Start-up Special: Grow your own studio

Start-up Special: Grow your own studio

By David Bailey

November 7th 2012 at 10:30AM

Mediatonic CEO David Bailey on forming a thriving game development business

[This article is from a series of special features on starting your own studio, as found in Develop #133, which is available through your browser and on iPad. We'll be posting up further articles in the coming days.]

Back in 2005, Paul Croft and myself decided to start a games business. At that time we were still at university, running out of lectures to take important calls.

Now, Mediatonic has grown to span two offices, based in London and Brighton, which will between them house 100 staff within the next year. We’ve attracted investment from some of the biggest names in games, including Ian Livingstone OBE and Geoff Heath OBE.

We’ve gone from being a company that made standalone Flash games to a complete ‘games as a service’ provider, and we’re working with truly global partners on long-term partnerships.

Having been through it, we know that starting a business is one of the most exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding things you can do.

We’ve learnt a huge amount across these seven years, so here are a few pieces of advice for anyone else thinking of taking the plunge and forming a start-up.

BUILD TRACTION EARLY

You want your business to be a success, so it’s understandable that you might want to get out there straight away and pitch for work.

Never underestimate the value of having something already completed, even if it’s not particularly commercial. It’s extremely difficult to have a practical sales conversation without having something that can back up your claims; something that can prove your capability and expertise.

We had to sink a lot of effort into that – a lot of effort that you won’t directly earn any money from – but it’s vital to put in the groundwork in order to secure business going forward.

TARGET YOUR NETWORKING

The best way to get work-for-hire business is with face-to-face meetings, so pick a few conferences and really work them. You’ll need to budget some cash for this, but done properly the returns will make up for it.

Also, make sure that the conferences you pick in the early days will get you time with the people who can actually commission product – networking with peers definitely has its value, but people who are in a similar situation to you are much less likely to be able to give you the work you need.

CASH IS KING

This sounds like rather basic advice, but always watch your cash flow like a hawk. We did financial reports every Friday without fail – what came in, what went out, what was left, what was projected.

It can be tempting to focus on more fancy accounting, but basic cash flow management is really, really critical for start-ups, whatever your focus – big clients can take up to 90 days to pay once your milestones are approved or your royalties become due.

STRIKE WHILE THE IRON’S HOT

The easiest time to start a business is when you have nothing to lose. For example, when we founded Mediatonic we were at university, so we didn’t already have jobs and incomes that we would have to give up in order to set-up our studio.

The longer you leave it, the more money you’ll be making and the more friction you’ll need to overcome to make the jump to setting up your own studio.

NEVER LET UP ON QUALITY

There’s definitely value in getting yourself out there and known – appearing at conferences, writing blogs, and so on – but at the end of the day you will always be judged on the quality of your work.

It can be tempting to spend a lot of effort on this side of the business, and to see it as publicity work, but your reputation will rest far more on what you’ve made than on your speaking appearances. Doing this networking will certainly help you generate leads, but ultimately any deal will hinge around your previous output when it comes to the due diligence stage.

In fact, there’s definitely something to be said for working even harder than normal to over-deliver on your early projects. That’s because everything you’re working on right now is what you’ll use to get to the next level, business-wise, when you’re looking for your next contract. That makes it some of the most important work you’ll ever undertake.

We’ve always focused on making the very best product we can, rather than having a better margin, because running a studio is a long-term game – even if you might feel the pinch in the short-term.

Mediatonic CEO Dave Bailey co-founded his studio seven years ago, overseeing its transition to focus solely on digital games in 2008, the successful spin-out of an independent media agency in 2009, and raised angel and VC investment rounds at the company in 2010 and 2012 respectively. www.mediatonicgames.com

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