NetPlay: Martin Higginson
Martin Higginson explains how defining the spirit of his company will help it to flourish
The chief executive of gaming company NetPlay TV shows me a text on his phone. There are two numbers: how much money NetPlay took in bets yesterday and what the profit margin is. On a typical day, Martin Higginson expects his business to take about £1m of bets and for the house to hold 2-3% of this. Bets are par for the course, but today, the punters have been luckier than normal. In the past, days like this would leave bookies reaching for the bottle, but Higginson isn’t panicking.
He has been running successful businesses throughout his adult life, from publishing to mobile downloads, and now in the gaming sector. While he knows the thrill of the start-up period, his 16-month-old AIM-listed company has recently completed a ‘purposing exercise’ to ensure the 100-strong business remains on track as it grows.
“Once a business has gone through the ‘forming and storming period’, and you are actually making money, then you can start putting structures in place,” Higginson explains. “Then you need to start connecting people so everyone understands where they are going. The only way to do this is to have a common vision. However, if you ask several people in one business what the company vision is, you will often get more than one answer.”
The exercise has resulted in a written document, which is given to all new staff and has been “bought into” by the senior management team. It begins with a statement of the company’s spirit and outlines its beliefs, character, challenges and focus.
NetPlay’s purposing exercise was inspired by a report in the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Building your company’s vision’. Higginson liked the article so much, it now forms part of his company’s manual.
The report examines some of the world’s most successful companies (Sony, Hewlett Packard, Nike, Walt Disney) to find out what sets them apart from other businesses. It begins with a succinct, but definitive statement: “Companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.”
Higginson engaged with his management team to discover NetPlay’s core values and purpose. He began by asking them to come up with words and phrases they felt defined the business. The list was then refined into a single side of A4, which is given to every member of staff. The document has six sections: the dream, the spirit, beliefs, character, day-to-day focus and its ‘greatest imaginable challenge’. “The entire management team has bought into this; these are their words, not mine,” Higginson says.
Referred to by others as a mission statement, Higginson prefers the term ‘dream’. NetPlay’s dream involves “discovering and building interactive entertainment for now and the future”. Meanwhile, in its spirit statement the business is described as an ‘adventure’. For the average employee this is much more intoxicating and involving than simply being told: “We are here to make money.”
Defining your character and beliefs is important for your brand, and once entrenched will guide your business in a positive way, as it grows.
Trust is at the top for NetPlay for two reasons. First, as a gaming business, customers must have faith in its games or they won’t play. Also, NetPlay is unique in its approach to transparency as it shows the games on TV, although punters can join in online. “You get to see exactly what is happening,” Higginson says.
Its other character traits are ‘entertaining, welcoming, family, irresistible, excellence, streetwise and pioneering’. All are instructive and help build the spirit of adventure that Higginson wants in his business.
Closely tied to the character are the company’s beliefs. Phrases such as ‘enjoyment is king’, ‘the game comes first’ and ‘our actions will define us’ started appearing around the office soon after the exercise began. The company has 12 beliefs, which apply to external and internal issues, and all staff can find them in their manual.
Of course, there is always the day-to-day and this needs to be defined. However, you might want to come up with something a little more exciting than ‘selling software’ or ‘building houses’. NetPlay’s focus is ‘creating real winners’, which is more interesting than ‘making money from bets’. Higginson says this focus refers to people both externally and internally.
The Harvard Business report states that the best companies set themselves BHAGs, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. In the 1960s Nike’s goal was ‘to crush Adidas’ and Honda made similar pronouncements about Yamaha. Sony wanted to be the company best known for building the perception that Japanese products were high quality.
Similarly, NetPlay has set itself a ‘greatest imaginable challenge’ – to achieve £1.5bn in annual bets by 2011. Interestingly, while sales targets are usually simply sent down from on high, this figure wasn’t set by Higginson, but came from discussions with his team.
Nevertheless, it’s a mammoth challenge that shows that involvement with employees need not lead to lowered expectations.
Big targets are often best reached by taking many baby steps. Following the setting of the challenge, each team manager went off to engage with his or her individual teams. The teams then came up with their own top 10 challenges which will help the company realise this overall aim. As a result, the company now has 100 people all acting as a unit towards a common goal.
Going with the flow
Once the staff at your business truly understand what your company’s goals are and what they must do to get there, then things can really begin to work well. Higginson says that there are comparisons between a great football team and a business at its best.
“Everything begins to flow,” says Higginson. “Like a team playing beautiful football, everyone knows where the ball is going and what they have to do when they receive it. The manager has to communicate the vision, but then let the team get on with the game.”
Core visions and values
Every great business has them. You could probably recognise these businesses from their values alone.
- No cynicism
- Nurturing and promulgation of ‘wholesome American values’
- Creativity, dreams and imagination
- Fanatical attention to consistency and detail
- Preservation and control of the Disney Magic
- Elevation of Japanese culture and national status
- Being a pioneer – not following others, doing the impossible
- Encouraging individual ability and creativity
- The right to freedom of choice
- Winning – beating others in a good fight
- Encouraging individual initiative
- Opportunity based on merit; no one is entitled to anything
- Hard work and continuous self-improvement