Startup Lessons from Children’s Literature: The Little Red Hen

As your social media feeds have likely informed you, it’s back-to-school season. Dozens of photos of happy children heading off to their first days of a new school year, smiling and – for those who have on top of it parents (i.e. not my children) – holding cute message boards that say things like, “Today, I start 1st grade. I want to be a veterinarian” in perfect calligraphy. 

Since we run an educational video game company, I should probably be writing a post that says “Get back-to-school ready! Get our games!” Which there, done.

This is an old first day of school picture. We haven’t started school yet.

But since my kids don’t start school for another two days, 15 hours and two minutes (who’s counting though…), I’ve got another few hours before I have to start writing “Ortiz” on everything in Sharpie. Leaving me time to write about other things, such as today’s startup life observation – frustration – infuriation. (Not going to lie, I thought “infuriation” was a word that I was just making up – but turns out it’s a thing – and it totally fits what I’m ranting about today.) 

From the Oxford Dictionary:  A feeling of extreme anger and impatience. OK, to be honest, I’m probably not as much utterly enraged as just so freaking over it – but infuriation rhymed, so I’ll roll with it. 

We have recently reached an interesting moment in our startup – and that is one where we are currently OK for cash. Now, we’re not Scrooge McDuck swan-diving into our money vault, but between a new grant and a successful fundraising round, we’ve got some runway – which is amazing.

Yay for money!

It is also making me feel like I’m living the story of the Little Red Hen. (Story recap: The hen does all the work planting, milling and cooking bread, and then all the other animals want to swoop in and help her eat it. Not to be confused with “Henny Penny/the sky is falling.”)

But that’s totally what it far too often feels like. The startup life is a grind . When it’s like, “Who will help me raise the money?” “Who will help me grow my customers?” “Who will help me sell my product?” “Who will make connections for me?” Crickets. But suddenly, it’s “Who will help me spend my money?” And the line goes down the block. 

Look, I’m not looking for people to do things for free. We pay everyone who does work for us – including our interns – but what I am also not about is paying people who have zero real or vested interest in helping my company grow. 

And it probably annoys me more because the longer we’ve been around, the more I have seen younger startups fall victim – especially when they get a small amount of investment – to this idea that they “need” all these services that are really just out there to bleed them dry. From unnecessary testing services to unnecessary legal services to whatever other stupid unnecessary costs that they will be convinced they need, which will in no way serve their business and that they will wish they hadn’t wasted their money on when their runway runs out. 

Learn from “The Little Red Hen!” Also, this images of a chicken is from our game “Forgotten Trail.” Check it out here! 

If this can serve as any kind of PSA to younger startups, “Before you make any significant financial spend or sign any kind of service contract, ask yourself 1. do I think this is really essential to my business at the moment (not just because the guys on the other side of the deal are working hard to convince me it is?); and 2. if we run short on cash, will I be wishing we hadn’t wasted money on this? (Optimism of “running short of cash will never happen to us” is great, but as someone who has on more than one occasion transferred personal funds in to cover a payroll, I’m just saying…)

Literally, 99% of the “connection requests” I get on LinkedIn are people who want to offer me services for my business, granted with little to no idea how my business works or even what we do. Same goes with the dozens of emails that I get from random people who want to replace our accountant (don’t worry, Donna, your job is safe!) or offer us consulting or whose offshore dev shop we should consider. (For the billionth time – we do not and will not outsource our game dev!) Honestly, not for a single second, do I even believe those people have any desire to help me or my company – it’s legit just about taking our cash, who cares if it’s in our best interest or not.

The “pay to pitch” at our event people are just the worst! I can imagine few worse uses of money than spending thousands to get in front of “investors” – who would probably all agree that spending capital in that way is not the best use of money. 

It’s not just folks from LinkedIn and cold emails either. We’ve certainly had employees cycle through who had this exact same mindset. (The key part of that being “cycle through” as they don’t last long – and we’ve been getting better at making sure the tenure of folks with that attitude is shorter and shorter.) As I said, we’ve got some runway, but it’s certainly not unlimited. And having built up the company to the point where we’re not living payroll to payroll, we probably have a reason or two as to why and how we should be spending that money – and aren’t actively looking for new ways to burn through cash.

As my co-founder recently asked someone who was giving us completely unsolicited input on how we should be spending money, “In the last few months, we brought in $750,000 for this company. You brought in $0. Guess who is going to decide how and where we spend it?” 

In other words, back off our bread. 

That said, if you are actually interested in helping us out, you can get our games. Or you can tell people you know to get our games.

Don’t know where to start? Check out our newest game, Making Camp: Premium!

Numbers, Life, Words and Random game choices

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