Ed Bussey, Chief Solutions Officer at Jellyfish, explains while business is a priority, people need something to keep their sanity – for Ed it’s mountain treks
For Ed Bussey, a life-long love of the mountains started on a bear watch in the middle of an arctic summer night in Alaska. Sitting alone on the banks of the Copper River and looking across at the extraordinary sight of the Wrangell Mountains that were capped with an orange sun and a white moon he was struck by the power of the wilderness, of nature and of the universe.
“I still get goosebumps when I think of that moment. I was struck by a sense of total isolation - the contrast of the enormity of the view, coupled with the complete and utter silence.”
He was 17 at the time, and about to head off to university. He had gone to a talk at the Royal Geographic Society, where the speaker had mentioned an upcoming six-week scientific expedition to the Alaskan arctic. He applied, got a place, raised the finance and left. It proved to be a turning point in his life.
From there, climbing mountains became a tool to balance an intense and busy life. Whenever he got the chance, he went in search of the peace and isolation of the wilderness. “I would go off on my own with my rucksack and sleep in the mountains. It became a necessity for me to have that space and that silence, alone.”
He certainly needed the occasional break. After studying at Cambridge and serving fourteen years in the military and later in counter-terrorism operations, he left government service in the dot.com boom to join the founding team of online fashion retailer Figleaves.com.
Figleaves.com was an ecommerce pioneer, the UK’s second most visited fashion retail website after Next in 2003 and winner of the UK Internet Retailer of the year award in 2004.
He left the group in 2007 and spent several years in ecommerce advisory roles, including with luxury travel group Mr & Mrs Smith, Evans Cycles and Charles Tyrwhitt. His second start up venture, Copenhagen based mobile app developer Zyb, was bought by Vodafone just eight months after he arrived: “If Figleaves.com was a marathon, Zyb was a sprint,” he says.
Drawing on his ecommerce experience, Ed went on to found Quill Content in 2010. Using a combination of advanced technology and a global network of over 10,000 freelancers, Quill pioneered a completely new business model for the production of high-volume, high-quality ecommerce content. Ten years on, Quill counts multiple awards and over 200 global brands as its clients, including Amazon, Google, eBay, Tommy Hilfiger, M&S, Matches Fashion, Farfetch, Dunhill, John Lewis and Louis Vuitton.
Quill was acquired by the global digital agency Jellyfish in late 2020, where Ed is now the Chief Solutions Officer, leading the development of a global ecommerce practice.
Ed has had the typical life of a driven and over-stretched entrepreneur - but the mountains have always offered him an escape. He says: “I have always needed to isolate myself to fully decompress. My spiritual home is walking alone in the mountains – much like that first experience in Alaska, the self- isolation in face of the enormity of the wilderness is now like a meditation for me. If I spend three days doing this, it is ten times more effective than anything else I can do to relax. It helps me to disconnect totally and elevate my perspective on life and what’s important.”
In 2011, having just exited Zyb to Vodafone, he was persuaded to join an unsupported three-man walk to the North Pole for charity. He hoped it would give him time to ponder his next venture. But the timing proved inconvenient: 18 months into the training, his first child was born which caused him to question whether he could afford to take the risk of the expedition, quite aside from the thought of being separated from his young family so soon after the birth of his daughter.
“The trip was extreme and dangerous even by my standards.” They walked a gruelling 17-18 hours a day non-stop and when they slept, it was only for a few hours of the broad daylight of the arctic summer. More importantly, he says, the landscape didn’t really inspire him in the same way that mountains do: “There was a beauty to it, but it was monotonous, and completely flat – it couldn’t have been further removed from my ‘home’ in the mountains.”
But Ed was undertaking the trek for charity and so he persisted. He started getting frostbite on the second day (it took him six months to get the feeling back in his right hand) and polar bears were a constant problem. This time, watching out for bears didn’t mean contemplating the sunrise and the mountains, but having a shotgun fully loaded with a round permanently in the chamber, ready for surprise attacks in the swirling snow and ice.
But the biggest challenge was the emotional wrench of leaving behind his wife and daughter – and worrying that he might not see them again. “I told my wife that I’d phone home every day, but I couldn’t get a satellite signal most days because we were so far north. That just created even more stress. I really did question whether I’d made the right decision and that self-questioning that the extremes of life provoke is what sharpens my perspective on life and what I love and cherish most.”
From here, his ambitions are different, tempered somewhat by family life. “I will never lose my love of mountains or the wilderness, but I’m now focusing more on endurance training for ultra-marathon events in the mountains.”
Business-wise, he has his work cut out. Whilst he’s been busy integrating Quill into Jellyfish, creating the largest ecommerce content production platform globally, the pandemic had turbo-charged the company’s growth as companies around the world are forced to prioritise their investment in ecommerce: “After some initial uncertainty around the impact of the pandemic in Q2 2020, the fourth quarter was a record quarter for us and we had some of our biggest content bookings from clients.”
Ed believes entrepreneurs need to focus on certain areas: the first is honesty, whether that’s with clients, or investors and especially yourself. They should view setting up a business “as a marathon, not a sprint” and while a business should be the main focus it shouldn’t dominate your life. He said people “need something outside work to keep you sane”. That’s where the mountains come in.