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TouchArcade's Eli Hodapp on the Challenges of Managing Online Teams

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TouchArcade's Eli Hodapp speaking at the Korean Gaming Conference.

    Technology's supposed to be isolating us all, right? Well, anyone who's gotten a text at 3 a.m. from their best friend asking for a shoulder to cry on knows this isn't exactly true. We have Facebook, we have Twitter and we have cell phones to remind us that anyone can get a hold of anyone else at any given moment. It's been a boon for proactive professionals and a bane for bearded Luddite hermits all over, and it can be a sticky, well, sticking point for managers. Especially those who oversee teams of unseen contributors or employees who are accountable but still don't have faces to put with the names in the minds of whoemver they work for.

    It's a juggling act I know very well, as does Eli Hodapp of Lisle, Illinois. Since 2009, Hodapp has been editor of TouchArcade, the world's biggest iOS site. It reviews and previews apps -- though specializes in games -- and also has coverage on newsy happenings in the iOS world. With the initial rush of the iPad Mini now subsiding, Hodapp and I hopped into the Inc. Well Newschopter and discussed the buckets of generic-brand elbow grease involved in managing online teams.

    How and when did TouchArcade become a full-time job?

    Eli Hodapp: I think it took around six months for me to do a complete switchover to TouchArcade being my primary source of income. I left a fairly lucrative career in medical technology, but my heart has always been in gaming. TouchArcade was actually my first paid writing gig. Before the .com boom I had aspirations of becoming an English teacher, or something else involving teaching other people the craft of writing, but life takes funny turns as unexpected opportunities arise.

    How'd it come about?

    Eli Hodapp: Well, I was always interested in the Apple "scene," and followed the various rumor sites. The biggest of which was MacRumors, and so by being an old-school member of that community I vaguely knew the people behind that site. I thought the iPhone had amazing potential, and when it was announced that MacRumors was starting an iOS gaming site I had to be involved. I basically pestered Arnold Kim, one of the site's co-founders, until he let me.

    Since this was your first gig like this, what reservations or concerns did you have about managing a team online and enforcing deadlines?

    Eli Hodapp: Well, my previous job had me managing all sorts of outsourced developers back when it was just starting to be in fashion to ship your programming efforts overseas. In actuality, managing a maintaining remote developers turned out to be fairly similar to handling an entirely online team of writers.

    The key is in finding the right people. There's a lot that goes into being a successful telecommuter: Just enjoying video games and knowing how to write isn't enough. You need razor-sharp focus and the ability to produce on a deadline when potentially surrounded with all sorts of distractions.

    How has your approach to managing your team changed? Were there approaches you started off with that you either evolved or shucked aside?

    Eli Hodapp: The way I manage our writing staff has evolved greatly over the years. I used to deal with writers on a highly personal one on one basis via various IM clients. That evolved into a shared Google document that everyone can see, and now we use 37Signals' -- another local Chicago company! -- suite of groupware web apps to manage everything. Basecamp is fabulous for handling assignments and collaborating on individual stories and Campfire is way more useful than individual conversations as the nature of a online chat room always allows everyone to see what's going on.

    I always try to work smarter, so when I find a product or service that makes the whole process easier, I'll instantly drop whatever we were using before to switch to it. I'm not sure what can get better than Basecamp and Campfire, but I'm always looking.

    What challenges are you currently facing or trying to address with managing a team online?

    Eli Hodapp: Productivity is always an issue. I do everything I can to not only make TouchArcade the best iOS games site, but also the fastest when it comes to the speed we post news and how quickly after a game is released that we'll have a review up for it. Not everyone shares that passion, which is to be somewhat expected. My greatest challenge is keeping writers constantly energized, as it seems like we have a constant turnover of people who are initially incredibly excited to get going, then realize that producing good content takes a considerable amount of effort. We're always fighting that burnout rate, which seems somewhat inevitable in the games journalism industry.

    Why is burnout inevitable in games journalism? How do you combat that in your writers?

    Eli Hodapp: Well, the natural progression seems to be something along the lines of, "Hey, I like video games, and I can write, and it'd be really cool if I could combine those two things to get paid." People start off genuinely excited, as it is truly exhilarating the first few times you see your name on the byline of some huge publication. Then, like everything else, it becomes work, and stops being fun for some. It's understandable, as once you blur the line between "fun hobby" and "work" it can create some weird situations.

    The difficulty comes from how hard it is to find "full time" freelance writers. The people I often have problems with are those who are doing this for fun. There's light years of difference in the motivation behind the actions of, for instance, someone in college writing reviews for beer money versus a writer who needs to pay their mortgage. Unfortunately, with the current state of journalism as a whole, finding those people willing to scrape together countless assignments to make it a "full time" thing is a rare thing indeed.

    It's interesting to see how work ethic has changed, in a very general sense. Our "ideal" writer would be someone with a strong passion for and a deep background in video games. This generally coincides fairly well with the 18-22 year old college student who, for whatever reason, just doesn't seem to be motivated by the money I'm paying them. It's a strange phenomenon. It's frustrating in a way, as when I was that age, I'd do anything to string together work to make money. I've found myself at a loss in regards to how to deal with what some are calling the "millennial" problem. Maybe it has to do with the availability of student loans, but I've been surprised by the number of people I've dealt with who initially seem promising, do good work, then eventually flake because they don't need the money or whatever. It sort of breaks my brain trying to figure it out.

    What goals do you hope to hit in the next year pertaining to managing your team?

    Eli Hodapp: I really want to increase TouchArcade's overall brand recognition. We're the biggest iOS gaming site out there by far, but we're still a fairly niche site in the grand scheme of things, which is strange to think when you consider that basically everyone you know with an iPhone has at least a few games on it. I'm always trying to come up with new ways to get people to try out our app, or otherwise elevate TouchArcade to that mainstream audience.

    I've been trying pretty hard to maintain a staff of writers with a wide variety of interests, so when people visit TouchArcade we always have a good variety of things to hit a broader audience.

    David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.