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Five Lessons Learned Growing A Game Dev Start-Up

On the fifth anniversary of founding their studio, Ryan from Petricore shares five lessons learned in the process of founding, running, and growing an indie studio from an idea to nearly $2 million in revenue and over 750,000 players worldwide.

Ryan Canuel, Blogger

May 5, 2020

13 Min Read

Five years ago today we received notice that our then-student game dev team “Petricore” was officially now our indie game studio Petricore, Inc. The day after that we all graduated, and we started our first official day of work.

If you had asked me then if we’d still be doing this five years later, I would have probably told you “no.” We went into founding a business on caution, I told most of the team we could expect to fail within the first year and to plan for that (yeah, I’m not the most optimistic person.) Here we are though; five years later, still in business, and far improved from where we were then. Saying that I’ve learned a lot over these last five years would be an understatement. 

I’d like to take some time to share with you some of the things I’ve found most important to growing our business.

To provide some context before we get started, we’ve bootstrapped the studio for all 5 years. That means we’ve received no outside investment funding, so instead we provide work-for-hire services as many indie studios do. As of this year, we’ve done almost $2 million in work-for-hire sales since founding. We’ve also worked on several of our own original titles including our mobile 2D puzzle game Mind the Arrow and our upcoming zany air combat game for PC and consoles, DogFight.

When I speak about certain things I may mention work-for-hire specific issues, rather than things you would experience if you receive angel or VC investment. Also please think of this as some ideas that I hope can be of help, but are not the “right” way to do this. I’ll speak more about this in the blog post - but this all comes from my own experiences and some of this might not be right for you. Lastly, we’re US-based, so some programs I speak about may only be available here. With this context in mind, let’s get started.


#1 Networking, Networking, Networking.

Does it feel like you’ve heard how important networking is about ten million times at this point? Great, here it is again: Networking is very important. 

It was extremely important for me, since we’d started Petricore right out of college, and I didn’t have previous connections from employment in games. Instead of networking though, we should all think about it as relationship building. It’s going out, finding things in common, and making friends that work in the same industry as you. 

Networking is not a mad dash to hand out as many business cards as you can at an event. It’s not asking someone how they’re doing, nodding but not listening, and going immediately into your sales pitch. It’s not a one-way street to only benefit you. It’s important that you understand what you can get out of the relationship, but it’s equally important to understand how you can help this person too.

Networking is also about being in the right place, at the right time, and being on someone's mind. How many times do you see an advertisement for something you need, and end up getting from that brand? It probably happens more than you even know. You are advertising yourself, and every event you attend, coffee you grab, and email you send is a commercial for you. 

Lastly, there are many styles of networking. Not everyone is good at going to events, shaking hands, and meeting people. I very much enjoy in-person networking, but I prefer small one-on-one meetings to large events. Other people I know only do online social media based networking, which works well for them. Figuring out what you’re most comfortable with, and works best for you is a great way to effectively network.

#2 Mentorship

We’d founded Petricore while we were all in our senior year of college, and I can say with one hundred percent certainty that we would not still be in business today without our mentors. Having experienced people to help you though starting a business is a must. Having a great mentor is like having an amazing boss, teacher, friend, and therapist rolled into one person.

I’ve found the best qualities in mentorships I’ve found have been people who’ve been very successful in their careers, but also had their share of failures. Someone who ran a successful business is extremely valuable to get advice from, but someone who was part of three failed businesses also has a lot to share in what went wrong. Look for people who will tell you about what they did wrong as much as what they’ve done right. Likewise I’ve found that I gravitate to advisors who give me blunt advice. Like anyone, I love being told nice things about myself, but I’m looking to grow and learn from mentorship. I’ve found straightforward, no frills feedback, to be the best delivery mechanism.

If you’re starting out with a small network, and relatively unknown in the industry, finding mentors who’ve been in the industry longer, are trusted, and have a large network is really important. We started with no track record, and a very small portfolio of work. Our first few work for hire projects were a direct result of a mentor who helped create trust and confidence in us, which slowly over time allowed us to develop a greater portfolio of work. It took me about 16 months to get our first client that wasn’t through a friend or mentor, and even to this day the “cold call” projects are significantly harder to close than “warm” introductions though mentors/friends.

My main mentor came through a college professor with a lot of prior experience, and I hear this from a lot of recent students turned founders. If you’re not in school, there’s other ways to meet with mentors. SCORE is a program that connects experienced mentors with founders, they partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which also runs other local mentoring programs. 

You may not connect with someone in the games industry, but I found that non-games mentorship helped me with other aspects of running a business. If where you are has game industry meetups, that’s a great way to meet more senior game developers in your area. If you’re more removed from an industry hub, you can always follow other game industry professionals on Twitter and social media. 

I’m constantly seeing experienced people offer their time for free to help up-and-coming game developers, and it’s a great way to develop mentor relationships.


#3 Feedback/Advice

In the process of starting and running your business you will become very quickly enamored with lots of feedback and advice. You’ll receive feedback from friends, family, your teammates, game industry folks, people at tradeshows, random strangers, and if you’re still reading this - me! I’ve found that getting and accepting feedback is just as important as the act of understanding where that feedback comes from and choosing to not move forward with it.

It can often be easy to just look towards experienced people for advice and just follow it, but everyone’s experiences and ideas are so tied to their own personal experiences the advice that you’re getting might not suit you at all. It could be leading you towards a completely wrong direction. 

I’ve found my best process for this is actively listening to everyone's feedback and asking some questions to further understand where they’re coming from. Afterwards, I like to take time to think about the feedback and how it applies to me and the particular issue. It’s just as important to think about the person who gave you the feedback. 

Would you say you’re similar to them in many ways? Do they understand your particular issue, or was their issue this feedback worked for not the same as yours? Do you trust this person's opinion on this issue? Understand that no one is purposefully trying to give you bad advice or steer you in the wrong direction, we just can only speak from our own point of view - and sometimes that just isn’t a good fit for you.

I can speak endlessly about starting your own business, and ways to go about it, but in the end that advice will only work for a few people in similar situations to me. It’s easy for a white man from a middle class family to talk about how great/the easy steps it is to just start a business, but for a lot of people it’s much, much harder. 

All advice is coming from a good place at heart and meant to be a useful tool - you just have to figure out if it’s a tool useful for your personal toolbox.

#4 The “unsexy” stuff

Going to conferences to show off your shiny new game on the showfloor, giving a talk on your work to a captivated audience, and accepting awards for your work. This is the “sexy” stuff you get to do, but behind the scenes of that there’s a whole lot of “unsexy” work that needs to be done. Legal work, taxes, accounting/bookkeeping, payroll, HR, networking events, keeping track of cash flow, and on-and-on. These things are all extremely important, but not always looked at with the same level of glory - and are most likely not what you set out to do when starting your studio. They are however, the thing that will determine if you sink or swim, and learning to love (or at least appreciate) these activities will be crucial.

This might seem really obvious, but it’s also something that is really easy to lose sight of and become too focused on other aspects of the business that are more “fun.” No one wants to spend their day hounding down clients for overdue invoices, but if you don’t make sure to prioritize that things can very quickly get out of hand. I’ve found that over time though I’ve come to enjoy some of these aspects of the business more. I’ve found that mentally framing them as essential services to a game development business that allows for a talented team of people to work on games, helps me feel better about focusing on these parts of the business. 

Unless you’re starting out with heaps of cash, you’ll most likely not be able to afford to hand off all these roles to other people early on. You may choose to prioritize a lawyer first, and handle your own bookkeeping and taxes while you bootstrap. Over time, as money starts to come in, you can (and should) start to hand these roles over to trusted professionals that can help you with all these activities. Before you can get there though, It’s best to assume that you’ll be doing this yourself.


#5 Look Local

This is something that I don’t see mentioned as much, but I’ve found to be really helpful for us getting started. Look at your local community and see what is available there for help/services, and what you can do for them. We’re located in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is actually the second largest city in New England but often lives in the shadow of Boston. 

I had moved here for college and at first hated it. Overtime living here though, and as I started to explore and learn more about the city - I fell in love. When we graduated, and had decided to do Petricore full time we decided to stick around in Worcester rather than try and move to a larger gaming hub like Boston. A big part of this decision was financial given that Worcester is much more affordable than Boston.

There was something beneficial that came out of being the only game in town though, we were novel and fit really well into what our alma mater, Becker College, and the city both wanted. The city supported us through a start-up program they offered which provided free membership to the local Chamber of Commerce and other local networking events, and Becker College provided us with subsidized space to work out of. Just about every local news outlet covered us over time, and as non-local press came by we also got showcased as one of the new things happening in the city. 

Is this the same as being globally recognized for a smash hit game? Of course not, but this gave us a small boost locally that helped us succeed in early days where every small thing mattered.

Depending on where you’re located and your network there may be programs and services that could help you get started as well. Many cities offer microloans to jumpstart businesses, some have leadership programs that bring you in contact with local businesses and government, and joining your local Chamber of Commerce can help with networking to establish connections with local services such as accountants and lawyers that you will need. Spending some of your time to become more engaged locally can be of help to your business no matter what it does, including games.

In the end we are also a part of this community, as are you, wherever you’re located. It’s important to understand what your community offers for services, but also to understand what you can do for your community. We try and give back by attending local events like STEM fairs and Career Days, and personally I’m a huge proponent of supporting local small businesses, especially now. Your local community wants to see your business grow and succeed, and leaning on them for help early on might surprise you with what it can offer, just don’t forget to return the favor.

It’s helpful, especially now as we celebrate 5 years as a studio, to look back and reflect on the journey and what I’ve learned. I could have gone on with hundreds more topics of things I’ve found useful and important, and this is in no way a complete list of steps to start a successful business. However, I hope that in here you found an idea or two that helps you on your journey towards a successful business. I know that I’m very much still on my way there too, with much more of the journey to go.

If you’d like to stay up to date with everything happening at Petricore, I invite you to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, if an over-the-top air combat game featuring humankind’s best friends battling against the evil cat empire sounds right up your alley, consider adding our upcoming game, DogFight, to your Steam wishlist! 

Remember to always be kind, and thank you for reading,

- Ryan Canuel

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