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Founders’ Syndrome: Waste’s founders on doing ‘as much cool shit as possible’

Waste’s co-founders Visar Statovci and Mike Petricevic on creative growth / Image courtesy of Waste

Waste is a London-based creative agency specializing in gaming. Helmed by Visar Statovci and Mike Petricevic, the pair have taken the agency from their bedrooms to a team of 75 working with gaming’s biggest names. We sat down with them to talk about growing a business as a duo, encouraging cross-pollination in a growing team and keeping the creative spark alive.

What do a food magazine based out of a converted Camden church, a web design studio on a boat in the Thames and a creative agency above Soho’s Brewer Street (unfortunately known then as ‘Porn Alley’) have in common?

Answer: they’re all ventures of Visar Statovci and Mike Petricevic, the co-founders of creative agency Waste. The latter, in fact, was an early incarnation of Waste itself – albeit long before they earned both Content Marketing Agency of the Year and Dadi Agency of the Year at last year’s Drum Awards.

Growing as a pair

Statovci and Petricevic met through a mutual friend, bonding initially over their Balkan blood (Statovci is Kosovan; Petricevic is a Kiwi with Croatian heritage) and a love of video games. “My dad told me that the first rule of business is to never go into business with your mates,” says Petricevic. “So we did immediately.”

Food magazines and floating design studios aside, success came quickly – growing to a team of 25 before catching the eye of an industry mentor who helped them scale. “We spent two days mapping a vision across a big wall and we were excited, freaking out like little children.”

At the time, though, they weren’t a duo – a third founding partner was less keen on the direction of growth. Statovci says: “The third partner was like, ‘this is not my vision, this is definitely not what I want to do. This is out of my comfort zone.’” They bought him out in a move Petricevic describes as “amicable but still a very hard thing to go through.”

‘Step back and try to get people to do as much cool shit as possible’

Major organizational shifts are hard, because a startup really does feel like your baby. The urge to protect it is a strong one, but it can’t override an opposite and no less important impulse: to embrace change in a world defined by flux. For Petricevic, “if we’re not challenged, we’re bored. And bored is not a good place to be.”

As with babies, growth demands its own kind of adaptive parenting. Statovci says: “All of a sudden, your baby has changed into a teenager ... It’s a different thing. You’ve got to change the structure of it, all your ways of working, everything. You’ve got to reinvent the thing again.”

Growing, for good or bad, often involves outgrowing. “We grew from a family business to a bigger business – from a business with all the functions a little mixed up to departments that have a very clear role.”

This will be a familiar story for well-performing startups: early success from a fluid, radically collaborative set-up begets growth, rendering that set-up unsustainable (creatives of every sort face this problem – it’s the story of The White Stripes song Little Room). As Petricevic says, with scale, “all of a sudden you’ve got all these silos developing” and one worries that the secret sauce might get lost along the way. “We’ve actually come to this point now where we’re trying to get back to where we were when we were younger. How do we make more collaboration between these departments so we can get back to where we were?”

For the duo, it became clear that attempts to force collaboration risked breaking it entirely. Petricevic says: “As we got bigger we tried to implement [measures to encourage collaboration] but we put rules around it ... as soon as we started doing that, it fell on its face. It has to happen naturally.” Ownership is key. “More recently, we’ve had a lot more success when we’ve completely stepped away from it ... The bosses getting involved puts pressure on it.” Or, as Statovci puts it, “we tried to make it happen and it struggled. But it naturally happened when we took a step back and tried to get people to do as much cool shit as possible.”

Creative ventures

As far as encouraging cool shit goes, the pair do put their money where their mouths are, from launching animation studio This Thing of Ours to their own beer, Waste Pale Ale. A couple of months back they unveiled Upstart, a revenue-share platform for indie games.

Early work on Upstart was handled by another experiment, internship program The Academy: they took on interns in seven departments, earmarking half their time to create the project. Handing over early development for a major idea is indicative of that paradoxically hands-off, collaboration-led business philosophy. Statovci says: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a junior or a director. Whenever someone comes up with an idea, we want them to get to that level of confidence and ownership over their own idea that we can comfortably feed into it. The last thing we want is a diluted creative idea.” The same impulse led to another wild idea: looking for creatives who really love games, they exclusively promoted a recent position on a digital notice board on Animal Crossing.

15 years down the line, then, interesting ideas are still popping up (we haven’t even mentioned the TV show they’re pitching to Netflix). What’s the secret to a stable business partnership (and friendship) over the years? For Petricevic, it comes down to that Balkan blood. “The blood boils. If you’re angry about anything, it’s all of a sudden out. There’s no mucking around.”

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