The only deep, true interview with Matt ‘Mills’ Miller, co-founder of ustwo

This interview is part of Offscreen Issue 12. Take a look inside here. Issue 12 also includes interviews with Alexander Aghassipour, Dan Rubin, Ariel Waldman, Jason Fried and Jeffrey Zeldman.

It may seem like a rather confusing melange of digital agency, game studio, incubator, and venture fund, but for co-founder Mills, it’s a place for having fun above all else. His company ustwo has recently found itself in the global spotlight, collecting praise and awards for creating the hugely popular mobile game Monument Valley. With 250 employees and branches around the world, Mills is trying to strike a balance between leading a successful global business and preserving the jolly casualness and genuine friendship that make up the unique fabric of his ‘fampany’.

[Offscreen] Mills, when I recently caught up with House of Cards on Netflix I was astonished to find Kevin Spacey playing and talking about Monument Valley. Final achievement unlocked?

Ha! All it took was a phone call, and soon after the President was playing Monument Valley. We were aware of the inclusion, but I personally didn’t know just how embedded it would be because the team hid it from me. They knew how overly excited I’d get and decided to surprise me. And yes, I was sick with pride when I saw that episode.

Monument Valley has won countless awards over the last year or so but that one-hour episode did more to raise the profile of the game than any single event before it. The fact that our game is woven so deeply into the plot and that the game’s review is read aloud on the show just blew our minds. It’s an amazing feeling to have our work absorbed into another medium, especially when it’s used as a popular culture reference like this.

Five hours after the show premiered there was an immediate spike in downloads, which again led the game to the top of the app charts. Weeks later I was in LA and most people I met knew of the game because of the show. It’s an incredible feeling to have finally made something that is known the world over.

[Offscreen] Congratulations! Can you take us back to the beginning, to that point in time when you decided to invest decent money and time into Monument Valley?

I guess it started in 2013. I was personally completely underwhelmed by the imagination in most mobile games and the seemingly eternal quest for monetisation mechanics at the expense of a good experience. The new wave of smartphones had reduced the barrier to entry into the world of game making, so we decided to give it a try. I believe that most companies become known for one key project and I was on the hunt for ours.

Our first attempt was Whale Trail, a game about a flying whale. Although we managed to make something visually appealing, we had misunderstood the importance of great game mechanics. It never really took off. We realised that to make a better game we needed to hire true game makers with a rich history and understanding of the discipline. And so ustwo games was born with the vision to create games for people who wouldn’t usually play games — from kids to grandparents. Most importantly for me, and against the common industry flow, I wanted us to stay away from freemium. The game had to provide a premium experience that showcased what ustwo stood for as a company: a rich heritage of design, imagination, and originality.

With a team of eight, we estimated the development cost would be around $800,000 — our biggest investment to date. So the pressure was definitely on to deliver! We later spent another $500,000 on new chapters for the game. In the first year we netted a total of $12 million, so our investment certainly paid off.

[Offscreen] Wow! More than paid off, I’d say. It seems so easy when you say it like that: pay good people good money and there’s your success.

If it were only that easy! You have to understand that Monument Valley was the culmination of seven years of what I call ‘succailure’ — successful failures from around fifteen previous product releases that provided valuable learning but almost no financial return.

But to be honest, in the past I never focused much on commercial success and instead just enjoyed the journey of making. I always believed that if you focused on quality, then success would eventually follow. Money was not the goal, just an output. The income from our client service work allowed us to take risks on experiments that didn’t need to make money. It was a luxury that was very liberating. With Monument Valley, however, it was slightly different in that ustwo employed well over 200 people at that stage, and this game was being created out of profit generated from all other parts of the business.

For Monument Valley to be a success we needed everyone to chip in with support, from user testing to promotion. Making a product is one thing, but marketing and promotion is as much a part of the process as the development itself. It’s a common misperception that good things sell themselves. We had spent months and months building up to the release with press and social, stirring up anticipation and hype.

[Offscreen] How did you experience the release of the game?

I will never forget that day. I was at the airport with my family the morning after the release when Steve, our marketing director, sent me a text that simply read: ‘No1!!!’ Words can’t describe how good it felt! As I sat on the plane I put my headphones on, cracked open a gin and tonic, and played the game for the first time. I had purposely not been part of the user testing phase because I wanted to experience the game just like everyone else who downloaded it. As designers, I think we all sometimes get this warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘I wish I made that!’ when we come across something truly well made. That’s exactly how I felt sitting on that plane playing Monument Valley.

Over the following week, while on vacation with my family, I would take a bit of time out of each day to just sit and read the seemingly endless press and Twitter activity. Everything I had ever wanted to achieve was coming true. Years of experimenting and learning and succailing paid off. We had a perfect product that could never be taken away from us.

Months later we received word from Apple that we should come to WWDC. Although we had a good idea, we didn’t officially know whether we had won an award. With all but the last award called out, they made a special announcement and the team shrieked with joy. I felt like we had delivered on our quest to make a product that captured the imagination of so many, and forever embedded ustwo in the annals of history. Standing on that stage I felt overwhelmingly relieved and emotional. Proudest day of my life.

In jest, I sent an email to the team at the inception of Monument Valley stating a list of things the game must achieve — otherwise they would all be fired. The key requirement was a game capable of winning an Apple Design Award. We framed that email because they delivered on every single thing I asked for, and then some.

[Offscreen] And so, in retrospect, what have you learned from that experience? I can imagine that landing a big hit like this puts you in a comfortable position to experiment with new product ideas, but perhaps it also adds pressure to prove that you can do it again.

As trite as it sounds, Monument Valley has taught me personally to never doubt my convictions. We went against the flow and made something original. It proved to us that you *can* and *must* innovate in the space — in any space — to do well. It’s wonderful to get these reactions from players who say they don’t usually play games. It’s exactly what we aimed for and it proves my point. We innovated to show people what mobile games can be: not an endless loop of psychological twists to elicit spending, but a compelling, enjoyable, and entertaining experience that temporarily takes you into another world.

As the guy at the helm and a designer myself, I also learned that the more I stepped away, and the more responsibility and trust I put in the hands of the team, the better the game got. It was hugely satisfying to see others create, and do so in an environment where everyone had permission to play and make mistakes. Trust is a wonderfully empowering thing. My only job was to guarantee them the time and money to make the perfect game and provide a top-line vision for the type of experience I wanted.

We now of course have the pressure of the next release, with many eyes on us and a huge expectation to deliver in a very volatile and unpredictable market. The challenge is to make something we really like, to enjoy the experience of making it, and again to trust in our process and the time it takes to create something special. After a short break to ‘get closure’ from Monument Valley, we are now back at prototyping a new game. Nothing is more exciting than these early stages where you see ideas starting to take shape.

From a financial point of view, the Monument Valley release meant that the team are financially covered. This removes a large amount of pressure, but at the same time has turned ustwo games from a passion project into a real business — an exciting proposition! The growth of the team and the creation of a separate company are my main focus now.

[Offscreen] Let’s talk about that company structure. From the outside, ustwo seems difficult to define. How do you usually describe your company?

I’m glad ustwo doesn’t look like just another digital agency from the outside, because it does not from the inside, either. In a way, we want to set a new standard for what ‘agency’ can mean. As such, ustwo is an encompassing entity that created Monument Valley, but also the interface with which five million Brits engage with their bank. I see ustwo as a platform — a commercial playground that allows us to do whatever we like, be it launch our own products, start new ventures, partner with the world’s biggest brands, or invest in the most exciting startups.

This makes a lots of sense, because each of those parts overlap with one another. I believe that if you provide client services for a startup, you need to know what it’s like to run a startup. If you want to help a brand launch a product, you need to have launched your own. And so on. Perhaps most importantly, though, if you want to attract real talent, you need to prove that you are not in the game for money alone.

The focus has always been on building what I refer to as a ‘fampany’ — a family company, bonded by intense friendship and utmost loyalty.

John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair and I started ustwo in 2004, and it’s been steadily growing to now having over 250 people spread across London, Malmö, New York, and Sydney. The focus has always been on building what I refer to as a ‘fampany’ — a family company, bonded by intense friendship and utmost loyalty. From day one we set out with a mutual understanding that we would constantly need to change and adapt, which I believe is crucial to our success. Creating an environment that nurtures experimentation and pushes people to be better is what allows us to compete for the best talent out there. Being known for great work is one thing, but we always wanted to be known for being a great bunch of people to work with. Part of this strategy is our sworn guarantee that we’d never sell out — because only as a privately-owned company are we free to take huge risks that may or may not pay off, and to really treat our business as a friendly playground and a fertile breeding ground for wildly new ideas.

All of that is why people find it difficult to put ustwo in a clearly defined category. In fact, it’s probably one of the most ambiguous and confusing companies around, but I really believe that that ‘quirk’ — the unorthodox company set-up — is what makes it so great to work here and so appealing for new talent.

[Offscreen] Do you think it’s possible to create solutions for clients with the same creative vigour and emotional investment that you put into your own products?

Absolutely. Without that, what’s the point of taking it on? It would simply be a job, and none of us turn up at the studio to ‘just do our job’.

At the beginning of every project needs to be a shared belief that both parties are committed to creating the best product possible and that both trust in each other’s decisions. This isn’t to say that there won’t be compromises, because much of our work involves helping clients shift focus, priorities, or direction. The client understands their business and we know how to build products, so the foundation of our relationship has to be a real partnership with a shared understanding of what it is that we are creating.

To build this environment of deep collaboration and trust we have been experimenting with new ways of being paid that allow both parties to share in the upside as well as take a hit on any downside. Trust is essential, and our clients seeing us succeed with Monument Valley and pouring our heart and investment into new shared ventures like DICE — a new music ticketing app that we recently co-founded — helps us create that.

[Offscreen] We hear all the time that companies are in it ‘to change the world’. Do you have world-conquering ambitions or is your goal more humble than that?

True, we live in a time where almost everyone, from student to agency, seems to be a version of a startup founder. If you look more closely, though, most of them are project founders at best: they don’t launch projects with a real focus on disrupting an existing business model. They are small experiments rather than world-beating ideas, and that is a wonderful thing. We could all do with more experimentation. But I do think that there needs to be a distinction between such an experiment and a real business.

One of the products that we were best known for prior to Monument Valley was Rando, an anonymous photo-sharing app. Even though it was growing we ended up closing it down, because we didn’t believe in it as anything other than what it was intended to be: a fun experiment and a learning exercise for us. But before we knew it, the outside pressure to turn it into a business, to take investment, was immense. In the end we decided that we didn’t want to change the app just to increase its monetisation potential. For me that project was a turning point in my own ambition. Some things aren’t meant to be more than what they are. So after Rando my focus shifted away from the novelty of playful experiments to making a difference on a more impactful level.

Having said that, ‘changing the world’ is a pretty distracting thing to focus on. Besides needing a lot of money — the reason why startups seek funding — if you truly want to change the world, you have to *really* mean it. You don’t simply fall into it. You have to consciously set out to do it, and I don’t think I’m personally geared up for it. I’m not serious enough, I’m not laser-focused enough. I get too easily distracted by shiny new things. I also want to feel comfortable in my own shoes in terms of acceptance for what I do. At the end of the day I want to feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. I don’t want to be eternally searching for fulfillment. That would just make me miserable.

Reminder: the full story with all photos of this interview can be found in Offscreen Magazine #12. Buy a copy or subscribe here!

[Offscreen] How do you currently reach that feeling of accomplishment? And what keeps you hungry for more?

A personal goal and a huge source of motivation for me has always been to create products with an explosive, global impact. Not necessarily in a ‘world-changing, save-the-planet’ sort of way; the impact could ‘just’ be practical or entertaining. Monument Valley was certainly a step in that direction and it showed me that a mix of product and marketing in equal measures is needed to truly hit a home run. For me it has to be on a big scale though, as reach is an important signifier of success. If I look back at the years of ‘succailure’, our work had an impact on me and potentially on people in our industry, but very little further.

Starting our co-venture DICE means I’m travelling a lot lately, spending a lot of time in LA and other US cities. Travelling is such a great way to be reminded of how big the world really is. I could argue that Monument Valley was a huge success, but in reality if you combine all the people that ever played it, it amounts to not even half of the population of LA. It’s crazy to think how much you have to get right in order to see any sort of global traction with your idea.

I’m excited thinking about ustwo’s future. I don’t expect ustwo to be the same company in a couple of years. In fact, I would love it to be completely different in five — perhaps even unrecognisably so. It’d be wrong to try to hold on to what is. Constant change is a prerequisite, especially in our industry. In more practical terms, that means that we’re currently looking into a new home base in London. Something that is designed from the ground up and big enough to house our aspirations for the quad play of client product services, our own products, our new ventures, and our investment arm.

I also feel that it’s essential to see DICE succeed. Sinx and myself have bet heavily on our first venture and we wholeheartedly believe in the mission to bring more transparency to the live music space. Making a measurable difference is important to me: if nobody uses the product or knows of it then it’s not a success. I also have a big, fat DICE tattoo on my right arm which isn’t going to look as fresh should we fail.

[Offscreen] I’d like to talk some more about the idea of never, ever selling ustwo. Are you worried that such an absolute statement can put you in hot water further down the track?

Well, there is a sense of irony to this statement because I actually get very excited when I read about acquisitions in our industry. I love the intersection of two colliding brands and seeing what comes out the other end. The true *financial* value of a brand is only ever extracted if you sell, and I would say that most bigger companies in the service business are built to sell. If that is the focus and the end game of what you define as success, then good on you!

Selling ustwo, however, would be a complete and utter failure, a sign that we were no longer the right people to guide the company. I can’t go down knowing that. And I won’t. This is a hugely exciting time to be in this industry, and as a private company really anything is possible. Being able to decide our own path forward is the drug we’re addicted to. So, yeah, I’m perfectly happy to be the last private product studio standing.

The absolute statement is very important for me, and I know it’s important for all ustwobies. Only if everyone understands that we are not on this journey to sell out can we foster a mindset that breeds loyalty and commitment to longevity in our work. Because selling is not on the agenda, you constantly look for other commercial opportunities, for ways to create value. That ongoing hunger means that we are in constant flux, nothing is ever static. And that again feeds into finding great talent, because people know there’s always something new cooking at ustwo. It’s an exciting landscape!

[Offscreen] It’s easy to say ‘Let’s all be friends!’, but how do you achieve this idyllic environment — the fampany vibe — while growing fast and developing global offshoots?

Let me first say that listing practical examples here would probably lead you to believe that there is some sort of conscious design — a grand plan for the perfect company culture. But that’s not how it works. Simply put, the heartbeat of our fampany culture is real, genuine friendship. The rest just emerged naturally from there.

With friendship at the heart, we started to hire people we liked. Our motto was simple: no egos, no arseholes… just human.

Before founding ustwo, Sinx and I worked for an agency called Biganimal where having fun and joking around with your ‘boss’ was a requirement and incessant socialising a standard. So creating ustwo was our own way of loving life. We understood early on that we were going to spend more time in the studio than outside, so it made sense to make the time *at* work more fun than the time *away* from work. We never sat down and said, ‘Let’s build a company to make us money!’ We actually weren’t that excited about work at all. We were just passionate about creating something and building a community we could play in. With friendship at the heart, we started to hire people we liked. Our motto was simple: no egos, no arseholes… just human. We also tried really hard to find people better than us, without any preconceived ideas of a particular ‘style’ they needed to follow. Then I began delegating many parts of the business to others, which wasn’t a conscious strategy — I just wanted to have more time to play.

I’ve never felt comfortable being seen as ‘the boss’, and whenever I’ve been introduced as such I feel somewhat embarrassed. It’s a sign that top-down authority never suited me well, even in school. The result is that I always prefer to be on equal wavelengths with everyone. Thinking back, that’s been one of the hardest things to deal with in terms of our success and growth. As a founder my voice carries weight, which needs to be managed as we grow. Today, an enthusiastic nod to an idea can be misconstrued as a sign-off for an investment.

Interestingly, in a business where you spend all your time making sure everyone feels connected and appreciated, there is an inevitable point in time when you start losing confidence in making decisions. Once you reach a certain size, your actions must be backed up and explained, because there are hundreds of livelihoods at risk. But whether you’re the boss or not, at the end of the day the people in your company make an argument for or against a big decision by themselves. It’s a natural yet unnerving experience for anyone to see their ‘baby’ grow to a size where you’re starting to doubt your own relevance and the impact you can have. It leads to a place where I often feel guilty or anxious that I’ve let people down, that I’ve lost touch and didn’t manage to stay ‘real’.

[Offscreen] Wouldn’t you say it’s perfectly normal for people’s roles to change, especially as a company grows?

To answer this, I should perhaps give you a bit more background. You see, I’ve always been somewhat of a mascot for the company — a slightly odd figurehead. If you dig around online you’ll find interviews with me wearing colourful wigs while breezing around our offices on an electric scooter for seniors. The name plaque on my desk said ‘Chief Wonka’. Especially in those early years, I was driven to act differently. I wanted people who saw me to think, ‘Is this guy serious?’ But it wasn’t just the looks, I’ve always spoken openly and honestly about our passions and pitfalls — something that our industry has only recently started to embrace. All of this was to show that you can build a unique company in unusual ways, make amazing products, and still have fun. I think my naivety back then served us very well.

As time went by and the company grew, everything became more serious. We had never planned to employ 250 people, it just grew naturally. As you move from that fairly selfish ‘founder state of mind’ to becoming the leader of a large company the inevitable self-doubt starts to creep in. I suddenly wondered whether I was still the right person. How am I meant to behave? Can I still afford to be myself? Can I actually enjoy a ‘serious’ business and the responsibilities that come with it?

Going through that phase of questioning myself caused me a huge amount of anxiety. There was pressure to remain that courageous, upbeat, excitable leader, while at the same time I felt like I was tumbling down a hill at a speed I couldn’t control. As a result, the last two years were probably the loneliest of my career. There was also this strange feeling of guilt that I had only ever loved ustwo — it was my hobby, my passion, and my life. And because I had no way to escape, I began to resent it. Worst of all, I felt like I couldn’t talk to the very people that gave me so much energy, the ustwobies. I feared that if I as a founder were to question my dedication or voice my confusion it would destabilise the entire company. But I confided in Sinx my questionable happiness and we agreed to work together to sort it out. He helped remind me that we created a fampany for exactly that reason: to be open about our vulnerabilities and communicate any source of anxiety. And that was essential for me in getting through it.

[Offscreen] I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better. The idea, or should I say ‘illusion’ of a perfect work-life balance is something that comes up a lot in our industry. Do you think the concept of a fampany is reconcilable with an *actual* family, which you also have?

I resolutely believe that in order to reach the heights of your ambition you need to put absolutely everything into what you do — everything. And yes, for me that means that ustwo has been my only focus for the last ten years. Therefore, work-life balance is a strange concept. I don’t think I can draw a clear line where work ends and life starts, or vice versa.

When you pour your soul into it, the fampany just becomes an extension of you. I think that’s how you build something genuine — a spirit that people buy into. In a way, it has to hurt when people leave, it has to hurt when you read a slight about the company, it has to hurt if a client isn’t happy with the result of your work. But as you suggested, that’s also where it gets dangerous. If you lack any real interests in anything else, there is no escape, there is no switching off. There is no distinction between downtime and uptime. And that’s not very sustainable.

My ‘other ustwo’ is Lisa, whom I’ve been happily married to for the last sixteen years. She’s the backbone of what I have achieved and the mother of my two children, Gracie and Louis. Only recently, I have started to truly understand and appreciate the work she has put in all this time to allow me to be focused on ustwo. And as I struggled with the last couple of years, Lisa was there the whole time to hold my hand and renew my strength to push through. It can’t be easy to live with someone who is so emotionally invested in their work.

I’ve come to accept that I have a black and white personality. For me, it’s all or nothing, which can be exhausting and a bit of a double-edged sword, of course. However, there is definitely a common thread running through all of my relationships, whether with work or with family, and that is a strong commitment to being loyal and dedicated. And even after the recent rough patch, if I were to start all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. All in. Everything on the line.

First published in September 2015 in Offscreen Magazine No12. 
Buy a copy or subscribe here!

Questions by Kai Brach, photos by Alvaro Arregui. The full story with all photos of this interview can be found in Offscreen Magazine #12.

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