What the Minecraft story teaches us about building startups

It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.

It would be easy to roll your eyes at the final line of Markus “Notch” Persson’s blog post announcing that he’s leaving Mojang after it was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.

Saying a decision isn’t about money from a position of immense wealth is always going to attract some cynicism but Notch’s story is an interesting lesson in understanding what you want from your career and your company.

An unintentional leader

Mojang is a company built of necessity. The unexpected success of Minecraft led Notch and his co-founders to build the infrastructure to support it. He never intended to become a leader or ever grew comfortable being one.

There’s an implicit assumption in a lot of commentary around startups that being a founder and CEO should be the ultimate goal. That patently doesn’t work.

Successful CEOs are an unusual breed and leading a company is far from everyone’s idea of happiness.

What do people want?

You need to have conversations about the future very early on in the process of founding a company.

Just as a couple planning on getting married would be wise to work out whether they both want children before they get hitched, founders should talk about what they want personally and professionally from a company in the very early stages.

It’s all too easy to find yourself stuck on a path that you never intended to follow.

When a hobby becomes a job

Of course, a hefty slice of a $2.5 billion exit gives Notch more freedom that most of us will ever know but there is something laudable in his clarity of purpose. He began developing games because he enjoyed the work. In a tech world where entrepreneurialism is fetishised, it’s refreshing to hear someone say:

I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.

Minecraft is about building something for yourself with the resources you have available. It’s a great analogy for startups bootstrapping an idea in a world full of threats and challenges.

That Mojang itself achieved such a huge exit on the back of a product that customers love and without investors should be an inspiration. Notch and his co-founders, Carl Manneh and Jakob Porser, steered their own course.

As unique as the story of Mojang and Minecraft is, we can all take something from it: building something you believe in, something you enjoy is a good place to start. From there, knowing where you want to take it and what role you want to play is crucial.

You shouldn’t kid yourself you’ve built a fortress when you’ve actually designed yourself a prison.