‘Moshi will be our Mickey Mouse, around for many years hopefully’
The man who created an internet monster for kids is preparing his next big thing.
Child’s play: ‘My mother says I need a haircut’ says Michael Acton Smith the brains behind Moshi Monsters
The offices of Mind Candy, the company behind Moshi Monsters, are either the coolest and most exhilaratingly fun place to work, or tiresomely and self-consciously ‘wacky’, depending on your view. The reception desk is fashioned from a log; bean bags and gumball machines punctuate the grass-coloured carpet; a twisty slide can take you from the fourth to the third floor and employees can kick back in the ‘tree house’.
And at the centre of it all is Michael Acton Smith, the founder of this media company, with Russell Brand bird’s-nest hair, Portuguese pony-skin boots, a purple velvet jacket and bangles and bracelets half-way up to his elbow. He is the walking version of those signs you used to find on office desks: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.’
If you’ve never heard of Acton Smith or Moshi Monsters, that might be because you do not know any children below the age of 10.
Those with primary school age children will, to their cost, have found it impossible to escape this garish world of moshlings, Dustbin Beaver, Poppet and Katsuma, which has spread from the internet on to lunchboxes, magazines (the Moshi magazine outsells Vogue), Top Trumps and duvet covers.
Moshi Monsters was started by Acton Smith less than a decade ago, but in that time has become one of the biggest children’s brands on this side of the Atlantic.
Acton Smith, 39, insists the Willy Wonka get-up is not all an act to prove he is “in tune” with the kids. “I hope and feel I am being authentic. This is who I am. I like dressing up slightly differently.”
He seems slightly put-out at my suggestion that a hairbrush wouldn’t go amiss for a man who wants to be taken seriously as a global tech pioneer. “My mother says I need a haircut,” he concedes.
“Our ambition is to build the greatest entertainment company in the world for this digital generation. The journey is at an early stage.”
In spite of the scruffy swagger, Acton Smith is quietly spoken and rather charming.
If he wants to stamp his mark, one option is to sell up, taking advantage of the current boom in the technology market, which saw Facebook splash out $19bn (€14b) on the WhatsApp messaging service.
The last time Mind Candy was valued was nearly two years ago, when it was worth $200m (€144m).
Acton Smith says: “We do have shareholders on board and at some point we will have to make the decision to sell the business.”
Time is not on his side. Globally, “around 90 million” children have registered to enter the world of Moshi.
But there are already signs that his fickle customers have started to move on.
According to data from ComScore, the monthly number of British visitors to MoshiMonsters.com, the main gateway to the game, fell from nearly 1.3 million at the start of 2013 to 730,000 in December.
“Everyone in the toy industry has noticed that kids are getting older younger, with the internet and the information they can access,” Acton Smith admits. “In the early days of Moshi, there were 12-year-olds who were playing Moshi and loving it. Now, 12-year-olds would definitely not be playing Moshi. There are so many other things they could be doing with their time.”
Acton Smith admits he made a mistake in creating Moshi only for PCs, underestimating how smartphones and tablets would dominate lives.
But Acton Smith is already plotting his next big move, likely to be a game for smartphones and one that appeals to adults as well as children. “If the analogy is Disney, then hopefully Moshi will be our Mickey Mouse, around for many years.”
He has form when it comes to developing new ideas. The son of a librarian and a midwife (he says his parents are “bewildered and proud” about how he has made a fortune from cartoon monsters), he attempted koi carp breeding and set up a BMX track in his back garden.
He co-founded Firebox.com, the online gadget and gimmick shop, with a university friend. It was only when he realised that children adored nurturing pets that he found his calling.
Curiously, he has no children himself, but adds: “Kids are my next big project.”
Does his girlfriend [Kathryn Parsons, fellow tech entrepreneur], know this? “We have had discussions. I’d love to have kids, I know she would as well.”
If nothing else, they’d enjoy visiting him at work.
‘Moshi Monsters: The Movie’ is out today on DVD/Blu-ray