Posted 15 May 2018
Interview by Arielle Bier

ustwo Adventure: the community and company-building hub in the heart of Shoreditch

All great businesses are made up of the sum of its parts, and great people form the foundations. In 2014, ustwo Adventure started making investments in small, promising digital businesses, and in 2017, formally established itself as a company builder with a co-working space called The Adventure Playground, based in the Tea Building in the heart of Shoreditch. The studio, formed under the umbrella of ustwo digital product studio, facilitates exchanges between its community of companies (or ‘Fampany’), is building an investment portfolio with its Fun’d initiative and encourages participation in educational workshops and mentorship programmes with their Foundation. Here, Adventure director Justin Michaels walks us through ustwo Adventure’s ambitious endeavours, as well as the founding approach and mission, to develop a dynamic community of digital businesses and the people forming their backbone.

Justin at work

Background and Overview

ustwo Adventure is a company-builder, operating inside of digital product studio ustwo. Mills, the co-founder of the ustwo, thrives on learning and newness. In many ways, ustwo Adventure is an expression of that.

We create world-class client work in our studios, and we make amazing games at ustwo Games. So, Adventure is a place where we are actively learning what it takes to grow new businesses and adapt to a rapidly changing world. Adventure helps us stay ahead of the curve, and that’s what we want to be feeding into the group at all times.

Inside ustwo Adventure

Adventure started making investments in 2014, most notably with the co-founding of DICE, the mobile ticketing app. We’ve gone on to make a number of other investments in companies such as Everpress, Mayku, Easle and Marvel, and continue to do so via our investment Fun’d. The Adventure Playground – our floor inside ustwo’s London studio – started in January 2017, and our Foundation, which supports creative education, started this year.

It’s important to note that ustwo’s values are front and centre to how we operate in Adventure. Mantras like “Be Human”, “Learn Together” and “Enjoy the Journey” apply to how we screen for teams to join the floor and the founders we invest in. Another phrase we use a lot is “Believe in non-linear outcomes.” We know we are surrounding ourselves with quality humans doing inspiring, challenging things. We are confident that in time it will lead to some impactful outcomes for ustwo and the community we are developing.

Neef Rehman, part of the ustwo Adventure team
Jo Barnard, founder of design company Morrama, inside ustwo Adventure

The Work

With the people, teams and companies that work in the Playground, we support them by providing a space to work every day. It’s probably easiest to call the Playground a co-working space, but we feel we’re a bit different to that. Our role is to help the young companies in the Playground however we can. This means acting as a strategic sounding board, making connections access to our network, organising events, and helping companies develop their values at an early stage in their journey.

One of our recent highlights was a workshop with Altogether Different, a company that provides diversity and inclusion training to businesses. We had a great turnout, and got teams thinking differently about upcoming hiring needs and team cultures. Another highlight in the making is a cohort of 20 Adventure floor members who will participate in Creative Mentor Network’s programme, which matches secondary-school students from diverse backgrounds with mentors in the creative industries. Mentees get access to networks and advice they would never otherwise have, and mentors are trained in how to be great mentors, which pays off well beyond the programme.

“Our role is to help the young companies [we support] however we can.”

For our portfolio investments, we focus on companies aligned with ustwo’s areas of expertise, such as digital health, auto and mobility, entertainment and education. We are also actively deepening our expertise and knowledge in AR, VR and AI, because we know these fields will inevitably shape the world we live in, and ustwo wants to have a leading view on what that means from a design and human experience standpoint.

Inside ustwo Adventure

We also have our Foundation, which isn’t actually a foundation just yet (watch this space!). In the meantime, we provide financial support directly to non-profits doing great work in helping young people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – enter the creative industries. ustwo wants to do our part in getting young, diverse talent into our industry, and this is one of the ways we’re helping.

I’d personally love to see Adventure produce the next stand-alone business under the ustwo banner, in the way that ustwo Games spun became its own studio a few years ago. That’s an exciting challenge – we’ll keep chipping away at this, year in and year out!

The Tea Building, where ustwo Adventure is located
The Tea Building, where ustwo Adventure is located

The Team

On the team it’s me and Neef Rehman – who does everything around building our community and making connections, including across the ustwo network. We are also hiring for a studio manager to help manage the Playground. Last and definitely not least is Mills, who is the Chairman of Adventure within ustwo. He’s truly our spiritual powerhouse and pushes our team and the people on the Playground to think bigger and better.

My role is to oversee the co-working space, make investment decisions, work with the non-profits via our Foundation, all the while reporting up to the board and keeping Adventure financially accountable. I also get to dip into the studio from time to time to support client work, which I love. Lastly, my job is to help harness Mills’ energy and ideas. He is a creative force and an important part of my job is to translate what he’s thinking into what is doable and makes sense for Adventure.

I suppose the other big aspect of the team is the rest of ustwo! Within ustwo, we have another 250 or more employees, and we are learning how to tap into that expertise in as many ways as possible. We’ve also hosted work experience students before and worked with uptree, a team on our floor, as part of their programme.

Product designer and creative technologist Alex Fefegha inside ustwo Adventure
Inside ustwo Adventure

The Environment and Culture

For the Adventure Playground, we look for a really broad range of companies. We want variety on all fronts – different business models, ethnicities, ages – that’s what makes our community more interesting and dynamic. As long as we have enough space and everyone shares values with ustwo, we are open.

We host socials from time to time – pizza parties, bowling nights and the like. This month, the CEO of the ustwo studio group is coming to speak to all of the founders of our portfolio companies. 

Our working environment is...buzzy. We are definitely not optimised to be a co-working environment yest – our space is completely open-plan and short on quiet corners. There are meeting rooms, of course, but this is not a library. We are also a bit rough around the edges when it comes to furniture and decorations, and an occasional office dog or two make appearances on the floor. We’re located in the Tea Building, so the local area is very trendy, very creative and very hipster.

“We want variety on all fronts – business models, ethnicities, ages – that’s what makes our community more interesting and dynamic.”

Inside ustwo Adventure

For full-time Adventure employees, we provide all of the same employee benefits available to ustwo’s London studio, including six months parental leave, 25 days of holiday, private health care, five percent pension contribution and a few other nice things that make working here a joy. But the most important thing about the Adventure culture is that it’s a place where we want people to be themselves, and in creating this atmosphere, we hope to make everyone else involved a little better along the way.

Neef and Justin at work
Outside the ustwo studio

ustwo is a Lecture in Progress Agency Patron. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]

Interview by Arielle Bier
Photography by Andy Donohoe
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