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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Start Your Company Right

Steve Cole writes:
 When I was young, there was an expression common among engineers and businessmen, "She grew like Topsy." This referred to Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but has come to mean anything grew faster and differently than expected. It refers to a business or project which is disorganized and out of control but which got to that point by steps that seemed logical at the time but never envisioned the way things might grow.
When I started my company, I never imagined that it would be in business 40 years later and would have a shopping cart with 1200 product items (including spare parts and so forth) from 10 different product lines. The structure, organization, and foundation were never created, and the company grew to the point that I spend a few minutes each day just trying to find something we have but nobody can remember where it is.
Every now and then over those four decades we realized the lack of organization of some element of the business without seeing that the entire business was operating on the principle of chaos. In each case, I reverse engineered the organization that should have been there to start with, and took time away from creating new products to force that organization into being. (Examples include an index of questions we have answered, a list of Star Fleet Battles scenarios converted into Federation Commander, a list of Star Fleet Battles ships converted into Federation Commander, and a complete index of every item in every issue of Captain's Log.) Now, I have at long last realized that it's not the parts of my business and game universe that lack organization, but the whole thing. If I could get the time machine to work I'd go back to 1979 and give myself some advice that would save me a ton of time later. Until that happens, maybe I can make all of your businesses more efficient by telling you the secrets I have discovered, unveiled, or perceived.
1. Establish a protocol for file names. Most of the lost time is spent looking for something in the computer, but nobody can remember the file name for it. Since there was never a protocol to create file names, we end up trying dozens of possible combinations in the hard disk search program to see if maybe it turns up. Remember that any given product might have dozens of files (cover, chapters of the rulebook, maps, charts, other components, press release, catalog entry, etc.) For example, the cover for SFB Module C1 New Worlds I might be any of these: C1, C1cover, cover-C1, New Worlds One cover, SFBC1NW1, or dozens of other combinations. (Part of the problem is that the proper product name is too long for the file name field in some software.) Just last week, we needed to find the covers for three new products which the graphics lady had done the week before, but she was off that day and the three file names were not part of any pattern. (Each had been cloned from the layout of another cover, and those covers all started with different filename formats.) I would recommend something that includes the product line (e.g., SFB for Star Fleet Battles), the product, and just to be crazy, the stock number.
2. Index things. In fact, index everything. Our magazine always has a page devoted to Q&A and FAQ stuff, but nobody kept track of what had been done before, so we often answered the same question twice (and rarely with different answers). It's not that hard to just copy the text into one big word processor file and run a simple search for keywords to see if we ever answered that question before.
3. A sub-element of the indexing thing (since almost everything I will mention could be handled by establishing and maintaining some kind of index) is a gazetteer listing every planet (and other specific location) we created in our universe. This includes what hex of the strategic game map it is in, what product it is in, and a few notes.
4. Probably the first index I ever created was the Timeline of the Universe, a year-by-year listing of anything and everything that happened (with a source code, such as a scenario number or product name.) Later, I expanded this into a "history book" of my game universe. While it's not finished, it has made research much more efficient. I just set up a (very large) book file, and every time we do a new product I copy any calendar-date information (e.g., a key event) into the page of the history book for that year (some years are 20 pages long). So now if I vaguely remember that the Kzintis sent a fleet to Gorn space for a few years I can find the information I need and with a little extra effort I made sure it is keyed to the original product. So, for example, the introductory historical paragraph for all 1136 scenarios is on the page for the year of each paragraph in the history book.
5. Something I did that has paid major dividends is to set up a book called "Art Gallery Album" and to put into this book every piece of art we have ever had created. There are a couple of thousand of them (and I'm about to divide the book I into different kinds of pictures) since I've been doing this 40 years. But now if I need to find that picture I vaguely remember of a Klingon Marine using a knife on somebody I do not have to flip through a couple of hundred products looking for it; I just turn to the Klingon pages of the Art Gallery Album (Volume 2, People). This also works swell when I finish a product and flip through it filling up the empty spots with random clip art. (Because I have four tactical spaceship games, a strategic space game, a ground combat game, and three -- soon to be six -- RPG systems, all of which sell to different audiences, I can buy one piece of art and use it in every product line -- if I can find it.) This thing is not complete and I'm still hunting down older products on dusty backup disks to copy the art from them, but it's a start. In some cases, a given item might not be the art itself but the file name of a major document containing a lot of graphics (such as the deck plans file for the dozen or so ships we actually have deck plans for).
6. Long ago, I established the FLAP list (finish like a pro) which gives me a checklist (for every product) of all the indexes, catalogs, web pages, and so forth that I need to update. Lately we started the SLAP list (Start Like A Pro) that includes all of the stuff that delays products if I forget to do it far enough ahead of time.)
7. You need an archive of every product you ever did. Every time you do a product, the FLAP list should say "get two copies and put one in Archive Box #1 and the other in Archive Box #2." You'll be glad some day you have these. Store them off site in the attic of your home and somebody else's home. When you reach retirement age you can auction them on Ebay to pay for your dream trip around the world.
8. While you're at it, buy a bookcase and some of those stand-up magazine file boxes and keep one copy of every product you ever did in your office. This is handy for a quick reference, but as you inevitably notice typos and things you could improve, mark them (go ahead, just write on the page with your pen) and when it is time to reprint any given product be sure to check the office file copy for things you should fix. I printed a few sheets of 30-up mailing labels that say "Error Record Copy" and mark the books so people know what they are when they find them in the conference room and put them back on my bookshelf.
Everything you do in your company (which you expect to be successful and stay in business for decades) needs to be organized in a way you can find it later. Start from the start to be able to find that stuff 18 years later when you're on deadline and really need it.