One cool but sunny day in Northern California, inside the cavernous old pineapple processing plant that Steve Jobs had turned into Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters, my team and I sat down to discuss making the Cars video game with the people making the movie. The conference rooms at Pixar are amazing because they are covered with giant “bulletin” boards and every room has white note cards, pencils, pens, and push pins. You see, everyone can draw, and at the drop of a hat, practically any team member from Pixar would produce a drawing while they were discussing ideas. “Oh, you need a trophy?” one artist asked. “You mean something like this?” and within seconds the man had crafted a quick sketch that matched Radiator Springs in style and tone but looked like a race trophy. I asked him if he would autograph that so we could frame it at our offices. He smiled and apologized. We could not take his original drawing. They would have it scanned and sent to us.
This was classic Pixar. Brilliant talent coupled with humility and grace.
You know what they didn’t do at Pixar?
No one ever lectured us about the movie. If anyone had earned the right to explain to outsiders in excruciating detail what they were trying to do, it was the amazing people at Pixar. Yet no one, not one single artist, producer, engineer, or director ever talked down to us. They were never pedantic or arrogant. They genuinely seemed to want us to be as excited about their work as they were. They authentically shared from enthusiasm. I heard someone describe this as “geeking out.” Whether it was how they animated the eyes in the windshields, or the incredible depth and complexity of the rendered paint on the close-up of the cars, everyone working on the project seemed to be consumed by a passion for it that made the air crackle.
It also helped that anything Pixar did share with us was so amazingly awesome that whenever we saw it, we were in awe.
Pixar was such an outlier in sharing from enthusiasm that it helped me see it in other domains. I thought about the professors I’d had in college or high school. My favorites did not make me feel like they were teaching me. I felt like they were letting me in on some big secret. It was as if every lesson started with them saying, “Look at what I found out! Isn’t this cool?!” One of my favorite teachers of all time, Mr. Lubke, taught Calculus, if you can believe it, as if he’d discovered real treasure. His favorite calculous book started with the introduction, “What one idiot can do, so can another.” He was calling himself an idiot and he wanted to let us other “idiots” know we could do what he did. Later in college I ran into another professor who matched Lubke’s spirit. He taught thermodynamics. I am embarrassed to say I cannot remember his name. But when we sat down to take the tests he said simply, “I’m not here to prove I know more about the subject than you do. That would be pointless.” In contrast, my coding professor was obsessed with proving he was smarter than the students. Every assignment had a “size limit”. How efficient could you be with your code. If anyone wrote a piece of code that was more efficient than the professor, he would rewrite the exercise until his code was the smallest.
Mr. “Small code” was definitely not sharing from enthusiasm. In fact, he exhibited a behavior that most of my least favorite authors and teachers demonstrated. That was the need to prove they knew something. Instead of working to share knowledge, it was almost like they needed to defend it. Over the course of my career, I have learned that there are many kinds of smart people, but the ones I am most compatible with are the ones that find joy in excellence, not insecurity. Reality seems to be structured in a way that the more you know about something, the less confident you might feel about it. I once heard it described this way. “Knowledge is like an island in the sea of ignorance. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.” The act of learning expands how much ignorance you become aware of. Some people obsess over that, and they let the expanding shoreline of the unknown make them feel insecure. Others, my kind of learners, feel excited that the island of knowledge has gotten so big, and they are happy to invite others to join them.
When it comes to developing expertise, there is no doubt that my favorite kind of expert has a musician’s mindset. They view expertise as something not only for their own enjoyment, but something they enjoy sharing with others. That is why, “sharing from enthusiasm” is one of my core values. Because knowledge should connect us, not separate us.
Recently Brandon Wiele, GameTruck’s Chief operating officer asked me what I would say to someone considering joining the GameTruck franchise system. The timing of his question is interesting because I had just gone through my own exercise in discovering my [[My Immutable Laws]], the set of values that I tend to work from every day. At the top of that list is one word, and I realize that is the word that describes someone who can be successful in GameTruck. What is the magic word? Cares.
I have made many mistakes in my life, but at every juncture I cared about getting it right. Did I? No. But I got it right often enough to still be in business 15 years after I started this crazy enterprise and I believe it is that deep sense of caring that permeates the entire GameTruck system. I believe this is why top owner Erik Maxwell says, “We are GameTruck.” It’s not some piece of equipment or a thing we own. It is who we are.
Probably what separates long term success from an expensive life lesson is that simple word. People who think they are buying a thing or purchasing their way into the game industry rarely succeed, or achieve the kind of self-satisfaction they hope for when they start a business.
However, the people who strive to be dependable, who want to be the person you should call first because they are dependable and committed – those are the people who succeed. They are calm in a crisis – and while a birthday party may not sound like a crises, I assure you there are many small fires along the way that will spring up to try and prevent you from showing up in this industry. And the owners who care, who take it as a personal commitment to be dependable, the ones who are energized by being trustworthy and steadfast, those are the owners who succeed. They derive the satisfaction of delivering on their commitments and making people happy. The joy that springs from a child’s face when they are surrounded by friends, the laughter that comes naturally from workmates playing together, the smiles and sense of wonder that crosses the face of children stepping from a school yard into a game trailer – those are the payoffs, the affirmation, the confirmation that gives meaning to the hard work, the planning, the preparation, and the commitment to show up.
If you were to ask me, the one attributes that sets GameTruck owners apart, is that they care. They care about showing up on time. They care about delivering a great event. They care about making the hosts life easier. And they have to. Mothers and fathers trust us with their children. Principals and teachers trust us with their students. Managers and team leaders trust us to engage and entertain their employees. If you don’t care, you cannot consistently, year in and year out earn that kind of trust and keep it safe.
What makes someone a great GameTruck owner? In a word, They care.
One of the things my dad taught me at an early age was to be “solution oriented.” He didn’t want me to just sit there and be frustrated by a problem. I had to try to solve it. I think at its core, that attitude made him a great engineer. I can’t ever remember my dad running into a technical problem he couldn’t solve. Sure, plenty of problems stumped him for a while, but he would hunker down and grind his way through until he understood how to solve it. Later, he gave me the book, “Illusions” by Richard Bach. His favorite quote out of that book?
No problem comes to you without a gift in its hands. We seek problems because we need their gifts
My father tried to teach me to see problems as gifts. Yeah, he struggled with that too. I think everyone does. However, the point was that we can’t control the problems, but we can try to control our attitude and mindset about them. Recently, I came across the “Engineering Problem Solving Process”. Someone actually distilled the way engineers think down into a series of steps.
They go something like:
- Define the problem
- Describe the results you want
- Do some research (has this problem already been solved?)
- Think of solutions
- Choose the most promising
- Try it
- Evaluate the results
- Jump back to any of the previous steps if the results are unsatisfactory
I used this process when I started GameTruck. Many entrepreneurs (and artists) claim they had a crystal-clear vision of what they wanted to build. It wasn’t like that for me. I had this vague idea of putting video games in a truck, but every step of the way, I had to ask myself, “How would that actually work?” For example, I couldn’t imagine how the TV’s, players, and consoles would all fit in the trailer, so I decided I needed to build a prototype to find out. I set it up in my garage. Using two by fours and sheets of plywood, I constructed a “box” about the size of the inside of a trailer. Then I started testing out different kinds of seats, and TV’s until I found a configuration that would work reasonably well.
The final trailer design did not deviate much from my initial prototype, but I started working that problem without really knowing exactly how it would turn out. I basically ran through several “loops” of the problem solving until I arrived at a solution that I felt was ideal.
It turns out that basic layout was pretty good became it became the basis for virtually every single video game theater in the market. Up until that time, no one had created a gaming layout like it. All the prior art focused on “isolating” gamers – trying to distract them from being in the same small space. No one really focused on gamers sharing a common video game experience. Novelty rarely comes from doing things completely new; it often comes from combining things in new ways to produce affects or outcomes people had not anticipated before.
And every once in a while, a solution lasts. This setup has entertained more than 10 million kids at GameTruck alone since our inception. And we don’t stop solving problems. We constantly ask. “What can we do to help people celebrate? What can we do to help people connect? What can we do to make mom a hero? What can we do to make it as easy for her as possible?” What can we do to improve our trustworthiness, so we’re more reliable and dependable, and the company you can count on to show up? It is a collection of many small things that make running a successful party business possible. It is our solution-oriented attitude that allows our system to do thousands upon thousands of parties each and every month and receive thousands of five-star reviews.
Constantly focusing on solutions, I think, keeps us relevant. I also think it is one of the highest values that we have as a company. Why? Because sometimes a problem might knock us back, but it never knocks us down. In almost any situation we have found ourselves in, from my experience, I can say that, while we may not be able to fix it right away, with some curiosity, creativity, and tenacity, we can think of solutions that make the situation better. This is why being solution oriented is one of our core values.