Julian Miller and David McGranaghan of McMiller: “Hire more people”

David: Hire more people. Delegate. We would have crashed and burned this season without the addition of our team. The last thing you need as a founder is to be exhausted for too long a period of time — you become impulsive, you make mistakes. Julian: Yes, being able to identify our strengths and then delegating and […]

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David: Hire more people. Delegate. We would have crashed and burned this season without the addition of our team. The last thing you need as a founder is to be exhausted for too long a period of time — you become impulsive, you make mistakes.

Julian: Yes, being able to identify our strengths and then delegating and collaborating with people who can do things better or more efficiently than we can, has been so incredibly helpful.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Julian Miller and David McGranaghan of McMiller, whose games give you permission to be your silliest self.

Julian Miller: originally from the Netherlands. Julian moved to the UK to study acting.

David McGranaghan: from Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, David is an actor, comedy writer and games developer. Julian and David are co-founders of McMiller and real-life partners as well; needless to say, they like a challenge.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Julian: Yes! We love a backstory.

David: We do. We both have an extensive history in acting and performance. When I was 21, I was in productions alongside some really high profile names in the UK but I still kept finding myself at the lower end of financial success. I knew I needed something else to supplement my income. When I was in uni, I taught drama to kids. In the classroom, I would make up games for the kids to play (honestly, to mainly entertain myself) and I noticed how much fun they were having. I thought if I could find a way to harness that fun for adults, I might really have something special. I always say that nothing is funnier than laughing at (or with) someone you love. And that’s really how Game For Fame was born.

Julian: And once Game For Fame really took off, we knew it was time for a second product. I’m originally from Castricum in The Netherlands and my family is quite large and wildly competitive. At Christmas, my family would always ask David and I to come up with holiday games for everyone to play. It seemed only natural to come up with a way to pit them all against other, while keeping the Christmas spirit, of course. That’s really where Santa VS Jesus came about.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Julian: Our real “aha” moment arrived two years ago when we realized that Game for Fame was finally making us real money. We realized we could really put all of our creative juices into this thing…this business… that we have full control over it.

David: With our other pursuits in acting and writing, we would always be at the behest of others. We took a step back and asked ourselves, hey, shouldn’t we put all our energy and time into something we love?

Julian: And we’re in the driver’s seat now.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

David: Honestly, my mom was a real inspiration for me at the start. When I was growing up, she ran a pub/restaurant with a nightclub upstairs — the only nightclub in our town, Largs, in Scotland. When I first toyed with the idea of running a business, she was the first person I wanted to talk to and she could answer every question I had. When I was stressed about taking out the first loan, she was able to put me at ease. I remember she told me that there would come a time when that first loan wouldn’t seem like much money at all and that I’d learn more in this process and spend a third of the money than I would in several years of business school. She was right.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Julian: I think the size of our company makes it stand out. We’re nimble. We can react and pivot really quickly, implementing things that it would take years for other companies to accomplish. Our drive to make the business more sustainable and eco-friendly is that much more achievable because of it.

David: And our creativity really makes us shine. We get consistent reviews that say we’re unusual and that our products are unique in the market, that there’s nothing else quite like our upcoming games. It’s a strong crossroads of creativity and a business savvy approach. And our background in the arts and storytelling doesn’t hurt.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Julian: We are trying to remove plastic from the toy industry. We’re using our business and platform to try and make aggressive change into what makes our physical products.

David: We’re also finding a lot of success in diversity in our vendors, artists and collaborators. A diverse team is such a healthy well of creativity and inspiration. Different voices and opinions make everything stronger.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Julian: Being all-rounders. You need to be good at multiple things and be able to navigate through the different skills required to successfully run a business that, at its heart, is a creative endeavor.

David: Having the focus, drive and determination that only a piano-playing gymnast who does musical theater can have. Truly. Being able to put our heads down and do the work is critical. And being honest has been really instrumental to our success: honest with ourselves when we receive bad reviews, with each other when we need to unpick the tension, with our vendors when they have honest feedback. We have found that being honest is key.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

David: Yes, this has happened to us several times. I can’t pinpoint a specific example but there have been times we’ve been told to make changes to our artwork, our branding or the gameplay itself… basically, to go against our own instincts. It doesn’t end well. We certainly listen and hear when people give us feedback, but it’s also vital to know when to trust our own instincts.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

David: Working with Amazon proved to be an extremely emotional and physical challenge. It’s exhausting being a seller on Amazon. Year after year, they make it so difficult for us to actually sell our products and you never know where you stand with them. If we didn’t have to sell through Amazon, I don’t think the business would be as stressful as it often is. But on the flip side, a strong revenue stream for us comes from Amazon.

Julian: In our business expansion, taking a leap from being a small start up and taking the financial risk of hiring more people and expanding has been really hard. But we’re excited because we’re moving to an e-commerce store to control the guest journey and give them a better experience than they would get from Amazon.

David: All the boring stuff in running a business is really cumbersome and challenging too. It sounds silly but learning about taxes and paperwork…listen, we’re two former actors. This stuff doesn’t just come naturally.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Julian: Basically, it’s a train you can’t stop. You have to find a way of dealing with it. We had to reframe the way we view the business and implement structure — this is now our JOB. We start working at a certain time and, equally important, we stop working at a certain time. It’s a game changer. Rest and relaxation is important, especially for creativity. We know that there is always something that can be getting done. But once you take a break, you can really look at the bigger picture and gain perspective. It’s self care.

David: I think, in a way, I was very lucky that I started this company with very little money. I saw other people launch businesses with a ton of money and they fell flat. Because I started small, it was a debt that I knew I had to pay. I had games to sell! So I had to look at all of my options and platforms to really think about how I could make this work.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

David: Well, Julian really hit the nail on the head there with self care. It’s so nice that this question is being asked because when I read business profiles, these businesses are often painted in a light that only highlights the successes. But it’s so incredibly helpful to hear people talk about the challenges. This is hard! No one ever really talks about the pressure or the stress of the real day to day emotional roller coaster that you go through when running a business. It’s all on your shoulders. The company lives and dies by your decisions. It’s hard to be confident in every decision you make every day. It’s a lot to ask! There are ways to shake it up. For us, it’s all about escapism: movies, cinema, friends, museums, music.

Julian: Walks! All these things take us out of it and remove our brains from that pressure. We’re also married which poses its own challenges. We have our personal relationship to maintain. No work questions after a certain time of day! Therapy also helps. If you’re at a roadblock in your life, therapy can really help put decisions into perspective.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

David: We’ve never been in a position to fundraise. Up until this point, our business has been seasonal. We only know the bootstrapping experience but if any venture capitalists out there are interested or want to get in touch, I can give you our phone number, email, beeper number? Just kidding. Honestly, looking back, we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Julian: If you’re bringing a new product to the market, I can only advise bootstrapping because that’s what we did. We learned everything on our own. If we had been given a bunch of money without seeing the products sell, it could have been crippling. Doing it on your own…you can move fast. You’re small and focused. And it’s YOUR product. It’s your idea. With a venture capitalist, too many cooks might spoil the broth. Obviously, it’s dependent on the industry but our main stakeholder is the consumer. If they want to buy it, they’re going to buy it…regardless of where the money came from.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

David: Everything is a balancing act. You should absolutely trust yourself and your instincts, but you also need to know when to listen. You need that self drive to get your product out but you also need to listen when customers are test playing or saying they don’t connect with a certain element of a product. You need an ego but you also need to be able to put that aside when it’s necessary. It drives…but sometimes from the back seat.

Julian: Finding the right people to work with quickly. We struggled with this at first but, once you hit a rhythm, it can make all the difference.

David: Be different. Be unusual. You’ve got to be odd to be number one. Look around, see where everyone is going and go in a different direction. For example, our business model is to develop and create everything in house. Most companies in our market are outsourcing a lot of that work. We want as much control as possible and we don’t want to muddy the water with too many people’s opinions.

Julian: Don’t try to please others. You don’t have to and you definitely won’t. Oh, and your vendors work for you. Approaching them professionally but firmly is essential.

David: People underestimate a strong visual: a strong logo. Strong graphic. Strong artwork. Often times, startups don’t really think about how things look. If your website doesn’t look good, why is someone going to want to understand it more? Put as much emphasis on the way it looks as you do the product.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

David: We fell into a pretty common mistake at the start. We got a bit caught up in what other board game companies were doing. We tried to really fit into that box but we quickly realized we can do what other people can’t do. The sooner you realize who you are, the better.

Julian: You’re trying to compete with massive companies with bigger staff and bigger resources. Our company is strong because of who we are and how specific we are with our products, as well as our tone of voice. How can we use ourselves to reach the audience that is looking for our products.

David: People get carried away and don’t listen. You’ve got to listen.

Julian: And don’t be so hard on yourself. There’s a lot of luck and timing involved. If something isn’t working, it isn’t necessarily a bad idea. There are so many hurdles, you just have to keep jumping.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

David: Hire more people. Delegate. We would have crashed and burned this season without the addition of our team. The last thing you need as a founder is to be exhausted for too long a period of time — you become impulsive, you make mistakes.

Julian: Yes, being able to identify our strengths and then delegating and collaborating with people who can do things better or more efficiently than we can, has been so incredibly helpful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Julian: We are working on that! It’s not just a dream! We want to make the toy industry plastic free. We’re trying to show that, with creativity, we can make biodegradable products that look amazing and can turn a profit.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

David: We’d love to sit down with Bob Chapek and Jennifer Lee from Disney. We recently read a biography on Walt Disney and loved learning more about the machinations behind the scenes. We’re currently developing IP on toys with a strong possibility for crossover in film and merchandise. It’d be so interesting to see their inner network and learn how everything plays out internally.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Julian: Please do follow along! You can visit our website www.mcmiller.fun and check out our Instagram and Facebook @mcmiller.fun.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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