Situated in the iconic Tea building in trendy Shoreditch, east London, Mind Candy is one of the poster boys of the flourishing Tech City development that has sprung up in the area.
First formed less than a decade ago, the company’s growth has been rapid, especially within the last year. In June 2011 one of business’s original investors sold part of their stake for about 15 times what they had put in. The deal valued the company at $200m (£125m). On moving to its new premises from its previous home in Battersea, south London, in April 2011, Mind Candy employed 43 people. Today the payroll numbers are four times that.
Moshi Monsters – an online world for boys and girls aged 6-12 – forms Mind Candy’s principal line of business. Children choose from one of six virtual monsters that they name and nurture and take daily puzzle challenges to earn virtual currency known as Rox. The network has exploded globally, with over 60 million registered users and a range of peripherals that include soft toys, a magazine, an Internet TV channel and trading cards. The company has projected upwards of $100m in total gross retail sales of Moshi Monsters related products in 2011, while this year ‘The Mon-Stars’ signed a distribution deal with Sony Music Records and reached number 4 in the official album charts as internet sensations – turning the traditional route to chart success on its head.
Despite all of this, chief technology officer Toby Moore says “We’ve made a good start, but we’re only just getting started.”
And yet Moshi nearly never was. Perplex City, Mind Candy’s first foray into the Internet social entertainment market, was, although technologically ahead of the curve and well received among punters, a commercial flop. The alternative reality game nearly broke the fledgling firm when it closed in 2007, although the first rumblings of the economic crisis which would soon grip the world certainly didn’t help either. Having initially secured $12m for Perplex City, including $3m from Index Ventures which has also backed the likes of Skype, Mimecast, BetFair and LoveFilm, the firm had planned to do a second round of funding for Moshi; the tautening of investors’ purse strings amid financial doom and gloom meant they had to do without.
But the firm battled on, with its creative CEO and founder Michael Acton-Smith at the helm and a core team supporting him. This team included Toby Moore, who by this time was heading up technology, having joined the company the year before. Helping Moshi to launch “on a shoe string” and for Mind Candy to ultimately become profitable is what Moore counts among his biggest career achievements.
Welcome to the neighbourhood
The company is certainly more at home here in Shoreditch than it was in south London. For one, there are likeminded souls around. Fellow ‘Tech City’ dwellers include other hugely successful tech start ups like LastFM (music monitoring technology), MOO (creative business card printing) and Songkick (gig alerts). Moore says there is “a strong sense of community” between these young tech firms.
The company is certainly sociable. To introduce itself to the neighbourhood, Mind Candy organised ‘Silicon Drinkabout’, offering the businesses in the area the opportunity to meet one another casually in the trendy local bars. The night now runs every Friday and is keenly attended. Mind Candy also supports events such as ‘Digital Sizzle’ – a quarterly event that combines networking with a BBQ and aims to pull together everyone in the enormous umbrella term of ‘Tech City Creative’.
To say that Mind Candy has also made its immediate habitat its own is spectacularly understated. On first sighting the offices look more like an adventure playground than a workplace. Actually, it’s the Moshi Monsters’ world. The vividly coloured walls depict scenes from the game and feature all of the principal characters – Katsuma, Dr Strangeglove and Poppet among them, while the main open plan work space is furnished with a reception desk and kitchen area designed as though they are fashioned out of whole tree trunks. The separate meeting rooms round the edge are decorated as either tree houses or, oddly, are furnished with a style of sofa – let’s say ‘arty’ – that you wouldn’t expect to see in the most avant garde of fashion houses. Completing the mise-en-scène are a multitude of shelving units crammed with kitsch children’s toys, books and memorabilia, not to mention the full range of Moshi products, and a bean bag ‘chill out’ area equipped with all of the latest gaming consoles.
Moore feels that this sense of identity and being active in the community is key to the company’s ethos and that it has huge benefits when it comes to the workforce. Employing people with the right mindset is critical, Moore feels.
“Culture is as important to us when hiring as a solid skill base” he says. “We seek both as we have a unique culture that we’re passionate about keeping alive.”
Indeed, “building one of the best tech team in London” is a particular source of pride for the CTO. If we accept this acclamation – and there’s no evidence that discredits it – it certainly is a feather in the cap of a high flying executive who is only just settling into his thirties.
So was this ‘the Mind Candy way’ from the outset? Actually, it was a lesson learned from Perplex City.
“I knew it was extremely important for the team to all be working towards a shared vision with the primary direction coming from Michael.”
The employees at Mind Candy enjoy large amounts of creative freedom and experimentation and often work in small groups to see a new development for the Moshi world from concept to realisation. And although Moore still codes personally from time to time, he says he won’t contribute to anything that’s in one of the companies live products because he feels it would represent an intrusion into responsibilities.
Herein lies the motivations for working for a young start-up company like Mind Candy, rather than a big corporation, the CTO asserts. “The industry is full of people that obtain certifications and end up in programming roles, contributing to a small part in a large system. The guys here have been programming most of their lives. It comes naturally to them so they’re capable of building systems from the ground up.”
Moore thinks he himself would always have ended up working for a start-up. Following his degree in software engineering, he’s always worked in lots of small teams. Then, after a short time travelling he stumbled across Mind Candy. “We got on very well at the interview and it just went from there. I know how to find the right employees now because I look for the things in them that I felt myself at that time. The energy, the vibe – they fall in love with it and want to be part of it. That’s certainly how it happened for me.”
The way that Mind Candy uses big data is synonymous with its ethos – and thus contrary to many of its peers.
Moore says the company is “somewhere in between” the ‘predictive’ and ‘total strategic’ stages on the data maturity scale. Big data is useful, but data is not the key influencer in product decisions because it takes away the human element to the business’s output. It is this mindset, Moore says, which makes Mind Candy an entertainment company, rather than a digital games company. Many might fail to see the point of differentiation at first glance; Moore insists a pretty major one exists.
“We’re a company that prizes ourselves on our creative initiative. Our data is used to guide us, as opposed to letting it control our products just because a spreadsheet tells us what’s what. We develop things because we think that our audience will enjoy and benefit from them, not because they merely have optimised psychological hooks to keep people playing.”
The conversation certainly has a rather Orwellian ring to it. Does he think the commercialisation of big data could intensify ‘the big brother’ stranglehold on society?
“I think it has the potential to,” he says. “It depends on how it is used but I’m an eternal optimist and believe in using data to enhance rather than control.”
Mind Candy’s objectives in using big data tools show this. The educational purposes are fundamental to the game and are what its creators are most proud of. There is an area within the Moshi world called Puzzle Palace and the 30 puzzles there feature a range of different maths, memory and other cognitive tasks. Collectively they’ve been played over a billion times. The company keeps a keen watch on how users are experiencing the puzzles and uses this data to aid the speed of children’s development. Moore says the feedback has been extremely fulfilling. He explains: “We’ve had a lot of feedback from teachers and parents who say that the kids have got better as a result of playing Moshi, and it’s really nice that we have the data to back that up. Kids join the game and within one month they can do eight puzzles in the same time that it used to take them to do two – parents can really see the value in it.”
Although large organisations have been using big data for years, Moore says their use in product development is new and very welcome. “We now have things like elastic map reduce on Amazon Web Services which is amazing – we put on a lot of logs, the data is all there so we don’t need to aggregate it. If we need to query it later on in a different way we just fire up a cluster over night, pull all the aggregates out, tunnel them back into the system and just pay for what you use. That’s very favourable to traditional data warehouses. And it’s an enabler for producers – having all of these stats at your fingertips.”
When the discussion rolls around to cloud computing, Moore’s feelings are mixed. Most of the software and some of the platforms the company uses are sourced on an ‘as-a-service’ cloud delivery model and Moore uses Google for a fixed amount per head to handle emails, document management, calendars for all Mind Candy staff.
However, the company uses cloud infrastructure mostly to test new product developments. Once the new feature stabilises and the performance characteristics are understood it is moved over to one of the company’s two private data centres. Mind Candy’s internal infrastructure is used to run the majority of Mind Candy products with Amazon EC2 instances setup ready to handle any overspill.
Mind Candy has big things in store for this year. As well as the further development of Moshi Monsters, the company is working towards the release of its first entertainment mobile apps.
Moore’s favourite mobile app is ‘Dimensions’ by established London app developers RjDj. The game uses the various sensors on the phone to create soundscapes which match the physical world that the player is experiencing. So if it is the dead of night, spooky music will be created; if the player is running it will create upbeat accompaniments. Meanwhile, within the game the player must collect new sounds to add to their library .
It’s clear to see why the game appeals to Moore. With this, users define their journey through their own unique engagement, with the game actively attempting to build upon the users’ input to enhance the narrative – all for the purpose of new and innovative sensory experiences. It’s clear that all the creativity and ambition from Mind Candy means there’s a huge opportunity to create some great apps.
The company has already shown it is willing to break the mould, technologically. Says Moore: “When we set out to build Moshi, every other kids’ game maker was using off-the-shelf technologies. We built our own bespoke system to ensure that everyone is in the same game world at the same time. This required a lot of cutting edge architecture and engineering components but having millions of kids and billions of messages all together in one world really is quite unique. I also think it’s very innovative.”
Moore may be surrounded by rainbow colourful walls adorned with pictures of cuddly monsters, lined by shelf upon shelf of eclectic kids' bric-a-brac and plush toys, but the work that he and his colleagues at Mind Candy are doing is no child play. The company’s rise in nine short years has been incredible; now, with what Moore truly believes to be one of the most talented tech teams in the capital, backed by the emergence of new big data and cloud tools, steadfast in its commitment to unique creativity and quality, it would take a brave man to put a ceiling on how far Mind Candy might go from here.
As Toby Moore says, “We’re only just getting started.”