Stardock turns 20: The five Stardocks I’ve worked at

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.

 

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Stardock Primoridal

“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!).

 

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Stardock OS/2

“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.

 

 

Stardock_Fancy_thumb1

Stardock 2000

“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…

 

 

 

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Stardock Sucks

“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.

 

StardockLogo-256

Stardock Renaissance

“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!

First Previous Page 1 of 3 Next Last
cardinaldirection
Reply #1 Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:11 PM

=]

 

grats!

Wizard1956
Reply #2 Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:38 PM

This is a really great read. To quote the Grateful Dead "What a long strange trip it's been."

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us all. I hope I'm still around for number 6.

RedneckDude
Reply #3 Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:50 PM

Brad has a much better sense of humor than I realized...lol.

 

Good read!   

XWerewolfX
Reply #4 Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:53 PM

Really makes me happy to see that you've turned things around. Truthfully, those "sucky" years were kinda obvious. 

It's just as obvious that you're back in the game and have turned things around. LH is amazing and I'm hearing good things about Dead Man's Draw. 

 

Now can you officially announce GalCiv 3?

Thanks.

kona0197
Reply #5 Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:16 PM

I’d be hard pressed to even name anyone who has voluntarily left the company during this period

I did.

Wizard1956
Reply #6 Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:23 PM

P.S. Please rethink your latest logo. IMHO, even the one from 1993 looked better.

Kazriko
Reply #7 Thursday, October 10, 2013 11:10 PM

Wizard1956

P.S. Please rethink your latest logo. IMHO, even the one from 1993 looked better.

The only thing I noticed about it is that it looks too Windows 8-ish.

 

As for people leaving the company voluntarily... Jon Shafer? Or was he on the tail end of the prior era?

Jafo
Reply #8 Thursday, October 10, 2013 11:40 PM

As long as we've made it past 'Primoridal' then all is good.... Spell checker ...

SwordOfJustice1
Reply #9 Friday, October 11, 2013 4:12 AM

Such an open and honest post.  Fantastic insight to a fantastic company.

 

Cheers,

Sword

Island Dog
Reply #10 Friday, October 11, 2013 8:30 AM

This was a great read.

Quicksilver007
Reply #11 Friday, October 11, 2013 8:52 AM

Excellent read. Good recap of Stardocks history, thanks brad. 

XWerewolfX
Reply #12 Friday, October 11, 2013 9:07 AM

Wizard1956

P.S. Please rethink your latest logo. IMHO, even the one from 1993 looked better.

 

I disagree. I think the 2000 one looks best, but the new one is definitely better than the 1993 one, or its successor. 

I definitely like the 2000 on the best, though. 

Lavo_2
Reply #13 Friday, October 11, 2013 10:24 AM

A very interesting read. Surprised to see how terrible Impluse was for SD, though now I understand why it was sold off.

Frogboy
Reply #14 Friday, October 11, 2013 11:31 AM

XWerewolfX


Quoting Wizard1956, reply 6
P.S. Please rethink your latest logo. IMHO, even the one from 1993 looked better.

 

I disagree. I think the 2000 one looks best, but the new one is definitely better than the 1993 one, or its successor. 

I definitely like the 2000 on the best, though. 

My favorite is the 2000 version of the logo too.

Though the 2012 version is still pretty good. But I am not a big fan of the flat look.

Jafo
Reply #15 Friday, October 11, 2013 11:34 AM

Frogboy
Though the 2012 version is still pretty good. But I am not a big fan of the flat look.

I can understand the practical logic of the 2D ver....but for style points it's pretty ordinary.

The earlier 3D ver has more street cred...

Wizard1956
Reply #16 Friday, October 11, 2013 11:56 AM

+1 for 2000 being a favorite.

DivineWrath
Reply #17 Friday, October 11, 2013 2:34 PM

Its unfortunate that Impulse didn't work out. I was hoping that it would become a viable alternative to Steam.

I could get into why I don't like Steam. I don't usually do so because I'm trying to be polite. I'm sure you have bigger priorities than hearing another person complain.

ChaNinja
Reply #18 Friday, October 11, 2013 3:42 PM

Happy 20th Birthday Stardock!!!

Kudos Brad for being a survivor and hanging in there during those tough times when its so easy to throw in the towel, take the money and run.

And thanks for the honesty, it takes a big man to admit his shortcomings and mistakes and to make the hard decisions that you did. Our failures are just as important as our successes as long as we learn from them and put those lessons to good use.

Here's wishing you and Stardock the very best for the next 20 years and beyond! Prosperity and happiness to you all!

 

btw

I like the new logo. You have kept the essense and discarded the bulk, the logical progression imho. However theres no reason why you can't dress it up for special occasions

Cykur
Reply #19 Friday, October 11, 2013 4:20 PM

This is really interesting, I too wondered what the exact reason was for selling Impulse.  I assumed it was because you decided you didn't want to compete with Steam, so you sold Impulse while it was a very valuable property and let someone else wage that battle.  It makes more sense now that you describe what it had done to your corporate culture.

In a way, your company experienced a microcosm of how Wall St. tries to do to business these days.  Everything is based off of manipulating the stock price to meet short term financial goals so upper management gets their bonuses, or making sales at any cost (like junk mortgages) with no regard to future liability or even passing off the liability to someone else (like the Fed -- aka taxpayers).

Probably a good learning experience for the future...never know, web games / IP's can really take off.  Just curious, is there a particular book or anything that you found that has a good way to manage company wide incentives so they work for everyone, not just the salesforce?

 

 

cardinaldirection
Reply #20 Friday, October 11, 2013 5:00 PM

If you don't mind my asking, what was the size of the company before Impulse, during Impulse, and now?

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