Moshi Monsters creator Michael Acton Smith on London tech


All this week, we’re profiling London’s hottest entrepreneurs to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. First up is the tech mastermind behind a virtual world for kids, boasting 50 million members

High up in the Tea Building, the epicentre of the Silicon Roundabout scene, you can find the new Moshi Monsters HQ. Moshi Monsters, for those of you who don’t know any children under the age of 13, is an online world where children adopt a pet monster and interact with the rest of the community in a safe virtual world full of Sabre-Toothed Splatterpillars and Marshmallow Mountains. There’s an educational element too – to earn online currency and get more from their pet monster, players must complete puzzles testing arithmetic, logic, verbal reasoning and so on.

At the helm of Moshi Monsters is founder Michael Acton Smith. His company’s office looks like the set of a particularly fun children’s show: cartoon monsters on the walls, a tree house complete with colouring pens, an explosion of fake ivy and an AstroTurf carpet.

But it’s not all child’s play at “Moshi Towers”. Smith has turned Moshi Monsters into a brand with huge global clout. To date, roughly 50 million children have signed up to the online community.One child signs up to the game every second. Moshi Monsters magazine has become the UK’s best selling children’s mag. Then there are Moshi Monsters playing cards, figurines of characters, and even songs.

I coaxed Michael out of the tree house for a five minute power chat:

So, Michael, you’ve recently relocated Moshi HQ to Shoreditch – tell us why?

When we started to think about moving last year this area seemed to be really gaining momentum. I have a lot of friends in start-ups who were in area and raving about it – having great parties and barbecues – and I just thought it felt like the right time. I’d spent a lot of time out here in bars and coffee shops and thought: “it’s perfect for Mind Candy”.

Where were you previously?

We were in Battersea, which was a bit quiet and dead and not that exciting. Every day here I bump into someone exciting that I know running a start-up, or a VC or journalist.

Are you happy to be located in the great tech cluster that is Silicon Roundabout?

It’s a great cluster – birds of a feather and all that. The more companies come here and the more the press write about it, the more momentum it gathers. I think it’s fantastic, so the more the merrier.

Is there anything that has aided your huge success?

My genius! Ha ha, no, seriously, there is a little bit of luck, but it’s very hard building a tech start-up. You never know what is going to work.

The first game that we launched [at Mind Candy, which is Moshi Monsters’ parent company], called Perplex City, was creatively amazing, but commercially a bit of a disaster. So we spent years spinning our wheels on that. Then we came onto Moshi in about 2008, and it really took about a year and a half on trying new things, sleepless nights, tweaking and polishing.

A lot of hard work then?

I think that’s what makes a lot of internet companies look like massive successes – almost as if [that success]happens overnight. But with everything, whether it be be it Amazon, Facebook, YouTube or eBay, there is a long period of just getting it wrong before something floats and takes off. And so that was the very same with us.

Any plans to move to Palo Alto?

I love being in London I think it’s great there are a lot of very talented people here developers and engineers. I think culturally it’s an amazing place to be.

A lot of people I know are moving to Silicon Valley – they think that’s the only place to start up a tech company. But I think London has a hell of a lot to offer. I think for now we’d certainly rather have our head office here.

We’ve got a little office in New York, and one in LA, but London is an amazing place to build a fast moving tech company.

Is there anything that you feel is holding the London tech scene back?

You hear people saying the government should be doing more, but I think it’s wonderful that the government is shining a light on the tech space.

They really seem to have clicked that these companies grow incredibly fast, they employ a lot of people, and they give a lot to the economy – the real engines of growth over the next few years.

The fact that [the government]is recognising that is wonderful. Whether they put money in or change some of the laws I think is secondary.

I think if you’re a good entrepreneur and you’ve got a good idea, you’ll make something work regardless of the wider issues.

You’re so involved in the Silicon Roundabout scene – are there any start-ups that you’re excited about at the moment?

That’s such a hard question. There is so much interesting stuff going on, literally hundreds of start-ups all around here! It would be hard to put any index on it.

Housebites is good – they connect people who want food with chefs in their local area. So if you want beautifully cooked meal by a local chef, you go on the site, enter your postcode, and the chef will come around and deliver it.

Moo.com, Songkick and Wonga are all doing really well.

There are hundreds of little companies bubbling up and it’s hard to know who is going to break out. But as long as lots of people are trying and there is a lot of energy then it’s good.

Too true Michael – thanks for your time!