How Product Madness created a ‘best of both’ culture

Fun is serious business at the mobile games firm, but more structure was required to expand and attract top talent 

How Product Madness created a ‘best of both’ culture

When People Management speaks to Harry Yates, HR director at Product Madness, and head of people and culture Steve Othen over Zoom, it’s mid-afternoon on the eve of England’s second national lockdown. As such, the pair are probably in the minority of colleagues still talking shop. “We’ve said to staff if you need to clock off early to go see family or go to a restaurant... then go do it,” says Othen. It’s a people-focused, flexible approach which epitomises that taken by the mobile games firm throughout Covid, and indeed since the company’s creation. 

The business started life as the brainchild of two Stanford MBA graduates in 2007. Cut to 2020, and it is the proud owner of a range of successful social casino games, including Heart of Vegas and Cashman Casino, and now employs 210 at its London office in the City, and around 45 in Lviv, Ukraine. It’s been a story of meteoric growth even just over the last few years, reports Yates, who joined in 2017 when the firm had around 60 staff in London and 20 in San Francisco (an office since disbanded in favour of growth in Europe). After being acquired by Australian gaming giant Aristocrat in 2015, the company knew it had the potential to expand, but also that it needed more formal structures and processes to support this. “They were a start-up; it was fun, dynamic and agile,” says Yates. “But they realised they needed someone to put a bit of a sensible hat on and make things work better.” 

The challenge, he reports, has been to do so while retaining a culture of trusting people to be adults and do great work in a way that suits them: “My first year was all about foundations – implementing our first HRIS, for example... When I joined they were doing year-end reviews on paper – so I walked into 10 folders of paper from the last five years. The second year was a mixture of junior business partnering and technology. And this year we’ve launched a new performance management system, pulse engagement surveys and a new management training programme.”

The business now, as such, sits comfortably in the space between plucky start-ups and established – perhaps slightly more staid – corporates. And it’s this ‘best of both worlds’ positioning the team hopes will entice 120 new hires between now and September 2021. “When we look at talent coming or leaving, only 50 per cent are from gaming, so we’re up against a whole range of sectors,” says Yates. “We’ve hired from or lost people to Deloitte, M&S, the financial sector… if they have a technology element, they’re a competitor.”

Start-ups can be aggressive in luring staff away with more senior positions. But Yates has seen people come back once they realise they appreciate the more ‘serious’ benefits (a good pension, health and dental insurance…) and structured development and career support on offer. Othen adds that while sleep pods, massage chairs and ping pong tables have become something of a tech firm cliché, and perhaps superficially adopted by larger firms, at Product Madness such perks are part of everyday life and integral to creativity: “You get a lot of companies with foosball tables but in reality they’re gathering dust. Whereas we’ve now got three because there were complaints about the queue.” Yates adds: “About 40 per cent of our people come from outside the UK and because of their age they’re generally by themselves. The best way to make friends for some is at work, so we’ve always had staff staying until 8pm to play board games or take part in craft nights.”

Which begs the question of how the firm has retained this feel, so important for staff living alone, during lockdown – particularly given the office has remained closed throughout. “There were a couple of occasions when things started to lift and we wondered whether staying closed was the right thing. But you look back now and it definitely was,” says Othen, pointing out that the business has ensured staff safety while enjoying its best financial year to date.

A huge and sustained push to get people socialising virtually has included an online party with a magician, a cocktail masterclass where everyone received the ingredients and virtual escape rooms. More serious support has also been key – including an EAP but also a named counsellor for people to speak to, and consistent encouragements that staff take any time needed to deal with extra pressures such as home schooling.

The test now – as for many businesses – will be deciding how much of this year’s remote working experiment to bring forward post Covid. “We were already looking at what working from home meant for us, but it was still a relatively new concept. Because of the matrix style of the business and our sector, people do need to be together to be creative and know what’s going on,” says Othen, adding though that in future it’ll be about trusting staff to put in the right amount of office time.

The firm will also potentially be much more open to location-agnostic hiring, adds Yates. “Before we were looking for someone in our user acquisition team for ages, and we found the perfect candidate but they were in Barcelona and didn’t want to move. Now we’re thinking: why don’t we just hire them and they stay there?” This may or may not prove the way forwards, he says; the important thing for the HR team now will be to adopt that agile methodology used by the rest of the business to try things out.

Whatever the outcome, building a more distinct, well-known employer brand is a key next goal. But again just what this looks like – and what its internal slogan ‘welcome to the madness’ will now mean – given the events of this year, the team is open-minded about. One thing’s for sure though: it should always denote a lot of creativity, hard work... but also fun.