Starting a Company

I was catching up with an old friend the other day and they asked me the following question:

"How's the game going?"

For the record, all they knew was that I'd recently left my previous job at Ninja Theory to form my own company so that I could start making my own games. So this seemed like a reasonable question. My answer was:

"We haven't even started yet"

For a couple of minutes that actually generated a lot of surprise and I got a bunch of 'well-what-have-you-been-doing-then' type queries. But when I actually explained what we'd accomplished over the last two weeks, that surprise turned to shock when they realized just how involved this has all been.

So I thought I'd actually write up a lot of the major tasks we've had to deal with to get where we are today (after about 15 days, including the weekends). Hopefully someone who's thinking of doing something similar in the future may find this a useful tool when planning ahead.

Company Name

The company name was one of the first things we had to agree on and we did so before we'd even left our previous jobs. 

We'd come up with the name "TriCat" quite quickly and, although we really liked it, googling the name returned way too many results for our liking, so we left it and moved on.

After another week or so of going back-and-forth with other suggestions, we decided to see if we could operate under "TriCat Games" (to differentiate ourselves enough from any other TriCats there might be out there).

To do this meant looking up the name on HMRC's registered company list and seeing if anything came up. When it didn't, we ran with it!

The next step involved returning to HMRC and registering the company name, the partnership and the two partners with them. This made our company an official thing.

Company Bank Account

We'd decided early on that we wanted to create a company specific business bank account, to keep all of the company's money separate from our own, personal accounts. This would make taxes a lot easier to deal with. I decided to go with HSBC, simply because I use them for personal banking, and they offer free banking to new business customers for 18 months.

We needed the company name before we could proceed with this though. Once we had registered it, we needed to fill out a LOT of forms online, there was a 30 minute phone interview with the bank, followed by more forms, sending signatures off in the post and then, finally, activating the account online.

All in all this took about nine days (on and off) of going back and forth sorting out little details here and there.

Without the bank account we were holding off on buying other bits and pieces (as we wanted them to go through that account - again for tax tracking later). But we actually ended up buying a few bits in the mean time from our personal accounts (like surge protection for the PCs), just to speed things up a bit.

Office Environment

The idea with TriCat was always that we were going to work from home. We actually had to get one of the clauses removed from our tenancy agreement in order for that to happen, but luckily our landlord, the letting agent and their insurance company all agreed to do so. We also realized this might become a problem about 10 weeks back, so got it sorted it out before we even left our previous jobs.

But we live in a tiny two bedroom flat with a small lounge (plus attached kitchen area) and not much other space. Up to this point, we had kept both our personal PCs hooked up in our own bedrooms, with a small corridor dividing the two rooms apart. This would have meant shouting at each other across half of the flat. A LOT! So we decided to completely re-arrange the flat.

This meant a REALLY big operation to move everything around,  as well as clear out a ton of stuff we didn't need any more. I won't list all of the gory details (as its not really relevant for anyone except us), but suffice to say, it was both: A) Extremely time consuming. B) Unbelievably knackering.

It took the better part of the week to get most things in the right place, hooked up again and cleaned up. And we're still dealing with the odd bits and pieces that either need disposing of, cleaning up and/or tidying away. Not to mention we have a HUGE pile of stuff that needs to be put onto Ebay at some point in the future. Along the way we had to completely rethink the wired network in the flat, running a patch cable under the carpet to keep everything neat and optimal.

But it has paid off. We have a dedicated office space in what used to be our lounge. And we still have our own personal spaces to retreat to when we need some down time. We have lost the communal gaming area we used to have (and there's no sofa in the flat any more - it's tucked away on its side in a corner in my room), but we've found out it's still possible to get five people gathered around the large TV in my bedroom on a Sunday for our weekly gaming sessions.

Claiming Benefits

Working from home with no income does have one perk: We can claim certain benefits to help us along. It took some research to work out what we could and couldn't claim (along with trying to work out how taxes worked for both us personally and the company), but one important benefit that we had to deal with is housing benefit.

That involved filling out the longest online form I've ever seen (about 30 pages covering everything from your details, the letting agent's details, the landlord's details, your savings, the number of rooms in the flat etc etc etc). And once it was finished I then had to gather lots of documents (P45, several month of bank statements, copy of the tenancy agreement etc) to send to them to prove everything that was stated was correct. This has already been going for about two weeks, and it's still not done yet!

Dave's Desk

During our early planning stages, one problem we identified was Dave's desk: It was one of these small, two foot wide type affairs with a pull-out keyboard tray. It was really all that he could fit in his bedroom, and it had been fine for the odd bit of web browsing/playing games. But now he was going to working at it eight hours a day, five days a week. It needed to go!

So we did the obvious thing and took a company trip down to Ikea (a 55 mile drive from here). And of course, what probably should have been a two hour round trip, took around five hours (although we did stop for pizza on the way back!).

And let's not forget the hour or two we spent building the thing the next day. 

I gather he's very happy with it though. It has cup holders and everything, so he should be!

He also had to clean up the old desk, take photos, stick the thing on Gumtree and arrange collection in order to get it out of the flat.

Company Logo

I won't go into detail about the company logo too much, as its creation has already been talked about in detail here: Designing the Company Logo

But I will say that once we sat down to work on it fully, it took around a week of solid work before we had a final design in place.

Documentation

We have four key documents that we decided we needed to write up before we made any games (although the number of these documents and the format of them changed a LOT during their development):

  1. Company Policy - A set of terms that we agree to follow while working together at TriCat. This includes lots of stuff like working hours, holiday allowance, how we deal with royalties, what happens if one of us leaves and so on. We both sign this document once it's completed.
  2. Production Definitions - This is a sister document to the company policy. It outlines how we decide which products/projects we're working on, the responsibilities of each member during that project, how we scope tasks etc. Also needs signing.
  3. PR Strategy - Less formal that the other two, it describes how we interact with people online. As we're doing open development, this ended up being a really short document, mostly covering obvious things like "Don't get involved in a political debate online" as well as outlining things like how we feel we should deal with people attempting to troll us online.
  4. Company Pillars - As I'm writing this, we haven't actually gotten around to writing up this document yet. We're going to fit in in this this week and it's going to outline what our key philosophies and principles are throughout our games.

The company policy took about six days of discussing (really heavy discussion) about how the company should run, writing it all up, discussing some more, then tweaking. But once a first draft was complete, we needed to finalize the production definitions document (as we'd agreed to sign a copy of that one before we would sign the other). After two days of writing the productions definitions document, we had to update the company policy one to reflect the decisions we'd made along the way (there are clauses in the company policy document which reference the other, so they had to marry up).

So why did we spend so much time on this? Well, when researching online about setting up the partnership, I'd come across a significant number of articles about things going wrong with companies like ours, even when formed with close family members. So we decided to play it really safe and make sure we absolutely agreed on everything (in writing) beforehand. And I think it was worth it as now (as an example) if we ever make a fair amount of money, but one of us decides to leave, we now have an agreed upon method to handle the situation completely fairly.

Formatting PCs

We both decided it would be a smart idea to format our PCs before doing any work on them, so that was another long day backing everything up, formatting and re-installing windows, doing a huge windows update and then re-installing everything that we needed.

Source Control

Originally, I'd intended to use an outside provider for our source control (for those not in the know, source control systems are servers running a repository of all of your files. Every time someone edits something, it keeps a copy of all previous versions, so that you have both: A) Backups of your work at all times and B) A way to go back to older versions if you break something). 

I've been using CloudForge for personal stuff for ages now and originally had planned to keep that going for the foreseeable future. They were offering a fair amount of storage (I can't remember exactly how much, but I think it was 10GB) for $10 a month.

But as we continued to setup the company, I started to realized that that may not be enough. And once we hit the limit on our bandwidth/storage, we were going to be faced with a quite hefty upgrade cost, or have to relocate everything.

So we decided to do a test: We took Dave's old PC, stripped it down of all unneeded parts, put in the spare power supply from my old PC and put windows on an old hard drive. Then we tested to see if we could run an SVN server on it, locally in the flat. The initial test took about 3 hours to setup and run. And it proved that yes, on windows, it would be a simple task to do that. We spent another afternoon cleaning up the PC (stripping all of the fans down and cleaning them off and cable tying everything), bought a pair of 3TB hard drives from amazon and tested everything worked correctly.

But we had a problem: We don't own a spare Windows licence! So we decided to give Linux a shot instead. After much mucking around trying to make a USB to boot and install Linux, we actually got it up and running quite easily. But getting the new HDDs setup and running, then getting SVN going took WAAAY too long. And we still hadn't answered questions about how we were going to back-up the system on Linux, or how we could even communicate with the repository from windows PCs. So we took the financial hit and bought a new copy of windows 8.

That arrives in a day or so, so I have another afternoon of setting up that machine to look forward to.

Company Website

This actually didn't take that long. Dave had heard about SquareSpace from a podcast he listens to, so he checked it out, found out that it did everything that we needed and he managed to find a template we were pretty happy with. So we went ahead and purchased an account and setup the tricatgames.com domain.

It took Dave another two or so hours to get all of the logos and pages setup, but nothing terrible.

Ongoing

Obviously there's a lot of minor, small tasks that came up along the way that I'm not going to list here. And we've still got a lot to do moving forwards. It's looking like we're actually going to start developing stuff in the next day or two, but I wouldn't be surprised if that turns into three/four days.

Posted on June 1, 2015 .