WHEN Matt Miller and John Sinclair decided they were ready to leave the safety of a big advertising agency and start their own design studio, they were sure of two things. “We knew how to please clients and how to get ripped off — we weren’t very good at negotiating,” said Sinclair.
But the opportunity to let their creative spirits run wild quickly brought rewards, saving them from falling into the hands of moneygrubbing clients. “We realised we could be completely insane with our ideas. We wouldn’t have to be fake, we could just be us,” said Miller.
Their company Ustwo has since been responsible for the design of some game-changing technology products, including the Hudl, Tesco’s budget 7in tablet computer, and Barclays’ Pingit app.
Ustwo, based in Shoreditch, east London, has 170 staff and big-name clients including Tesco. It has added studios in New York and Malmo, where it works on digital commerce for the Swedish fashion retailer H&M. In 2013, sales reached £15m and earnings were £2m. This year, sales of £20m are forecast.
That’s not bad for a business that started in 2004 with a £5,000 loan from Miller’s father. He and Sinclair grew up in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Miller has two sisters and Sinclair has a brother. They met while at school at Uplands Community College in nearby Wadhurst. “We’re best mates,” said Miller. “Even though we’re polar opposites, we get on so well.”
His mother was a councillor and his father works for Ovation Data. “He’s the closest thing we had to a business mentor when we started.” Sinclair’s mother was a typesetter and his father a jazz musician.
The boys both took a foundation course in design at Brighton College of Technology in 1996. They then parted ways. Sinclair enrolled at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London to study graphic design while Miller took the same degree at Bath Spa University.
On graduating in 2000, Sinclair “made cups of tea” at the design consultancy Fitch, where he soon came across a new design and animation studio called Big Animal. He switched companies, but not before asking his best pal to join him.
It was a lifestyle change as well as a career change, as the Big Animal team lived and worked in a warehouse in northeast London. “I had a garden shed for a bedroom and Matt pitched a tent by the wall for a year before upgrading to a shed,” Sinclair said.
Four years later, they decided it was time to take their own ideas forward. With the loan from Miller’s father they bought two laptops. It took just a year for them to catch the attention of the technology giant Sony.
“We worked on its mobile projects, which wasn’t the sexy business it is today. Mobile wasn’t cool but it gave us a fantastic grounding,” Sinclair said.
Their projects range from smartphones and televisions to iOS and Android apps. Miller is particularly proud of Pingit, which allows users to transfer money by phone. “That is our biggest ‘wow’ piece. We have 20 people working on that account,” he said. “Tesco’s Hudl also released a huge fanfare. They are the hero projects we want to be associated with.”
Though much of Ustwo’s revenue is still generated by big clients, it is also working on its own projects, such as the iOS children’s game Whale Trail, which has spawned a publishing deal with Penguin Books.
Miller said £1m a year is reinvested in in-house projects. The profits are distributed equally between all staff, creating what he calls a “shared partnership”. “Everything is shared here. I’m thinking about the people and how we can create opportunities,” he said. “You can feel the passion in the air, which is a huge part of why we’ve done well.”
To build that feeling of community he and Sinclair have designed a homely office and offer generous pay and perks. Women receive seven months’ maternity leave on full pay and men have three months’ paternity leave.
“We understand the work-life balance in a way we didn’t when we started 10 years ago,” said Miller, who has two children. “We want to attract and secure the best talent.”
Sinclair is keen to expand the business farther afield, with San Francisco and Australia next on the horizon. The pair own 77.5% of the company, with the rest split between three angel investors. They have had plenty of offers to sell but are not inclined to entertain any of them.
“There have been so many acquisitions in our industry — one a month of late — but we are not interested in selling. We are driven to continue for another 10 years,” said Sinclair, 35.
He lives in Hackney, east London, with his partner, Deborah Harvey, a fashion designer at Stella McCartney. Miller, also 35, lives in Clapham with his wife, Lisa, a stay-at-home mum.
The partners’ advice to budding entrepreneurs is: “Take on lots of different projects rather than risk your whole business on the demands of one client.”