Nick Jenkins

Never feel bored at work

Scale up simple ideas quickly, keep a strong work-life balance, and always have a plan; Nick Jenkins, creator of Moonpig, talks to Smith & Williamson's Hall of Fame about the lessons he learned while building the greeting cards business.

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For some entrepreneurs the idea comes first, for others, the desire to start a business. For Nick Jenkins, it was firmly the latter. After an eight year-spell as a commodity trader and completing MBA at Cranfield, he had five ideas on the table. He picked online greetings cards because it was the simplest.

“It is easier if you have an idea that’s easy to understand, but it’s also easier to replicate, so you are more exposed,” Nick says. “If you’re going to take a relatively simple idea then you have to do it quickly and at scale, because otherwise somebody else will take your idea and run with it.”

This simplicity extended to the name: “I was looking for a name that had as few syllables as possible, it had to be phonetic, it had to be unique on Google, and something that wasn’t generic. Moonpig fitted because it was fun, it was easy to represent in a logo, and it was impossible to misspell. It also needed to be available. We spent four days working through hundred of ideas. Moonpig was an old nickname I had from school and I wasn’t that excited about using it but it fitted the bill. In the end, it made a much better brand name than nickname.”

When running Moonpig, Nick says he always had a clear vision in mind, and that success lies in keeping an eye on the horizon and the whole team working towards one plan. He believes entrepreneurs often don’t look far enough ahead and need to think not just about where their business is today, but what their business will become.

He says: “We always had an up to date business plan. Some people see a business plan as something you use to raise money, but I used it as a way of keeping the business on track and making sure that we thought about everything in a very strategic way. At the end of the year, we would take out the business plan, revise it as necessary and produce a budget for the coming year. We communicated it to the whole team, so everyone was working towards one central plan.”

Not that it was plain sailing: it took five years for Moonpig to break even. Here, he says, having a strong product with repeat customers meant he knew they should keep going: “I could see all the evidence that people absolutely loved it and were coming back and buying it again. I could see that even if we didn’t do any marketing at all, the viral growth rate would have meant that eventually we would have traded ourselves into profitability, and that was what persuaded me to carry on.”

The next critical point was finding a form of advertising that was going to enable the business to scale up. Some channels, he found, were effective but limited in scale. Spending £30,000 a year on PR would bring returns result, but spending £300,000 wouldn’t give ten times the result. TV proved scalable for the company. Once they found a formula that worked, they threw more money at it.

Throughout his time at Moonpig, he believed in retaining a work-life balance. “I enjoy working and I work very hard, but I try to work smartly. I focus on the things that only I can do and I don’t waste time doing things that I could pay other people to do. I just focus on where I can really make a difference, so I don’t end up working ridiculous hours.”

Having sold out of Moonpig, with a pot of £42m, he has had his fingers in other pies, including as a ‘Dragon’ on BBC’s Dragon’s Den. What is he looking for in companies?

“I look for four things:

  1. Do people want it and are they prepared to pay the price?
  2. Can you make a good margin from it?
  3. Is it a large opportunity?
  4. Is this the right team to make it succeed?

On the first point I look for evidence of repeat purchase. A good sales person can sell a product onto the shelves of a shop once but a repeat order is evidence that the customer chose to take it off the shelf. As an investor I don't have to be right all the time, I just have to be right more often than not.”

In addition to the business world, Nick has a keen interest in health and education. After selling Moonpig in 2011, he became CEO of the educational charity Ark, and was then a trustee for four years. He’s also set up his own foundation, is a trustee of Operation Fistula, and he’s on the board of Mwabu, an education technology business based in Zambia. Nick believes artificial intelligence will make an enormous difference in the poorest countries in the world. “It could be used in education, particularly in low income countries, to enable kids to learn at their own pace, in the absence of a large number of highly qualified and motivated teachers,” he says.

So what is the best thing about life right now for Nick? He says it’s never feeling bored at work.

“I enjoy the freedom to get involved in a number of different things that are all fascinating. The thing I love most about my work life now is that I haven’t been bored at work for twenty-five years, and that’s the most important thing to me. I want to look forward to Monday morning and have lots of things that I want to get stuck into, and that’s still very much the case.”

 

 
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