Why A Good Portfolio Is Not Enough

Ella Romanos   •   August 28, 2012

Whether you’re still studying or already dipping your feet into the games industry, chances are that you already have a well developed portfolio, but haven’t necessarily been given in depth advice on how to use it in order to get business or grow an already existing one.

I’m the CEO of Remode, a UK based independent developer, started five years ago, when my business partner Martin Darby (designer) and I (programmer) graduated from Plymouth University.

We have grown our business primarily through work-for-hire, and are now starting to develop our own IP, working with a team of 18 people. To say that we have learned a lot over the last five years would be a complete understatement. Coming out of university, we thought we knew how to make games, but had very little knowledge of how to run a business.

Advice from a pro

The first valuable piece of advice I received was from Daryl Wilkins, my boss at a placement job at Specialmoves. Like us, he started his own business after graduating from Plymouth University, and at that point had ten years experience under his belt. He explained that by far the biggest lesson he had to learn was that unfortunately good work didn’t equal good business. He said this like it was the single most important nugget of information from his ten years of experience that he could convey to us, and having a lot of respect for him I took his word for it and truly believed I understood what he meant.

Five years later, I look back and realise that for the first three years at least, I completely misunderstood what he meant and effectively ignored his advice, which I firmly believe was the main cause of the struggles we had in our early years. It was only later that we started to grow, becoming a successful studio that is a source of pride. Had I fully understood Daryl’s advice from the beginning, Remode’s five year journey from a fledgling start up to a respected mid size independent studio could have taken two.

What I now understand is that whilst a good portfolio is important, it only backs you up. A good portfolio alone will not get you work or grow your reputation. What will build your business is trust, and the key to trust is people. Businesses work with people, not portfolios, and crucially with people who they get on with and who they believe in. While it’s important to have your work ready as evidence, how you meet your potential clients and what you say to them is important first and foremost in influencing their judgment on whether they will hire you as a person.

So how do you do that?

Know yourself, know your market

Firstly, understand these things:

  1. Market. By focusing on a market, you are focusing on a network of people, your target audience. In the case of the games industry, there are several sub-sections within that (e.g. casual, social, triple-A), most of which overlap in some ways.  Be aware that these markets shift and change so make sure you look towards the future as well as the present. There is a delicate balance between focusing too much, which could limit the growth potential of the studio because you miss too many opportunities or aren’t agile enough to adapt in the fast changing market, and being too broad, which means you can’t effectively build a network because there are too many different people who don’t know each other, can’t be found in the same places or have enough in common to enable you to know what you are selling to whom.
  2. Know what your product or service is. It’s important to know what you are not, as much as what you are. Know your core values and ethos.  Know who your competitors are, who your peers are, who will value what you do and who won’t and learn to understand why.

Get connected

Once you understand these basics, you need to start building your relationships.

  1. Put yourself out there, while remaining efficient with your time. You should have one person in the business whose primary role is to meet people. This is often through conferences, but also just being willing to go out of your way to arrange meetings with key individuals within your market. Never assume that a new relationship is worthless. Many opportunities develop months or years after your initial introduction. Face to face meetings have value that hugely outweighs the cost and time taken to arrange them. Word of mouth is one of the most useful marketing strategies, especially for start-ups, but that only comes once you establish a sizeable network of people.
  2. Be approachable and friendly while remaining professional. There is a sliding scale between friendly and professional, it depends on the person, on the type of company culture you have, and on the industry niche you are in. The most important thing is that you stay true to yourself and conduct business genuinely and consistently, so people can understand who you are and how you work, which in turn builds trust.
  3. Be confident, but never arrogant. If you are confident in yourself, then others will have confidence in you. However, over-confidence is often perceived as a) annoying and b) as a masquerade for deeper insecurities. Confidence comes across through being able to explain things concisely and consistently, being able to back up what you say with evidence, being relaxed but passionate and proactive. Ability to talk to new people is a must, particularly when you’re put on the spot or after a few drinks!
  4. Promote yourself and your studio, but don’t let your own hype blind you. Only you know your work from within and it’s key to retain this insight no matter how big you grow. Understanding PR is important. You can do it yourself, or work with a PR company. We recently took on a PR company, which has worked out brilliantly. We should have done it slightly sooner, but we wanted to make sure we had things to genuinely shout about, rather than just PR for PR’s sake, which is counter-productive. PR is a delicate balance, and knowing what you want to say and is key to achieving the results you want.
  5. Have your pitch down to a fine art. This took us a long time to figure out, even when we knew our market and what we could offer. Explaining to people what we did, in the right way was tough.  The key we found was:
    1. Have template documents of everything you might need, ready to go. This applies for face-to-face sales pitches, sending stuff over email and responding to pitch requests.
    2. Make sure the documents reflect the culture and approach that you have as a person and a company.
    3. Know your pitch documents inside out. To the point where you could pretty much talk through them without even looking at them.
    4. Be able to tailor pitches easily to the current conversation. Whether that’s verbally expanding on a pitch document or having a template that is easy to edit a range of potential clients.  Your documents need to be designed to be concise and clear, but flexible and bespoke.

Finally, take your time. If the above sounds like a lot to take in, it’s because it is. Business acumen cannot be picked up overnight and every developer goes on his or her own journey to get to a point where they understand their business needs and potential, and they continue to learn and develop after this point for as long as the business thrives. Nevertheless, having a useful guide will help make that journey as enjoyable as possible.

Ella Romanos   •   August 28, 2012