Five years ago, in 2018, my game company went bankrupt. Or, more precisely, the company I co-founded started a lengthy bankruptcy process that spanned several months. We had over five years of operations and two published games behind us; in our heyday, we had nine employees and a small but comfortable office at Katajanokka, Helsinki. While it’s tempting to attribute our bankruptcy solely to a lack of funds or inability to secure additional funding, bankruptcy stories are always more complicated than that.
The bankruptcy was a great teacher. Those learnings became one of the keystones of my career when I started supporting new game companies at Metropolia, first with three test runs of game incubation with the BGI project, then by building a peer support and mentoring network and an incubation program for game entrepreneurs, the LGIN (Living Game Intelligence Network).
Here are my main lessons, which I’ll dive deeper into shortly:
- Be clear on the Why — know yourself, understand your deepest motivations, and be open about them.
- Take your time with the co-founders — find people you can trust, and take the time to build trust with them.
- Build a culture that welcomes dissent — make sure you hear the diverse viewpoints of your team.
- Plan space for failure — most projects will fail, and your strategy should be designed with that in mind.
- Make sure you learn your lessons — every failure is a lesson you paid for, and taking the time to analyse them is essential.
- Find your tribe — connect with peers and mentors outside of your company; often they see your errors more clearly than you do.
I have no regrets about setting up the company — it was a one-of-a-kind learning journey. However, I do regret some of the choices I made during that journey. By now, those regrets have turned into learnings that guide me forward, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. I wish to share my learnings, and potentially help someone else avoid making the same mistakes.
1. Be clear on the Why
Formulating the company vision can sometimes feel like just another checkbox to cross or only a marketing tool. However, if you peek behind the vision statement on the website, you will see the founders, each with their unique drivers, purposes, and motivations — whether they are aware of them or not. This is what I call their “why”. The “why” is about their definition of success beyond just money, and how they want the company to change their life and the world around them.
When we set up our company in 2012, I had not yet done the serious soul-searching required to understand my own “why”. When I did not understand it, I couldn’t make sure the other founder was aligned with what I wanted and needed. There was some mismatch, which I only understood much later. It’s not that the founders’ “whys” have to be exactly the same, but today, I would not set up a company with anyone my “why” conflicts with. I definitely wouldn’t try to convince anyone with a conflicting “why” to change their mind about it. Not everyone is meant to be my co-founder, even if they have the exact skill set I’m looking for, and that’s alright.
The one course I teach, Turbiini: Introduction to Game Business, starts with “why”, quite literally. The first day of lectures invites all the students to explore their deepest motivations and drivers. I also ask them to think about what kind of companies would fit their “why” — not just one option, but several.
Most every startup will pivot — i.e., make significant changes to the core of the business idea — at least once or twice. The vision and mission might change completely. If the company is clear on the “why”, it has a good foundation for planning a pivot that keeps things engaging and motivating for the founders. The company can change direction without losing its way.
2. Take your time with the co-founders
I founded my company with a university friend. We had some personal chemistry and occasionally were quite open and honest with each other. Still, we never took the time to purposely build healthy communication patterns, and our relationship became somewhat imbalanced — and during rough times, it started to fall apart. If I were to embark on the journey of founding a company today, I would take my time to find co-founders I can build trust with, and yet more to build it. I would talk about my hopes and fears honestly and openly, deep and wide, and if despite all my efforts I couldn’t get to where I want to be with communication, I would not hesitate to move on and find other co-founders.
Running a startup is hard. Having some trusted people to share it with makes the journey easier. Finding the right people, building trust, and establishing healthy communication can be frustratingly slow. Still, it is crucial to ensure that the founders can also discuss painful, vulnerable topics openly. There will be times when they have to, and it’s even harder if the first time is during a crisis.
3. Build a culture that welcomes dissent
We failed to build a company culture to support open, honest, respectful disagreement and discussion. Or, rather, we didn’t even try. I’m sure we knew we should, but we never prioritized it. The lack of a culture that encourages dissent led to people, me included, not voicing some serious doubts we had. And people not voicing their doubts is a waste of their unique, diverse points of view. Not hearing those voices hurt us. Today, I would place a dissent-welcoming company culture among the top 3 priorities and keep iterating on it all through the company lifecycle. The support structures of LGIN are designed to help fresh founders encounter different points of view and dissenting voices early on.
Surrounding yourself with people who stroke your ego can be tempting, especially in the constant turbulence and uncertainty of startup life. Working with people who are quick to fall in love with your ideas and support them no matter what can help you hold on to your motivation. In contrast, people who don’t hesitate to disagree with you and voice their doubts can seem like they’re trying to undermine your confidence. However, looking at ideas from different angles does not undermine them, but validates and strengthens them. Unless, of course, it doesn’t — in which case you’re better off moving on from that idea before pouring too many resources into it anyway.
4. Plan space for failure
Failure will happen. We published two games, and both failed; this is normal, even to be expected. Games are very hit-driven, and it’s rare the first, let alone every game is a hit. The income from a few games will have to pay for the development of many more. Our mistake was not planning for this. We should have bootstrapped for longer. We should have researched the market more carefully and tested ideas earlier. We should have tried and killed more projects. Maybe we could have built alternative income streams.
We did not. And as a result, we took risks that were too big for us. A decade ago, the funding landscape was slightly different than now, and we secured some funding before gaining traction, which usually isn’t possible anymore. But once we had funding, we also started to stack up expenses, which were hard to give up when things got rough. We took loans, some of which I had to guarantee personally, to bolster other funding efforts. Paying them back after the company went bankrupt was rough. We should have found ways to validate the business while bootstrapping, and only then raised funds.
Offering a safe space for experiments and failures is a large part of what incubation programs do. The support we offer at LGIN helps founders avoid risks that are too big for them by encouraging them to try out smaller things faster and learn step by step.
5. Make sure you learn your lessons
In our company, we threw away too many lessons. Instead of admitting and analyzing the mistakes we made and using them as bricks for a strong foundation, we started working on something new without missing a beat. Because of this, some fundamentally broken hidden assumptions never got properly questioned, which harmed us severely.
Failures can be great teachers. Falling into the trap of ”I have no regrets” can effectively stop you from learning from the things that went wrong. Taking the time to mourn, regret, and learn what exactly you are or should be regretting is a valuable asset for the future. Talking about them with others can take you even further. Do not throw away the lessons you paid for.
6. Find your tribe
I’ve loved the game industry communities ever since I joined them. I have found a lot of belonging, acceptance, and openness around me. However, when it came to openly discussing our challenges with other companies’ founders, I wasn’t brave enough to face the harsh realities they likely would have pointed out. I’m sure that would have hurt. It also could have saved us from a lot of further trouble, debt, and more serious pain.
Founders need community, peer support, and diverse viewpoints. No one can tell you exactly how to build a successful (game) company since the path is slightly different for everyone, but many people you encounter have bits and pieces of your puzzle. Talk with everyone to make sure you find them.
Turning my expensive regrets into impact
What was I left with after all this hardship, then? Already during the bankruptcy process, I pivoted my career into support for game companies. LGIN is built to help fresh entrepreneurs find their tribe and build on a strong foundation from the get-go. We, the teams and mentors of LGIN, are a community that gives founders time and space to fail and learn. We provide them with many alternate viewpoints and shared lessons, and do our best to welcome and provide respectful disagreement. Thanks to LGIN, my startup failure has already been a piece of the success puzzle for many others and will continue to be so.
The path of turning my regrets into personal growth has been longer and more winding. Dealing with all the emotions that come with bankruptcy — sorrow, anger, guilt, shame, and so on — is not an easy task. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is most definitely not true; it is not the pain, but the healing of that pain that has the potential to make you stronger. It takes time, effort, huge amounts of energy, and support from your tribe to get there. I have been privileged enough to gather all of those during the past five years, and it has made me a better person. I was able to learn the lessons I paid for, thanks to the time I had to be introspective and my supportive tribe.
Suvi Kiviniemi works as a Specialist in Metropolia’s RDI team. Their main responsibility is running LGIN (Living Game Intelligence Network), the peer support and mentoring network and incubation program for game entrepreneurship, as a part of Turbiini’s campus incubation services. Suvi is a firm believer in the power of genuine, open communities, peer learning, and mentorship. They’ve been deeply embedded in the game industry since 2013, love working in international environments, and have an entrepreneurial background.