Insight: Michael Acton Smith, creator of Moshi Monsters

 

Michael Acton Smith, 37, is the founder and CEO of Mind Candy, the company behind Moshi Monsters, a virtual pet and social networking game for children. The game has 60 million users worldwide, and last year was valued at $200m (£125m). An album, Moshi Monsters: Music Rox!, was released earlier this month. Acton Smith is speaking at the Do Lectures (dolectures.com) on Friday 27 April.

In the age of Google, having a unique, original name is very important. My real name is Michael Smith, and my middle name is Acton, so I started calling myself Michael Acton Smith. But it's a bit long and clunky, so I might just go with Michael Acton. I'm still thinking about it.

I love creating entertainment that isn't confined to one medium. The first product we made at Mind Candy was Perplex City, an alternate reality game played across different media. We had websites, a magazine, a tourist guide, and an album, which sold about seven copies. I always envisaged Moshi as more than an online game. I drew a sketch on a napkin with Moshi Monsters at the centre, and orbiting it were toys, magazines, a TV show. That blueprint was there from the start. I'm a huge music fan, and I discovered that one of our writers, Steve Cleverley – who names a lot of the characters, and writes stories – had a musical background. We wrote down some song ideas, and the album grew from there.

To have a few good ideas, you need to have a hell of a lot of awful ideas. That's what I love about the digital age. The cost of failing is so much smaller now than it was in the old entertainment world. If you had an idea for a film or a video game, you had to have millions of dollars, a big team and years to put it together – then you had to launch it and cross your fingers. Now, you can come up with an idea and hack together a mobile game in a matter of weeks. And if it fails, you just try again. My philosophy is to make a lot of small bets, and if something shows promise then you start putting more resources into it.

If Spongebob Squarepants had been brought up in a brainstorming session, the person who brought it up would have been asked to leave. A lot of early Moshi stuff was created on my own in coffee shops. We have an extraordinarily talented team, but it's hard to create quirky, extra- ordinary kids' entertainment in a committee. The stuff that clicks with kids is weird and complicated, and it's best coming from one crazy brain.

My dad was a librarian and used to bring home amazing books for me and my sister, which I would devour: Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak. My head is filled with weird and wonderful worlds and creatures. Monsters have so much potential: they can be scary or cute; they can appeal to girls or boys; kids love them and teenagers love them. I don't have kids of my own yet – that's my next big project, once I find a wife. My godson and nieces are very helpful as focus groups, though.

I've always loved the idea of business. I had a computer games magazine when I was 11, I used to clean the neighbours' cars and do paper rounds. Business is the ultimate validation. If you've got an idea, people may think you're crazy, but if you put it in the marketplace, the consumers can tell you if you're crazy or not.

I never saw myself running a kids' entertainment brand, but I thought the next big canvas for extraordinary kids' entertainment was going to be the internet, where, instead of being broadcast to, kids would be part of the community, helping to shape the content.

The web is just one part of a balanced childhood. Children should still be doing their homework, playing football or making dens. But they're growing up in a world that is online and offline. We can't put the genie back in the bottle: they'll find jobs with LinkedIn, they'll make friends on Facebook. Smart parents realise it makes sense for kids to be online. And far better they discover this new world in a walled garden like Moshi Monsters or Club Penguin – a place that's specifically designed for them – rather than just letting them roam the wilds of the web.

Virtual goods pose the same questions as any other purchase. Whether you're buying a pair of designer sunglasses or a collection of pixels, it's how it makes you feel, the status associated with it, the ability to do things faster or more efficiently. For instance, Draw Something is an amazingly successful free-to-play iPhone game, and when I found out that you had to pay extra to get different colours, I thought "I'll never do that". But within days I was spending loads of money on it, because those colours enabled me to draw more exciting pictures, to have more fun with my friends, to build social connections. It was worth every penny.

I used to be terrified of public speaking. But a friend forced me to do it, and everyone laughed at my jokes, so I realised it's an amazing way to communicate and share ideas and inspire lots of people. There's some really boring conferences out there but a few have a real soul. The Do Lectures seemed to have something magical about it. It was described to me as TED meets Where the Wild Things Are, and I love both those things.

I'd love to see entrepreneurs in Europe being a bit more ambitious. Instead of selling as soon as Silicon Valley or the big US entertainment companies come knocking, we should have the ambition to build billion-dollar businesses in Europe. The smartest time to sell a business is while you're still growing, so you leave upside for the acquirer. But as long as I wake up every morning excited about going to work, I'd rather be doing this than sitting on a desert island drinking cocktails and collecting yachts – no matter how big a cheque anyone waves at me.

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
Sport
Wayne Rooney talks to the media during a press conference
sport
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

    £38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

    MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

    £28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

    Systems & Data Lead – Oxfordshire – Permanent – Up to £24k

    £20000 - £24000 Per Annum 28 days holiday, free parking, pension: Clearwater P...

    Digital Media Manager

    £38000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?