Mills and Sinx, founders of ustwo share their key learnings from scaling up their design business.

Sinx and I started ustwo in 2004 with an ambition to do something our way, with one client and an agreement to give it a go for three months. 14 years later ustwo is a £30m turnover business with 250 ustwobies worldwide. Here are a few lessons we’ve learnt along the way. . .

Scale up lesson 1: Get commercially focused – fast.

Our biggest challenge at the beginning was our business naivety. We thought creative first and business second. We were two graphic designers – we almost objected to the business part of it. After 14 years we now totally understand you need to be extremely, commercially focused!

Scale up lesson 2: Embrace other skill sets.

If we could have our time again, we would have embraced other skillsets much earlier. We were doing all the business support ourselves and we did ok and learnt a lot but we weren’t IT or HR professionals. With the latter we we’ve always been good with people and our values are strong but we weren’t trained in HR.

When you’re small you can’t afford all these people. but looking back, we should have hired HR and IT and business support earlier.

We scaled to 50 people with everyone being a hands-on designer or developer; we were led by our passions and believed we were doing something different. We wanted to go against the grain of business and concentrate on design but the minute we started hiring competent business development, competent IT, competent HR, it freed us up to do exactly that. We always say that when we hired our first IT person was one of the best days of our lives! That business support allowed the creative teams to concentrate more on our core goal and mission and do what we love and what we are good. There is no point being seen as cool if you don’t back it up with proper process and rigour.

Scale up lesson 3: Assess the needs of the business regularly.

We didn’t do that regularly enough and we kept people who, because they were great for the business in the early years, we assumed would be always be great. This isn’t a disservice to them – businesses change and have different needs.

Scale up lesson 4: Recruit carefully.

At the beginning we hired friends or people we got to know in the pub or through our network. That had its benefits – it created a genuine culture for one – but we took a lot of risk on people that really didn’t pay off. We hired people for roles completely out of their comfort zone just because we thought anyone could do any job. How that’s changed! Now we use headhunters for certain jobs and we have extremely strict interview process which means that the entire teams vet people before we even meet them. We don’t do things on gut reaction anymore. It’s better to take a lot of time to hire someone right than to just take a quick punt on somebody and then have to unwind it years or months down the line. Spend more time making sure you are hiring the right people.

Scale up lesson 5: Seek out people who think differently to you.

At the beginning we were very against the idea of external input – we wanted to do things our way! However as we grew, we began to understand the value of having a diverse set of skills and backgrounds. As we expanded the types of thinkers that we had in our business, our work definitely got better. Now we have an amazing board of very different thinkers who are there to push us and to question everything we do. Not having people questioning us in the early years slowed us down. If we’d had mentors earlier we would have made less mistakes.

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