Mike Hughes tightens his seatbelt and tries to keep pace with Simon Biltcliffe’s mind as he discusses the philosophy that has earned him a unique reputation in Yorkshire business.
It’s a terrifying scenario - smallpox is being deliberately released into a major city through virus-infused bank notes. It sounds like a job for Batman... or Spiderman... or Simon Biltcliffe. But don’t shine a spotlight into the night sky if you need this print hero, just call into his office here in Barnsley (or East Kilbride or Bicester) and have a chat. That’s how it started for games giant Ubisoft when they wanted an eye-catching way of promoting their latest new offering, Tom Clancy’s The Division, which features the bank note scenes in its intro.
Simon’s team at print specialists Webmart provided 6,000 US$1 bills that covered a long brick wall in Shoreditch. As fascinated passers-by picked the notes off they revealed a graffiti-style mural advertising the game – and even prizes under some of the notes.
But that sort of challenge is what Webmart is built on - alongside its unique blend of Marxism and Capitalism that has been in Simon’s DNA since before he formed the company 20 years ago, where the Capitalism generates the income and the Marxism means it is distributed back to the workforce.
Revealingly, the potentially dull question about ‘Have you had to change as the industry has changed’ is answered with: “No – we have had to lead.
“You can’t wait for anything to be proven, you have to have the mental agility to try lots of things very quickly – and fail at many, but learn all the time.”
Already the thoughts are flooding in... “For instance, everything these days comes delivered in a box with all these white vans around delivering to your house.
“But you can throw lots of things into that same box and make it the delivery channel for print as well. There is lots of space in there, and the marginal cost of delivering is nothing because they are delivering the product anyway.”
So....? “So why don’t we do in-box promotion, loyalty magazines, third-party inserts. Make the box a ‘wow’, personalise it so that it has more details about the person on the inside and makes it a real ‘ta-dah’ instead of a ‘huh’.”
Such ideas are hurtling around Simon’s significant brain all the time – controlled to some extent by deeply-held beliefs that have helped him turn the ‘why don’t we’ into a ‘we have’.
“Do you know what – the more you give the more you get back. So I have always thought that you make comparative advantage outside your physical environment.”
Comparative what? “It means that ‘out there’ is where all the opportunities are, so I make sure I am out four days a week so that the operation stays moving and fluid.
“And that means that you are able to help people who will spend a lifetime trying to pay you back. Every day I get people coming in and telling me things that I would never have known and giving me an opportunity to combine those things into a product that a customer might be interested in or harvesting it to show to a team in a videocast.”
It might help to pause for breath and return briefly to the Batman Spiderman idea. This 100mph mind across the desk swoops around, spotting problems and opportunities in dark corners and darting down with precision to deal with them before anyone else has really appreciated what is going on.
Sometimes - for a few minutes - you get the admittedly impressive stature of Bruce Wayne... but you really want to see Biltman in full flight.
“We are not tied to shareholders or to manufacturing capacity,” Simon continues. “If you have those fixed entities that you revolve around then you are giving yourself certain parameters. As far as I am concerned, if it is a physical product with variable data on it – ink on anything – we can do it.
“So then how do you put it on, how do you make it the most tactile, sensory, exciting, innovative and relevant version of what you do. Then you are creating USPs which make people want to find you.”
One of the inspiring parts of the Webmart philosophy – and there are many – is that it can apply to anyone in any sector. If you are starting up a business, build in a strategy and set of personal principles to set you apart from the competition. But don’t fake it. There has to be an honest belief in your own character and a willingness to put that on the line and earn applause for the sort of person you are as well as the product you make. The true test of that will be when you have the option of turning down a £130,000 deal because you don’t agree with the customer’s approach.
Deal or no deal? “If you are honest about what you do and why you want to do it, then people will want to share and help you,” says Simon. “My dad helps by being my official reader. I am doing what I call my DIY MBA, which means that every Tuesday I have half a day to read a whole range of stuff. Dad goes over them all for me and synthesises them to get all the salient points and then I go through them on my Tuesdays.
“One of those articles was in the Economist and talked about Atom bank. So I approached them and asked if I could pop down and meet Graham Moore and we got chatting about traditional banking going through the same sort of disruption as print.
“They then travelled to Bicester to see how we work and suddenly I’m being invited to all sorts of events and you know that there is value in getting out and meeting other people.
“Personally, it is also about why we are in business. If you are not doing it to just bank money, then there is a purpose to it all and you will never get sated. If you want to pop anybody’s bubble don’t ask ‘what’ they have done in business, ask them ‘why’ they are in business.
“If you can get to that, you can understand the real driver behind the person.
“For me, if I had worked for someone else, I wouldn’t have seen the children growing up. When I set this up 20 years ago, there was no paternity leave or anything like that and I was doing 60,000 business miles each year for this printing business.
“I wondered what sort of business I wanted and basically did the opposite of what had been done in the past, with lots of command and control and divide and conquer, where you make sure you hold on to the knowledge and only give it to show your superiority over the minions.
“I tried to do the inverse of that and gradually it worked and it was actually better and easier. You make sure you don’t act like an arse, you do it sensibly and thoughtfully and only invest what you are happy to lose – like savings – and I only spent what we had in the bank.
“The fact that we didn’t borrow money gave us a slow innovation curve to start with, but it also gave us solidity and then you get to a certain level and you can do what you want.
“You don’t have to sell out, merge, float or even think of exit. I was always staggered that when you talk to advisers the first thing they did was ask what your exit plan was. I’m 20 years in and I don’t know what my exit is!
“That experience has made me really passionate about start-ups and using Webmart as a case study. I don’t think it is a presence I have, I think it is just about returning to that belief that you are doing something for the greater good and knowing that no one can argue against that.
“I’ve always been impressed by paradigm shifts. Nobody thought Roger Bannister could break the four-minute mile – but he did it and within two weeks someone else had done it because the mental shift had been taken.
“Not that long ago when you went into a pub you couldn’t see the bar for smoke. But then the law changed and within three weeks you forgot it was ever like that.
“Look at plastic bags in shops that we always used until we were told to pay 5p and nobody uses them anymore!
“There are ways of making very simple changes that can alter the paradigm in the same way that it is possible to change the way a business is run.”
Pause... Breathe... Reflect... Ready for more?
“I’m not going off and buying a yacht anytime soon, but I have enough for anything I could reasonably want and it gives me this surplus profit that I can do fantastically unusual things with and still do mentoring and speeches for free and the company can have a weird office space and still give £500,000 to charity.
“We pay a load of tax and I’m delighted because that is the redistributive model that pays for everything else.”
I manage to get another question in and, out of nowhere, a shadow comes over this hugely-likeable character when he talks about the genesis of his beliefs and way of life.
“The miners’ strike was a massive seminal moment for me. Barnsley was a coal town and there was a true sense of community, but a Conservative government used its power through spite in a very destructive way.
“All of that hypocrisy we have seen unravel and I saw it all first-hand and we are now in a place that is only just getting its GDP back to the right levels after 30 years. There has been multi-generational deprivation and it made me realise you cannot have one against the other that brings such an inequality of opportunity.
“We will send our troops to war to give people a democracy, yet you go into a business and it is run by dictators.
“Apparently that ‘command and control’ approach is the way we should do it. Well, it doesn’t seem to ring true to me, and if it was such a great way of working we would all be in despotic countries with command and control systems.
“If we believe that democracy is one of the least evil ways of running an operation, then why not in business as well with transparency and support?
“Marxism is fantastic at redistributing wealth but not at making it, while capitalism is fantastic at making it but not at sharing it out. Combine those two and everybody wins.
“At Webmart, 50% of profits above £400,000 and up to £1million is split 50:50 with me and the team, but above £1m it all goes to the team. So the bigger we get the better we get because everyone is happy.
“Businesses should all be able to give 10% of their time to help out locally, whether that is start-ups, friends or family. Just spend that time with them and help deliver to the least well-off in society.”
As you can imagine, Simon does a lot of sharing and mentoring, much if it through the Barnsley Economic Partnership which has a target of helping a minimum of 140 local start-ups.
The Partnership aims to build up a complete skills matrix so they can quickly step in and help at any stage in any sector, in much the same way as Simon uses his 7,500 LinkedIn contacts when he needs advice or a particular thread of experience. He has always proudly retained his status as a 50-year-old entrepreneur and is assembling a new software business now that he suggests may be “the nemesis of Webmart”.
Most businesses would just reinforce their own model and then get taken out by a competitor. But Simon’s approach is typically challenging – create the competitor yourself and be ready for the changes it brings to your original business.
So he is not a businessman looking to wind down just yet? “We are just not designed for retirement. Do you honestly know of anyone who sits back and does nothing and doesn’t end up with either mental illness, alcoholism or chronic obesity? Having anything like a retirement is only a relatively recent post-war event.
“My job can be stressful and quite taxing, but I’m not killing myself down the pit, so I’ve hopefully got another 40 or 50 years yet.
“Just do something your mum would be proud of, and just in case your mum is a psychopath, do something that you would be happy to see in the public domain.”
Simon has a gift for putting things into perspective and therefore being able to prioritise to the exclusion of anything that doesn’t inspire or add value. The personal challenges he sets himself help him realise what is possible.
“I am doing Ironman, I did Marathon des Sables last year (billed as the toughest footrace on Earth), I’m climbing a mountain in Iran next and I’m running the Spine Challenge along the Pennine way in January.
“So whatever anyone else does to me is fine. If you put yourself there you know you can deal with anything. I put myself in really difficult positions, train for it three hours a day to get as fit as a fiddle - and then put it all back on again because I’m back in Britain with the beers!”
Simon Biltclife is his own Sky Box Set. You start off with a bit of him and then get the chance to switch off and come back to it another day. But what if the next episode is the one with the big set-piece... so just one more in case you miss the best bit. But then you get interested in the lead character and want to see how he develops over the whole series – and then you hope the series gets recommissioned and before you know it, you’re hooked.
Perhaps the BBC – Biltcliffe Broadcasting Corporation – should be the next step. I’d certainly pay my subscription.