Thursday, October 10, 2013 by Frogboy | Discussion: Stardockians
It can be quite a challenge to work at the same place for 20 years. I think that’s doubly true if you’ve never worked anywhere else.
That said, looking back, I haven’t really worked at the same place for 20 years. I’ve actually worked at 5 places, all called Stardock and all very different.
“This really seems exciting!” –College Student Brad Wardell, 1993
This was back when it was just me. The year was 1993. The closest thing I had to “employees” were friends and family who worked on contract on a specific thing. This Stardock was run out of my dorm room at Western Michigan University (Smith Burnham!).
“Holy cow this is fun! I can format a floppy while downloading on Z-modem and I get paid for it!” –Entrepreneur, Brad Wardell, 1996
This began the day I rented an office in 1995. It was the front office of a tank plant in Canton Michigan. So in the back, they were making tanks and we rented the front office. It was here that we really got our start. The first two people “hired” were Angie Marshall and Pat Ford. They’re both still here!
Galactic Civilizations 2 for OS/2, Object Desktop for OS/2 came out during this time along with a bunch of really high quality OS/2 products. Our days were making cool software and our nights were spent playing Magic the Gathering or Duke Nukem 3D on our company LAN. It was a very fun time while it lasted.
“I can make Windows look like a Mac! And our office has air conditioning and the toilets work!” –Brad Wardell, CEO, 2001.
The OS/2 market collapsed abruptly in 1997. I had to lay off nearly everyone I had hired since 1996. It was horrible. I lost some good friends as a result (lesson #1: Don’t hire your friends. Lesson #2: If you disobeyed lesson 1, don’t lay them off!). I put everything I owned up as collateral to secure loans to pay the people we had left so that we could make the transition from OS/2 to Windows.
By 2000, we had made the transition. Barely.
This Stardock wasn’t quite as fun as the old Stardock. But I began making a lot of friends over the INTERNET. This was the age where WindowBlinds, Object Desktop, IconPackager, DesktopX, Control Center, DeskScapes, WindowFX, ObjectDock, ObjectBar, Keyboard LaunchPad, RightClick, Multiplcity, CursorFX, etc. reigned supreme. We kept a finger in the game market by taking a contract to make a Starcraft expansion for Blizzard called “Starcraft: Retribution”.
As time went on, things got better. We were on a roll. We reached a real high point with Galactic Civilizations II for Windows and new software was being released on a regular schedule to glowing reviews and strong sales. were ready to expand in a big BIG way…
“This company is bullshit. I hate it here. I’m printing my resume on that fancy paper as I type this!” – Disgruntled employee, Brad Wardell, 2010
The expansion we made nearly ruined my life and the company. I had no idea how to manage a company with this many people in it and it showed. About the only good thing that came out of this time period was Sins of a Solar Empire and the fun I had working with Brian Clair and the Irconclad team.
I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the friendships I made with people like Blair and Craig Fraser at Ironclad and Chris Taylor and others that I would have rage quitted before making it through all this. It was such a horrible period that even today I cringe when looking back.
So where did it all go bad? One word: IMPULSE.
Impulse was incredibly successful – financially. But it nearly ruined our company culture. So much money going through so few peoples hands had a highly toxic effect. Combine that with an engineer turned CEO whose understanding of non-engineer motivations bordered on non-existent and you have a catastrophe.
Product plans were made based on what would maximize the short-term bonus/compensation/commission of those drawing up said plans. I was too incompetent at business administration to recognize what was being done until it was far too late. While the people actually doing the long hours got only token bonuses, others gamed the system to enrich themselves. It was a bad time and I was oblivious to how political and toxic things were getting.
What I did know was that I hated going to work. I was miserable. Every time I (or others like me here) wanted to set up a project based on making something good we got the uneasy sense from our opponents (though I had no idea they were our opponents at the time) that we were somehow robbing them of bonuses/commissions. Little care was put into what was good for the company long-term.
This is the period that delivered such wonders as MyColors (which nearly ruined Stardock’s desktop enhancement business), Elemental, Demigod, and wastes of time like NBA desktop themes.
But nothing could compare to Impulse. In order to make it successful, you had to bring in sales people, relationship managers, enterprise managers, etc. And if quality suffered and I (or others like me) spoke of the need of quality I got (to quote) “Incentives drive behavior. You need to make my compensation package such that I am incented to care about quality.” As an engineer, such attitudes were horrifying. Technologically, Impulse was amazing. It was far ahead of its curve. The talent pool Stardock had at the time was still amazing. Our problem was cultural.
The launch of War of Magic was the low-point and the moment of truth. That game was a canary in the coal mine. It was a symptom of everything that was rotten at the company at the time. After taking a few days off, I realized that the source of the rot was Impulse or more specifically, the toxic culture that had evolved around it. [I want to emphasize that the Impulse engineering team was excellent and not part of the problem]. Impulse had to go.
By the end of 2011, virtually every person we had hired during the start of this era was gone. It was a new day. A new company. Or more specifically, it was the previous company having undergone a massive Ctrl-Z.
“I am truly excited about working with such world class-talent,” said Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock Corp. “I am very proud of what we are accomplishing.” (2013)
I basically took a year off to recuperate. But before I could do that, I needed to build a world class management team who could run the company in my absence. I was now very aware of my managerial strengths and short-comings. From this, we got an amazing new leadership team here who in turn brought on board other talented people that has resulted in a renaissance.
Within a year of the new team being brought on, the games unit quadrupled its revenue and the software team more than tripled their’s. At the same time, a host of new programs were conceived and executed on – all in 1 year!
To put things in perspective, in the Stardock Sucks era (mid 2006 to early 2011), the company only released 1 truly new desktop enhancement (Fences) on the software side and the studio produced ONE game: Elemental: War of Magic, which sucked. Think about that. FIVE YEARS and the game studio only eeked out one new game and it was a mess while the software side only got one truly new desktop enhancement out.
By contrast, in the past year or so the software unit has conceived and/or developed: Start8, ModernMix, Decor8, Tiles, a new Multiplicity, Fences 2, ObjectDock 2 and has 2 more all-new programs scheduled for release this year. Simultaneously, the game studio made Fallen Enchantress, Fallen Enchantress –Legendary Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (coded in partnership with Ironclad) and Dead Man’s Draw. And every single one of these titles is excellent.
And not only is the management team focused on quality and long-term viability, they’ve created compensation packages that award everyone fairly and put into place morale lifting programs like on-sight personal trainers, on-sight chefs/nutritionists, health screening days, an extra week per year of vacation (so yea, the team gets more done while working fewer hours and gets paid better).
I’d be hard pressed to even name anyone who has voluntarily left the company during this period (other than maternity leave). If you work in the technology industry you can probably attest that this is a significant achievement on its own.
It’s good to be having a good time again at this new company!
So there you have it. The 5 Stardocks I’ve worked at!