Interviews

Game on: The student who has cornered the market in customised gaming controllers

7 min read

19 November 2015

As the first term reaches its conclusion, students up and down the country will be wondering whether they can generate some extra cash for Christmas and beyond.

Ben Lawton had already developed the idea for his business while he was at sixth form college, as he would regularly modify his friends’ Xbox controllers and charge them a fee for doing so. However, A-levels had forced him to put this little sideline on hold until he got to university.

“I decided to check out if there was anyone who was offering a similar service already in the UK,” he said. “To my surprise there wasn’t so I knew I had to fill this gap in the market.”

Custom Controllers UK was established in November 2012, offering repair and modification services. Today, it’s the country’s leading manufacturer for customised gaming controllers, specialising in Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 Controllers. The company’s team customise controllers by hand with up to 250 different designs.

Lawton, 21, had always been encouraged to start his own business and think entrepreneurially from a young age because his mother ran her own business while he was growing up. “I was really inspired by her because not only did she invent her own products but she then managed to develop her own company,” he said.

Through his school he sold drinks and chocolate bars earning him around £150 per week. At college he started running his own student nights with a friend. This involved hiring a club midweek, setting up a Facebook page and inviting the entire college. “Before we knew it everybody wanted to attend and the tickets just sold out,” he said. “We would turnover around £1500 per event. After leaving college, I had enough finance behind me to start Custom Controllers UK.”

At first he listed his products on eBay and as soon as they sold and he had received payment he would use these funds to buy the raw materials and make new products. He would then send them out. After a few months he invested all of his available funds –around £300 – and borrowed another £300 from his parents to buy new stock in order to try to extend his product range slightly. 

This helped, and as sales increased he applied for a grant from the Trinity Enterprise Centre at Leeds Trinity University, where he was now studying – receiving around £800. “This was a great help, as the university also provided useful tax advice and business support,” he said. “I recently received huge investments from family members to help build mass amounts of stock that will be crucial for this Christmas.”

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Managing supply and demand has been a challenge. In one instance, Lawton was promised a limited edition controller that was being released by Microsoft before the launch date by one of his trusted suppliers. This represented a new direction as he had always sold only his own custom designs, but felt this product would be in great demand. Trusting his supplier, he listed this limited edition controller on the Customer Controllers UK website with a promise to customers that they would receive it on the release day. 

The company sold well over 100 units but, as the release date approached, the supplier broke the news that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the product until four weeks after release date – forcing Lawton to refund every customer. To do this he used all of his available cash and had to take out a £1,000 loan. 

“However, I used the loan to invest in a few more products for the website and spent the next few weeks working solely on marketing and pushing the products over social media wherever I could and luckily this worked,” he said. “Sales increased, I paid off the loan and I was back on track.

The company has been successful because it was started at exactly the right time with no competitors in the market, Lawton believes. He also cites its ability to offer such a wide range of designs for customers. This has helped him to create a reputable brand as the UK’s leading manufacturer and to become what he calls the “go to guys” for customised gaming controllers. 

Another reason for its success is Custom Controllers’ involvement with a range of celebrities and well established brands such as Nike, Konami, The Sidemen, JME, Wretch 32, Chris Ramsey and Duncan Bannatyne. “The promotion received from these brands and celebrities has been priceless and has contributed to the well-established Instagram following of 100,000 followers and 50,000 twitter followers,” said Lawton, who won the award for Young Entrepreneur of The Year, from the Duke of York, following his nomination by Leeds Trinity University. 

In May last year Lawton launched another company, called Gaming Edge UK, which modifies controllers for professional gamers. These modifications include additional features such as trigger stops, which are designed to increase firing rate in first person shooter games. 

Lawton said: “I believe the company is going to keep growing and growing from this point and venture into new marketplaces. We not only now offer the widest range of customised gaming controllers on the market, we are also the UK’s leading manufacturer of customised gaming.” For Lawton it really is “game on”, as his customers would say.