7 things I learnt from one of the best startups you’ll find

Today is my last day at Space Ape Games, and it’s been a won­der­ful year. I learnt a lot in my time here, and worked on some chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems. At the same time, I’m look­ing for­ward to start­ing a new adven­ture at DAZN and help them become the Net­flix of Sports! I will be look­ing for tal­ent­ed engi­neers to join me at DAZN, check out the job spec for more detail.

I firm­ly believe that Space Ape Games is one of the best star­tups you’ll find any­where, based on cul­ture and poten­tial. Here are 7 things that make Space Ape Games such a great com­pa­ny.

Define what culture you want, and organize yourself to optimize towards achieving that culture

Lots com­pa­nies talk about how great their cul­ture is, but few talks about what is their cul­ture. Worse yet, I sus­pect most end up with a cul­ture they don’t want, because the cul­ture grew organ­i­cal­ly with­out guid­ance.

To this day, the Net­flix cul­ture deck from 2009 is still the best thing you can read about cul­ture.

Real com­pa­ny val­ues are the behav­iours and skills that we par­tic­u­lar­ly val­ue in fel­low employ­ees. — Reed Hast­ings

The nine behav­iours and skills Net­flix val­ue in their peo­ple.

From the begin­ning, the founders of Space Ape Games were clear about the cul­ture they want­ed to build.

Pas­sion­ate : you have a pas­sion for games, and you want to build games that are fun and engag­ing.

Cre­ative : you are not afraid to stray off the beat­en path and try some­thing new. You accept the risks that come with cre­ativ­i­ty. You won’t let fail­ures stop you from suc­ceed­ing.

Judge­ment : you make smart bets. You bal­ance the risks of cre­ativ­i­ty with method­i­cal analy­sis of the poten­tial reward to make smart bets.

Depend­able : you are depend­able and trust­wor­thy. We believe in small, autonomous teams. For this to work we need to be able to depend on every indi­vid­ual in the team.

Focus : when required, you can put aside per­son­al projects and focus on deliv­er­ing the best game pos­si­ble.

Mas­tery : you are a mas­ter of your craft. You want to become the best ver­sion of your­self and are always look­ing for ways to improve.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive : you work well with oth­ers. You are will­ing to make sac­ri­fices and com­pro­mis­es for the greater good of the com­pa­ny. Game mak­ing is an inher­ent­ly cre­ative and col­lab­o­ra­tive process. We need peo­ple that can thrive in a col­lab­o­ra­tive envi­ron­ment.

Inclu­sive : you wel­come oth­ers for who they are. You treat oth­ers equal­ly and fair­ly, the same way that you expect to be treat­ed.

The founders reit­er­ate this vision at every quar­ter­ly com­pa­ny meet­ing. New employ­ees are imbued with the same vision. Exist­ing employ­ees are remind­ed of their duty to main­tain this proud prod­uct.

Peo­ple are our most impor­tant prod­uct.” — John Earn­er (co-founder, CEO, Space Ape Games)

Culture lives and dies by the people you hire and fire

This shared under­stand­ing of cul­ture fil­ters through to every hir­ing deci­sion. Both founders, John Earn­er (CEO) and Simon Hade (COO), are involved with every hir­ing deci­sion.


cul­ture fit” is often used to enforce exist­ing bias­es, when said cul­ture is nev­er defined up front. That was nev­er been the case in any of the hir­ing com­mit­tees I have sat in. When­ev­er “cul­ture fit” is raised as a con­cerned, you must give clear exam­ples from your inter­ac­tion with the inter­vie­wee.

At the same time, we wouldn’t hire some­one who might be detri­men­tal to our cul­ture. Not even when we are des­per­ate for anoth­er pair of hands on deck!

The cost of a bad hire on our cul­ture is too great.

Rather a hole than an a**hole” — Toby Moore (co-founder, ex-CTO, Space Ape Games)

The founders also act as the van­guards for our cul­ture. Watch­ing from afar, but nev­er afraid to step in when they see dan­ger signs. If a long time employ­ee starts to show signs of self-enti­tle­ment, then expect a gen­tle reminder about our com­mit­ment on inclu­sion.

John men­tions this reg­u­lar­ly, and I think it’s a mes­sage worth shar­ing.

We have a great cul­ture, but we can’t afford to take it for grant­ed. It’s the duty of every­one here to keep that cul­ture.” — John Earn­er (co-founder, CEO, Space Ape Games)

People are our most important product

This is true for most com­pa­nies. Which is why it should be a no-brain­er to invest in the peo­ple and help them grow.

Offer train­ing bud­gets to every­one, and pro­vide man­agers with man­age­ment coach­es. At Space Ape Games, every man­ag­er includ­ing the founders see man­age­ment coach­es reg­u­lar­ly.

Founders need to communicate the vision of the company openly, clearly, and frequently

Avoid impres­sive sound­ing but vague mis­sion state­ments. Vague goals that does not define clear, action­able tar­gets are hard to fol­low and apply. Col­lab­o­ra­tion suf­fers when peo­ple do not have a shared under­stand­ing of the com­pa­ny vision.

John reit­er­ates the com­pa­ny mis­sion at every quar­ter­ly com­pa­ny meet­ing. The rep­e­ti­tion has been impor­tant in rein­forc­ing the shared under­stand­ing of the goal. I recent­ly also saw Ryan Cald­beck, the CEO of Cir­cle­Up say the same thing on Twit­ter.

Space Ape’s mis­sion state­ment is “to build a top gross­ing mobile game by own­ing a genre”. Sim­ple, unglam­orous, but easy to under­stand. Our part­ner­ship with Super­cell also showed us what a top gross­ing game looks like from a reten­tion and mon­e­ti­za­tion point of view.

Be honest about conflict of interest

Man­agers usu­al­ly have the best inten­tions when they set out per­son­al objec­tives for their charge. Every­one gets a set of objec­tives that align with the company’s goal. Where is the con­flict of inter­est?

What you might think when assign­ing everyone’s per­son­al objec­tives.
Things nev­er work out as you expect though. What always hap­pens is that some projects will go more smooth­ly than oth­ers. At the same time, some projects deliv­ers more val­ue to the com­pa­ny than oth­ers.

Nod if this sce­nario sounds famil­iar.

You’re work­ing on project X, and your end of year pay rise, bonus and pro­mo­tion hopes are all rid­ing on the suc­cess of project X.

A col­league is work­ing on project Y, he needs you to work on some­thing to unblock his project. Project Y is more valu­able to the com­pa­ny, but help­ing this col­league means los­ing progress on project X.

What do you do?

Do you do the right thing by the com­pa­ny and help this col­league? In the process you might lose the pay rise, bonus and pro­mo­tion that you have worked so hard for?

Or do you put his request on the back­log and focus on project X?

Hel­lo, con­flict of inter­est.

What actu­al­ly hap­pens when peo­ple are asked to make sac­ri­fices for the good of the com­pa­ny.
If you think this only hap­pens in poor­ly run com­pa­nies, then you’re wrong. Even Google is not immune to this con­flict of inter­est, as is evi­dent in Michael Lynch’s arti­cle on why he quit Google.

Team­work requires will­ing sac­ri­fice.

In foot­ball, a “team play­er” car­ries the con­no­ta­tion of being will­ing to sac­ri­fice one­self for the team. Be it risk­ing injury in a 50–50 chal­lenge, or pass­ing to a team­mate who’s more like­ly to score.

How do you trans­late this to the work place? How do you encour­age peo­ple to make will­ing sac­ri­fices for the good of the com­pa­ny?

You have to start by being hon­est about this con­flict of inter­est.

Your employ­ees are not saints, they are flesh and blood with real world prob­lems. What if they need the pay rise to start a fam­i­ly? And what’s wrong with want­i­ng career pro­gres­sion?

Employ­ees have every right to act in their best inter­est. It is your job as employ­er to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where employ­ees are not penalised for mak­ing self-sac­ri­fice.

Space Ape Games does this in sev­er­al ways.

The biggest one is to sep­a­rate per­son­al objec­tives & 360 reviews from per­for­mance & salary reviews.

Per­son­al objec­tives are for your per­son­al devel­op­ment only. Your man­ag­er can help you decide what areas to improve on, but the final deci­sion is yours. You’re encour­aged, but not required, to set per­son­al objec­tives.

360 reviews are also for you and you alone. You choose who you want feed­backs from, and how to pro­ceed with the feed­backs you receive.

The feed­backs are anonymised, and only the man­ag­er of the review­er can see the feed­backs. This is main­ly to mit­i­gate any unnec­es­sary ten­sion from ill-con­sid­ered feed­backs.

Your man­ag­er and the founders are also there to help you process the feed­backs if you need them.

Per­for­mance and salary reviews are based on what you actu­al­ly con­tributed to, not some arbi­trary tar­gets that were set months ago.

This unusu­al way of work­ing start­ed with a frank dis­cus­sion about this con­flict of inter­est. It has been iter­at­ed upon over time and will con­tin­ue to evolve. It’s been such a fresh breath of air for me to work for a com­pa­ny that not only rec­og­nizes the prob­lem but active­ly seeks to tack­le it.

Marry creativity with ownership

To cul­ti­vate cre­ativ­i­ty from the whole com­pa­ny, we use one or two days every month for Ape Space. Which is a time for game jams and hackathons.

The game jams gen­er­ate ideas to feed the top end of our cre­ative fun­nel. Every­one can come up with ideas for new games. You have the own­er­ship and respon­si­bil­i­ty to pol­ish your idea and pitch it to the rest of the com­pa­ny.

Our cre­ativ­i­ty fun­nel for new game ideas.

Teams form organ­i­cal­ly around ideas that we’re excit­ed about and believe can be top gross­ing. This is NOT a top-down deci­sion.

The founders are there to offer guid­ance and help with per­son­nel move­ment. Whilst your idea might be great, the founders can guide you on shap­ing the idea to fit our mis­sion.

Is it eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble to build?

What is the mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion like? Is the genre sat­u­rat­ed with high qual­i­ty offer­ings already? Does this genre have top gross­ing poten­tial?

Do we have the tech­ni­cal exper­tise to build it? If not, how dif­fi­cult is it to hire those exper­tise?

Cre­ativ­i­ty needs to be guid­ed, and hypoth­e­sis needs to be test­ed.

The teams that form around an idea would focus on pro­to­typ­ing and iter­at­ing on the idea. The idea becomes a playable game, and the rest of the com­pa­ny would play and pro­vide feed­back.

The team owns the idea, and is trust­ed with mak­ing the deci­sions to keep going or kill it if they no longer believe in it. Again, this is NOT a top-down deci­sion, the deci­sion is with the team and the team ONLY.

Which brings us to the next point.

Recognize that creativity requires mistakes

Cre­ativ­i­ty needs fail­ures to suc­ceed.

Being cre­ative and exper­i­ment­ing with new ideas means tak­ing on risks. If you don’t risk you will not win big, at least not with­out the mar­ket­ing bud­get and brand that goes with estab­lished brands.

To let teams take on risk, and to trust them to make the right deci­sion on the company’s behave to kill a pro­to­type is hard.

For this to hap­pen, you need an envi­ron­ment where employ­ees are not penalised for mak­ing self-sac­ri­fice.

At Space Ape Games, we do this by cre­at­ing a safe­ty net for jobs.

Your job is not tied to the pro­to­type. If a team decides to kill its idea then the team mem­bers would move into oth­er game teams, or they’ll stay togeth­er and pro­to­type anoth­er game idea.

To prove this approach works beyond our scale, con­sid­er Super­cell and Clash Royale. The team behind Clash Royale was work­ing on anoth­er idea before it. The idea test­ed well in beta, it had good reten­tion and mon­e­ti­za­tion stats. But it was not great, cer­tain­ly not on par with Clash of Clans.

The team made the deci­sion to kill the idea because they believed they can do bet­ter. So they took the learn­ings from the pre­vi­ous game, iter­at­ed on the ideas fur­ther and then cre­at­ed Clash Royale.

We rec­og­nize that peo­ple and their tal­ents are our great­est assets. We choose to hire and keep great peo­ple over hire and keep roles. After all, we have more ideas we want to pro­to­type than we have peo­ple to build them!

The safe­ty net also applies to live games that goes into liveops mode.

Conclusions

So there you have it. 7 things that I learnt from my time at Space Ape Games, one of the best run com­pa­nies that I have encoun­tered. It has a clear idea for who they want to be, and orga­nizes itself to become that com­pa­ny.

As much as I love the ethos on small autonomous teams and a flat orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture. At this stage of my career I am accus­tomed to hav­ing a wide range of respon­si­bil­i­ties and I crave it.

The oppor­tu­ni­ty to join Space Ape Games and expe­ri­ence this great cul­ture was too great. But as time went by I felt that itch for more respon­si­bil­i­ty creep­ing back. When my old friend Bruno Tavares pitched me the idea of join­ing DAZN and all the things they’re doing, it was hard to say no.

So with a heavy heart, this is my farewell let­ter to Space Ape Games and the great peo­ple with­in. You guys are tru­ly spe­cial!

If you want to work with Scala and build fun games whilst tack­ling chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lems, then Space Ape Games is hir­ing. Check out their careers page to see the job specs.