Creative UK Investment Manager, Matt Browning caught up with the co-CEO and founder of Dimension Studio, Simon Windsor to talk investment, growth and challenges for the creative sector.
The relationship between Creative UK and Dimension Studios transcends no less than two name changes. When we first started investing in Dimension, they were known as Hammerhead VR and we were still Creative England.
Fast forward six years and we’ve agreed on £1m worth of investment into the studio through Creative Growth Finance, our landmark fund launched in 2019. Since we first started working with Dimension, they have seen tremendous growth. Revenues have doubled year-on-year for three consecutive years and what was a team of 20 has grown to 90 and counting.
We like to think that we had a little hand in that success and far from seeing ourselves as ‘just investors’, we pride ourselves on being strategic investment partners. That is to say that we use our specialist Creative Sector knowledge, access to support programmes and our networks (comprising other investors, solution providers and production specialists for example), to support our investees.
I recently met up with Simon Windsor, co-founder and co-CEO of Dimension Studio, to talk about the growth of the studio and the role that our investment plays within it. Read the interview below to learn about the fascinating journey of this company that sits at the forefront of the immersive content world.
If you’d like to learn more about the business loans available through Creative Growth Finance, head over to our CGF page.
This interview has been edited for readability and in some places is not entirely verbatim
Matt Browning (Creative UK Investment Manager)
Can you tell us a bit about how Dimension Studio – then Hammerhead – got started?
Simon Windsor (co-founder, co-CEO Dimension Studio)
Hammerhead launched as an immersive content studio in 2014 and followed the success of a previous start-up I was involved in called String, one of the very first augmented reality technology platforms.
For me, it was the first stepping stone to thinking about how digital content can co-exist in the physical world – and in particular what the creation of 3D augmented content could look like? And where might brands, storytellers and creatives start to take that?
M: When you first got started, where did you find investment?
S: Early on, we identified that certain creative aspirations we had needed funding. We first approached Creative UK at that time. I met Jackie Boyd (a former Creative UK Investment Manager) at an industry event. It was back in the days when the immersive events circuit was still quite small so you would see the same people at the same events.
Jackie and I were talking about some of the work that we were doing on an existing IP called ABE, which tells the story of a robot who’s programmed how to love but can’t deal with rejection. We wanted to take the 2D short film and faithfully recreate an immersive version in VR so that the narrative was the same, the script was the same, but this time to use VR to explore what it’s like to play the role of the victim, rather than just observe the story.
We launched a roadshow when the experience was created. People would lie on a gurney with the headset on and they’d experience the VR, which ends with a terrifying finale in which ABE decides to experiment on you.
And the conversations we had with Creative UK happened at a time when Hammerhead was creating a more expansive VR game called Syren, which needed early-stage funding.
M: What did the first loan from Creative UK enable you to do?
S: The initial loan from Creative UK helped fund the prototype for Syren and really to kick that project off, while protecting a number of our development team. One of the challenges small studios quite often face is if you’re undertaking commercial work and providing services ‘for hire’, how do you manage a situation where you free-up time for the studio’s other creative aspirations?
Working with Creative UK gave us the opportunity to start experimenting, taking the learnings from ABE and investing in creating that game IP.
M: And did you have other options for loans at the time?
S: We were a small, independently owned studio. We thought about other forms of fundraising but didn’t want to go down the route of raising capital into the business with an equity component.
We were looking to fund the advancement of specific titles. So naturally, the approach and the financial mechanics of the loan with Creative UK enabled us to achieve both of those objectives.
M: And then you took a second loan and was that again to facilitate a specific development or was it just to grow more generally?
S: So, at the same time we were expanding the Gateshead studio and building a team there. We also launched Dimension Studio in London, initially specialising in volumetric capture and next-generation digital humans.
Our creative ambitions also grew as part of that expansion. So, the second loan was related to ABE. Specifically the next part of the story in the ABE universe, which was focused on a location-based entertainment experience.
The loan enabled us to develop a prototype, which we successfully delivered. The only downside was that this was just before the start of the pandemic.
The challenge we had was that in a short space of time nearly all location-based entertainment venues had to close. We’d reached a point with the game where we were ready to do more with it, but the industry shuttered for 18 months, and there was huge uncertainty about when the industry might reopen, so we paused development.
M: During all this time that you’ve been working with us, what sort of support have you received and how would you characterise the relationship?
S: Creative UK has always been really supportive. I think the thing that we loved from the off was the open-mindedness to supporting the early-stage ideas with creative aspirations that needed backing; and a degree of faith that the teams behind them would execute where other means of finance wouldn’t typically back that stage of a project.
[The finance from Creative UK] was very freeing for us, enabling the team to experiment and progress ideas creatively. Where otherwise we might not have had the backing to do so. And for us as a business, it was also important because it wasn’t just about whether or not that idea would see the light of day, it was also about harnessing learnings and building capabilities into the business.
So, whilst we might have targeted the creation of a specific game with the use of that loan, we were also looking at making sure that our processes internally and the frameworks and pipelines that we were developing, were benefiting from that investment.
M: So the loan was able to help your business develop its capabilities more widely?
I think that’s one of the really powerful things that Creative UK enabled because they were supportive in backing early-stage R&D.
On each of the occasions we’ve engaged Creative UK, it’s been twofold for us: it’s been about helping to advance an innovative idea that we wanted to explore, but also it’s been about supporting our growth as a business and the capability we have as a business to continue to advance.
Working in early, nascent markets where ecosystems are rapidly evolving and developing, in order to stay one step ahead, or to stay in tune with the advancements that are being made by some of the bigger players, smaller independent studios need to be able to find ways to unlock and stimulate innovation.
M: For us, it’s really exciting to be able to support businesses like yours that are at the forefront of the Creative Industries in the UK – one of the few sectors now really leading globally from this part of the world.
S: In the UK we have an amazing history in the creative industries. We’re right at the sharp edge of what’s happening globally in terms of progress and world-leading talent, whether it’s game development or VFX or virtual production or volumetric capture, for example.
We all want to continue building on this history, inspiring a new generation of talent and continuing to innovate and pioneer new forms of storytelling and the application technologies for new mediums. Absolutely, I think Creative UK has been influential in helping Dimension to be part of that continued drive and a new creative force that continues to innovate on the global stage.
M: And so when you came to the third and fourth CUK loans – from the Creative Growth Finance Fund which is funded with Triodos – what did those loans mean for your business? What were you able to do?
S: Our company has grown significantly over the last few years. We’ve doubled revenues year-on-year for the last three years. When we received the first loan from Creative UK, Hammerhead would have been about 20 people in size. We’re now over 90 people, we’re hiring for another 15 or so roles and this year we’re on target to hit £14 million in revenues.
The recent loan from Creative UK was a business loan to help invest in our further expansion, things like CapEx (capital expenditure), and growing the team for areas that we are focused on investing in and new services and IP.
M: I have one more question for you, and it could be a bit of a big question. What do you think are big challenges faced by creative businesses today?
S: That’s a good question. There are a couple of things. I think routes to finance can still be a challenge, especially for smaller, independent studios that have big ideas but don’t necessarily have the means to scale or have the evidence to provide 100% confidence in their ability to deliver on those. We have to continue to invest in young talent and good ideas.
And the other side is access to talent – something which I think is currently a challenge for many companies in our space. I know there is a shortage of real-time artists and developers, for example with Unreal Engine experience. Access to the right level of skills can be a challenge. And I know there are lots of initiatives being worked on across the UK to help change that situation, but one of the challenges we’ve always faced is finding the right calibre of people.