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Internet Entrepreneurship: How to Avoid Becoming a Stressed Out Loner
by Michael Gnade on 01/07/14 11:36:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The title may be a little over the top, but it stems from some of the real struggles of my life over the past 4 years.  I think the crux of this talk is really about how work and technology can intrude into our lives in a detrimental way.  More importantly, I think that people in the game industry – who have a natural propensity and love for technology are more susceptible to these pitfalls.

So as a quick point of reference and awkward introduction.  I’m Mike Gnade and live in Wilmington, Delaware – “The Place to be somebody” (that’s really the city’s slogan by the way).  I just turned 31 years old before Christmas and have been married for 4 years so the pressure is officially ON to start having kids.

Before we get into the pitfalls of working almost entirely on a computer and the internet, I think it’s helpful to understand a little bit about myself and where these stresses stem from in my own life.  I’ve done my best to map out my personal stress level over time.

In 2006 I entered the work force after Tufts Graduate School in Business Real Estate Development.  I think looking back on it, we can all acknowledge that wasn’t a great industry to be in at the time.  The 9-5 job was good, but I spent all of my free time on the internet, playing indie games, blogging about them and trying to figure out a way to truly do something I loved. 

I married my longtime girlfriend in 2009 right after attending my first GDC in Austin.  I like to think that GDC sparked something inside me.  I started working on a casual card game and was ultimately laid off from my 9-5 job the summer of 2010. 

So with a mortgage, car payments and other bills piling up – I decided to become an Entrepreneur.  That summer I connected with an ex-Microsoft guy and started a business hosting company.  I also finished that casual card game and got it on Big Fish Games.  These successes (and other many other failures that I won’t get into) allowed me to launch IndieGameStand in Sept 2012.

I think it’s important to realize that as amazing as working for yourself seems when you’ve got a 9-5 job, it’s not perfect and it’s certainly not for everyone.  I remember dreaming of taking frequent Xbox breaks and working 20-40 hours per week.  Needless to say that hasn’t happened.  Another enterpreneur said to me recently that the beauty of being independent is that you get to pick the 60-80 hours that you work a week.  Here's an attempt at making those a Pros/Con list of the advantages of being an entrepreneur over working in an office.

Pros 

  • You are your own boss
  • No Office politics
  • Easy commute – Pick your own office, Starbucks, Panera Bread or work from home
  • Incredibly Flexible Schedule
  • Highly motivated in company’s success

Cons

  • It’s all on YOU
  • Few or no colleagues
  • Working remotely is lonely
  • Work on Weekends, Late at Night
  • Financial Security / Taxes

So many of you are probably looking at this list and thinking, “Those cons aren’t that bad and it’s still worth it.”  While I definitely agree, I can tell you that after being an entrepreneur for over 4 years – there are definitely times where you struggle, can’t sleep, and are incredibly stressed.  Work can feel inescapable.  Personally, there are times that I feel completely detached and isolated because 90% of my interactions at work are through email, twitter or online in some other way.  This feeling of isolation is probably the biggest contributor to my stress level and self-doubt.

Isolation

So where does this feeling of loneliness come from?  I think it stems from a lack of human interaction.  Like so many internet entrepreneurs and indie games developers, I spend eight hours or more every day in front of a computer.  I work in different places, but my work is almost entirely in front of a computer.  The very nature of my work and indie game development is somewhat solitary and lonely.  While I’m communicating with customers and game developers every day, technology makes these interactions bland and impersonal.  Like so many people that read Gamasutra, I love gadgets, the internet and my smartphone.   These technological marvels have certainly made doing business easier and faster, but sometimes I question if these devices are really enhancing my life.  

Virtual Interactions are not equal to Human Interactions

I have come to the conclusion that virtual interactions are not equal to human ones.  I think all of us would agree that meeting up with a friend for dinner or a beer is worth a thousand tweets, facebook friends, and emails.  These technological tools are great for staying in touch but nothing beats a face to face human interaction or phone call.  Obviously, video-conferencing and other technology can facilitate this type of interaction, but the vast majority of my virtual interactions are tweets, emails, forum posts, IRC chat etc.  Obviously this type of communication is important for business, but it doesn’t really help me feel personally connected.  Maybe, I'm just showing my age here.

Work Feels Inescapable

All this technology actually leads to work feeling inescapable.  There’s a constant pressure to tweet, post, blog, email, etc that can be overwhelming.  Our smartphones are constantly updating us on new tweets, emails, RSS feeds, facebook messages and more.  When it’s your business, it’s very hard to ignore your phone and let things wait until the next morning.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my wife that I just had a couple things I needed to do on the computer – and then ended up working an extra hour or two at night or on the weekend – all because some email came in at an off-hour.  I’m so thankful that I am so passionate about my job to work these insane hours, but it’s stressful to realize that work is always intruding into my personal life.  It also creates a fear that if I were to take a week off that everything would fall apart.  I realize that this is completely irrational, but it’s very hard to rationalize your emotions.

Financial Stress / Failure

I think that ultimately all of these pitfalls are a result of something very positive.  I love video games and what I do – and I want to protect that at all costs.  I don’t want to go back to a 9-5 job, but realize that if I’m not successful – it’s a reality that I may have to face.  This fear of failure and the financial pressure to provide for myself, my wife and my future family is a fact of life.  Even though it is stressful to dwell on, I believe it and my passion for games are the driving forces of my work ethic and success.  People always say that the most important quality of an Entrepreneur is someone who gets things done.  This extends to game development too – to be a game developer, you have to make games and finish them.  You’ll struggle along the way and there are many who will never finish their game, but that’s ok because in the end nothing worth achieving is easy.

I’ve wasted a good portion of this post warning everyone about becoming independent entrepreneurs and the stress, solitude, and pitfalls that come along with it.  I thought it would be helpful to share with you how I have learned to deal and persevere through these issues.  Over the past 4 years of being an entrepreneur, here are some of the things that I have done to feel more connected and less stressed:

Stay Active / Healthy

Sitting in front of a computer for 8 or more hours a day is not healthy.  This past year, I’ve started working at an adjustable desk that converts to a standing desk.  I also make sure to walk my dog at least a mile every day and I regularly work out.  I’ve found hot Yoga to be an incredible stress reliever, but I also lift at my local YMCA and play pickup Basketball every Monday night.

Get involved in your Community

Attend GDC, it is great. But be sure to follow-up and stay involved with your local IGDA chapter or other local gaming activities when you go home.  I’m lucky enough to live close to Philadelphia which has an active IGDA chapter and a few indie studios that regularly host dev nights and other events (Thank you Cipher Prime).  Be mindful that your community can extend beyond games and your business.  I work at my local church as a Senior High Youth leader and regularly chaperone mission trips.  This is an incredibly rewarding activity that keeps me busy on Sunday nights and takes me out of the game industry every week.

Collaborate – Don’t work alone!

I’ve collaborated online before, and it’s still necessary sometimes, but I can tell you that collaborating with someone in person is much more rewarding.  If you have someone in the area that you can work with and partner up with, you should do it – and you should get together at least once a month to touch base and discuss things in person.  Even if you don’t want or need a business partner, you should look into co-op working spaces just so that you can get out of your house and exchange ideas about your game and business.  It’s helpful to keep work and home separate by getting an office or even walking to your local coffee shop.

Disconnect from Work

The reality is that being indie means that you are going to have weeks where you work insane hours and then times where you take it a little easier.  That kind of flexibility is great, but you should still do your best to define a work schedule and create boundaries so that business stresses don’t intrude on your personal life.  I do my best to only work from 8am – 6pm.  I’m not great at sticking to that schedule, but it’s good to have a sense that you’re putting in extra time – so you don’t feel guilty if you take an hour lunch or head off to Yoga in the middle of the day.  The biggest rule for me that has greatly helped me is that I turn my phone off between 9-10pm. That means that by 10pm, every email waits until the next morning.  This has made a huge impact for me when it comes to spending quality time with my wife without the distraction of work.  It’s also great to avoid an email or communication that could set you off 10 minutes before you’re going to bed – leading you to a restless night.

Obviously, these are just a few suggestions of how to reduce your stress level and avoid feeling lonely.  They’ve helped me, but everyone is different and there’s no way to completely eliminate some of the pressure and stress that you feel as an entrepreneur or indie game developer.

This past summer I read an awesome post by Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz venture capital entitled The Struggle.  I’d like to close out with this quote since it really spoke to me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my experiences: 

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.

The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

Most people are not strong enough.

 

If anyone would like to reach me directly, you can tweet me @mgnade or email me at mike at indiegamestand.com.  Good luck and keep makng awesome games and pursuing your dreams.  It's not easy, but in the end I think it's worth it.


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Comments


Greg Wondra
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Stay strong and carry on!

Michael Joseph
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have you ever worked with someone you thought could be stronger? Did you help them be stronger? Or is this just like typical non-committal sports team chanting?

David Serrano
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@Michael Joseph

In my experience it's very difficulty to help co-workers address, let alone improve on a weakness if you haven't worked with them for many years and or, you are in a supervisory position.

Rakib Solewalker
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It was a nice post at least for me, because I am in similar situation where I just got out of college and found myself in 9-5 job. Also thinking about starting my own personal project but could not start. Mainly online interactions (email, social networks etc) are killing my time and tiredness from my job.

So, it's a very frustrating situation. But I should probably take it easy and rather enjoy than stressing out.

Doctor Ludos
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Very nice post!

It's always reassuring to see that we are not alone to face similar problems.
Personally, I've been a freelancer and faced similar issues, feeling lonely and always stressed about "getting a new projet to keep paying the rent". After 2 years and half, I decided it was time to do something, so I picked a "regular" 9-5 job, and went back to creating games during my free time.

Sure, I now have less time to do games, but I enjoy it better now most of the negative stress is out: paying the rent is no longer related to my games selling or me getting a new work-for-hire contract.

I guess everybody is different, and you have to test things by yourself to see which kind of life style suit you the most.

Chris Bell
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Using that iconic image of Jon to communicate "The stressed out loner" was poor choice.

Christian Nutt
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I can see how it could easily imply negative things in that context, particularly in how it was used on the front page of the site. It wasn't carefully chosen for that context/message. Changing it.

Michael Gnade
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Chris -

I included that picture for isolation, but definitely didn't pick it as the lead image or whatever for the site. That may have been in bad taste - but it's also what came up in my google image search when I searched on alone/isolated indie game developer

James Yee
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*Chuckles*

I just want a "Stress level chart" just to see where I'd be. :)

David Boudreau
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Never eat alone!

Kridian 1
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Eh?

Jacek Wesolowski
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Good luck, Michael. You deserve it.

I think it's worth stressing that this isn't just about "strength", or coping with stress. You need strength (that is: ablity to overcome struggle) when you're trying to do something that you're not fit to do. It only feels like you're being strong (either physically, mentally or emotionally) when you're forced to put effort into it, and you're only forced to put noticeable effort when you're exceeding your limits. The problem with this is that no matter how strong you are, if you're working beyond your limits, then you are going to run out of energy eventually. This is most obvious with physical fatigue, but willpower is a limited resource, too. Indefinite struggle is never sustainable.

So the point is, you can effectively work much harder if you also work smart. You can boost your output if you do things in ways that don't burn your willpower as quickly. The article names a few good ways (get to see people, stay active, learn to disconnect from work), but there are many more. In most cases, you're going to have to find something just for you. Most importantly, you should never beat yourself up because you've started your own business and it feels like everything is falling apart. You are not being weak. You just don't know how to do it effortlessly yet. In other words, what you need is a new skill and not a guilt trip.

Here's a personal story that illustrates this point. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, my career alternates between full time employment and freelancing. I've quit jobs so many times that I don't even care anymore (financial resistance to lay-offs is also a skill, by the way). Yes, that's right - I've had so much practice with it that I no longer experience that stress bump. I've stood up to bad bosses in public, I've quit jobs on principle, and I've openly fought established bad practices. In other words, I've done many things that many people consider insanely difficult. That would make me strong, right? Yet, for years, whenever I was without a job again and I tried to do something on my own, I couldn't make much progress, because working for myself rather than for someone else was driving me nuts. I was apparently very strong in one context, and very weak in another. Then, to put it bluntly, I went to a shrink. I've learned new skills and the effort involved in working on my own stuff has decreased by orders of magnitude (it's always going to be a bit stressful, but now I can cope).

This is not to say that everyone should go see a shrink. I went to a shrink because I needed one, and most people don't. A friend of mine, who is a freelancer from outside the industry, had a different idea: once per week, she invites a few of her friends for a dinner. She never actually cooks - that's the guests' job. Another friend of mine has taken up a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with her freelance career. It's a time-sensitive hobby that forces her to get her mind off her work from time to time. Everybody needs something different. It helps to be a bit introspective so that you can define your personal needs.

Don't be too hasty, either. Some feel the pressure to start their own business right after college, but I don't think it's a good idea for most people. At this age, you already have a nicely developed skill or two, but those are not necessarily the skills you need to become a freelancer or an entrepreneur. Rounding out your skillset takes time, and working in a team is actually a great way to achieve that, because you can watch other people use their skills (especially the "soft" ones, like not getting on each other's nerves). Don't get caught up in the startup mentality - it's not as beneficial as people who milk startups make it sound.

You need to balance this against the fact that you're never going to be younger than right now. You're going to keep learning until you die, but you probably want to start your project a bit sooner. You do have some willpower quota that you can use to your advantage. Indefinite struggle is not sustainable, but short term struggle can bear immense benefits. Keep in mind that you're better off replicating struggle than scaling it up (in other words: many tiny struggles good, one huge struggle bad). You need to keep doing things that you're not quite ready for just yet. Just don't forget to give yourself a vacation, too.

Rachel Presser
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We used IndieGameStand and were very happy with it. :) Kudos to your success.

I totally relate to all of this. The other thing I'd like to add is that when making the transition from 9-5 to becoming an indie developer and dealing with stress and changes?

Get prepared to jettison some people from your life. The ones who think that just because you're not chained to a desk with a fire-breathing boss that you don't work, and/or no longer try to get together with you're writing code, storyboards, pushing pixels, or managing the business while they're out at bars. Combined with that crappiness EVERYONE deals with in their late twenties, this one was the hardest for me because following my dream of going into computer games really ended up showing me who my true friends were. The ones who said things like "Pitching to publishers? get a real job!", I no longer speak to. Then people also just started blowing me off because I couldn't go out every single weekend. It...was remarkable how much happier and less stressed I felt after cutting off the fairweather people in my life.

It's better to have just a very small amount of close friends who believe in you and can offer you moral support than a couple people who are just brushing off your very real concerns about your financial viability and the reception your game receives. Just like with romantic partners-- don't settle just for the sake of not being alone. It's going to cause you more anguish than the road.

(And FTR, after years of various office jobs, I will attest that most people who throw around the phrase "real job" would run to a bar crying if they had to deal with what small business owners like us deal with.)

If there was anything I would've done different, it would've been to have tried to save more money first. The circumstances I was in prevented that (grad school, poor job market when I was done with my degree) but I thanked the stars I didn't have debt at least. I did have to take part-time work eventually, but it's an arrangement that worked out well because it still allows me time to do what I need to do, they pay me well, and most importantly treat me like a human being.

I'd advise a similar situation as a middle of the road solution if one is neither financially nor emotionally ready to go their own way from the 9-5 world.

Michael Gnade
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Really great advice in here - especially about saving more money. I would also advise sitting down and breaking down all your monthly bills so you can find out the minimum amount of money that you can live off of a month.

Michael Gnade
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I've gotten a few personal emails (Thanks so much guys!) and felt like I was passing along some good advice about becoming an Entrepreneur so here's some tips:

1.Figure out the minimum monthly $ figure that you can live off of - pay your bills, eat, etc.
2. Save up at least 4-6 months of cash that you can use to start-up your business, pay yourself, live off of etc.
Start working on your idea, game or whatever ASAP so you can get your business to revenue generating state quickly after you quit
3. Recurring revenue model businesses are great

Jacek Wesolowski
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You can also increase your chances if you keep your spending in check. It's a long-term challenge. If you want that bill footprint to be smaller when it matters, you can help yourself by starting to build good habits right now.

There are several kinds of expenses:

1. Emergencies. Your cat got sick and he needs treatment NOW. Or, you broke a leg. Or, your grandmother is dying two thousand miles from where you live and you need to see her for the last time. You can't predict emergencies, and you simply have to cover them when they occur. Always have an emergency fund. Never spend it on anything else from this list, unless something becomes an emergency in its own right.

2. Legal obligations. Rent, bills, insurance, loan payments, speeding fines. You can't get rid of them in an instant - sometimes at all - so you need to think about them in advance. For example, when looking for an apartment, you can rent what you can afford right now, or you can rent something "just good enough" and perhaps a bit cheaper so that your bills aren't as big later on.

3. Time vs. money tradeoffs. Two big examples are food and daily commute. Both depend on where you live to a large extent (for instance, large European cities tend to have good mass transit infrastructure, whereas I imagine owning a car is a must in North Dakota). Generally speaking, cooking on your own and commuting by bus/tram/subway/train takes more time, but can be vastly cheaper. It's a good option when you have plenty of time and less than plenty of money. But you won't learn to cook overnight, so better start today.

4. Investments. Attending GDC is an investment. It's worhtwile but also expensive and you need to make that money back somehow. You will be tempted to redefine expenses from other categories as investments, but you would just be fooling yourself. When investing, try and perform a risk-gain analysis: how much does it cost? how much do you expect to make back? how, exactly, are you going to do that? how long is it going to take? will it prevent you from taking other opportunities? will you gain something other than money?

5. Luxuries and habits. Things you spend on so that they make you feel better or keep you from feeling worse. Chocolate, cinema tickets, holiday trips, parties, games, cats. They are your entertainment and your pressure valve, and you need them in order to stay healthy. Keep in mind you can't simply replace something you enjoy with something you can afford. That would either make you miserable, or a miser. What you can do is keep broad interests and keep trying new things, so that, when your funds do get tight, you can make a choice rather than a sacrifice.

6. Peer pressure expenses and status symbols. We all live in a personal hell of how we think others perceive us. You know you're falling prey to perceived peer pressure when you're buying a latest MacBook Pro rather than a Windows laptop from a lesser brand because the former is cooler and makes you more "creative" (if only a piece of hardware could do that!). To make things worse - your friends probably don't care about your laptop anyway, so next time something new and shiny comes up, you will feel that pressure again. As a general rule, avoid status symbols like a plague, unless they are investments (e.g. you do need a MacBook Pro if that's your target platform - remember risk and gain!).

7. Whims. Call of Duty multiplayer all-nighters. Getting drunk. Shopping sprees. Steam holiday sales. Whims are good... for celebrating. If you have something to celebrate, then go ahead, you've earned it.

Paul Lenoue
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For stressed-out indie developers I'd suggest finding a local game store, if possible, and see if they have open game nights. If so, you show up for a couple hours once a week, play a variety of games and interact with people who enjoy games. Not only do you have fun and get away from what's causing you stress, but you get exposure to new game systems, rules and observe how people play games.

Jonathan Murphy
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From someone who has been in since 2002. Eat healthy, exercise, and avoid crunch time. It ruined my heath. I was lucky till 2010.

James Blake
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Has anyone here made the jump from the stressed out loner to the stressed out boss? I've been lucky enough to have had enough success with my project that I could afford to hire people to help out, but I have avoided it mostly because I don't want to/know how how to be a boss and I don't have the time to find/train/integrate people into my current workflow. I fear that it could be short sighted to growth, but it's also nice to be the only person I have to worry about.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Becoming a boss involves a shift of responsibility. You are no longer a person who does things. Instead (or, much more likely, on top of it), you become a person who makes sure that others can do these things (I'm avoiding the word "work" here, because a boss also does work, only it's quite different). You can be a good boss under the condition that you can devote time to making sure that others have all the necessary information, tools, know-how, culture awareness etc. If you don't have time for that, then you need to find it, typically by getting less done by yourself (many people work longer hours instead, but that's a very slippery slope).

I've never actually employed anyone, but I went from "someone who's never been anyone's boss" to "head of a team of nine" last year. There was definitely an initial period when the team was getting less done than when I was doing the same job all by myself. It took about two months for the training and getting to know each other to begin to bear fruits. You probably need to take some kind of grace period into account when doing your math for whether or not you can actually afford to hire anyone.

As an occasional freelancer, I think I wouldn't mind if you told me "I can pay you this much, but I can only afford to keep you hired for this many months, and then everything depends on how well our game does". Perhaps I wouldn't take the job due to the risk involved, but I wouldn't be angry with you for making that offer.

Anand Srinivasan
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As someone who has been working from home for the past half-year, one way to beat this loneliness/stress is by treating your work as a day job - something you will work from 9 to 5 only. What this also means is that you do not take advantage of not having to report to a boss. I have my wife ask me to finish the bank work or stuff like that during the day because I don't have a work hour. But I refuse to get them done during my work hours because it ruins the discipline - get off the computer at 6 come what may and do not work on anything else during the day. It means you do not work at nights and do not have miss meeting friends.

Anand
http://entrepreneurshipdaily.com/


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