Interview with Tim Weller
Tim Well is an entrepreneur and CEO who founded Incisive Media in 1995 with 13 people and £275k of capital. He built a business that had revenues of over £250 million and 2500 staff operating out of the US, Asia and UK in under 13 years.
Tim led the successful IPO of Incisive Media on the main market of the LSE in December 2000, which delivered a 110x return for founding investors. Completed the £275 million Public to Private Private Equity backed MBO of Incisive Media in 2006 and follow on $700m of acquisitions.
Tim is an active Angel Investor in numerous start ups including Financial News, Arcontech, TDX, Trustpilot, Wejo, Superawesome, Ellipsis, Dressipi, The Savourist, Qualisflow, Trusted Reviews, Perfect Storm and Incisive Media.
It’s not the “shpieling” that counts… it’s listening. Listening is absolutely the key. The key to any successful marketer or businessman is to listen to what the customers really want then try and provide it.
Can you tell me about your background?
I am adopted, so I think it’s a personal driver. I’m a zoologist so I studied the behaviour of the lesser bird and the puffin at university, and that has a direct bearing on what I do professionally.
I started my professional life working at a Dutch publishing company, then went to work at Centaur Media, a private publishing business. I became a director and then went to work for Thomson Reuters as Managing Director of their intended move into print publishing.
It was quite evident after three days that they had absolutely no intention of doing what they had asked me to do, so that was quite an interesting position for me.
At the time I had three children under the age of five, a pot-bellied pig as a pet, a wife who spent vast sums of money which I just did not have at the time, as well as a hole in the roof the size of a window.
I had no money. So I had no choice other than to set the company up, because Reuters clearly weren’t going to do what they had asked me to do.
When you started, what was your first position in your first job?
I was a salesman. I sold advertising space and then quickly moved up and became the youngest publisher at Centaur. I was 26 and running their accountancy and corporate finance. So I was their youngest director and the average age of directors at the time was the mid-to- late 30s. It then changed and I was the first wave of the new lot, and then they had a number of other younger publishers.
I learned an enormous amount from a guy called Graham Sherin, and a guy called Anthony Nares who sadly died, who was my boss. He was my mentor; a really charismatic creative, energetic man who founded a magazine called Marketing Week which is very successful. So I learned from them. At Centaur, they gave me bottom-line responsibility at a very early age, and they gave me the confidence that I could do stuff on my own.
So you were very lucky with mentors?
Very lucky with Anthony, who was probably one of the best business magazine publishers – certainly in the last 30-40 years. He was a very clever man and so was Graham Sherin who was Chairman of the business, sort of world respected and known by everyone. I had a good base to have a go and do it on my own. I’m not one of these guys who left school and thought of an idea and had no experience – I had up until 1994 twelve years of very relevant experience in the market.
What do you think of having mentors within the workplace? Should this happen more?
I think it should but it’s not practical because each business has to get on and do – and if you have the time to mentor then you probably have too much time. One of my greatest challenges at the moment is just finding time. What we have tried to do is create a really flat structure within the company so there are as few reporting lines as possible. There are no politics and we can identify good people and then allow them to take risks. The best way to develop is through learning by taking risks and then learning from those mistakes.
Are you quite a risk taker?
Yes, measured. I try to underwrite risk but I am very impatient and I get bored if I am doing the same thing. In our business you can take measured risks; you can go off and do new things. Business information in publishing is really creative so our model is to produce content in print, in person, and online. So there are lots of ways you can communicate with a different audience. We have got to continue to create.
So it’s a creative business?
It’s very creative.
What were you like as a student?
I was a poor student and lazy. I went to university to play rugby. I did zoology because my mates did it and it was really a three year period to have the most enormous amount of fun and to come out with something that would then take me on to do a job. I was a very poor student, but I think I was quite a good student from the other students’ point of view. I had fun. Socially I was a very good student!
I will admit I did a little bit of plagiarism and unfortunately, I got caught for copying C T Tyler’s research on the porosity of the eggshell. It was a 1933 report and I copied some of it and I got found out. Having said that, I preach in business at the moment that ‘creativity is good and plagiarism is better, it’s faster’. So we do copy, steal, beg, and nick ideas from as many people as we can.
And make them better?
Yes, adapt them to our own market. If another publisher does something really fantastic and they are in a market we are not in we will look at it and see how we can apply it to our own market. So begging and stealing is no bad thing.
How important do you think education is for someone who wants to go into publishing?
Not at all. Education doesn’t equal intelligence, being smart is better. Smart people learn all the time – especially from their mistakes – and there is no substitute for experience. In terms of our business, it’s our responsibility to teach people about the experiences that they are going to go through, so education is experience in my mind. I’m really stupid, although I have got more qualifications than you can imagine. They are useless – they have no bearing on what I do – but you have to have them I think. I have three children who I continually try to remind that you have to have them as a stepping stone to get that first job.
Would you employ someone who impressed you yet didn’t have the grades?
Absolutely. I think they are more driven. I don’t look for this but there is something about people who haven’t succeeded as much as they wanted to at school, who didn’t get into the team and thought they should, because they are still driven through trying to show that individual… I wasn’t made a prefect at my public school and there is something in me that says ‘Ha! I’ll show them’. And the fact that I am adopted is a driver.
There’s something there in that I want to make sure that I am secure and that I’ve got my own foundation. It’s unlikely that if we are looking at a CV and someone has a crap CV and is a first-time jobber against someone who has a great CV that they are going to stand a great chance, but if they have some experience and have done some work it doesn’t matter. It’s the working spirit and learning: that is key.
Did you always have an entrepreneurial streak within you or was it something that evolved over time and you just realised the potential within you?
I think I have always had it. My Dad had his own business; sadly he died a long time ago before I set up my own company. I always wanted to be my own boss, control my own day and my own destiny. I’m not the sort who had to go off and make things and sell things. I didn’t have to do that because I was lucky I had the money to have a great time. But I did always think with my brother when I was a teenager about a gadget that we could make that would make us money.
I have always wanted to do well. It’s not the money that drives you, it’s recognition of doing a job well and being recognised as being someone who can do it well. It’s the key driver for me. At a certain point the money is there and it’s your prize for persevering and for practicing hard, but the real prize comes through the industry you are in saying ‘actually, he is good’. That’s a real motivation for me now: the fear of losing what I have created. British people love failure, don’t they?
What is your biggest fear?
Failure keeps me up at night. Being an underachiever, that’s a driver. I am driven and people can’t quite get to grips with it. I am never satisfied. I am always looking to try and better what we do in every way and hopefully, that then benefits us as a business and benefits the people who work within it. I hate complacency. I don’t like people who just plod. If people want to just come in and do a job we are not the place for them. We are not ruthless and we allow people to make their own minds up, and their own mistakes, but the people who do really well are the people who just try to go that extra mile, and push themselves and make the difference.
What were the biggest challenges that you faced when you started your own business?
Raising the money. I had no money. Persuading good people to join me and then to put money in the business.
How did you raise the money?
Initially, I needed about £300,000 to launch the business, and I had £30,000 because I had negative equity. So I raised the money through a couple of things. I persuaded the best people I have ever worked with to join me and put money in so they could become shareholders. So I had three people who put money in – two of the key people being James and Nick who worked with me for 18 or 19 years. The first job I offered was to my PA who has worked for me for twenty years, and she’s fantastic.
So it was getting the right people and persuading them to take salary reductions, to find the scheme of launching a new business. It wasn’t too difficult because they all wanted to be more in control of what they did, but leaving their secure jobs was an issue. Then I had to find private investors who could give us the rest of the money.
I went to ask an individual for some advice about structuring the company and this person then expressed to me that I shouldn’t go for VC money, and I shouldn’t go for a company investor because it controls your exit. And had I thought of going to private investors? I said ‘yes, but I don’t have the time’ and she said, ‘are you available this evening?’ She then called an ex-colleague. She said she would put £25,000 in and that evening we then persuaded another five people to put £20-£25,000 into the business and we raised the money. And those people turned their £20,000 investment to £2m tax free on the 5th anniversary. So they have done well out of it. It was great fun. They trusted me and off we went and the business made money in its first year.
I had to personally pay for paper, because I had no money. In those days you had to order the paper six months before the magazine came out, because there was a massive paper shortage. We were evicted from our offices before we had moved in because we hadn’t paid the deposit. We bought our desks for £1 and our chairs for £1.
Did you see a gap in the market or did you see something that you thought you could improve on?
I saw both, I saw a gap and the fact that Emap had closed and folded a magazine that was in a part of that market about three months before I started the plan. We felt if we could replace the title that had been closed and generate the same revenues but with a better quality package, then we would make money.
Did you literally just see it as an opportunity?
On the fourth day of joining Reuters, I knew my time was up. I then spent the next four months with their money interviewing and meeting every single advertiser in the market, getting their opinion – very in depth research on the idea.
So you were doing research supposedly for Reuters?
Yes, hence another bit of nicking. So what we tried to do was minimise the risk as much as possible. I came from Peterborough – I used to see the chairman and chief executive and joint managing director of Emap on the train – and David who was the Group Managing Director said I needed a minimum of £1m to get a weekly magazine off the ground. I said ‘well, we will see’. We never went into any bank borrowing, we never had any further call on our shareholders, and the business grew over the first five years.
What do you think you did when you first started in the first job that set you apart from others in similar positions?
I stopped being a student. I applied lots of energy to my job and took it very seriously. I am unbelievably competitive and have always been very ambitious so those two drivers helped me. I think I was very quickly promoted because I cared a bit more. I applied a bit more energy than a lot of others who saw their first job as an extension of being a student. I just applied myself a bit more. That paid off.
Do you think that sales is something that can be learned?
It’s not the spieling that counts, it’s listening – that’s the key. The key is to listen to what the customers really want and then try to provide it. If you ram a product down someone’s throat you will only get that customer once and in the business we are in we have customers who come back to us every day. But it’s a great foundation.
Is it mechanically learned?
No, I think to be a successful salesperson you have to listen. But you have to be resilient and you have to persevere. If you are the sort who doesn’t like getting knocked back then you are not going to be very good at it. You have to have those inner qualities, stuff that is there. It gives you a grittiness and a determination to pick yourself up if things are tricky. You get back up and have another go.
How easy or difficult do you think it is to be entrepreneurial in publishing?
I think it is the most fabulously creative business so within most publishing businesses there is an entrepreneurial culture; we are making something new every week, or day or month. The content is new and fresh and you have to make sure that what you create each week or day is what the customer wants, and is delivering must-have content. There are quite a large number of people in the rich list who come from a publishing background. It’s a bit like drilling for oil. If you see the shadow and the opportunity you have got to get over there fast and be the first to market.
Being the first to deliver that content gives you a significant advantage. Of course, if you see a shadow and you drill and you get no oil you have to know when to say ‘sod it, let’s move on’. Otherwise, money disappears. With the advent of electronic distribution via the internet that creates a fantastic opportunity for people to create in a low-cost structure and very good content.
Is it a good place to start?
Yes but I think if you go and work for any of the big publishing business like Emap or United Business Media or Reeds, you get a very good grounding and training on the business in the business-to-business environment, but if you are going to work for Natmags or the consumer side of Emap or whatever, there are very creative people but you have to have a substantial amount of money today to make a success in consumer publishing. The barriers for entry are not that great but you need huge amounts of money to build your ground. Five out of ten of the top ten magazines in the consumer market are less than five years old and they are all new. Whereas we have a brand in our business that is 170 years old.
How do you think young people can get ahead of the game in publishing before they leave school or college or university?
I think if you want to go into a journalistic career then having experience of working in a university magazine or working in some form of information-driven community is great. My daughter’s school has just produced a magazine called ‘Revelation’, which is a fashion mag. They had a show,and they got their textiles and design team to create and make all the clothes. They had photographic guys photograph the people. All the models were students and then had a fashion show. The quality was outstanding.
So you would encourage young people to get started early?
Yes. Emily’s school actually printed it and then raised money for charity – so they sold copies of the product to the parents to pay for the print. There are lots of ways to get involved at an early age and the Periodical Publishers Association – which is our trade association – has lots of stuff on their website to help people.
All that looks great when you are applying for a job doesn’t it?
Yes it does. There are a range of disciplines. You can move into journalism, design, sales, marketing, conference producing.
How easy is it to move around once you are in a company in sales or marketing?
If you join as a journalist you have to be committed to that. We have had occasions where we have had sales people become journalists and journalists become sales people but it’s few and far between. People decide on their career before they research it and are pretty committed to it, and frankly if it’s not their career they don’t move from journalism to sales they move out of the publishing profession and do something different.
If somebody came in as sales, then decided they had an interest in journalism is it easy for them to move around?
Yes, and we have had it. But it’s not the norm. We don’t have many people who transfer those skills, but we do have people who go into sales and then into marketing and of course, we don’t have either journalists or sales people who move into management and marketing people who move into management either – commercially accountable for their own brands and their own bottom line. It’s doable but it’s not necessarily the norm. If you are applying for a job in this sector you have to be reasonably committed at the beginning because you will be tested on why you want to go into sales and marketing or journalism, so you will be tested.
What type of person is suited?
Sales is easier to answer – a resilient someone who would persevere and who doesn’t lie down when they’re knocked down. Someone who has spark and energy and is enthusiastic and has a sense of humour. Journalism is slightly more cerebral, it’s where the clever people are, who are passionate about a particular subject area. There are newshounds that are hungry to get the story. They are determined and quite strong people who are seeking out that new story. They are always looking for something with a spin, but they are more analytical and clearly able to articulate through the written word as opposed to just orally. There are some common areas.
What is your one life principle that you live by, do you have one?
I live for tomorrow, not yesterday, I look forward, I don’t look back. And fun. You have to have fun.
Do you try to incorporate fun into the work?
Yes. The bigger we have become the more professional we’ve become. That’s one of the things that set us aside when we set up, we had higher standards than our competition, better people and a very client-driven approach – we listened to them. You have to have fun. We won two massive industry awards last week, and we have a boxing evening on the Tuesday, the awards on the Wednesday, but the next day you go in and operate as if nothing has happened. It was a good week.
Work hard play hard?
How important do you think attitude and beliefs are to somebody’s success and how far they are going to go?
Totally. If you think negatively you won’t achieve a thing. I am a very optimistic person.
Yes. Maybe because I was given this great opportunity and was adopted…I don’t know. I’m not one who stumbles to try and find out me and what myself is – I don’t give a damn about that. All I know is if things go wrong, so what? if we make mistakes, so what? You learn from them. I tell every employee ‘make mistakes’ because it’s the only way you learn. Try to do things differently and just learn. If someone makes the same mistake twice then they get a telling, if they do it three times they are probably out. So, you have to have some discipline but at the end of the day to learn you have got to try new stuff. Which is important.
What’s your opinion on the word failure?
It’s crap. I don’t look back. Look forward, and learn.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you feel young people who have entrepreneurial ambitions or want to get into publishing should know?
Be different, try, but remember that creativity is great but plagiarism is quicker. If you see something you think is being done well, look at ways you can adapt it to make it even better. They didn’t reinvent the hoover, they just invented another one. Just believe in yourselves and just have confidence. Not arrogance, just have the confidence to do stuff and try and make a difference.
Don’t go into a workplace and expect the workplace to deliver to you, you deliver to the workplace. I think that’s important. Certain individuals expect a company to deliver to them and I think it’s up to the individual to then get the rewards from the business. If they deliver the performance in whatever they do, and they look to try and make a difference in the way in which they do their work, then they will get rewarded for it.
It’s much more rewarding to try and do stuff differently and be creative and throw some energy into something than it is to say ‘I can’t be bothered’. It’s true. That’s why people who succeed do so. Because they stand ahead and something else drives them, keeps them going. Something else that makes them look to do things differently, and to make a difference which is the key.