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The Agility of a Startup

Sanya Weathers Posted:
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 “Agile” was a buzzword a couple years ago, and you still find it clinging like a barnacle to company descriptions.  It became a buzzword mainly because it evoked a software development process called (wait for it) “agile development.” However, actual agile development involves close communication with clients, an iterative process that turns on a dime based on feedback, high adaptive employees, and tangible/frequent results.

In other words, a whole hell of a lot of work that requires you to trust all the humans involved in the process. In addition to requiring a lot of effort, it requires the managers to have an attention span slightly longer than that of your average fruit fly. There are a disturbing number of managers out there who think “iterative” means “changing your mind every single day about everything.”

It’s much simpler to just slap your company mission statement with the word “agile” and hope that bright-eyed young programmers and writers and artists will see that and think that agile development sparkles have rubbed off onto your corporation.

Cue the “IT’S A TRAP” lolcats.

The best way to ensure the company is agile is to be slightly underfunded and understaffed. You know… a startup.

This is on my mind lately because of something that just happened at my job. My current employer just changed the name of our product. The original name was too long – Prime: Battle for Dominus. We couldn’t just use the first word, Prime, because it was trademarked and registered to someone else. Dominus was available for trade marking and registering and probably cattle branding. The decision was made, the website set up, the press release written, and the new logo polished up. It took less than a week all told.

I couldn’t help but compare that to the process I’ve “enjoyed” at other jobs. At a company that is not agile, this decision requires approval from multiple departments. A minimum of four planning meetings will be held, and those meetings must be coordinated between the multiple departments. The word “consensus” will be shamefully abused. Marketing, PR, whoever handles visual assets, Legal, and the entire management team each have a bit of responsibility. Every action must be submitted, approved, executed, submitted for approval, adjusted, and reapproved. The actual process will drag on forever.

Dragging on is the problem. Again, using my own recent experience as a benchmark, we happened to be at a good point for changing the product name. Oh, I don’t mean it was my idea of a good time. I’d spent five months building awareness of the old name. The people who’d signed on as fans and friends aren’t the problem. It’s all the people who would have seen an article about the game and thought, “Huh, I remember hearing something about this, maybe I should read more.” Those people are lost to me and I have to start over from scratch.

But that’s just me griping. The fact is, the game’s still in very limited beta, and aside from a few “keep an eye on this one” articles, we’re not in wide circulation yet. We have a bigger phase of beta planned for next month. There are no ads about our game anywhere. Now was the time to make a change, if we were going to make a change, before we let even one more beta tester in. A long extended process might have taken so long that we’d lose the good window of opportunity to make a change.

So how did use our agility to our advantage, and how could anyone do what we did?

  • Communication. Getting the whole team on the same page took five minutes and two phone calls.
  • Empowerment. Every person involved in the process had the authority to just act. The web guy didn’t have to get permission to buy all the URLs. You have to get the misspellings and the variations if you can. The obvious URL was taken, but c’est la vie in 2011. That doesn’t matter as much as you might think, in the age of bookmarks and shortcuts. It definitely isn’t worth paying a tenth or more of your operating budget to grab a name from a squatter, or in my case, to buy it from a perfectly nice construction company in Oklahoma. I didn’t have to have three meetings to decide what our new Twitter name would be. I just changed it and gave the link to the web guy.
  • The will to act. That doesn’t mean anyone was ignored or trampled, but so often, I see big game companies lose sight of, well, the vision. In the name of team building, no one is actually steering anymore. Small, agile companies all have someone definitively in charge. And when everyone is pulling in the same direction, the boat can go pretty far.

Sanya is currently the Director of Community for Pitchblack Games, a startup MMO company working on Dominus. She has been working in the MMO industry since 2000, either as a journalist, a writer, or a community weenie.


Sanya Weathers