“We were getting a new sign-up every second…”

Have a good idea and the sky’s the limit, says Mind Candy CEO, Michael Acton Smith

As ceo of mind candy, Michael Acton Smith knows a thing or two about global success. Moshi Monsters, the children’s entertainment brand he launched in 2008, has spawned a movie, a comic, toys and countless other spin-off products. Prior to this, the east London techpreneur with a scruff y swagger launched the pioneering internet retailer Firebox. But has it been a walk in the park? Not at all…

Be an early adopter “While I was at Birmingham University, I watched Wall Street, which inspired me to become a banker. However, I soon realised that the job wasn’t what it was cracked up to be and found myself pretty much unemployable. I decided to set up my own business – possibly a shop – and kicked some ideas around in the pub with a friend of mine. This was 1998 and we were talking about how exciting the internet was and realised that online retailing was the way forward. My first business, Firebox, was born.”

Fools rush in… “Firebox wasn’t the first name we chose for our online gadget store. We originally registered Hotbox.co.uk and then found out that the .com version was one of the world’s biggest porn sites. Not a smart move. We changed the name and started looking for ingenious things to sell.”

Appreciate the power of a good story “We didn’t actually have many products to sell at the start, but we came up with the idea of a shot-glass chess game, where you play a normal game of chess, but the pieces are glasses and when you lose a piece, you have to drink a shot. We wrote a release and the press went crazy for it – we got coverage everywhere. They also loved the story of two students setting up an online retailer and it snowballed from there. That really was the tipping point.”

Pace yourself “However, we expanded too quickly. This was in the dotcom hype of the late 1990s, and we hired too many people, which almost caused us to go bankrupt. It was an extremely stressful situation that was made all the more difficult because we’d employed lots of friends from university and we had to let them go. We downsized to an office that was like a prison cell and I had a lot of sleepless nights. Thankfully, things soon turned around.”

Keep it simple “I stepped back from the company in 2004, because I had another idea – to create a modern-day treasure hunt. I’d been inspired by a book/game that was launched at the end of the 1970s called Masquerade, which was hugely successful. So, I created this complex story, disseminated clues via mobile phone, employed actors and built a whole fictional world, but it was a commercial disaster. Lesson learned: keep it simple.”

Value your investors “Without much to do, I found myself doodling one day in a coffee shop. I drew a little character and I thought it would be amazing to bring it to life online. It was the start of Moshi Monsters and I went straight to my investors with my idea. They’d stood by me through my previous ventures and were aligned with my creative vision. Often, a business idea has to change dramatically if it’s to succeed, but the support and belief from your backers is invaluable.”

Keep the faith “I had never worked within the kids’ sphere before, but I really believed we had something special. The kids started engaging with what we’d created and I could feel in the pit of my stomach that we were onto something. However, we ran out of money once again and I had to get more from the investors. It would have been easy to throw in the towel at this stage, but I’m so glad I didn’t – when we hit the tipping point, it just exploded: we started getting two million registrations per month, with a new sign-up every second at one stage.”

Be honest with yourself “I want to qualify that last point. Everyone struggles as an entrepreneur, but you have to look deep inside and ask yourself if you really believe you can do it. If there’s that tiny part of you that‘s not sure, perhaps it’s best to step away and come back to fight another day.”

Enjoy the ride “It was scary, but exciting running a business that big. We could have kept Moshi Monsters purely online, but the appetite for it was such that we were able to make a movie, release music videos and create an immense brand. I was hiring new people all over the place, learning new things every day. I was on a TV show, the company was on the front cover of magazines and I barely had a moment to breathe. It was a scrappy, intense, stressful time.”

Be ready to diversify “Children’s tastes change and we knew that the ride wouldn’t last. Sure enough, in around 2013, as fast as Moshi Monsters had grown, it declined. It was a stressful time again – in a different way – but we had the ideas and the infrastructure in place to develop another three brands.”

Take time out “I had the opportunity to buy Calm.com, and I thought there was a great opportunity to build a brand around it. So, with my good friend Alex Tew, we’ve turned it into a destination for guided meditations. Now there’s a book coming out and you can even learn how to meditate on your mobile phone.”

Be open to new ideas “Originally, I thought meditation was a bit ‘new age and spiritual’, but the more I’ve experienced it, the more I’m convinced of its value. It helps me with my duties as a CEO and it’s something that we’re starting to see more and more in the corporate world. Businesses are starting to realise that it reduces the time taken off for stress and increases workplace harmony and creativity.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/