Ben Lawton tells Mike Hughes how he turned an idea into a hobby and then into a business that’s now the biggest of its kind in Europe and has just landed a deal with a retail giant.
Cast your mind back to your childhood and the need to cover notebooks, walls, sports bags and desks in cut-out pictures of your musical heroes or TV idols. Nowadays, computer gaming is the preferred gateway into addictive adulation, where you can immerse yourself in any time or place with the click of a mouse.
Ben Lawton’s smartest move was to recognise the scope of that fan base and see the basis of a powerful business. His company – Custom Controllers, based on Armley Road in Leeds – buys Xbox and PlayStation games controllers in bulk, strips them down and then customises them with designs to match a particular game or with freestyle artwork such as ‘Dark Knight’, ‘Red Velvet’ or ‘Massacre’. Buyers can also log on and design their own.
“It started off very much as a bedroom hobby, doing just one or two controllers a week and selling them on eBay,” Lawton explains. “Me and my friends always wanted these designer controllers but you could only order them from America, so I made some myself and started to sell them.
“I would put what profits I had back into buying more controllers and started to put a bit of a range together. When I started to spray-paint the controllers I just expanded into the garden shed, which was certainly very makeshift.
“But the product was getting a lot of attention because the controllers were usually just black and no one had seen anything like these before and the fan base started to build up. There was no-one else out there doing it on a serious level, so I decided to put some time, effort and money into it myself and bring quite a few people on board to build a tightly-knit team.”
A move to hydro-dipping – where the controllers are immersed in a tank of liquid on top of which floats a thin film of the design, which then wraps itself around the intricate parts – was a big time-saver and opened out the number of options. Then a ‘grown-up’ website was built and the hobby had become a business.
For those not similarly immersed in the gaming world, the market might seem almost niche. But recent estimates of around 20 million regular players in the UK alone means Custom Controllers is a genuine game-changer. For instance, more than five million of those players will have Grand Theft Auto on their shelves and if Lawton and his team bring out a new design for the game then even a 1% slice of that fan base means there is a potential £3m market waiting for their release date.
That’s just because he had the deep interest in his product from day one, the intuition to see a new market for it and then the business sense to be able to grow with it from bedroom to garden shed to Armley Road.
“Our reach started to grow and I managed to get a boost from some well-known Youtubers after I sent them a controller and they posted about it, which made our social media pages rocket ahead from about 10,000 followers to 70,000 in the space of about three months,” he says. “We saw the obvious benefits of that and teamed up with other Youtubers and have continued to bring out new designs. There are no issues with the original manufacturers because at the end of the day we buy the controllers from Microsoft and it is then ours and we can do what we want with it.
“They are OK with that because of the amount of items we buy from them and Sony, and the promotion they get from them. Microsoft are actually one of our customers now, which means they might ask for a small run of a few hundred designs.”
The core sales area in the earlier days – and still now to an extent – is the individual buyer with a strong loyalty to a particular game or franchise and who is part of a gaming network keen to compete with each other for kit just as eagerly as they compete with Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton or Master Chief.
Gaming used to be a solitary challenge of boy versus machine, but the internet turned that around completely; the social aspect of being part of a team and meeting online to tackle Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands together revolutionised the market. Now there is even a professional sector, with the world’s best players competing for US$1m prizes.
So, as with any expanding company, the retail outlets are vital to bulk up the sales figures – and Lawton has just landed one of the biggest, with Game shops around the country deciding they need Custom Controllers on their shelves.
“We will roll out into 120 stores across the UK in the next few weeks, which will significantly increase the size of the business,” he says. “We are turning over £700,000 now, but this could more than treble that and take the company to a different level. “We had some meetings and did a trial with them in 13 stores, which allowed customers to pick up the controllers and have a really good look around them. They pretty much sold out of our stock and they asked us back in to talk about what we could do.
“A lot of our customer base is from retail now with many taking us on board and just reselling the stock themselves. We have already started looking at potentially moving into more of the accessories and equipment alongside the controllers and have just started an online United States outlet and will be opening up more stores in Europe through this year and delve into those markets to see what the reaction is.”
As well as a clear mastery of merchandising, one of the most basic skills Lawton has had to build up is design. It is not enough for the dedicated player to have the name of his top game stamped on the controller, the presentation has to be cool – and so customised you can’t wait to post a picture of the kit you’re using.
“We tend to design everything in-house and will look really carefully at colour schemes and combinations and we will come to a group decision about what is going to sell well. We will then introduce it through social media to see what reaction it gets and then get them on the website for sale.
“We take great pride in what our designs can do for games, but we have also just released a feature called ‘Create Your Own’ where you can change the shell and the button colours, and we did that just because of the sheer number of people who had asked for it.”
That is all part of the learning process for this 22-year-old entrepreneur who is now the controller of his people’s livelihoods. But he seems like he has his finger on the right buttons, and regards his young age as a plus because he has no ties – yet – and can choose to work the sort of crazy hours he needs to build the business.
“I found it quite easy to move into that area of responsibility, and it helps so much when you have a strong team around you that always does more than you ask,” he says. “We all put our heads together to strategise everything quite carefully and see what the best way forward might be.
“We know things like working with Game is a massive deal that could break us if we don’t do it right and get the cashflow just right. At the moment, we put out about 1,000 units each week and to get Custom Controllers into 100 Game stores will cost us £500,000, which can be a frightening figure when you are a young company and struggling to get funding because you don’t have a house you can put up as a guarantee.”
But Lawton’s ingenuity is about to change that as well. The teamwork at his company is clearly important to him, so he is investing in a house that his staff will share with him during the week – and which he can potentially use as leverage for that vital funding. “Half of my team are from Manchester and are travelling up all the time, so we are buying a place in Leeds and four of us will live there while we are working on a project.”
That’s smart thinking but, for a young man who was facing Sephiroth and Deathclaws when he was a teenager, a mortgage probably isn’t much of a challenge.