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I enjoyed a recent article about entrepreneurs and it reminded me of my biggest peeve about entrepreneurship: the syndrome that, “success has many fathers”. Unfortunately this falsehood brings propaganda and errors into the historical record and obscures the true nature of entrepreneurs and innovation. The article I reference is here: http://blog.summation.net/2011/02/entrepreneur.html

True entrepreneurs are extremists in terms of passion, optimism and risk-taking. We are far, far removed from “normal”. My history follows this pattern with enormous hits and enormous misses and the appearance of great extremes of stupidity and genius, folly and foundation. It is hard to believe that the same person founded and built Electronic Arts while also creating a disaster with 3DO. But it’s true. Because we entrepreneurs not only have big ideas, we are willing to place big bets on them. We’re generally trying to do things that have not been done before, so there is no evidence that it will work or that anyone will care. Normal people will avoid this kind of “risk”.

We can work on our precious ideas tirelessly for decades even when surrounded by nay-sayers. Many of the same people that were skeptics about 3DO also dismissed Madden Football, which was known inside EA as, “Trip’s Folly”, because nobody thought the game would ever make any money. But I had enjoyed buying and playing with new Strat-O-Matic baseball and football cards every year as a teenager, which is one reason I became a game designer. I knew sports simulation would be better on a computer and that it would be a good business because you could update the teams and players every year and sell the same game again, like Strat-O-Matic. I knew it was a form of “virtual goods” that people cared about, and a great social game. So I hung in there and trusted myself and others when the first version of Madden was a year late, and then two years and three years late. Meanwhile, members of my management team sent the corporate auditors to tell me that we’d have to write off the cash advance to Madden as a total loss since they were sure it was completely un-recoupable. But that didn’t deter me; and my trust, faith and commitment resulted in EA Sports becoming a great brand.

Normal people are less trusting and skeptical and more averse to risk. They also tend to like status, which makes them want to take credit for the accomplishments of entrepreneurs even though they didn’t take the risks or have the ideas. Entrepreneurs regularly get burned by these people in a variety of ways because we’re dependent on delegating to them and relying on what they say they can do. As optimists, we want to believe in them, and they enable us to focus on what we are passionate about. But we true entrepreneurs often get exploited in a variety of ways as a result.

Where this really frosts my cake is when someone refers to me as a co-founder of Electronic Arts. I am the sole founder of Electronic Arts and there were no co-founders. This was pretty well known to everyone for the first several years and every press story correctly identified me alone as the founder (and it should come as no surprise that I am the only person in the world that has all these old articles, it was my baby and nobody else cared). But in later years — as EA gained fame and fortune — several early employees that I had hired and paid out of my own pocket decided to identify themselves as co-founders. This was initially encouraged by EA itself, in part because I was no longer there and they preferred to assign glory to early employees who were still with the company. The saddest part of this period was when EA was caught red-handed for repeatedly removing my name from the Wikipedia entry about EA.

I have deep fondness for my early employees in all of my companies. Many remain close friends today and some still work with me. I have tremendous gratitude for the great work they did, and I always rewarded them with generosity in a variety of ways. Many of them did very, very well and went on to have long and great careers. However, with only a few notable exceptions, these employees are not entrepreneurs; they were the kind of people that were willing to work for an entrepreneur that they thought was on to something. They deserve credit for helping build something substantial in the case of EA, and hopefully Digital Chocolate.

I can also understand the desire and attraction that some of them have to being identified as co-founders. I hope that they can all be proud and satisfied about the truth, because there is plenty of glory in the truth. Early employees at EA, especially those that rose to high ranks and helped build the company over a long period of time, deserve great credit even though they were not co-founders.

According to Webster’s, a company can only have a founder or a group of co-founders, so with the rampant spread of misinformation on the Internet today, there are now thousands of references to “other” reputed co-founders and to me as a “co-founder”. It’s all bunk. I am reminded of Ayn Rand’s distinction between Inventors and Looters. The bunk has often been driven by corporate greed, not just the egos of early employees. Certainly for me this is an issue of pride. Considering my notable failures, I simply want to be accurately remembered for this one good deed where I got it right, on a set of foundational ideas that I worked on for a decade before I even hired the first employees at EA; and then worked on for another decade to make sure it made it.

But I also think that our world’s young entrepreneurs, and society in general, are better off if they know the truth about entrepreneurship and founders and what it involves. Especially in terms of the tremendous long-term commitments that are required, that blot out all other aspects of normal life; the terrible risks that have to be taken, along with the consequences of the inevitable failures; and the sacrifices in personal life and the problems that can result when you have to trust and delegate parts of work and life to others that ultimately betray you.

I began developing the foundational ideas for EA in 1970. In 1975 I decided that I would wait until 1982 to incorporate and formalize the company. Other key foundational elements were developed on my own prior to 1982, as I sharpened my aim and the target date neared. Right on schedule, I incorporated the company on May 28, 1982 and was the sole owner. For months after that I continued to work alone out of my home office. Later in the year I made the first job offers to several employees and moved them into a formal office that I paid for. I paid all of the expenses including salaries out of my own pocket until December of that year. I even loaned money to my first employee so he could buy the stock that I was offering to him. I should also point out that it took 9 years for EA to turn the corner and become a genuinely safely established success. And I am currently in year eight here at Digital Chocolate. Entrepreneurship takes commitment that can only come from the passion and optimism. Normal people – the kind that want to take credit later and say, “ I was there, I was an early employee, therefore I am a co-founder” – they would have no idea about this level of commitment when something is not an immediate success. Normal people join something when someone else is taking the risk or after it stops being risky to do it. And they usually bail out when the going gets tough, and there are always big speed bumps. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster.

There are companies that have legitimate co-founders. These are cases where the co-founders all took equal risks and made equal initial contributions, such that arguably, it could not have happened without them as a team. Sun Microsystems, for example, had four equal co-founders.  EA, in contrast, is not such a case and was not dependent on any early employees. In fact there was high turnover from the beginning and people left because they didn’t like the stress and risk, got a better offer elsewhere or got removed because of cost or performance limitations. But without me, there is no Electronic Arts. Those at EA that have promoted themselves or others as co-founders, frankly, wouldn’t even know about the founding since they were not there at the time. EA was so foolish about this fact that at one point when they published a press release touting one of their false co-founders, the press release even said erroneously that the company was founded in 1981. Good grief, all they had to do was check the legal files or remember the correct year. But telling the truth was not their goal.

Entrepreneurship is very, very hard. If we’re going to have all these normal people running around taking false credit, our society is likely to lure a lot of nice people into ruin. And real entrepreneurs had better understand what we are getting ourselves into, and what to expect from the normal people around us. I remember a study years ago that asked a bunch of founders of successful companies if they would do it again, if they knew how hard it was going to be. Most of them said, “Are you kidding? No way!” But real entrepreneurs are optimists and risk-takers and this is how we live. We’re doing it for love, not status or power.

And since, to me, it feels like being told I am the stepfather of my own children, I humbly ask and hope that people can stop calling me a co-founder.

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14 comments

  1. Anonymous
    May 3, 2011

    Nice article Trip. I’ve been playing EA games since 1983 and currently work for EA. Things seem to have changed a lot since you were at the helm; thanks for setting the record straight.

  2. Greenleaf
    May 3, 2011

    I like what you’re doing! ;)

  3. May 3, 2011

    Really excellent. I’ve seen too many articles about ‘entrepreneurs’ who are only entrepreneurs in name only. They aren’t risking their own wealth.

    I’ve always seen you as THE Founder of Electronic Arts.

  4. May 3, 2011

    Although you’re having a bit of a gripe, I actually find your story weirdly inspiring :) ….My brother & I co-founded (for real) a company called dSonic that provides audio for games and we’ve now been going for 10 years…..we have done decently well, but of course nothing like EA….however I can certainly relate to the concept that at the beginning everything is very small-time and you’re sort of trying to cover for that. I can also relate to the long time frames. We are now starting a 2nd company to make a product that is far enough outside of the norm that we are either delusional or at the beginnings of changing an industry. We have spent several years already just getting to the starting line. I’m sure some of the ‘normal’ people I told the concept to 3 and 4 years ago think it’s going nowhere…..So again, it’s nice to hear your story and that at least the way we’re going about this has some parallels in successful cases such as EA

  5. Nick Dodson
    May 9, 2011

    Trip,

    I really enjoyed reading “Entrepreneurs and Founders” on Facebook. I have 3 strong business concepts I am confident in. And most importantly, you are clearly doing too well, and have too much free time if you are writing. articles. So i decided you need some real competition from another “extremist”. I’ll see you at GDC next year if not sooner.

    Nick Dodson

  6. Trip
    May 9, 2011

    Hello Nick,

    Good for you, I will root for you!

    Cheers,

    Trip

  7. Adam
    May 16, 2011

    Trip,
    Awesome post!!!!! love it…as a 28 year old snowboard coach and entrepreneur I thank you for this important massage and really understand what your saying. I am looking to meet with you and talk about my business and the team of Profesional snowboarders, kite boarders, and surfers, who have been filming for our video mobile apps. Signature and learning videos for many aspects of our sports. I am in SF this week and would love to sit down and talk about how we could work together. Look forward to here from you and see when we can meet, I can meet any time that works for you.

    Thanks Trip!!!!

    -Adam

  8. Trip
    June 16, 2011

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for following my blog! I’m really glad that you like it. We’ll be in touch to discuss your proposal.

    Thanks again,
    Trip

  9. Blackryn0
    July 12, 2011

    Hey Trip your an ICON in the gaming industry to me and will continue to be. The 3DO didn’t fail it just didn’t get the public push that it needed. Anyway, I don’t know if your into cloud gaming but there is a company called Onlive, you can check them out at Onlive.com. It’s ran by a guy named steve perlman the onlive community wants EA’s games on the service but EA is holding back. I want you to check it out, also check there business model and if you get a chance talk to the CEO to learn more about them and there plans. What i would like for you to do ( and i believe you still have enormous power at EA). is to convince them that this thing is going to take off quickly and that they need to be onboard Now. Do this based on your experience with onlive as a gamer and developer . Thanks in advance if you able to pull this off. Also if you want to see what people are saying about them wanting EA on board go to onlivefans.com and check the forums there. You can also find me onlive names Blackryn0. I know this is way out in left field but i thought id give it a shot. I truly believe that your a CEO with a heart. Thanks for your time trip, God speed on your business.

  10. Trip
    July 12, 2011

    Hey Blackryn, I agree with your enthusiasm for streaming games from the cloud. It is part of what I would call the new, “Era of Convenient Computing,” that will move a lot of media services to the cloud. A gamer cannot always “make an appointment” with their own console or PC and the idea of streaming such a game anywhere, anytime, to any screen, offers great convenience. We’ve already seen how YouTube took over Internet video by offering convenience and viral spread through the browser. Author J. K. Rowling just launched a cloud-based service offering Harry Potter ebooks. Convenience is the wave of the future. I am sure that EA thinks very deeply about how to handle their distribution, and they just announced plans to do their own digital download service. I’m sure they’ll continue to follow how the opportunity with OnLive evolves and will become active with streaming.

  11. Blackryn0
    July 12, 2011

    Thanks for responding Trip, and thanks for your input.

  12. Daniel Campbell
    July 12, 2011

    I totally understand what you are saying about entrepreneurs risking it all. I’m sure I’m a dime a dozen, but I did something similar. I sold my home, I cleared out my 401K, I even sold my game collection. I constantly struggled with getting others to do their work, finding additional funds to buy licenses, etc. It seemed like every roadblock I could hit, I did. Ultimately I failed.

    The funny thing is that I would do it all again. If I built up enough money, I’d risk it all, even if that means I might fail. I’d use what I learned to make better decisions, but I’m sure I’d make all new mistakes. No matter the case, I’m always working to rise above the rest…it is just difficult to do alone.

  13. jt
    September 2, 2011

    Hi, if this is Trip Hawkins who is reading this my name is JT. I am a big fan of 3DO. In particular I am a huge fan of the ARMY MEN series. I am in my early teens, even though 3DO is not known well in my generation I think they are some of the most creative games I have ever played. When I was young I played with ARMY MEN all the time. When I first played Sarges heroes at my friends house I had the best time it was like a fantasy come to life. For me none of the games today even compare. I swear whoever has the copyrights to the series or even if you do, I think it would be a huge hit with todays graphics. it would be some thing different and more creative then what is offered now. that would be a dream come true. Have you ever thought of bringing back this series with new graphics? Please consider the possibility When I say bring back the series I mean the ones that were created by 3DO not the ones by Global Star Software. The last one you and 3DO did had a different concept. It was like me personally playing with my ARMY MEN coming to life. Also bring back all of the old characters. it was cool that they did not look like ordinary ARMY MEN. they each had different features that made them unique. I believe the gaming industry is ready for the change. People are tired of all of the zombies and the same old same old, I think you know what I mean. Its time the REAL COMBAT PLASTIC MEN come back to life. If you read this, Thank you for your time and all of the ARMY MEN games you produced with 3DO Sincerely JT PS I have some ideas how the series could reboot since in the game SARGES WAR all of the characters died except SERGEANT HAWK. If you are interested let me know.

  14. Trip
    September 2, 2011

    Hey JT,

    It was great to hear from you and I share your good memories about the Army Men games. I especially love humor in video games and that was my favorite thing about Army Men. And the great characters and storyline, along with the nostalgia about blowing up and melting the toys! Army Men was not everyone’s cup of tea but it had millions of fans like us. Today, I am not even sure who owns the IP but it isn’t me. I might make another military game with a sense of humor but it won’t be called Army Men because I don’t own the name. Hopefully the current owners agree with your views and are working on something fun.

    Thanks,

    Trip

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