To mark the announcement of 2018's CE50 we’re checking in on some of our previous CE50 businesses to see what cool stuff they’re up to, discuss how their businesses have changed and what advice they can share with other creative leaders.

Twile: CE50 2017

Former Twile Director reflects on his time leading a tech start-up company and shares what lessons he’s learnt as an entrepreneur.


Doncaster based family history platform Twile were a CE50 company in 2017 and just over a year later they were acquired by genealogy giant Findmypast.

Twile was co-founded in 2013 by Paul Brooks and Kelly Marsden. They wanted to create a platform for genealogists and family history enthusiasts to bring their family history to life. Through Twile, users can create a digital visual timeline, of milestones, photos and world history events to share with other family members and tell the story of their ancestors.

Twile first announced their exclusive partnership with FindMyPast in 2016 after they invested in the company to support the development of new features. In March this year, they acquired the start-up and Paul is now heading up a Product Development Team which will oversee all future integration work. The Twile platform is now integrated and accessible through FindMyPast

We caught up with co-founder Paul Brooks to talk about his time leading the company and to find out what lessons he’s learnt after five years of running a tech start-up;

1)      Focus on revenue, not growth

Companies don’t get acquired often, so if you’re not making money you’re either totally dependent on investors or debt or you’re going to run out of cash. Whilst pre-revenue startups do occasionally get acquired, the success rate is so low that you’d be foolish to gamble on it. With Twile we focussed on growth and never really found a viable revenue stream. As it happens, Findmypast were interested in the Twile product and how it helps customers to share their family history, so profit was not an issue – but without this acquisition we’d have needed to raise more investment.

2)      Co-located team

I’ve always been a fan of remote working and every member of the Twile team has worked from home since we started. But the flexibility comes at a cost – there is less cohesion and less frequent communication, leaving the team feeling a little detached. A better approach would be to blend remote working with co-location – getting everyone together in an office for part of the week, with the rest of the week spent working from home.

3)      Live chat 

One of the best tools we used in Twile was Intercom, a live chat tool that lets customers get in touch at any time of day and also lets you put automated messages in front of them based on their behaviour. It largely replaced the need for formal user testing, since we were having dozens of conversations with users every day. It’s not cheap, but it was worth every penny.

4)      Work on the business, not in it

I spent much of my time writing code during the five years leading up to Findmypast’s acquisition of Twile. While this was essential in the early days, it was a distraction as the company grew. As a CEO, you need to put aside a lot of time to just think about the business and where it’s going, but as a developer your mind is constantly occupied by coding challenges – those two things don’t mix well.

5)      Location

It’s generally assumed that London is the start-up capital of the UK, but we were able to succeed despite being based across the North of England. Technology and flexible working habits meant we were able to build, market and – eventually – sell the product from wherever we were based. However, I would recommend having some presence in London, partly to be where the investment money is and partly to benefit from the start-up vibe that is definitely stronger there. This could be a simple co-working space, where there’s a desk available when you need it, or it could just be monthly trips to spend time in a coffee shop and attend evening meetups.

6)      Keep it lean

Even though we considered Twile to be a lean startup, there were many ways that we could have been leaner. We built too many features and didn’t measure and iterate on them enough, meaning we couldn’t always be sure which features were having an impact on our growth or retention. Keeping the product simple is key to building a successful – and profitable – business.


To view the list of CE50 2018 list click here.

Mad Fellows: CE50 2016

Owner and Creative Director of indie games studio Mad Fellows, Paul Norris talks to us about the business-side of making games and tells us what the studio has been up to since they were announced as a CE50 company in 2016.


Leamington Spa based, Mad Fellows was set up in 2013 by industry veterans Paul Norris and Dan Horbury. Last year they released their hugely addictive rhythm game Aaero on Steam, PS4 and Xbox. Since then the studio has gone through the transition of moving into self-publishing and are working on new downloadable content. 

Q. How has your business changed since you were listed as a CE50 company back in 2016?

When we started Mad Fellows we had loads of experience actually making games but very little (none) in business, marketing or publishing a game. We’ve now completed the full cycle from concept to release on everything from mobile platforms to all the latest consoles with just two of us on the team. To say it’s been a trial by fire is an understatement. Looking back, we seemed to encounter bad luck at every turn and ran into almost every conceivable problem along the way. Looking forwards, overcoming these issues has been absolutely invaluable experience. We’re much more clued up now.

Q. What would you say are the challenges for creative businesses in general accessing finance?

I think the biggest challenge for a lot of creative businesses is finding the correct source of funding for each project and understanding exactly what they are signing up for and how that may play out once the project is complete. We consider ourselves exceptionally lucky to have met Creative England on our first ever day of pitching our own games. This was the time they were launching the first Greenshoots programme. We often called on their knowledge of business and funding to ensure we properly understood any deals we were making.

Q. Does region play a part?

Dan and I both previously worked at studios in Leamington Spa. I’d moved here from near London to be closer to work and we often found ourselves trekking back down to London for meetings and events. It becomes very expensive, time consuming and tiring. However, the funding we accessed via Creative England was set aside for specific regions, one of which was the West Midlands. I believe that, before this, it was much harder to get funding outside of London.

Q. What bigger changes do you want to see?

At the moment, the video games market is going through some changes that are very challenging for indie developers. With console development being much more accessible now, there are many more games competing for players’ time and money. This has led to a trend in heavily discounting titles and offering F2P games with the dreaded ‘loot boxes’. This echoes the path mobile games took a few years ago and results in only the very top tier of games being financially viable. I think investors and developers need to put much more thought into their route to market in order to make sound investments and sustainable businesses.

Q. What is the most important thing you’ve learnt in leading a creative business?

The most important thing I’ve learned is to be adaptable. If something isn’t working, the sooner you change your plan the better. This is one of the biggest advantages a small team has. They can coordinate a massive change much more effectively than a large studio could.

Q. What was the best thing that you did that helped drive your business forward?

The Greenshoots programme was by far the most pivotal point for our business. It introduced us to funding, gave us support for running our business as well as great contacts within Microsoft and Xbox that have been crucial to getting our game into the hands of gamers all over the world.


Follow Mad Fellows updates on  Twitter and check out Aaero here.

About Greenshoots

In partnership with Creative England and Microsoft, the Greenshoots fund offers investments of between £50,000 and £200,000, to be awarded to games companies and SMEs who are creating exciting, innovative games and can demonstrate high growth potential. Successful and acclaimed games funded through the programme include  Warhammer 40,000 Freeblade by Pixel Toys, which was presented on stage at Apple iPhone 6S press conference, and Aaero by  Mad Fellows, released on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam. For more information visit http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/investment/greenshoots

Citrus Suite: CE50 2015

Chris Moreland, Founder and Director of the award-winning creative development studio, Citrus Suite talks to us about growing a creative business in the UK. Set up 10 years ago in Liverpool, Citrus Suite was a CE50 and Future Leader in 2015. The studio has now rapidly expanded in the mobile health software space developing innovative solutions in health and wellbeing.


Q. How has your business changed since you were listed as a CE50 company back in 2015?

Being listed in the CE50 and highlighted as a Future Leader could be seen as huge moment for Citrus Suite. The company have certainly kicked on in the period since, from the growing number of staff, recording a significant turnover increase, and handling bigger projects. The biggest change for us is the transition from being a small team developing one-off mobile apps to development studio building cloud-based software systems for some of the most well-known brands in the world and start-up entrepreneurs. There are still often mobile apps in the mix, usually as the main interface for targeted end-users but behind the apps bespoke content management systems, automation and data visualisation tools for administrators.

Q. What would you say are the challenges for creative businesses in general accessing finance?

It’s a challenge to find the right sort of investment and find an investment partner that really compliments the creative business. Some of the grant funds out there are really interesting and focussed on solving quite specific problems, but the question needs to be asked – will this project move the business forward in the right direction.

Q. Does region play a part?

Our geographical identity is really important to us. We’re a proud Liverpool creative company and we’re based in Baltic Triangle. There’s a great Creative Cluster here that is only getting stronger and more established. Personally, I’d love to be more connected across the North West, but we’ve found it much easier to find clients, partners and supporters in London, New York, Seattle, Toronto, etc. Basically, it’s a great big global market place out there and we don’t limit our focus to one area. 

Q. What bigger changes do you want to see?

The creative industries are under regarded at a national and regional level, it’s an area where the UK can excel and hold its own on from a global perspective. There needs to be better access to finance, funding going into creative clusters and a long-term view on talent development. Brexit is disastrous for business, jobs and the economy. Provisions must be made for the impact to creative SMEs; the great funding opportunities that being a part of the EU brought must be replaced.

Q. What is the most important thing you’ve learnt in leading a creative business?

People really matter, relationships are key. It’s only partially about design, UX, code, software or techy stuff. Treat people as you wish to be treated - be honest, open and transparent.  

Q. What was the best thing that you did that helped drive your business forward?

I got talented people involved, trusted them to do their jobs and came up with the coolest projects for them to work on.


For more information about Citrus Suite and the work they do click here and stay up-to-date on Twitter

Skylab: CE50 2015

Nigel Collier co-founded Skylab in 2005. The Manchester-based digital agency was a CE50 company in 2015 and since then they have expanded internationally and created new digital services. BAFTA award-winner, Nigel chats to us about some of the challenges facing creative businesses and the importance of defining your vision and values.


How has your business changed since you were listed as a CE50 company?

Skylab’s primary focus is creating digital strategies, websites and web applications. It was a complete surprise and an honour to be chosen as both a CE50 company and also voted by industry leaders as a top ten Future Leader.

Since then, we have expanded internationally, working with clients in Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore.

We have grown several areas of the business, including our services, the size of the team and our network to offer a more comprehensive service that can scale up and down in a very efficient way.

As a digital business, it’s important to understand that you will be part of an expanding ecosystem. In order to survive and grow, you will need to work within a network of partners, not just on your own. This is how the projects of the future will be delivered.

What would you say are the challenges for creative businesses in general accessing finance?

What's missing is an active financial community for the creative industry where creative and digital organisations can connect and raise money from people who genuinely understand the challenges, the value and the opportunity in the creative industry.

There is nowhere near enough venture capital being invested in digital businesses. My genuine concern is that we are falling behind in the race to create the digital infrastructure, products and services that will shape the future. Given the rapid pace of digital change, if we do not address this problem, our influence in the businesses of the future will become significantly diluted within a dramatically short period of time.

Think of the most important digital products and services that you use today. How many of them are British? I’m guessing not many… which proves my point.

Does region play a part?

Region does play a part because there are natural centres of digital excellence in places around the country. However, in a creative or digital business, if you are online, you have the ability to work with customers anywhere in the world. The only real challenge is finding the time, energy and money to travel and connect with people to make things happen.

What bigger changes do you want to see?

I want to see the creation of a community of creative industries with many different hubs for different areas of expertise, all of which are connected in one big network or even a network of networks. There isn't a single authoritative ‘watering hole’ for the creative industries. We have architected digital strategies and platforms that could create one but there is a significant lack of vision and leadership within politics and business in understanding this opportunity. Such a ‘watering hole’ would revolutionise the creative industries and create a very powerful force in the world. If top industry experts have voted us as one of the country's top Future Leaders, then don’t hold us back… let us lead. We are ready to build it when you are.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt in leading a creative business?

The single most important thing to do on day one, is to define the vision, the values and the culture for the organisation. In particular, the values act as part of the operating system by which the company will function. They also act as a checklist to guide you and your team, helping you understand how best to operate in both positive and negative situations.

For example, our most important value is fairness. When we are faced with difficult decisions, we revert to our values and ask ourselves, “What is the fairest thing to do?” That then helps us to find an answer that fits with our core values and our culture.

What was the best thing that you did that helped drive your business forward?

The most important thing we have done to drive the business forward is to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the company structure, the processes, the roles, the responsibilities and the type of work that we do. The one constant that you can be certain of in the digital industries is that everything will change. Therefore you have to be open to pivoting, re-evaluating and changing every aspect of what you do, in order to remain in the optimum state. Otherwise, you risk becoming less relevant and a piece of digital history.


Stay up-to-date with Nigel and the Skylab team on Twitter  @nigelcollier and @studioskylab

www.studioskylab.com

Nomad Games: CE50 2015

Cheshire based game studio, Nomad Games was set up in 2011 and is led by Don Whiteford. They are experts at developing board and card games for the digital gaming space.  Nomad was a Future Leader and a CE50 in 2015 and since then have grown their audience-base with new editions of the hugely successful Talisman as well as expanding their portfolio with the release of Smash Up and Fighting Fantasy titles.  Earlier this year the studio announced a major publishing deal with Asmodee and they will be releasing Fighting Fantasy, Legends Portal title later this summer.


How has your business changed since you were listed as a CE50 company back in 2015?

As we have developed our model and invested heavily in development, we have seen consistent profitability with some variation in turnover and profit levels. Compared with 2015, which was a good year, our turnover is up by 50% and profitability is up by more than 15%. We are up to 16 people this year, with a good proportion of young developer’s coming on board and getting up to speed quickly.

What would you say are the challenges for creative businesses in general accessing finance?

Two things really: finding investors who believe in the sector and the cost of the money. 

Does region play a part?

I would imagine it does in both positive and negative ways. For example, I expect the more far flung locations to struggle while London will be easier.

What bigger changes do you want to see?

I would like to see a portfolio funding model where the investor funds and co-owns a collection of i.p. to a point where it is sold on to a business customer. For example, we have a customer who cannot fund our extensive development programme, but who would be happy to make the purchases in another financial year. We have a potential development programme costing £1 million. We now need funding that covers not individual projects, but a portfolio.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt in leading a creative business?

The value of networking and getting to know good people in a range of business disciplines. Nothing happens in a vacuum and creating an environment for success is as much about business contacts and expertise as it is in product development and marketing. 

What was the best thing that you did that helped drive your business forward?

Get investment in from Lloyds, AXM and Creative England. Without this trio, Nomad Games would not exist today.


Follow Nomad for new announcements on  Twitter