatt, La Jolla

Our first in-person company meeting at Hyatt, La Jolla

We have an office!

Working from homes and hotels was exciting for a while, but everyone sighed with relief when we finally moved into an office. Nothing beats working side by side with creative people. Thanks to Unreal 4 we had multi-player going within a month. Our artists built art for our first few units. The miracle of building the game has begun.

Sprint 2 Review Meeting at the new office

Sprint 2 review meeting at the new office. True story – we tripped the circuit breakers at that office every time we had a playtest. Too much awesome?

After a few months we had outgrown the space and moved into a larger open-floor office with an ocean view. Somewhere along the way something wonderful happened to Molteneers.  From a set of distinct individuals they turned into the most tightly knit team I’ve ever seen.


How we became Molteneers

There were practical jokes….

Blaine once told us a story about how he was banned from the game he was previously working on as a practical joke by his co-workers. They gave him a pair of glorious granny panties with “Banned ’08” inscription to commemorate the occasion. Now, how could we resist not to pull the same prank on him again? 🙂

Our CEO was working remotely from Korea for a while… this is how we said “Hello” when he came for a visit…

This is how we welcomed our CEO Jungwon (aka JW)

This is how we welcomed our CEO Jungwon (aka JW)

This is how we said “Congrats on graduating!” to our amazing intern Gennaro (nickname DiGiorno because I could not remember his name when he just started…. I’m old!)…

Congrats DiGiorno!!!

Congrats DiGiorno!!!

There was Halloween…

Molten Pumpkin


During the Halloween we had what we’ve called “Molympics” – a championship where teams compete in a series of games (Mortal Combat, Trivia, Toss the Bag, Foosball) to win a trophy.

Epic Tennis Match

Epic Tennis Match

Halloween 2013

Halloween 2013


There was Movember…

I think it wan’t easy for anyone… for girls to have to see all the facial hair every day, and for guys not to shave it off.

Movemeber 2013

Movemeber 2013

2013-11-12 00.10.53

Congrats to the winner of Movember 2013 and the owner of the most epic mustache ever!

Congrats to the winner of Movember 2013 and the owner of the most epic mustache ever!

There was Christmas…

We had the most amazing Holiday Party at the Legoland Hotel.

Lego Logo

Lego Logo

Happy Holidays, Molteneers!

Happy Holidays, Molteneers!

Secret Santa! Some gifts are more naughty than others....

Secret Santa! Some gifts are more awkward than others….

Raul was pretty excited about his gift :)

Raul was pretty excited about his gift 🙂



There was Paul’s coffee…

Paul made coffee once. ONCE.

Don't let Paul make coffee in the morning... he likes it REALLY STRONG.

Don’t ever let Paul make coffee… WAY TOO STRONG.


There were trophies…

The entire studio competed in Blunderbuss championship.

The entire studio competed in Blunderbuss championship.

Nothing can stop these guys...

Nothing could stop these guys…


A commemorative trophy for me for breaking the build. We never ended up using this for anyone else... :)

A commemorative trophy for me for breaking the build. We never ended up using this for anyone else… 🙂


There were nerf wars…

Let the nerf war begin!

Let the nerf war begin!



There was singing…

We had an amazing number of musicians at the company. As I absolutely love live music, this made me so very happy! Now if I could only convince Yong to deliver on his promise to sing…


There was Lavashark…

The Lavashark was Molten's mascot. It came out during Sprint reviews to try the martinis :)

The Lavashark was Molten’s mascot. It came out during Sprint reviews to try the martinis 🙂


There were meetings… so many meetings!

At the end of every Sprint we got together as a team to review progress. We watched the videos displaying concept art, gameplay, new platform tools and telemetry graphs; we cheered each other’s accomplishments and discussed our goals for the next Sprint.

Sprint Review Meeting

Sprint Review Meeting

Sprint Review Meeting

Sprint Review Meeting


There was so much more…

It’s impossible to show everything that happened in the past year in just one blog post. There were countless games of Mortal Combat, Foosball, Table Tennis and Darts. There were potlucks, chili cook-offs, birthday cakes and unexpected doughnuts and cupcakes. We watched movies together, went on hikes, had lunches and dinners, and drinks together. Probably too many drinks. We’ve had a few Molten babies born that year – we welcomed them with gifts purchased by the team. We had board games nights and fantasy football nights. We went to see Padres games and Chargers games. We became friends.

And then there was the game!

It took the team about 8 months to build the game. It was a complete Vertical Slice with an installer, patcher, back-end platform (multiplayer, basic matchmaker, persistence, monitoring, telemetry), back-end administration tools, automated deployments, automated test framework, gameplay systems, UI, and of course content – multiple champions and a beautiful map.

It took a lot of hard work. We were agile, we constantly adjusted our goals, re-scoped the deliverables and maintained extreme focus on the goals.

In terms of what we were able to accomplish, I consider Molten to be a profound success.

Before you could play the game, you had to agree to the EULA. Our legal team was not too happy with the wording…

Blunderbuss EULA v1

Blunderbuss EULA v1

And this is the cinematic video for the game itself!

How it ended

On Monday, March 24th, just about a year since I started,  a company meeting was called. Visibly shaken founders stood in front of the team and with tears in their eyes delivered the news. We’ve lost our funding unexpectedly and the studio had to shut down. That was the end.

The team stood silent for a while. Then there were hugs and tears. The team had to leave the office by noon so almost everyone went to lunch together (ironically, we hit the “Rock Bottom” bar). Almost everyone showed up at the office the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. They came to show support for each other, share leads for jobs and just hang out with each other. They were an embodiment of what it means TO BE A TEAM.

The last post on our suggestion board

The last post on our suggestion board. One star = one vote.


Molten and all Molteneers will always have a special place in my heart. We’ve accomplished so much. It was the best year of my life and I would have done it again in a heartbeat.

I will miss you.

Women in Games: fight!

Some of the girls I know are hardcore gamers. They will beat your ass in League or BF4 without sweating.


But I’ve also noticed that a number of women in games would stick to a few games they’re comfortable with and would refuse to try anything new. Their reasoning?

  • I don’t think I’d be good at this genre
  • I don’t have time
  • I don’t have friends to play with” 
  • “I don’t play multiplayer – people are just too rude
  • “I don’t play multiplayer – I just die right away

What I think is happening here is women actually want to but don’t feel confident enough or comfortable enough to try. They’ve just given up after a few bad experiences.

So how about this idea…

Start a “Girls’ Fight Club” at your work – all women invited. Elect a Fight Captain to propose a game, then all  jump in and play that game together, either on the weekend, after work or during lunch, about once a week (schedule permitting). The Fight Captain rotates every week – since everyone’s interests are so different (some like RPGs, some like Sims, some like FPS etc) this should expose us to many different genres and styles of  games in a comfortable and friendly environment.




The “Girls’ Fight Club” rules would then be as follows:

  • 1st RULE: You DO talk about the FIGHT CLUB (but only with women)
  • 2nd RULE: You DO talk about the FIGHT CLUB (but only with women)
  • 3rd RULE: All members of the FIGHT CLUB must play the game selected by that week’s Fight Captain even if you don’t like the genre or feel you are not good at it. The Fight Captain changes every game. The Fight Captain is responsible for organizing that week’s game. The Fight Captain should be somewhat familiar with the genre she selects, and should help others with the game.
  • 4th RULE: Participate in as many games as possible. The Fight Captain will plan the games around everyone’s schedule.
  • 5th RULE: Have fun.

So, ladies….. FIGHT!!!

P.S. I think this applies to some guys I know too 🙂

Is it time for formalities yet?

Dunbar is an anthropologist at the University College of London, who wrote Co-Evolution Of Neocortex Size, Group Size And Language In Humans. In that paper he states:

… there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.

According to Dunbar’s hypothesis, that limit is roughly 150. This became known as “Dunbar’s number”; this theory is wildly used in various Social Networks and even online gaming (MMOs).

I think this theory could also be effectively used when determining whether it’s time for a formal process or policy inside a growing video game company. In a company small enough, there is no need for formalities – goals can be achieved much faster in the absence of the red tape because everyone knows everybody else, what they are working on and what their expertise is in. But once the company grows past a certain number (say, 150 :)) – and people lose that information. At that point inefficiencies are introduced and formal process will help eliminate those inefficiencies.

Beware: once you start introducing formal processes, the key is to prevent the formal process from turning into bureaucracy and killing the company’s culture.