A healthy cash balance is good but team spirit is priceless for a firm’s success
Entrepreneurs are often so absorbed in their product or service that they don’t start to shape the company’s culture until it is too late.
Pre-occupied with cash flow or a long supply chain, they ignore the soul of the business and a negative ethos can develop, dictated by dominant members of staff.
When childhood friends John Sinclair and Matthew Miller, both 36, started their digital products business they consciously set out to establish a family feel.
The designers, who now have three studios – in Shoreditch, east London, Malmo, Sweden, and New York – have achieved rapid growth and revenues of £20m in the past financial year, attributing their success to the “work hard, play hard” culture created in the early days of the business’s life.
“We always knew that we were going to spend more time in the studio than out, so we flipped the concept of where you have the most fun,” says Miller. “So many people think that culture is about putting a table football in the corner but culture to me is about being a brother.”
UsTwo was founded in 2004 following the dotcom crash and before the explosion of mobile technology. The 180-strong workforce design and build products, from foreign exchange trading platforms for clients such a JP Morgan or Barclays’ mobile banking app, Pingit, to award-winning mobile games, such as Monument Valley.
“Ultimately we didn’t plan the culture, we just acted in a way that was 100pc natural to us two – so it’s real,” he says.
In the early days, they had one main client, Sony, which brought in £12,000 a month. This allowed them to rent a studio and hire staff.
They became an extension of their clients’ in-house design team, but didn’t want their working environment to copy the corporate culture of their “formal,” blue-chip customers. “When we were decorating the London studio it was all done on a budget,” says Sinclair.
He scoured east London for second-hand desks. “The studio set-up is based on touch points, creating as many opportunities for people to ‘bump’ and interact. A key focal point of all studios is the incredible barrista machines that become a hub for conversation.” The new water cooler.
“As we’ve grown, to now 14,000 square feet, you really need to consider everything, from bike storage to social areas and break-out zones. We’re always looking for ways to improve and encourage the whole studio in helping us do so. In fact we have little to do with it ourselves now, just have one simple rule of no Ikea,” Sinclair says.
For Miller and Sinclair, known to their young staff as Mills and Sinx, equality is at the heart of the businesss.
“We have a very flat structure,” explains Miller, “and, while one team works on client services work, the bread and butter of the company, another is creating ringtones or games, anything that stretches the UsTwo talent pool.” As it happens, the games, which were designed in the name of experimentation, are now bringing in serious revenue.
The pair work hard to maintain their culture, which is changing as the workforce gets older. “We’re growing up a bit now,” says Miller. “Our people have families now so the unlimited beer becomes less important and the sharing platform more so.”
But the true ethos of the company is born out of their values and personal style.
“Laugh and the company laughs with you. Company culture is born from the leaders but it is only real culture if everyone participates in maintaining it.”
A company’s personality is defined by the behaviour of the leader and senior management, agrees Shaun Thomson, founder of employment consultancy Sandler Training.
“Employees quickly see through a fad; to ensure that the culture is created and maintained it has to be consistent and led from the top – with senior management setting the example and practising what they preach. The culture is in place when everyone takes pride and believes in the values.”
A company culture is born and not made, according to Sandler Training, but it needs nurturing.