Start-Up Spotlight: Ustwo

Start-Up Spotlight: Ustwo
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

January 20th 2011 at 3:00PM

The creators of MouthOff are leaping deeper into the casual market in 2011

Having already made over £100k from a 59p app, ustwo is anything but a start-up.

They’re place here is warranted however, as this inventive design studio have been steadily edging their way towards games for some time, and this year they are preparing to make their biggest strides yet.

ustwo was founded in 2004 and has since grown from a two-man start-up to an 75 strong team of talented designers and developers, with offices in London and Malmö. Apps created by the studio include the popular MouthOff, design tool Granimator and PositionApp for professions.

They don’t do business in a typical fashion. That much is clear from co-founder Matt ‘Mills’ Miller’s energetic rhetoric, who feels the secret to studio success is cultivating a comfortable environment for creatives. The eccentric dreamer, company mascot and self-proclaimed King of Fail told us where ustwo’s story began and their plans (which may include gamification) for 2011.

How did you start your company?
In late 2004 Sinx, my best friend and business partner, and I accepted a £5000 loan from my Dad. We quickly moved into a small studio in East London and started working on mobile user interfaces initially for Sony, and then Sony Ericsson. This is where it all began and we started the process of crafting and honing our skills on the small screen. The focus at that stage was on creating engaging and entertaining menu screens using Flash Lite and we quickly became the industry leaders in creative product UI development. Our work in this space proceeded what many other studios and agencies are only just beginning to become obsessed with. The world has gone mobile crazy and we were there at the start of it all - at the forefront of innovation with design driving our approach to usability.

The perfect combination of passion and willingness to invest heavily back into the studio has meant that we are now in pole position to up-sell all learnings to big brands across the digital space. 2010 was our biggest year, growing our revenue 100 per cent, growing our ‘princess’ studio in Malmö (5000 sq ft) and securing a bigger centralised 8600 sq ft studio in the epicentre of the hideously dubbed ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Shoreditch - consolidating structures and talent for our 2011 global quest.

For us it’s all about creative DOMINATION and growing a company the right way - ie one with no debt, just 100 per cent passion.

How many people work at your company?
ustwo™ foursquares in London, Malmö and, later this year rather than sooner, New York. We currently have 75 full-time ustwobies currently making dreams a reality.

Each member is a truly valued part of our jigsaw of fun. We’re building a picture of ambition, passion and pride. All these attributes have been core to our success since we first opened the doors to ustwo™ six years ago. We’re in this game to win and winning to us is simply about enjoying our work. Only three people have ever left and four of them came back!

We have absolutely no interest in growing for growing’s sake and yet we have no interest in standing still. We are a perpetual contradiction.

What’s your company culture like?
As you can imagine, it’s terrible. The cultural aspect of ustwo™ is at the heart of everything we do. We’re a fiercely passionate and independent studio. We believe strongly in investing revenue straight back in, which facilitates steady and manageable growth. Growth improves opportunity for all. Exploration, experimentation and investment in talent, processes, internal tools, environment and company culture means we create a solid future for every ustwobie.

Tell us a little-known fact or anecdote about your company.
90 per cent of our perceived success within the industry has come from our willingness to talk loudly and honestly about our failure and, more importantly, every lesson learnt the hard way from our mobile app development. We saw a niche that other studios hadn’t.

What could you, and/or your team members, not do without on a daily basis?
PositionApp™, Twitter for iPhone, Instagram, Facebook, Instapaper, email, Spotify, Stuart Dredge’s iPhone Games Bulletin, iChat, AppViz, Chrome, Tweet Deck and the App Store.

Why did you decide to enter the casual gaming market?
My answer would be that we want to entertain. We want to showcase a range of engaging ideas, show that we can work for the world’s biggest clients to help them achieve their goals, while also working for ourselves. It’s this contradictory approach that has cemented ustwo™ as the go-to studio for insanity. We practice what we preach. Brands and gamers alike are beginning to embrace the insanity. We’ve spent months working on experiences that no other studio out there would ever consider. We do it for the fans and for ourselves.

Gaming is changing from simply being about a controller and a TV. It’s about ‘experience’ like never before. Foursquare makes a game out of check-ins, there are to-do lists apps with game mechanics as the differentiator, the space is so open to where interpretation takes it and I’m truly excited about helping to define and mould this new way of thinking.

The app arena is genuinely an exciting space to be working in. It takes no prisoners, yet when it does, it crushes and destroys them. Only the strong survive and that’s what is so appealing. It has allowed us to steer ustwo™ from solely a UI/UX ‘service’ design studio to one that also spends heavily on personal studio projects with a mix of creative and sales objectives.

It’s this dual fronted attack that provides the excitement and hard-faced reality check that is always present in this industry.

What games/tools/services have you made since forming, and how have they been received?
The last two years have been about creating a diverse portfolio of products that we have used to promote the studio and show our passion through. To this day this has been focused on the iOS and Android platform. It’s been about full focus on experimentation and this in turn has allowed us to build our name, build the brand and build a voice in the industry.

What are you working on right now, and what stage is the project at?
Two main areas of focus this year at the studio will be overseeing iPad publishing (padlishing) and casual gaming investment and exploration. We secured a headcount budget of 10 which will allow us to focus a proportion of the studio resource on becoming the best in these fields. It’s this focus combined with the last two years of constant learning that we believe will help take us to the next level.

We have the fifth instalment of our Dot series releasing in the next few weeks, which after bashing our heads together, we have decided we will release for free. Monetising (if at all) with ads alongside the ability for users to remove the adverts through in app purchase. If you want it clean, you need to pay the bean. We feel the barrier to entry has to be removed and people must taste the juice that will be left on the pants after playing this turbo juice inducing game.

After Dot5 we will be silent for a few months as we work on three new projects set for release in the first two quarters of this year. It’s finally time to go beyond reality.

What are your aspirations for the company?
It’s all about legacy, we want to look back and be proud of the fact we have created a haven for talent, built a loyal user base and created worthy products with leading brands.

It’s about being in a position to help the big brands create inspirational products. It’s not about pitching to a client, it’s about them knocking on our door, wanting to drink from our fountain of inspired ambrosia and nectar.

Our dream would be to be world-renowned for creating engaging entertaining experiences on and beyond the mobile world. About making truly useful experiences that go beyond the current first wave of novelty that we have been a part of.

Everyone shares the same drive, focus and passion to help us continue to produce the work we have become renowned for.

Who do you admire in the games industry and/or beyond?
I admire Neil Young at ngmoco for what he and his co-founders have done for gaming, moving beyond solely making games and focussing on the creation of a gaming platform. You can’t help but be excited by the huge sums of money being thrown at them right now. This shows that the mobile space, and more importantly gaming, are going to blow up even more. It also excites me that as they grow and buy more small gaming studios there will be more room for us indies.

I love seeing what Tapulous (acquired by Disney) are doing for digital music sales. They have democratised music buying for the YouTube generation, blending gameplay with seamless music buying. With the power of Disney behind them they can become a truly inspired mobile studio.

On a bedroom level, I love Johnny Two Shoes, a ‘two brothers’ outfit in East London who recently dipped their toes into apps and scored a massive charting success with their first release, Plunderland. You can tell they love doing it, it’s not about money for them. It’s about crafting perfection.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your company?
The business was built out of a soul desire to create an environment that people want to be part of and that clients want to bathe in. It’s this environment that we believe is the driver for the quality that we produce.

Want to be featured in our Start-Up Spotlight? Contact Aaron.Lee@intentmedia.co.uk with details of your company to be considered for inclusion.