Daniel Menard is CEO of Double Stallion Games, an independent game studio based in Montreal, Canada, that focuses on mobile gaming. The company’s mission is to bring arcade style games to mobile, the right way, with HD cartoon graphics and great touch controls. The company’s first offering, Big Action Mega Fight (BAMF), is on the iOS mobile platform.
Menard holds a Bachelor of Software Engineering degree from McGill University. Programing and video games have been in his blood since early in age. He’s always tinkered with various game engines. Prior to launching Double Stallion Games, he created Eternal Silence and founded Crankshaft Games. During his startup incubator experience at Execution Labs incubator in Montreal, he assembled his new team to co-found Double Stallion Games.
With a true passion for mobile game development, Daniel Menard took the time to talk with the Rackspace Startup Program about what’s at the core of his company’s culture, team cohesion and building a community around customers and product. What follows are Daniel’s thoughts on bringing arcade style games to mobile:
How was the company culture created at Double Stallion Games?
Double Stallion Games has a lot of veterans of other independent game teams and studios. We’ve all seen teams fall apart and company culture fail. When we started Double Stallion, we wanted to make none of those mistakes, and really focused on creating a strong company culture that empowers people to be creative. In my experience with Crankshaft, the best way to ensure your product is successful is to have a team of people that really cares about its success and each other. Focusing on your company culture is the best way to achieve this. If your team bickers and fights constantly, or has one person going on a power trip, it can completely destroy your project.
At the core of our company culture at Double Stallion is trust. We hire the best people we can find, and then we make sure we give them the freedom to make decisions and trust their judgment. If a single person in your organization is making all the decisions, you’ll fall victim to the blind spots of that person. We trust our programmers to make the best tech decisions for the company. We trust our game designers to come up with good mechanics and levels. We trust our art director to create an amazing art style for our games. As the CEO, this requires a hands-off approach. My job is to manage budgets and schedules and give the team the tools they need to work. For creative decisions, I don’t have a trump card, and that’s the way it should be! One of the most frustrating things for professionals is to get orders from someone who doesn’t understand their discipline.
We also take work-life balance seriously. Unlike a lot of startups, we actively avoid crunching and overtime. Yes it’s sometimes necessary, especially when you are a small team with everyone wearing many hats, but having to crunch on a project is usually a failure of planning and management, and in our company it is treated that way. People need down time to stay positive and creative, and we do our best to make sure that is possible. We don’t really enforce any kind of vacation limit for that very reason.
What business lessons were learned building your startup?
The first lesson we learned is to be a little bit ruthless in business…. If you can negotiate better rates, do it. You can’t let yourself get pushed around. If a vendor, accountant or lawyer sends you a surprise bill, fight it. You need to show some teeth occasionally. Of course, you must always be polite and calm when doing this!
Likewise, if someone on the team isn’t performing up to expectations or seems to be losing motivation, it is your duty to tell them about it and ask them to leave if it doesn’t get any better. We had the experience firsthand of somebody phoning it in: it demotivates the entire team and makes the end product look crappy. If you have someone like this on your team, get rid of them!
The second lesson we learned is that building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) can be detrimental to your success in some cases. A lot of the startup-lore that exists in books and blogs is focused on new markets and trying to build another Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. If you are building a completely new product and need to educate your consumer, YES, build an MVP. Not all startups are like this though. If you are building a company in an established market where there are already distribution channels and competition, building a strict MVP can be a recipe for disaster. In a saturated market your product needs to be remarkable above all, and that often means it goes beyond the scope of an MVP. Take the time to build it right.
What business challenges did you run into building Double Stallion Games?
Big Action Mega Fight (BAMF) was our first entry into the mobile market, and our first time designing a free to play game. We absorbed as much information as we could at Execution Labs, but we still made a ton of mistakes on our first go around. As a result, the key metrics for BAMF are not really where we want them to be, and the game isn’t producing a ton of revenue. It has other redeeming qualities though.
What business wins have you achieve?
Big Action Mega Fight was a win for being polished and high quality. The fact that we produced an excellent product, even if the business model wasn’t quite perfect, gave us a lot of attention. We were quickly noticed by publishers and IP holders and singled out as a high-quality studio. This has resulted in a lot of business opportunities. We are working on closing deals with some big publishers, which will give us enough budget to create some awesome follow-up games.
What best practices did you incorporate into Double Stallion Games?
We also take team cohesion very seriously. One of the practices we implemented from the very beginning is a bi-weekly one-on-one meeting. At first I was meeting with everyone on the team, but eventually we decided to perform a rotation (every week a different person sees everyone). The goal of these meetings is to discover problems early. Are there office politics that are developing? Is someone unhappy with their role on the team? It’s best to diagnose these problems early and take immediate action to fix it.
What were the ‘What to Do’ and ‘What Not to Do’ while building your startup?
The ‘What to Dos’:
- Hire the best people, and if someone seems to be phoning the work in, make sure you deal with it quickly. We’ve had the experience first-hand that a person who doesn’t care about the project can make the whole thing look rough and uninspired.
- Build a community around your product. Figure out where your customers are!
- Think about your company culture early. What kind of workplace will you create?
- Analyze and learn from your mistakes.
The ‘What Not to Dos’:
- Don’t seek funding unless you think your business can explode and has traction. Funding does not equal success. Building a sustainable business should be your focus.
- Don’t focus only on your product; there needs to be a market for it too.
- Don’t release a strict MVP unless you are in a developing market. If you have strong competition (like in games) you will get left in the dust by your competition.
- Don’t fear failure.
What was the Good, the Bad & the Ugly of establishing Double Stallion Games?
- Freedoms to work on any project you want and build something truly amazing.
- Fast-forwarding your career in a crazy way. You will learn new skills extremely quickly.
- Taking a risk and hoping for a big payoff.
- Money can be tight, and your runway is a constant worry.
- There can be a lot of stress.
- Your friends in corporate jobs will be out-earning you until you make it work.
- You can get too invested and forget that the whole thing is just an experiment. If your business implodes, life goes on… get a job!
- Fundraising can take a ridiculous amount of time and isn’t always productive, if you can bootstrap, just do that.
Did you run into any stumbling blocks or pivots?
After the launch of BAMF, we questioned our core vision. By many measures, the launch was a success, but we weren’t seeing the money coming in and we weren’t sure if our vision of the mobile market would hold in reality. Our major pivot came after a lot of discussion with the team and deciding that we would focus on more traditional PC / Console games with our next couple of releases, since it is a market we understood better.
We also had a lot of pressure from our investors to avoid work-for-hire and build our own IP to go for the “big win.” We spoke with some of our indie friends and they disagreed with it. Betting your entire company on a single project is not the way to go. If you have less than six months of runway, you need to get money in the bank, and taking a contract or doing some service work is a great way to do that. It’s also free training for your team. So we decided to go for it and so far we’re not regretting it.
What kind of support would be most helpful in the early days of your startup?
We were lucky enough to get started at an incubator. Some people are skeptical about incubators. Are they a good use of your time? It really depends on the program that you join. The number one benefit that I would identify for incubators is that they are an excellent catalyst for your team. Your application and acceptance into an incubator is a major milestone and can be the turning point where everyone on your team will quit their day jobs and really go for it. In our case, I don’t think I would have been able to bring the full team together all at the same time without the help of Execution Labs.
What straight up business advice would give to a startup?
Build yourself a support network of people who have succeeded and failed. You will learn a lot from your mentors!
The Rackspace Startup Program thanks our favorite gamer, Daniel Menard, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to enlighten us on how Double Stallion Games is on a mission to bring arcade style games to mobile by building a community around customers and products. For more insight on hosting your startup on the Rackspace Cloud backed by Fanatical Support™, contact the Startup Team today.