& SimonSeeks: Simon Nixon

Simon Nixon has a point to prove. The Moneysupermarket founder tells Growing Business why being a second-time success matters, and reveals what he really thinks of those Meerkat ads

Simon Nixon has a point to prove. The Moneysupermarket founder tells Growing Business why being a second-time success matters, and reveals what he really thinks of those Meerkat ads

To the wider public, Simon Nixon's visage is certainly not the most recognisable in business. Far less successful entrepreneurs are household names. He even sanctioned the use of a peer, Peter Jones, to advertise his brand.

But don't be fooled into thinking there's something enigmatic about his absence from the limelight. It comes down to choice. While others crave public recognition, Nixon has largely spurned it to prove things to himself. And now he's got something to demonstrate to everyone else. He spent the afternoon with Growing Business at Oddfellows, a boutique club in the heart of Chester, telling us about his personal challenge.

Starting again

A highly driven man, Nixon strove hard to make the start-up venture that became an unmitigated success. This culminated in what remains, more than two years later, the biggest internet initial public offering (IPO) in Europe. The price comparison site joined the London Stock Exchange's FTSE 250 in July 2007 with a market capitalisation of £843m, with Nixon realising £101m and retaining an impressive 54.5% of the business – ambition achieved.

Predictably for an entrepreneur, life on a public market proved enjoyable, but it carried too many constraints for Nixon. He stepped back from the day-to-day running of in February 2009 to be replaced as chief executive by Peter Plumb. Nixon remains on the board as deputy chairman and continues to influence the development of the core product.

All of this, while far from ‘standard', fits the mould of the archetypal entrepreneur. Even launching new ventures in a bid to prove his worth as a skilled businessman strays little from the well-worn path.

Unlike before, though, Nixon has now stepped out a little from the shadows. He's using a play on the name he shares with a children's parlour game to create Simonseeks and SimonEscapes, his travel and property-focused businesses.

“I'm passionate about travel,” he explains. “I thought: ‘Wouldn't it be great to set up businesses entirely related to that.' And that's why I came up with Simonseeks and Simonescapes.”

Nixon's launch into such a congested online marketplace appears at odds with his pronouncements that entrepreneurs should look to do something unique. Is there a chance wealth and personal interest may also have clouded his judgement second time around? He thinks not.

He claims to have been frustrated in his endeavours to find the required information for his travel itineraries, resorting to unsatisfactory experiences with Trip Advisor, where mixed reviews failed to give him a clear verdict on hotels, restaurants and places to visit. It's this, he believes, that will allow him to disrupt a market that believed it had been disrupted sufficiently in the past decade.

Disrupting the disrupted

The vision then: “To effectively become a modern, totally online, real-time guide book that's free.” And do it on a global scale, unlike Moneysupermarket's expansion to date. Others in the online travel industry would make the claim that their sites already match Nixon's Simonseeks billing. There are some key features, however, that may in time set it apart. Nixon's method involves splitting affiliate revenue with travel writers, residents of Europe's premier cities – Paris, Rome, Madrid – and offering users detailed reviews, ratings and rankings updated as often as possible.

“There's no way you'd invest £100 a night on a hotel based on 20 words, but 300 is comprehensive. Unlike Time Out and Lonely Planet, we ask them to rate and rank hotels out of five in increments of 4.7 or 4.8,” he says.

No doubt this all comes at a cost, as do the 10 search engine optimisation specialists he's hired to drive traffic and revenue from bookings through deals with the likes of market-leading sites, Toptable and Livebookings.

What's not in doubt is the level of ambition he still possesses, albeit without a start-up entrepreneur's sensibilities and financial motivation. “With Moneysupermarket, I hadn't made it. I wanted financial security. Entrepreneurs want people to think they're successful as they're insecure people,” he says. “Now, I'm still insecure, but for me it's first time lucky, second time good. I want to prove that I can do it again.”

Money's certainly not the concern.

“No matter how successful Simonseeks is, it wouldn't really affect me financially. I've got more money than I could ever spend,” he says without a hint of a boast.

Nixon eschews the 14-hour days of his early career and even affords himself five weeks' holiday a year. Enjoyment and balance have become increasingly important for a man seeking to measure his workaholic and controlling tendencies. He now takes every Friday off, but spends it travelling or sourcing properties for SimonEscapes, a collection of luxury properties in rarely available locations offered for holiday rentals to the rich and demanding.

Four days a month remain devoted to Moneysupermarket, with Nixon keeping his hand in for two of those with the product team on the customer proposition, while attending the monthly board meeting and a couple of breakfasts with chief executive Plumb, a man he rates highly. For an entrepreneur not entirely at ease with a corporate role, responsibility for c.500 employees and growing a c.£150m turnover, the fun has clearly been restored.

“My focus was always on the product,” he says. “I wanted to help customers do something they couldn't do anywhere else. When you become a corporate entrepreneur, you get to do less and less and less of that. You've got the responsibility of the whole business and you become a manager, basically. And that's the main reason I stepped down.”

Nixon has become an adept delegator.

He has recruited a handful of former Moneysupermarketers and others with the drive to make his new venture as much of a success. “I'd rather have the quality of life than scrimp and save,” he says. “And I want to be happy; I want to stay motivated. My objective is to be as happy as I can be. If I'm working 14-hour days I'm wasting all the work that I put in.”

Nevertheless, the work ethic, he says, remains “hard-coded” and tying business up with pleasure merely allows him to assuage any sense of guilt.

The essence of Nixon

Research on the existence of an entrepreneurial ‘gene' has suggested a correlation between the death of a parent at a young age and business success (as well dyslexia, deprivation and birth order). Talking to Nixon, it's clear and unsurprising that the loss of his mother at the age of 19 had a profound effect. “My mum died,” he recalls, “and I came back from university to find my dad had started seeing someone else. There wasn't really room for me in the house. I was in a bedsit at 20.”

His own room had been taken by his father's new partner's daughter. “Looking at the four walls each night, I decided I've got to fight out of this as I don't want to be staring at them in five years' time,” explains Nixon. “That was the catalyst. When you haven't got a mother, you haven't got anyone to fall back on.” More independent, resourceful and in need of security from another source, Nixon found his way onto the housing market ladder. “Entrepreneurs like to be in control and I'm a control freak,” he admits. “To try to replace that lack of emotional security, you think financial stability will fill the void.”

He betrays little emotion when he says: “That whole experience made me a harder person. Maybe that's why I've never had kids.”

For those unfamiliar with the story, the knowledge Nixon gained buying a property made him realise mortgage brokers required up-to-date information on hundreds of different home loans. Brokers Update, the magazine he launched in 1987 to answer the need, evolved into an online version called Mortgage 2000, which he created with 18-year-old programmer Duncan Cameron.

It wasn't until Dixon's Freeserve gave consumers a free-to-use internet service provider in 1999 that Moneysupermarket emerged as a solution for consumers to compare financial products online. By then, Nixon had committed what he has since described as his worst mistake when he split the business 50-50 with Cameron. “I should have paid him a salary, but I was 22, so it's not surprising really,” he says of the lesson.

It wasn't long before a flotation was mooted as the commission-based model took off. Cameron, who had effectively been sidelined by the influx of web developers for Moneysupermarket's “more sophisticated” build and the de-prioritisation of Mortgage 2000, stopped playing an active part in the business. “I was so focused on Moneysupermarket I just didn't want any hassle,” Nixon recalls. Cameron became a silent partner, but one with the potential to put a spanner in the works.

The company was forced to take out a loan to buy Cameron out for £162m in order to push the flotation through. “It was totally unfair for him to have 50% of the business,” says Nixon. “Investors would have wanted him to take everything out. If I'd taken out any more, investors would have said ‘well hang on a minute'. I had to leave some skin in the game.”

Despite a situation that could easily have degenerated into a very messy public fall-out, you sense it would take a lot to ruffle Nixon. Instead, his hard streak appears to enable him to move on without emotion or fuss. “We've not had a cross word. I haven't spoken to him for five, six or seven years. We just don't move in the same circles. We just don't have anything in common,” he says.

Taking it public

The flotation itself was not without drama. That year the company posted EBITDA (earnings before interest tax depreciation and amortisation) of £52.9m and appeared to be heading for a £1bn-plus IPO. Nixon was enjoying the attention and anticipation of a successful climax to 20 years of hard slog. “I enjoyed the whole ride and the flotation roadshow,” he says. “It's a bit like a victory lap. I was telling the story very enthusiastically and it's great when people agree and put their money where their mouths are.”

As he hopped from chauffeur-driven Mercedes to private jet, touching down on Holland, Sweden and Germany in the same day, the omens were good. The first week of the two-week roadshow yielded a huge number of orders. “It was a real buzz. We had twice as many orders as we needed,” Nixon recalls. “We'd oversold and were heading for a £1.3bn valuation, then the credit crunch hit and in the second week when we should have been growing it further, we had people pulling out. We lost orders because people could see what was happening with the market. We didn't even think we'd get across the line.”

In the event, Moneysupermarket achieved the lower end valuation of 170p a share against the top-end 230p. “We were really disappointed,” says Nixon. “It tempered the exhilaration. But at the same time I look back now and think we never would have had the opportunity to float if the credit crunch had hit the week before. I don't think there have been any flotations in our market since. It's still the biggest internet IPO in Europe.”

Making tough calls

Post-flotation, Nixon, like all business leaders, had the recession to deal with. Again, his ability to park emotion elsewhere proved handy. In 2009, Moneysupermarket cut 150 employees to “save the majority”. “In a recession, there's an opportunity for every business to cut dead wood,” he explains. “When the shit hits the fan and you've got to cut costs, you have no choice, and you carefully select the people that don't add as much value.”

Consultations were “incredibly clear” and involved monthly presentations, highlighting issues that were forcing the business to review its employment situation. “I've never been sentimental,” he says. “If you try to keep everyone on board and happy, the company's not going to be successful, which means everyone suffers. We've got a lot of ambition at Moneysupermarket and unless the ship is steering up all the time people will leave.”

With Nixon and his board fearing a double-dip, changes have been made across the business. It has cut the budget for search engine marketing by 30%, with efforts to get more traffic from natural search redoubled.

“We want the same number of visitors for no extra cost,” he says. “And we want the same number from TV, but for 20% less. You buy TV slots smarter and produce better creatives that drive more customers. We have aimed to make it more response than brand driven.”

Moneysupermarket also closed its loss-making German arm because it could have been “quite a slow burn, so we became more risk-averse”. Investment was redirected from R&D to backing ‘winners', namely its Money and Insure products. Specifically, its 100-strong development team has worked at reducing customer journey times by posing questions that enable other fields to auto-fill.

“For every customer we may hypothetically make 10% more revenue just from those improvements,” he explains. “If you think how big our insurance business is, it could be huge. I think Moneysupermarket has the best money product and now we've got the best insurance product, whereas six months ago I don't think we necessarily did.”

Nixon admits that he continues to carry out competitor analysis, buying from other sites and feeding his customer experiences into the product changes he ultimately sanctions. But, he adds, the company is disadvantaged by being a generalist rather than a specialist, such as insurance-focused GoCompare. “We only have limited resource at Moneysupermarket and have to choose our investments quite carefully,” he says. “We chose to invest our IT resource into Money and Insure, as they were the two biggest revenue drivers. We improved those products massively and they are really reaping the rewards now as a result of that.”

The speed with which Simonseeks becomes a major player remains to be seen. “We're still in the pre-launch phase really. I just wanted to get something out quick, which is what you do these days. Our site will still be in beta in three years because there's so much we want to achieve.”

Managing his wealth

“Managing the money I've got, the investments, is another thing that takes up my time [in addition to his Moneysupermarket role and Simonseeks and SimonEscapes ventures]. I've got an independent wealth manager, who is there to optimise the returns. Outside of Moneysupermarket I look for growth of 10-12%, which is quite low risk really.

The objective is to diversify my portfolio as much as possible. I'm not weighted in one particular set of assets – equities are low because of my Moneysupermarket stake of 54%. I wouldn't do lots of day trading either. I have a small amount of equities in utility type stocks and they are a stable stock and have given me an annuity.

I dabble a bit more in bond markets as I think that's less risk. If the price of the bond drops you just keep it to the maturity date and don't lose anything – you get the same as you paid out. I like bonds and have bought a lot in the last two years and made a lot of money. I've just invested in Lloyds of London, so through a number of syndicates I've become an insurer effectively.

It could be a full-time role investing my wealth, especially with the properties.

I believe 20% of my wealth should be in properties and it's not at the moment. It's very expensive to buy in the first place but I'll reap the rewards in 20 years. The richest people get richer; that's why I'm buying plots that the rich people would go for. They'll be more demand in 20 years time, and the same supply.”


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