Founder Files | ustwo’s Mills Miller on building a cult design powerhouse

ustwo Co-Founder Mills Miller is an open book with a fascinating business story to tell. Both he and his childhood friend John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair studied design and ended up working together at the Big Animal design and animation agency in Shoreditch, working primarily with Sony Ericsson in what was then a niche section of creative tech design. In 2004, they left to start their own mobile-focused agency, with an emphasis on a culture that Mills describes as a ‘fampany’ (he’s fond of portmanteaus: ‘succailure’, successes deriving from failures, is another favourite).

Mills admits that their timing was good, and that they didn’t foresee the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, which put them near the front of the queue as the world scrambled for apps and innovative mobile solutions. On the back of work for big clients, the agency grew fast, and took risks – most notably investing more than £1 million in developing the beautiful, Escher-inspired Monument Valley game, which launched to widespread acclaim in 2014, and was a huge financial success.

But Mills struggled in the period after Monument Valley – realising that some of the energy he’d invested in ustwo had been at the expense of family time and personal growth. After some time off to reflect, he started to develop what he describes as one of his biggest passions – investing in startups. In 2014, he started ustwo Adventure, which has supported scores of brands including t-shirt brand Everpress, Courier magazine and the digital integration platform. He also invests personally as Barney The Horse.

Over all this time, the company he founded with his best friend has remained a leader in the mobile space, creating innovative apps and real-world products for clients from Lego to Deepmind and Joe Wicks, and creating games like 2020’s Alba: A Wildlife Adventure and Assemble With Care, a game about repairing objects that’s really about relationships and what it means to be human. It seems to fit with Mills’s philosophy, which he says has ultimately been about ‘learning to fully be myself, and create an environment where others can be their best selves too’.

The key takeaways

  • On getting a leg up ‘It was Sinx who got me the job at Big Animal. He’d studied at St Martin’s while I was at Bath Spa, and was a real goody-two-shoes, who had become really interested in design for new technology. It’s not the only time he’s helped me out.’
  • On mobile ‘Our main client was Sony Ericsson. Back then mobile wasn’t much of a focus, and the respectable designers were working on bigger things – but we loved the creativity of being limited to a small screen, and the challenge of making the interfaces more expressive and human. It felt new, fresh and exciting to us.’
  • On luck ‘We had no real expectations when we started ustwo, and no idea that the iPhone was round the corner. But we were in the right place at the right time for this new technology.’
  • On growing fast ‘We probably had it too easy financially early on. We quickly grew to 400 people, and we’d never known a downturn – Sinx described it as having big muscles up top but tiny legs.’
  • On team-building ‘The culture of respecting people and creating an environment for people to flourish has always been so important to ustwo, but we made some mistakes. We probably hired too many people because we got on with them, and we had this quite flat hierarchy, with salaries all over the place and an all-male leadership team. It was a madhouse for a while, and hiring someone really experienced like Cath [Keers, formerly of TalkTalk and Funding Circle] as executive chair really helped us to grow up as a business.’
  • On money ‘It can be quite scary talking about money in front of other creatives, but it’s massively important to understand it. Money hasn’t made us wealthy, because we’ve ploughed so much of our profit back into the business, but it has given us permission to take risks.’
  • On risksMonument Valley was a good example. It was almost a stealth team working on it, and we had to stick with it as the costs grew. And gaming was this completely new discipline that we’d had to learn and respect. But it was failing on games before that allowed us to make Monument Valley.’
  • On knowing your limits ‘Early on we didn’t have to pitch for new business, and we started to realise we had big gaps on the sales side of things. Hiring Carsten [Wierwille] as CEO was a major shift, and helped Sinx and I to step aside and focus on the parts of the business we’re really passionate about. For him, it’s more about client service, whereas for me it was about gaming and investing in small businesses I really believe in.’
  • On investing ‘There’s no real logic to how I invest, but so much is about the founder, and whether I believe in them. For me at least, it’s more about people than business models.’
  • On self-knowledge ‘People often see a successful business and assume everything is rosy. But I had a breakdown after Monument Valley, and had to take some time off. I was also diagnosed with ADHD quite late, which explained a lot for me. I’ve had to learn a lot of difficult lessons about myself and the people I’ve worked with. I’ve learned that you don’t have to know everything, and that that there will always be times you fall flat on your face. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is to be myself, and to try to follow my real passions and do what feels right.’

Mills’s quickfire lessons for founders

  1. ‘Always celebrate small wins, and don’t get too obsessed by the big, hard wins.’
  2. ‘Don’t work with arseholes, even if the money is hard to turn down.’
  3. ‘Don’t over-promise. Honesty will ultimately pay you back.’
  4. ‘Admit when you need help. Big egos can lead to bad decisions.’
  5. ‘Don’t be afraid to want to make money (and admit that).’
  6. ‘Don’t be afraid of change…’
  7. ‘But always, always be yourself.’
  8. ‘And have fun. If you’re not really passionate about what you’re doing, it won’t work.’

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