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.