Mills Talks Shop, Fun and Never Selling in Offscreen Magazine
ustwo co-founder Mills was interviewed for Offscreen magazine issue 12 back in August. Here's an excerpt from that piece (you can read the full article here).
Let's talk about company structure. From the outside, ustwo is a somewhat confusing melange of digital agency, game studio, incubator, and now also venture fund. How do you see ustwo?
I'm glad ustwo doesn't look like just another digital agency from the outside, because it doesn’t from the inside either. In a way, we want to set a new standard for what ‘agency’ can mean. As such, ustwo is a place that can create Monument Valley, but also an interface that five million Brits use to do their mobile banking. I see ustwo as a platform – a commercial playground that allows us to do whatever we like, be it launch our own products, start new ventures, partner with the world's biggest brands, or invest in the most exciting startups.
This makes a lot of sense because each of those parts overlap with one another. I believe that if you provide client services for a startup, you need to know what it’s like to run a startup. If you want to help a brand launch a product, you need to have launched your own. And so on. Perhaps most importantly, though, if you want to attract real talent, you need to prove that you are not in the game for money alone.
Sinx and I started ustwo in 2004, and it’s been steadily growing. We're now over 250 people spread across London, Malmö, New York and Sydney. The focus has always been on building what I refer to as a ‘fampany’ – a family company, bonded by intense friendship and utmost loyalty. From day one we set out with a mutual understanding that we would constantly need to change and adapt which I believe is crucial to our success. Creating an environment that nurtures experimentation and pushes people to be better is what allows us to compete for the best talent out there. Being known for great work is one thing, but we always wanted to be known for being a great bunch of people to work with. Part of this strategy is our sworn guarantee that we’d never sell out. Because only as a privately-owned company are we free to take huge risks that may or may not pay off, and really treat our business as a friendly playground and a fertile breeding ground for wildly new ideas.
All of that is why people find it difficult to put ustwo in a clearly defined category. In fact, it’s probably one of the most ambiguous and confusing companies around, but I really believe that the 'quirk' – the unorthodox company set-up – is what makes it so great to work here and so appealing for new talent.
Do you think it's possible to create solutions for clients with the same creative vigour and emotional investment that you put into your own products?
Absolutely. Without that, what’s the point of taking it on? It would simply be a job, and none of us turn up at the studio to 'just do our job'.
At the beginning of every project, there needs to be a shared belief that both parties are committed to creating the best product possible and that both trust in each other’s decisions. This isn’t to say that there won’t be compromises because much of our work involves helping clients shift focus, priorities or direction. The client understands their business and we know how to build products, so the foundation of our relationship has to be a real partnership with a shared understanding of what it is we are creating.
To build this environment of deep collaboration and trust, we've been experimenting with new ways of being paid that allow both parties to share in the upside as well as take a hit on any downside. Trust is essential and our clients seeing us succeed with Monument Valley and pouring our heart and investment into new shared ventures like DICE, a new music ticketing app we co-founded, helps us create that.
I'd like to talk some more about the idea of never, ever selling ustwo. Are you worried that such an absolute statement can put you in hot water further down the track?
Well, there is a sense of irony to this statement because I actually get very excited when I read about acquisitions in our industry. I love the intersection of two colliding brands and seeing what comes out the other end. The true financial value of a brand is only ever extracted if you sell, and I would say that most bigger companies in the service business are built to sell. If that is the focus and the end game of what you define as success, then good on you!
Selling ustwo, however, would be a complete and utter failure, a sign that we were no longer the right people to guide the company. I can’t go down knowing that. And I won’t. This is a hugely exciting time to be in this industry, and as a private company really anything is possible. Being able to decide our own path forward is the drug we're addicted to. So, yeah, I'm perfectly happy to be the last private product studio standing.
The absolute statement is very important for me, and I know it’s important for all ustwobies. Only if everyone understands that we are not on this journey to sell out can we foster a mindset that breeds loyalty and commitment to longevity in our work. Because selling is not on the agenda, you constantly look for other commercial opportunities, for ways to create value. That ongoing hunger means that we are in constant flux, nothing is ever static. And that again feeds into finding great talent, because people know there's always something new cooking at ustwo. It’s an exciting landscape!