Failure Tolerated

February 24, 2017 Books E-Myth Revisited Business

I’ve been reading a book called The E-Myth Revisited recently. It’s thesis is largely that there’s a myth in America about what makes a good entrepreneur.

…The Entrepreneurial Model has less to do with what’s done in a business and more to do with how it’s done.” — Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

The old story goes something like this: I’m a technician of some level at a job, I’ve got a manager who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and I think I can do it better. So I throw caution to the wind, quit my job, and start my own business. The business grows, and now I have bills to pay, people to manage, and a whole lot of other stuff to do that it turns out, I never wanted to do in the first place. I have to actually run a business.

Gerber argues that at this point three distinct personas emerge: the Technician, who does all the work, the Manager, who makes sure it gets done, and the Entrepreneur who moves the vision forward. These three personas are generally in conflict.

Gerber’s bottom line is that with all these roles tied together, the actual Entrepreneur, the one who jumped off the cliff and started the business, can’t get any actual work done.

If you’ve started up you own business, this might sound familiar. On Two Rooms and a Boom, we had similar problems. Once our Kickstarter funded, my business partner, Alan Gerding, and I were responsible for producing, publishing, and fulfilling a massively successful game, which we, as Entrepreneurs, were excited to do. Our flagship game raised over $100k, and we had thousands of backers. You couldn’t ask for a better start to a brand new game company.

However, the Technicians inside us struggled with the success. We had jumped into the publishing world with the same Fuck it YOLO attitude I imagine attracts many creators to Kickstarter every year. I had experience in graphic design and had seen the manufacturing process up close when I worked on Mage Wars. Alan had been designing and pitching games for the last couple of years and knew reviewers and had made friends with other publishers. I told Alan that I thought I should do all the graphics and illustrations (over 70 unique cards, two rulebooks, a couple game aides, and a box) for the game. Alan, feeling his Manager-sense tingle, pushed back, thinking that for a semi-journeyman designer, but beginner-level illustrator, I would be biting off more than I could chew. My Entrepreneur-sense thought this would be a good way to save money and not have to worry about relying on a contractor. We funded in November 2013 with a projected delivery date of June 2014. I didn’t finish illustrating the cards and doing the graphic design until late June / early July 2014. The Technician in me had failed. The Managers in both of us had failed. The Entrepreneurs were terrified of what this meant for the company.

Had we finished before we’d even started?

Tolerance for failure is a very specific part of the excellent company culture—and that lesson comes directly from the top.” — Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

I’m good friends with P.L. Winn, co-founder of blogcritics.org and author of the new Tillie Madison series of urban fantasy books. Winn travelled to China shortly after we delivered our Kickstarter for Two Rooms and a Boom in July 2015 (over a year past our initial deadline), inspired by my journey there a few months before to sort out some manufacturing trouble. Walking around Shenzhen, he noticed this phrase on signs, posters, bus stop advertisements, everywhere. It said: Innovation Encouraged Failure Tolerated.

While Winn burst out laughing from the strange English translation, his guide explained that there had been a concerted effort in China recently to encourage creativity from workers. China’s economy had risen to power through mass production. But production requires creators. China had spent so long producing everything for every other economy in the world, they hadn’t developed anyone capable of making things worth mass producing in the first place. Fear of failure had stifled innovation. To evolve and grow, they’d need more creators. They had to de-stigmatize failure.

In a lot of ways The E-Myth Revisited is like a lot of other business self help books in that most of it could be distilled in a one-page outline and the rest is a lot of hand-holding, anecdotes, and an obsession with selling you the book you’ve already bought. But one of the many things I’ve gotten from it is the ability to tolerate failure in pursuit of innovation.

At TKG, we’ve been working hard to separating our three personas: the Entrepreneur, Manager, and Technician. On our second game, World Championship Russian Roulette, we brought in a world class illustrator, Weberson Santiago, and the boardgame industry’s premier graphic designer, Adam McIver to take on the roles I had bungled so ineptly before. We’ve drawn better lines in the sand for who is acting in what role on what project (Alan acts as the Entrepreneur for our Podcast, for instance). We continue to fail at a lot of things, we continue to make mistakes. But we keep building.

This blog is about that.