Why bootstrapping can teach founders valuable lessons

Written by Joe Maruschak Published on 

Time-travelling back to review advice I gave in 2006, where parts of what I learnt still hold true till now for leadership development.

I recently went back and found some old blog posts I did in 2006. At that time, we had sold our startup to our publisher, and our team was brought in to form the foundation of the GarageGames internal game studio. I wrote the post to help the community of game developers on the GarageGames site.

The post itself was focused on making games. Over the course of the last 14 years, I learned a lot, and what I wrote below still holds true. Writing it now, I would expand the concept to not just talk about game development and startups, but to broaden the language to frame it as leadership development.

Making Good Decisions

Becoming a leader, in my opinion, is a learned skill. One of the challenges of being a leader is making decisions. You decide what to focus on, and what not to focus on. You decide what resources to deploy and how to deploy them.

In a resource-constrained environment, you are forced to make hard decisions early and are constantly faced with feeling that you do not have enough. Existing in this environment is like a whetstone to a blade. It is the practice of making those decisions that makes you sharp as a razor.

Running lean helps you to learn to move fast, to focus, and to say no to a bunch of things that are nice to have but not essential. My own leadership development happened in this pressure cooker environment.

Making a successful startup is the end result of thousands of good decisions. You become a better leader by practice. Startups are often focused on raising money. At the earliest stages, especially for first-time entrepreneurs, I think that bootstrapping, at least initially, can teach a founder valuable lessons. These lessons subsequently make any capital raised go much further and create greater impact.

Bootstrapping in the initial stages can teach a founder some valuable lessons. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Below is the post I made. It was awesome to go back and reflect on what I learned, to remind myself of where I was at then, and to take my blade and do a few scrapes on the sharpening stone to get back my razors edge.

by Joe Maruschak· 11/07/2006 (9:11 am)

boot-strap-ping To promote and develop by use of one’s own initiative and work without reliance on outside help.

As part of my planned series on game prototyping, I am feeling that I need to lay out my opinion and theory of game development and project management, because I feel that one cannot divorce the two topics.

Game Development cannot be separated from decision management. Creating a game is all about making many small good decisions during the creation of the game. Good games are the result of not one brilliant idea, but thousands of small good ideas and thousands of small good decisions. The best way to get better at making good decisions is to practice making them. The best metric for seeing whether or not you are making good decisions is to make decisions in an environment that rewards good decisions and punishes bad ones.

Bootstrapping is such an environment.

If you start with very little, it forces you to immediately make a decision that will get you moving forward. If you make good decisions, your project will move forward. If you make bad ones, you will not make progress. If you can make a game while bootstrapping, you are getting the best practice that one can get in making good decisions. It may be a fairly brutal and darwinian process, but it really rewards those who have what it takes to manage projects and complete games.

Bootstrapping forces you to ask yourself, what is important right now. You can cut through the crap and cut to the chase. What is really important? What about cutscenes? sound? music? When you don’t have the resources to pay for all of these things right away, you are left to contemplate the core of the game you are trying to create. What is at the core of it may not be immediately apparent. Bootstrapping forces you to think about it and decide where you are going to focus your precious resources. What is most important to focus on now.

If you make the right decisions, you will be rewarded with success. Your game will slowly come together, becoming more fun and more engaging each day, and it will gather its own momentum. If you make the wrong decisions, it will seem like an uphill climb, with each task a chore, the game not progressing, and motivation waning.

When you have little or nothing to work with, or when you are working alone, you have little you can waste. If you spend all of your time on things that really matter, you will have optimized your development process so that when you tackle bigger, harder projects, you have the skills to make the right decisions more often than not.

Photo by olia danilevich from Pexels

Often I read threads about developers who ‘don’t have enough funding’ or ‘the team I have cannot complete the design we have’ and I almost tear my hair out in frustration. If the first decision one makes is to undertake a project that they have no chance of completing and they are fully aware that they are resource constrained coming off the starting blocks, how are they ever going to learn how to make good decisions?

My own theory of how to make games the ‘right’ way deal specifically with forcing decision points at the right times, and assessing and addressing the risk level associated with each implementation item. Often times, it is experience that allows one to understand what are ‘big’ features and what is small, and what constitutes a risk to the project. Knowing what is a high risk item and what is low risk will help you to properly assess what should go into your priority queue.

What constitutes a risk is different for every team. Every collection of ‘resources’(people) comes with a unique set of skills and experience. Knowing what you can and cannot achieve is key to understanding what might constitute a risk to a project.

Knowing your project

Knowing your team is step one, knowing the project is step two. I try to break whatever I am working on into small understandable chunks, or work items, so that I can look at them objectively, and break them down into implementation items. Implementation items allow me to look at each one and decide, this item is very important, and these other items are not so important. As an example, the external art design of the GUI for a racing game needs to be done, but without a driving model, there is no game at all. This is an example that is very obvious, but I have seen many examples of projects that have gone very far down a path where the core gameplay was not yet proven.

Bootstrapping forces the issues to the surface. If you have little resource, you need to be selective about what to work on. In order to be selective, you need to have items to select and you need to have some process to select what you think is important. Good decisions happen when you can pick the right things to work on and don’t waste time.

Many of the agile development methodologies are based on the ideas of iterative prototyping and rapid development, and give one the tools and process to help decide what one works on and what is put off until later.. I highly recommend looking over some of them and lifting whatever you can from any of them and incorporating them into your workflow. I would not suggest blindly following any of the methodologies, as they are just tools. Pick up anything that seems useful, discard anything that is not helping you to focus on the task at hand, which is deciding what you need to work on to get your project done.

I am not going to go into many of the agile methodologies in-depth as I go over my ideas about prototyping. I am going to keep it very general and very high level. The main idea behind everything that I feel is important when prototyping and creating a game is to know what is important and what needs to be worked on next. To me, it is all about setting priorities and keeping them in order.

If you are making good decisions and keeping your priorities straight, you will make progress. If you don’t, you won’t. It is important during the process that you are aware that every decision you make about what to work on (and what not to work on) and what is important (and what is not) contributes to your success or failure.

When in bootstrap mode, any failure or bad decision hurts, and it is immediately apparent. Time is of the essence, so learn not to waste any of it. If you start with very little, you have very little to lose, so move forward and learn to make the decisions that will take you to the top, and not leave you stuck.

Joe Maruschak is an Investor with the early-stage seed-fund Coast to Crest. He is a startup founder with two successful exits who turned his attention to community building, starting a biotech incubator and running a startup accelerator program for 5 years. He also is a consultant who works with growth-stage companies transitioning from startup to scaleup. He has worked with hundreds of early-stage founders. Follow him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: This article was written by a contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here


Joe Maruschak


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