You may not know this, but Aether Interactive recently reformed. Previously, I was its sole owner; this meant that what it made, I made, and to compensate for being the pen name of a collective with shifting team members per project, I had a lot of individual agreements I processed and laid out for everyone involved; while still listing everyone’s income as my income, and their split as a subcontract with a particularly strange pay structure. I mean, none of it was false; but it wasn’t ideal for the work we did. Most notably, it put a lot of work on me without appreciable pay in response.
On May 2, 2018, Penelope and I reformed it as a general partnership and simplified our pay structure across all projects. It’s far simpler now: as partners, we split the cost and profit of the company. It’s like being a super freelancer: now the overhead isn’t covered by just you, and the output is that much greater, making the potential for sustainability and income more likely.
I think this is how a lot of companies start.
I get asked sometimes how I organise myself; I do wear a lot of hats across a number of places, I have two credit cards, recurring applications to file, bills (although I usually just put those on the credit cards to consolidate tasks), you know. Adult stuff. And I’d love to answer – and open the door on our company process a little, as well. But first, we have to look at how we got here. I want you to meet kid Sophia, and she might seem very familiar to you.
Kid Sophia and Adult Sophia
Most of my life I didn’t do much outside of school and work. I didn’t know how to. I went years, and years, wondering why I felt so together during school, and why I became a frozen, depressive puddle once it was supposedly relaxation time. I had interests. I had projects I wanted to do. I just didn’t ever do them.
It turns out it was a delicate cocktail preventing me from taking action:
- I had a pretty bad anxiety disorder. If I didn’t have a huge amount of buffer in everything in my life, and a very low stressor load, I would freeze up entirely, unable to act. All of life’s stresses felt too big, and they made me too scared to act on them while keeping my mind on the now. I didn’t know how to break up tasks to keep the stressors managed on a day to day basis. If they weren’t eliminated entirely for me, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
- School and work provided a structure and routine to life that I succeeded within. I was a phenomenal student, I was dedicated and enthusiastic. I was passionate as a scholar. But outside of school, I didn’t really pursue anything. I couldn’t, without the structure and routine school provided, so I thought I needed school. When really, I needed structure I could just provide myself.
So I had interests and hobbies and projects, but unless they were compatible with the anxiety disorder, they didn’t happen. That meant I did a lot of photography. I biked around town a lot. I did things that were mind-numbing enough to turn off the part of my brain that worried. I did a lot of things that had no start or end date or time pressure to do them, because once there was any pressure at all, I couldn’t enjoy it. So video games were also delicate. I craved silent, solitary exploration. I played Metroid Prime and Guild Wars and did it entirely at my own pace, within my own head, and wondered at the world in a way that never made me feel stressed out.
These problems were fixed almost by accident.
I started taking anti-anxiety medication to deal with my first full-time job outside of school. It felt like if I couldn’t handle entry-level work, I couldn’t handle anything, so I needed to abandon the pointless hesitation I had to medicate myself. What I did most of my life was knowingly reduce my stressor load, try to cope with anything else. I meditated, I read on Buddhist and Stoic philosophers and tried to focus on doing, on living the fears I had so I could feel prepared to tackle them. But still, the anxiety was always too much.
I take sertraline, and it was the best decision I ever made. I don’t know how to explain it, really – everything shrank down to the correct perspective. I had life stressors, but in a capacity I could tackle and manage. I could focus my mind on other things while knowing the stressors were there, and they had to be addressed. The only side effect I’ve really noticed is a lessened emotional expressiveness and what friends have called “an almost supernatural calmness” that can put people off. I actually really like it.
Second, I started finding ways to make structure happen in my own life once I left that full-time job. I started using task managers instead of sticky notes; I started booking time to tackle different kinds of work. Work wasn’t something I kept entirely in my head, done at all hours of the day. It was something that had a reliable, consistent routine from day to day. And everything was work – everything was different kinds of work, once you think about it the right way.
So, for tasks I use OmniFocus. You should probably use OmniFocus. Seem like a lot of money? It’s the smallest amount of money you’ll spend on such a life-changing thing. The amount of lost income you’ll have by not having OmniFocus so, so, so gigantically outweighs spending $60 once that it’s ridiculous. Just spend it. I feel the same way about estrogen and sertraline. Penny-wise, pound-foolish, after all this time!
Don’t have a Mac/iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch/iPod/Apple IIGS? Fine, use Todoist, it’s less configurable, but it’s still servicable. It’s about the method. It’s about the workflow.
And me? I use inboxes as my basic structure.
I think of a basically everything as an inbox with an underlying organisation. Once a week, the parts get organised. You book a day for it, and that becomes the work for that day; in a way, it’s theraputic. It’s how the week begins.
Even my desktop on my computer – I think of it an inbox. I put everything in there as I do my weekly tasks a day at a time, and then on Sundays I move stuff into neat folders if I need to, or I delete it.
With tasks, everything you ever have to do, ever, gets put on the list. Medication? Yeah, it’s in there. Surgery stuff? Definitely in there. Credit card bills? Repeating 3-week tasks, because I literally never buy anything more than I can afford, I just put everything on a credit card to manage expenses in a unified place while accumulating the best reward points for my lifestyle.
Emails you gotta answer? Yup, stick it in there. If it’s living in your head, taking up brainspace, it’s preventing you from focusing on the task at hand. It’s like it’s taking up all the RAM and you need to open Chrome to work.
I tend to live in the “forecast” view of OmniFocus, seeing what’s ahead. Seeing what’s on the calendar for various orgs, looking at what has to be done today, and prioritising the day from there. Then on Sundays I look at every project, every inbox, and see what’s changed, what has to be added, and revise accordingly.
Seem weird? I mean, I devotedly catalogue my hydration intake so I can see it on a graph. It probably is weird.
Aether Interactive’s workflow
How do you balance this with a company that needs to be always moving forward? Well, we use weekly sprints. We evaluate each week what’s up ahead and what we need to do as a company and we do that planning together before assigning tasks. I tend to need action items or else I don’t know what to do next, so we make action items.
We use Basecamp for projects and HQ stuff but you could honestly use a few different tools for group task management. I know people who only use Trello, though I don’t understand them. We smile and nod at each other and then go back to our real system for adults.
Aether’s HQ has group paperwork. We forward emails that are relevant for discussion. We keep assets and a year-by-year ledger with income and expenses for the company, profit split, and remitted HST.
Then for games, we make projects for collaborators as necessary and use the same weekly sprint system. I tend to prefer hiring producers to manage that – managing the full timeline of the project is a godsend; plus producers clarify and assign roles in a way that I just can’t do well – but if my own workload is smaller for a project, I’m a capable producer for the team.
We use a company Slack, of course, but it’s rarely about huge discussions – just quick decisions for tasks. Microtalks. Anything bigger gets sidebarred for a meeting, and meetings happen once a week, so it’s fine. The company Slack is usually more about teambuilding. It’s about sharing what we’re doing, discussing the project according to our roles. It’s about sharing company-relevant stuff in the same way you’d show your friends something in a group chat.
Generally, Penelope and I meet Mondays and we organise projects in states of conception, preproduction, production, and postproduction. We see the timeline for each one; we have go-to collaborators and other projects where we’d have to hire out. We evaluate if we can afford to pay entirely upfront between the two of us, whether we can give a significant amount of that and hybridise it with a deferral from sales, or pitch a limited revenue-share model to a collaborator we just really want to work with.