Digital design studio Ustwo has launched First Mile, a new fund and mentorship programme for fledgling creative businesses. The agency is looking for first-time business founders anywhere in the UK, to whom it will give a £10,000 interest-free loan (to be paid back into the programme within three years if they have made the business work), a year of support and mentorship, as well as part-time workspace in its offices. Hoping to stand out from many similar investment programmes – who often ask for a stake and/or dauntingly speedy returns on their cash – the initiative aims to bring values and care to the fore, in a bid by Ustwo co-founders Mills and Sinx to pay forward the opportunities they were given when they started out.
“What we’ve been observing in the venture world today is the singular focus on growth-at-all-costs,” Mills tells It’s Nice That. “I believe this is not always the best. Where is the room for experimentation and the space to let an idea flourish? It’s also all about who you know – so what happens if someone has a great idea for a business but doesn’t have the right network to get the support they need to get their idea off the ground?” By way of antidote, Mills says First Mile is early-stage support that is “more expansive than the startup mentality that we see today. One that gives first-time entrepreneurs the freedom to experiment, to learn, to ultimately create something meaningful and long lasting.”
One of the most daunting aspects of applying for funding can be the expectancy to grow to a huge scale, and fast, while many similar schemes such as accelerator programmes, incubators and angel investors also ask for equity in the business and decision-making power. This could be narrowing the spectrum of applicants, Mills says. “What happens when a founder doesn’t want to go down this path? What if they could be given space to think longer term than just their next funding? How can we instil creativity into the whole business, instead of just how the product looks? That’s the gap we’re ultimately trying to fill.
“Founders shouldn’t be forced down a path or have unrealistic expectations of growth thrown at them,” he continues. “I am a firm advocate in giving people the belief and tools without being prescriptive; our bet is that they will go on to build amazing things in a way that works for them. We want to demonstrate that success is about building a sustainable company that creates impact in multiple ways.”
Ustwo was founded by the duo with a £5,000 cash injection in 2004, and having built a successful business that has stayed true to their values to this day, they wanted to pay it forward. Though the company has supported the launch of a number of businesses in its time, these have so far been on an adhoc basis, and First Mile is more official.
So, what are they looking for in the candidates? “We’re not looking for a specific type of business,” Mills says, “what we’re more interested in is the foundations that the business will be built on. What are the values, beliefs and the ideas they’re bringing to their new founded enterprise? We’ll support any type of business, from agencies, games or software businesses to product companies. At the end of the day we want to support the people who want to be authentically themselves, solve real problems and who care about doing things their own way. Given who we are, creativity and design is critical. We know that’s broad, but those are the foundations of our own business and this is where we believe we can best add value to new businesses.”
The companies have to be UK-based and recently, or imminently, set up. If and when repaid, the loan goes back into the programme to help the next entrepreneur. Successful will also be invited to mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs once established.
Applications to First Mile close 6 April 2020. Find out more and apply here.