The Employee-Founder Disconnect

Another month, another job posting ripe for internet ridicule.

In this case, it’s a job listing from the creator of Stardew Valley, looking for an administrative assistant to help him with a number of tasks while he continues to scale out his popular game. The job description itself is telling: there are so many areas of responsibility that it’s organized into 5 major categories of work1, complete with multiple bullet points per category. Commentators on Twitter quickly reprimanded the posting, noting that it’s at least 3 persons’ worth of work smashed into a single paid position.

On the surface, it certainly sounds like yet another cruel employer, exploiting passionate gamers for selfish profits. The background of Stardew Valley, though, runs counter to that narrative: the game was created by a single person over the course of half a decade, and that sole developer has never had another job in the game industry2. Stardew Valley was his first and thus far only commercial game, an unlikely initial magnum opus for an amateur game developer. From magazine profiles, the 5 years he spent building his game included learning everything from programming to making sound effects to drawing sprites, taking on roles that even small indie studios would separate across multiple developers.

And with Stardew Valley’s success, there’s even more work to be done around the business aspects of game development—from connecting to fans to game publishing to striking deals for platform ports. It’s quite miraculous that all of these roles are undertaken by one person; well, it’s precisely why he’s looking for help. It’s somewhat understandable, then, that someone who has worn all the caps and knows of no other way to work has created an employment opportunity as an amalgamation of many jobs.

Of course, the major difference between a founder and their employee(s) is how the rewards are split. In the very beginning, the discrepancy is often justified by citing the magnitude of reward proportional to the massive risks taken. Founders often end up forgoing salaries and put in ridiculous work hours, as any additional ounce of effort could be amplified into multiplicative success down the road. In Stardew’s case, the developer has already made a fortune within months of the initial launch, and certainly deserves all the accolades and sales.

But Stardew’s first super admin-comms-office-finance-manager will be entering a role where they’ll have to follow the work ethical lead of their employer, but with much less shared upside success. It’s analogous to how startups’ first—presumably salaried—employees often get a bad deal, both in the quantity and quality of equity they receive in comparison with the founders. Even setting aside the compensation gulf, founders and apparently sole game developers receive attention and connections and fame and celebration that are wholly absent from those who work for them3.

At times, this perspective is lost on founders, who sometimes wonder why their employees seem to lack the same motivational drive as themselves. As a part of Square’s S1, its CEO talked about “multiple founding moments” and how anyone at a company has the opportunity for reinvention. As an employee at the time, I’ve always thought that while the sentiment is noble, the incentive and motivational structure felt unfair. Yes, someone who discovers and executes on a new “founding moment” may very well get rapidly promoted and showered with bonuses and equity grants, but then the founder chief executive—who still owns 25% of the company—is still reaping benefits orders of magnitude greater.

  1. For posterity—general administrative, community presence, human resources, office management, and financial record-keeping.

  2. Ironically, he shied away from jumping into game industry with both feet because he felt like he lacked the skills to be hired…and he was concerned about work/life balance.

  3. Though to be fair, for the folks that got in on the ground floor of tiny startups that go on to become the likes of Facebook and Google, the “first x employee” moniker does carry some weight.

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