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Learn more about Ballers on a Budget.

I just don’t get it.

The Inc. 500|5000 has always been a source of curiosity to me. I love the idea of an independent, merit-based recognition for businesses. Inc’s brand represented quality of thought and diversity of skillsets, which placed in me a growing desire to build a business that was worthy of this award.

For the first time ever I looked into the Inc. 500|5000 today. Here’s what I saw:

Does my company have to be profitable to be eligible?
No. The Inc. 500|5000 is determined solely by revenue growth; profitability is not a consideration.

What the fuck?

This isn’t merit based at all. It all floats back to how much capital you have. Blow $10M on a start-up in year three and spiking that revenue growth chart would be cake. Get a bit more press, to get a bit more funding. Or start out well off and aim for wealthy.

Why? Who buys ads in Inc? Who funds their events? Companies with high capital of course.

Profit doesn’t matter to achieve Inc. 500|5000 acceptance, but it sure does for their parent company Mansueto Ventures. Joe Mansueto, a self-made billionaire, said to Chicago Magazine in 2006:

And you know, as a sixth grader to make $200 in a month, I was in heaven. I thought, Gee, this is easy. How you can buy something and sell it for more-I was just kind of amazed how that works.

And:

For Mansueto, picking up Fast Company and Inc. for less than 10 percent of what Gruner & Jahr paid for them in 2000 isn’t much different from buying a ham radio receiver that’s on sale for a third of what it’s worth. Only this time, he didn’t have to borrow money from a friend’s dad to seal the deal.

My point is that Joe Mansueto aims for profit. The fact that he was able to build an empire from these small decisions, backed by less than $250k in bonds, is remarkable. But the skill of these talented actions are removed when you increase this initial capital to $1M, $10M, or $100M. More money equals more time to breathe, more failure, and more opportunity.

I want a true merit based award. One that recognizes starting with nothing, means something. And one that doesn’t blindly congratulate revenue, while ignoring profit.

Markus Persson (aka. Notch) on earning $101 million in 2012.

It’s weird as fuck. I grew up in a relatively poor family, but once I got a decent job, I never really had to worry about money. My hobbies were playing games and programming, so there wasn’t any real drain. I could eat out when I wanted to, and go to the movies without having to save up for it. I still had to save up for trips and to be able to buy computers or consoles, but that just felt normal.

Now, all of the sudden, as a result of how modern society works, I managed to somehow earn a shit-ton of money. I still like playing games and programming, and once I had the latest computer and consoles, there really isn’t much more to spend the money on than traveling. I might eventually get a driver’s license so I can buy a car.

And…

Well, on one hand I don’t mind having loads of money at all. On the other, it’s a bit strange that I can create something once and keep getting paid over and over and over for it. If you build a car, you can only sell it once. If you paint a fence, you only get paid for it once. If you create a piece of software that’s essentially free to reproduce, you can keep getting paid over and over perpetually.

My personal favorite.

I’d say the most outrageous things I do are the silly parties I throw every now and then. The next one is at GDC in a couple of months.

I think I’m too old to buy a giraffe. I wouldn’t know how to take care of it. Do they poop a lot? What do they eat? Will it get lonely?

Via Reddit

In 2012 I was banned from Hacker News. My last comment was “I like you.”

In 2012 I got a cease and desist letter from a large company. I received this because I made a non-ironic post on Cubicle Ninjas that said “We love [company name here].”

In 2009 I was banned from Kotaku. They asked why their article comments were so juvenile, and I commented that maybe the Hentai news stories might have something to do with it. Ban-hammer.

In 2007 I was banned from Digg. I was a power user, with 10% of my links making the frontpage. When two of my questions were selected by the community (out of thousands) to be asked to Hilary Clinton, they decided not to read them and deleted the questions. When I called it out, I was banned.

In 2006 I went to a comic show in Ohio. I would give out these big cartoon masks I’d made with big popsicle sticks on the end. Eventually those shows would be filled with people walking around as my characters. I never cared if I sold a book, though I usually sold out. At the end of this show a few of my masks were defaced and hung on the wall. Even when trying to make people smile I had offended.

In 2003 I interned with a cartoonist. I did about 5 hours of coloring per night (in addition to my day job) for about 2 years.  Soon the books were up for a Harvey award for coloring, but under somebody else’s name. As time passed reprints came, and with each version my name creeped away. The version that exists today has no record of my participation.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - - - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - - - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

I was really hurt by each of the above at the time, but in retrospect I’m very happy they happened. You see, I’ve been banned from most things in my life. Told I shouldn’t or couldn’t by people who were in positions of power.

As I’ve gotten older I can see how terribly sad these people’s lives must be.

Imagine a world where you can only feel power if you create misery for others; remove a comment, ban a user, deface a mask, or delete a line of text. How little control over things must you have? How much agency must you lack to take joy in such meek punishments? Do my ideas scare you that much?

Right in the feels.

Sidenote: I’ve used ENTP products for years and I have only positive things to say. Lighthouse destroys Basecamp in my opinion. Cubicle Ninjas clients literally convinced us to use Lighthouse again, because they missed it. Wow!

Bruce Nussbaum has a rambling easy about the “cult of failure” on his Creative Intelligence blog. Its worth a read, but not in the way I believe Bruce intended.

At the HarvardXDesign conference — a great event for the B-School— I was on a panel that did a crit on two teams from across Harvard that were the best of 9 teams competing in the challenge of How Would You Redesign Education in America.

Awesome! A really interesting event, with curated & quality arguments, on relevant topic…

The second team presented their idea of doing a log on failure from the time you are in K-12 through your life that could constitute of Portfolio of Failure. The idea, of course, was to allow us to see our failures, plot them, and learn from them.  I could hear the refrain in my ears “Fail early, fail, fast, fail often.” [...] But I’ve never liked this embrace of failure. We learn as much from our successes as from our failure and I suspect we learn much more.

What a cool idea! Having a failure journal is totally unique and remarkably actionable.

Personally, I think people learn equally from success and failures, with the big factor being the specifics of the case in question. What is the risk? What is the benefit? What factors are at play? How much experience does one have in this arena? The value of the lessons learned goes way beyond the proposed binary.

Its also important to note why discussing failure is such a prominent conversation topic in creative and business circles: most people will gladly recount their wins, but it takes guts to be introspective on losses. So, most people do not adequately learn from them. Blogs, books, and conferences consistently repeat this mantra, not out of a cult-like fascination, but because it acts as powerful reminder. For those that ignore losses, they now have 50%+ info to learn from!

Besides, I failed a lot in school. I didn’t test all that well and didn’t get straight As. Failure made me feel awful.

Who in their right mind likes failure when its happening? It hurts. If I could erase high school and replace it with memories of Seinfeld I would (and I kind of did). The point here is that no one leaves failure feeling like the main character of an Ayn Rand novel. Failure is meant to make you feel bad. This painful emotions encourages movement. Bruce went on to do a bunch of amazing things, so the failure must have had its intended effect.

Bruce’s personal opinions are fine, as long as we don’t go extrapolating them…

And I think failure makes kids in urban public schools or on the rez feel just as bad if not much worse. Many are already close to despair in their lives. Failure is deeply meaningful to them. It has serious consequences. Get labelled a “failure” and it can ruin your life.  As a pedagogical methodology, embracing failure  is the last thing these kids need.

The jump here from personal to a larger scale, with zero data, is dangerous. In mere sentences Bruce applies his bad feeling to under-privileged kids, and then labels the feeling itself as life-ending. This is the equivalent of me disliking ice cream, saying that those less fortune than me also probably resent ice cream (due to its lack of economic availability), and propose the ban of that dastardly dessert.

The thing about this fetching of failure is that is can work if you’re at Stanford or Harvard and you were lucky enough to be born into a well-off family and went to a good school and were brought up to be and feel accomplished and secure enough to make failure a feature of your learning.

Wow. So only the affluent can enjoy the luxury of failure? To believe that others can is a viewpoint from a privileged, elitest, and clueless class, which doesn’t live in real society.

I grew up crazy poor. I failed so hard it still hurts. Thank you for speaking up for the common people, my hero!

But be aware of the fallacy of failure. It is celebrated only when you succeed. If you continue to fail, you’re going to be— A Failure. So the fetishism of failure really means you can fail a couple of time—two or three or maybe three times— but no more. How many entrepreneurs are celebrated for their sixth or seventh try?

This is incorrect. Bruce forgets his own profession’s impact on the cultural conversation. Writers frame the story, and readers get bored quick. Stories are shortened, refined. The rule of three comes into play. Bam – success in 600 words.

Bruce recently wrote a book about Creative Intelligence. If he is looking to change things, why didn’t he write about mundane everyday failures instead? Or why didn’t he tackle this topic in smaller chunks when he was at BusinessWeek? Or Fast Company? Or Harvard Business Review? Weird, right? Well, Bruce knows why. These are boring stories. Bruce’s strawman has no weight because he has literally made a living talking about success.

Think of the Children

My wife is a grade school teacher, and the attitude towards protecting kids from failure has risen considerably in the past ten years. When she began grading she used red pens. Now, they’re banned from the building because parents don’t want their children to get upset. So, my wife uses purple pens, places the homework in a folder, and sends to folder home for the parents to review. One parent she had was a very well-respected teacher of teachers. Instead of discussing learning strategies to improve his child’s struggles at a parent-teacher conference, he preferred to lecture her on the particular color of her purple pen, the security of the folders, and the possible inclusion of encouraging stickers.

This view isn’t limited to primary school. I’m on the curriculum team for a local college’s Graphic Design department and have been for ten years. Recently an argument broke out among a dozen partner art schools that I’d never heard before – college age kids are coming in unable to handle criticism. In one story, a graphic design class was undergoing a critic with a faux client. The fake client chose a winning design and the student was praised. The class blew up at this, and demanded to know why there were no second and third place winners. The teacher’s response? “In life, there is only one winner. Everyone else loses.”

How bad could this really be? One of the teachers mentioned during this discussion that she was moving back to her home country because she couldn’t take this anymore. She couldn’t teach kids that felt everyone deserved a prize just for showing up.

I hate the cloying desire to shrink wrap the past in perfection. I don’t believe that the past was perfect, but I also don’t believe we’re doing children a benefit by insulating them from reality. Two to three missteps before we fail? Sounds like Professor Nussbaum is getting his wish.

The Hidden Fetish

Bruce disagrees that failure is a valuable component of learning. Bruce disagrees with the way failure is viewed on a societal scale. Bruce disagrees with the view that failure is an equal opportunity offender across race and income lines. Bruce disagrees with the way the labeling of failure occurs. Bruce then proposes a scenario (that mirrors the HarvardXDesign conference’s) and says that his case is not failure at all, but play.

See the trend? Bruce is fetishizing the contrarian viewpoint.

If you believe something with conviction, it is no doubt wrong. Don’t worry though, Bruce can help you learn!

And he’ll charge $28.99 a pop for his book, or $60,000/year at Parsons. Then you can believe like him that random feelings have an equal weight against data, failure is a disease to be removed from the human experience, and anyone who believes otherwise is an elitest fool.

Via Hacker News

Good ideas that are abandoned have a history of reappearing.

With virtual reality headsets being the next pop technology wave, hacker collectives white knighting in real life, 3D printers, Turing alluding AI, flying drones, and a media that is interchangeable from its corporate interests, clearly more than a few pieces of cyberpunk fiction have bubbled their way into reality. Sure, they have a slightly different coat of paint (less neon, more Mondrian), but the essence remains: I have a slick piece of metal and glass in my pocket that can consult the known history of mankind in milliseconds. Fiction made that possible.

The one they left behind.

The one staple of the future I was promised that never fully materialized is interactive comics. The key ingredients:

  1. Beautiful sequential art
  2. Good writing
  3. Reader interaction

While we have nearly everything else on the list, we don’t have interactive comics. Why?

I’ve been working on an interactive comic for a long time. During this process I now see why no one has ever truly attempted this on a large scale before.

Here are nine reasons why interactive comics aren’t a thing…yet:

  1. Comics Code Authority: Imagine a universe where Rock and Roll was feared by society so much that laws were passed regulating its content. Rock (as we know it) would be dead end. No topics of weight could be covered and if they were they’d have to be veiled morality tales. Since no adult would stick around to listen to this handcuffed art form, the industry eventually caves in and sells directly to children.If you take away an art form’s ability to express all diverse human experiences, then it ceases to be art. CCA destroyed comics future for generations, and reduced a medium into a genre of people in tights.The reason that the cyberpunk writers even mention comics is because they were the last generation that experienced them pre-censorship, before the CCA. They wanted the same wonder for their kids, but added a technological twist. But 1980′s kids didn’t see comics in the same way. While many artists see comics as a fun avenue of expression they also can’t see it as a profitable career. This, alongside the literary restrictions, is a major reason the CCA turned the brightest minds away from the genre. And if you think the Comics Code doesn’t impact comics today, keep in mind that DC was under their restrictions until 2011.
  2. Publishing Model: Publishing in comics is broken. You place your book in a 500 page catalog with thousands of others, each differentiated by a thumbnail and a 60 word description. Then you hope to be found. Publishers with money buy ads to dominate the conversation. Or worse, they snuggle up with writers for reviews, meaning relationships and money are as valid as end product.And yet comic book publishing isn’t broken because too few artists have exposure, the real issue is that the barrier of entry is low enough for everyone to get in. Artists often write, draw, edit, and publish their own works without a single note of outside advice. Then stores order these books on their thumbnail, not on the merit of the work.The reason this works against interactive comics is that trying something new is a risk for stores. When you have to spend money in order to launch something it better work. Even when the big players launch traditional comics they may not pay off. The culture of comics publishing restricts innovation. While many amazing smaller/mid-size publishers continue to innovate and support pioneering comic artists, the battlefield is riddled with the bones of similar firms. Those publishers know they are fighting an uphill battle and it takes only one mistake to close shop.
  3. Reader Expectations: I’m not going to say its all the fault of distributors or publishers; readers have remarkably low expectations. When the most heated discussions are about costumes or character reboots it kind of makes me wonder why any artists continue to try. Had customers demanded something new, it would exist.
  4. Comic Stores: I love comic shops. But I do feel like an abused spouse in spite of everything we’ve been through. Their incentive is to sell enough to keep the doors open. Shelf space is limited, and catering to a risky or niche audience isn’t worth it.
  5. Monthly Schedules: When you have a monthly comic you can’t make the best comic possible. The art must be able to be completed quickly, so longer stories are unrealistic. Interactive comics require length by their very nature. They need multiple paths to layer upon each other to subtly lure the reader into the belief that their experience is the only one. Having a Choose Your Own Adventure comic end after 4 choices would be pretty boring. Sorry Adventure Time.
  6. Motion Comics: In the mid 2000′s comic companies began producing motion comics, and many believed they would fill the gap for more lush interactive experiences. Instead of creating a new genre, they commissioned reaaaaalllllllyyyyyyy boring animations with low production values. This bad experience soured what little adventurous spirit readers had.
  7. Video Games: This is tough to admit, but I often wonder if comics are relevant in a world of video games. Yeah, the graphics are nifty, but its the interactivity available within video games destroys what most interactive fiction is capable of. What can interactive comics uniquely offer that video games cannot?I do believe that there is a place for interactive comics as a successful independent genre of comics. While video games are visceral experiences that reflect reality, comics are rad because they don’t need to parrot real life. They can decouple time from action, visual representation from what we see, zip from place to place in the blink of an eye, and require the reader’s agency in between to fill in the gap each step along the way.Video games have bad stories not because they are written badly. The budgets of video games are enormous, and have multiple expert writers from other industries working on the final scripts. Video games have bad stories because they rarely engender agency from the player. The user experiences everything, but feels nothing. Only in the rarest of cases is agency achieved, and these are gaming’s crown jewels. Yet, agency is comics greatest strength. When comics are combined with the ability to choose I feel the experience here is wonderfully unique. [Note: I'm convincing myself here as much as I'm theorizing.]
  8. Degree of Effort: Comics are fucking hard to make. I can’t imagine a profession bound to drive a person insane, which is perfectly lovely because most comic geniuses were peeking over the edge of the building before they began anyways.But an interactive comic adds in an interesting wrinkle. If you have a character make one choice you have to draw two new pages, but if you have them make two choices you draw four new pages. Seems simple right? It is, except that this keeps spiraling upward as you give more options. There are a ton of controls to fix this. You could duplicate pages and swap text to reduce effort, you could give the appearance of choice but lead to the same conclusion, or you could have a series of choices that ultimately get pulled together with a similar end state. In my upcoming book I do all three, but I’ve resisted the temptation to cheat the reader from a personal experience. I owe the reader a unique path that is custom illustrated. Taking cheap corner cuts to save me time lessons the impact of the experience, one which I hope they’ll realize more intimately on their second or third run when things are nothing like they appear.The final bummer of this is that if you create a 500 page choice book, the odds are a reader will see 1/4 of those options. For a comic, a 125 page book is around an hour read. Hard to have an epic life-changing experience in one of those, eh?
  9. The Cost: My personal beef with comics is that they are too expensive. While I truly understand the time commitment made by creators, the fact remains the consumer gets to decide the cost. The consumer tends to determine value based on how they get paid for things: by the hour. So when you can count the dollar per minute cost, you feel ripped off even if it took 800 hours to build.Interactive comics would need to be aggressively priced to compete. In a world of $1 apps the idea of playing $4 for a 15 minute experience is absurd. If the comic can appeal to a large audience then it may be able to take the low cost/high volume gamble and win.Ironically, I took a complete bath on my graphic novel Nothing Left to Lose because of this viewpoint. I see comics as an art form, and not a way to make money. So pricing comics low was my way to get them into readers hands. While I sold thousands of copies, I lost thousands, not even including my time. As a consumer I want more, but as an artist I can’t see any other way.

Fiction writers clearly have the ability to not only create entertainment, but to define the blueprint for the future. The idea of interactive comics was placed before a culture for inclusion into this blueprint.

To me, I feel this is a calling to take this spark and make it reality. Is this one of those hidden gems that we can dust off and see it take flight? Or are interactive comics only inspirational to those children of the 50′s, while the modern people have moved beyond the need for pictures defined by space?

Let’s find out.

This is the first article in a series about interactive comics.
Part 1: 9 reasons why interactive comics aren’t a thing…yet
Part 2: 18 Reasons Interactive Fiction Fails

Small projects are known quantities. They can be effectively understood, estimated, and executed.

Since big projects are effectively a series of small projects, you’d imagine that big projects could be architected using this same skillset, right? But this isn’t the case. As scope increases projects morph, and distort, and balloon in dastardly ways that make fiction writers jealous.

Large projects attract chaotic thinking.

The psychological “size” of large projects is their undoing. When presented with a problem that is unable to be easily reduced into actionable or familiar steps, people freeze or invent obtuse obstacles.

What is most magical about this, is that this is common to all people. Madness infects first time business owners to the Fortune 500 C-suite, the high school educated to ivy league PhDs, a one-man band or a 50-person army, the down-on-their-luck or those that weekend in Italy. Project management experience only helps in identifying the panic and in strapping in for the ride.

This is why so many business rules, systems, and frameworks exist. The actual plan doesn’t matter. The value is in the idea of a grounded systematic approach that someone else built. Since you don’t have to create your own system, worry is reduced. It is the business equivalent of airplane emergency cards.

“Don’t worry! If we start falling out the sky we have a plan.”

Defuddling the Befuddled.

After watching this occur in thousands of projects, the only fix I’ve found is to force large projects to become small. By convincing your clients to rethink their approach, real-world decisions will happen and wonderfully delicious compromises become the norm. A series of completely independent projects will occur, each being defined at the close of the last. And these projects will be successful.

If a project can’t be reduced in scope, or the company is unable to think in more focused terms, then the core idea is most likely shit. Or the client is unable to be pleased. Money and opportunity are worth nothing if their chance of success is 0%.

The bigger the project, the faster the launch.

You can’t talk everyone off the ledge though. If you have no choice but to take on a large project I have a counter intuitive piece of advice: launch faster than a small project.

Sprint to a prototype, without sacrificing quality. Make people feel like this is a small project and they won’t have time to create stalls or diversions. And use data. When a project team start arguing about their feelings, the loudest person wins. Data ensures that rational thinking will prevail. Data is your way to calm the panic and re-ground thinking.

So I was sprinting towards the train when it became clear that I’d lost.

The stupid thing was early, and my only choice was to glare at the metal wall that had SHOOSHED in front of me. I just wanted was to get onboard and go to work. I loved designing for my company, and even an hour break from it made me mad. The vengeful train was stopped now, taunting me, as it let eager commuters in on the other side.

As I stood there stewing I decided to do something different. So, I jumped onto the tracks, crawled through a tiny gap between its wheels, and popped out the other side. When my heard peeked above the curb a man exclaimed “You’re crazy!”. The comment was oddly prescient. I hurriedly pushed myself onto the platform and seconds later the doors closed with a heavy sigh. I calmly looked for a seat, sat down, and placed my monthly out for the ticket man’s view.

During that ride I had the first flutter that I should probably open my own business.

I keep hearing start-ups use the phrase ”Build your business around your life, not your life around your business.”. What a waste. Why would you get into a business you didn’t love with every ounce of your soul?

Everything I do is because I truly enjoy it. I love design, I love taking ideas from concept to birth, I love helping people make their businesses better, I love working with a crazy talented team, I love new technology, I love the ups and downs my daily routine, I love helping people see the potential of themselves, I love being able to say goodbye to bad clients, I love being proven wrong, I love using data in fresh ways, and I love trying new calculated risks to grow as a firm, and as a human being.

Everyone has a train: the thing that gets you excited to be alive and willing to risk death to see it grow.

A business owner arguing that their “life” should take priority has missed the point. It isn’t about enslaving yourself to a business, it is about finding a business concept that completes you. They should have a built a business they can’t live without.

Don’t run from your train. Hop onboard and let it take you where you both want to go.

The land of unspoken truths

I’ve never really spoken honestly about building and directing Cubicle Ninjas before. From what I’ve seen online, most businesses (especially design agencies) owners don’t either.

Sure, companies post the usual marketing fluff, aspirational parables, or case study blogspam, but the actual meat is left sitting on the table. The “how” is never addressed. Never before in the history of mankind has so much been said to say so little.

When talented leaders do share their heart-felt worldview they are seen as “wildcards”. Mark Cuban, Richard Branson, Tony Hsieh, or Jason Fried all defy this rule of silence. Because of their topics of conversation, they get adjectives like wacky, maverick, radical, or nonconformist thrown their way. But shouldn’t that be the point of every business?

The business balance beam

The reason is that discussing the gory details of wins/failures has practically zero business benefit for a typical organization. Let’s take a look at the positives:

  • You get to be open, getting information off of your chest.
  • You may be creating a more personal connection with your customers and build trust.
  • You get to talk about your business, drawing more traffic.

Now, let’s breakdown the disadvantages:

  • Being honest publicly is hard.
  • Having failures makes you look bad, while success can make you look like you’re gloating.
  • Bad press is more likely to get picked up than good press.
  • Being honest about the details may turn some customers off.
  • Some information is still being decided and unfit for public use.
  • Sharing details helps your competition.
  • Detailed posts may cause internal/partner friction.
  • Articles like this help people second guess your leadership.
  • You can get sued for telling the truth. (This happened to me this year. Full story to come.)

The rise of the un-person

This is why being honest never really happens. And so a million boring, soulless, painful blogs exist, making customers think running a business is as mind-numbing as trying to stomach their text dumps.

My mission for this blog is to tell the painful, awful, wonderful truth of running a business in all of its un-glossy gore. It is not pretty, but being truthful means more to me today than a perfect plastic reality.