I’ve always loved animals. Not just the cute ones either. Part of what draws me to them is the constant reminder they provide of the multiple ways there are of being. The diversity of existence. They provide a diversion from the anthropocentrism to which human egos all too often fall victim.
Mountain gorillas are my second favourite animal. My most prized toy growing up was a cuddly primate. As yet unfamiliar with taxonomic conventions, I was unsure whether my toy was a gorilla or a monkey, so he came to be known as Gilla-Monkey. He sits amongst the toy collection of my children to this day. Perhaps because of this affinity, when I was much too young someone let me watch the film “Gorillas in the Mist”, a Dian Fossey biopic. Spoiler alert: she is hacked to death with a machete by poachers towards the end. It was around this time that I declared I wanted to be a zooological veterinary surgeon. Yes, that’s one too many O’s.
Around the age of 8, I remember setting up a “not-for-profit” membership organisation called The Gorilla Club. Unfortunately the membership incentives - some felt tip pens acquired from the local Londis where my mum* worked - were generous beyond what the membership fee could support. I had to wind down operations having done less than nothing to save the mountain gorilla from extinction.
The Gorilla Club had left a seemingly irrecoverable dent in my personal savings - having at one point stood in excess of 80p. I don’t know where I got the idea of compensating for this by flattering chocolate companies into giving me money. However, I distinctly remember writing to Cadburys and then Mars praising the quality of their confectionary. They each sent me a £1 voucher. I decided to start taking chocolate bar orders from my siblings (I have 4 sisters and a brother) and my cousins. I still have their orders on a piece of paper in a box somewhere. They were to go unfilled as Cadburys caught on, sending a “History of Cadburys” pamphlet and no voucher in response to my second letter. Mars** simply ignored me. Fair play.
After a stint selling stretchy aliens on the school playground, I graduated to taking over my brother’s paper-round, aged 12. It paid £1 per day. I started covering other rounds, and began picking up morning rounds too. Initially, acting as a relief paperboy, my pay was elevated to £2.50 for each route that I covered at short notice. However, I was soon taken for granted and the pay fell back to £1. Nevertheless, even at this diminished rate, there was a time when I was making as much as £4 per day. And, occasionally, this could be supplemented at the weekend by labouring for my dad***, who was a roofer.
By this point my family had acquired a computer complete with a dial-up internet connection. I had begun sneaking**** down at night, doing my best to muffle the noise as the connection kicked in, and then going online to teach myself how to make websites. I joined a forum where “webmasters” critiqued each other's efforts. I was brutal in my criticism, despite not being much cop myself. I got my first gig when I told the owner of a comic book e-commerce website that I would redesign his crappy site for $20 upfront. If he liked what he saw he could pay $80 for the copyright. I had no idea what a copyright was or how to transfer it or even how to accept foreign currency payments but my plan worked. And I soon swapped my paper rounds for web development.
I fed the fad of flash-html hybrid websites with flash intros and all. And I contributed to the demise of MySpace with a graffiti wall, virtual pet and various other crap that teenagers could copy and paste into their profiles, making loading speeds intolerable. At one point my site ranked number 1 in Google for the search term MySpace Stuff. It felt like quite the achievement, and facilitated an exit at the mouthwatering sum of $10,000 or thereabouts. It compensated for many failures including importing sterling silver charm bracelets from the Far East and an early version of Moon Pig, which saw me handwriting cards for other people’s mums ready for Mothers Day. The injection of cash from selling the MySpace Stuff website was helpful as I headed off to university after a couple of not entirely planned gap years.
The gap years did serve one purpose - broadening my education. To become a vet you need to focus on sciences and maths. But I’d always been rather attracted to the humanities. So, I added A-levels in History and Politics and an AS-level in English Literature to the required vetty subjects. The qualifications themselves are completely meaningless, however, preventing too narrow a focus, and allowing myself an identity beyond that of my chosen profession is something for which I am grateful.
For years, I had been irritating anyone who would listen with my insistence that I was going to go to Oxford to study veterinary medicine. However, I didn’t know any vets and I certainly didn’t know anyone that had gone to Oxford. Perhaps this is why (other than a careers adviser who suggested I might settle for the position of farm labourer) no one corrected me in my ambitions. It was only when I came to apply to university that I discovered Oxford does not have a vet school. On realising Cambridge did accept applications to study veterinary medicine, I decided it was the better one of the two anyway, and in my haste very nearly applied to an all-female college. It was the only college prospectus I could get my hands on, and seemed an attractive choice for a single adolescent male. To avoid any similar mistakes I did an “open” application and landed at Christ’s College. The college of both Darwin and Ali G.
By the time I got to vet school I had already decided that I wanted to combine my nascent interest in business with my veterinary qualification. However, it wasn’t until my final year that I read “The Growth Map” by Jim O’Neill, where he outlines the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as the world’s growth economies. It was then that I decided to start my career in one of these countries.
So after a bit of Googling, it was off to China I went, despite never having been there before. Despite not knowing anyone there. And despite being a total incompetent when it comes to foreign languages. Over the next four and a half years, I would help a group of 4 clinics in Beijing expand across mainland China (into Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou) and into both Hong Kong and Singapore. I learnt about business operations with a mentor who taught me the art of loose delegation combined with high expectations. And I learnt still more about my favourite animal of all - Homo sapiens.
There was a steep learning curve to leading a team from twenty different countries and many more cultures. I came to the realisation that success does not come in attempting to craft a business culture that works for everyone. Instead, if you somehow manage to create an environment that allows some subset of the population to do their very best work, you should quickly become very protective of it. Having created this culture, it is then the work of leaders to disseminate and maintain it, as well as to relentlessly select only for those that will thrive within it, while passing on those that won’t - no matter how talented and therefore tempting they may be. In this way you will aid each member of your team in achieving more than they ever thought they could.
And that has really been the great passion of my professional (and to some extent personal) life - helping others to achieve more than they ever thought they could. I hope I have done this in the businesses I have helped lead, I believe this is what we’re doing at PetsApp, and I try to imbue some element of this in the companies I advise, whether they be in recruiting, pharmaceuticals, events or tech. It’s amazing how much you yourself can achieve when you take this approach. It’s been described as servant leadership, I call it pragmatism or perhaps, in more indulgent moments, enlightened self-interest.
The other extraordinary thing I’ve learnt about people is that we really can achieve whatever we set our minds to. So, be careful what you set your mind to. Because while no amount of happiness ever seems to be enough, misery is always sufficient in whatever measure. And a lot of human misery has been caused by optimising for the wrong thing. Know what matters to you.
Achieving the goal to which you've set your mind will take both ambition and motivation. Ambition is easy. Motivation is harder. Ambition without motivation is a recipe for disaster. A lethargic burning ambition scorches plenty of earth but blazes no trails. Do not partner with unmotivated ambition.
So, that’s me. I love spending time with motivated, ambitious people who are clear on what they’ve set their minds to. If that’s you, I’d love to hear the story that’s brought you here. Perhaps we can help each other achieve more than either of us ever thought we could.
*My mum later trained as a midwife. I'm sure she was responsible for teaching me how to learn as she took her GCSEs and A-level with 6 kids running round - completing her university course while I was in my teens. Now, that takes a good dose of both ambition and motivation.
**Strange to think they would be the ultimate acquirer of one of the companies of which I was COO.
***My dad swapped his warehouse job to become a roofer, despite being completely unsure about how he felt about heights, because it paid better (from £38 to £100 per week) and there were mouths to feed. He went on to become a flying instructor of all things.
****It would transpire that my parents knew exactly what I was doing, as evidenced by my dad “catching” me at 4am and simply offering to make me a cup of coffee.