Exit the dragon: Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins on how to make a difference

1st February 2017

“My mental maths has certainly got loads better. They take your phone away so we have to do all the calculations in our heads, on the spot,” says Nick Jenkins, the Dragons’ Den dragon, founder of Moonpig and businessman whose personal wealth stands at around £150m.

Jenkins, who is leaving the BBC show at the end of this series, became a dragon in 2015 and has invested in around 15 businesses to date. “I thought it’d be good fun, and it is. It’s also a lot of work; we’re putting in our own money and we do have to follow up.” (I meet investees CYCL as soon as I arrive at Jenkins’ home.)

“It’s the most realistic business programme out there. If you can forget the cameras, it’s like another day at the office. There are a lot of boring questions that have to be asked that you don’t see, but the rewards of working with small businesses, getting involved from the ground up – you can’t beat that.”

Jenkins has certainly seen enough to offer a helping hand. “That said, a good team with a good product will never need to rely on introductions. The only thing you can do is slightly short-circuit the process and make meetings happen that bit quicker.”

Casting the net
But Jenkins’ ambitions go further. Since selling Moonpig in 2011, Jenkins has helped thousands of people – as an angel investor, and as a philanthropist. For four years (2011-2015), he was chief executive of Ark, the children’s charity which runs 35 academies in the UK. “It’s still the case that not very much money is put into state education. Plenty goes into bursaries to enable kids from poor backgrounds to go to private schools, but that doesn’t improve quality for the many.”

I ask Jenkins if he thinks enabling schools to turn a profit and making poor families shareholders could help. “New models have to be about motivation. If people can be motivated by results, then we don’t need to resort to profit. What’s a good outcome for children, and therefore the school? Succeeding in life doesn’t mean a few quid in your pocket when you’re 18.”

The education interest extends outside the UK. An investor in education technology organisations via his charitable foundation, Jenkins’s biggest stake is in Mwabu, an edtech firm based in Zambia which delivers primary education via tablets.

“There’s no question in my mind that educational technology has enormous potential. The marginal cost of delivery is zero, so suddenly, and particularly in the developing world, education is made affordable. The questions then are whether the solution is good enough, and whether an organisation is already within schools and has buy-in from government.”

Closer to home, Jenkins has just – as anyone who watches Dragons’ Den will have seen – invested in CYCL, a startup making indicators for bikes. “This is a very obvious but entirely new idea – and I think it’s a good one. There’s a chance people might fit it then not use it – I got a Fitbit and lasted just three days. But I’ve got Pitpats for my two dogs and I use them all the time to make sure they get enough exercise. Pitpat pitched on Dragons’ Den, actually – though they turned me down.”

Jenkins points out, as a London cyclist himself, that indicating with your arm really is sub-optimal. “Even if you can put your hand out, you might not be able to hold it there for long.” In a city, and indeed country, where cycling is becoming ever more popular, Jenkins gives it 10 to 15 years until indicators on bikes are mandatory. “It’s a predictable way of getting around – except for occasionally when the cycle lanes just run out on you. You can park, and at the end of the day, you’ve done the equivalent of an hour in the gym.”

We stray into other London-related topics, with me vapidly lauding how marvellous it is that all our rubbish disappears so quickly. “You wouldn’t be saying that if you lived just up the river. The first Moonpig office was that way [Chelsea] and it’s pretty grim. It’s such valuable land; the rubbish has to go there because of access to the river. Imagine if it had to be taken out of the city in one run.”

The CYCL team, who have started selling through Halfords, are “very smart, very switched on and have a great flare for innovative design”. A lesson for doing well in life: “the most successful business I’ve been involved in are where I’ve invested in someone cleverer than me. If there’s nothing I can do better than them, that’s a good thing. You have intellectual sprinters and you have marathon runners. I’ve never been good at the long, slow burn, but other people are.”

When Jenkins started Moonpig in 1999, he was satisfying “an entrepreneurial inkling that has always been there. I was supposed to go into the army, but was offered a job in Russia while it was still the Soviet Union, which seemed like a good opportunity.” After eight years trading commodities for Glencore, he came back to the UK. “I realised that, if I was going to set up a business in a sector I knew nothing about, it’d be a good idea to do so in one no-one else knew anything about either.”

The Moonpig model was based on taking something big on the high street then making it better and selling it for less online. It took Jenkins five years to break even and make enough to get the adverts we all know on TV. “When I meet a business now, the first thing I ask myself is ‘are people actually going to want this?’. I’m always looking for evidence, and the thing I love about online businesses is the data – the level of engagement is entirely measurable.”

The power of data fuels Jenkins’s third sector work, too. He’s on the board of Operation Fistula, whose Global Obstetric Fistula electronic Registry (GOFER) aims to document every interaction between a fistula patient and those that care for her. “Not only does it allow us to track surgeons and results for patients, it means we can solve capacity issues. I only want to fund something where I’m paying for an increase in capacity… it makes you wonder about our 0.7 per cent foreign aid target.”

Faster slower

After four years on the investment committee of Impact Ventures UK, Jenkins has unique insight into the relationship between philanthropy and innovation.

“Ultimately, the disadvantaged are not going to be paying for their own solutions, so finding sustainable social enterprises is always going to be difficult. The challenge is around how to channel innovation. If the state is merely saying ‘this is what we’d like to do’ (and that’s low-hanging fruit), ‘here’s a tender, who can give me the lowest price?’ that’s never going to create a solution. We need ‘here’s a problem – who’s got the best solution?’. Rather than trying to do the same for less, you should have people competing to do more for the same amount of money.”

I ask Jenkins what it is that gives him the entrepreneurial bent. “The rewards are down to you, and the sky is the limit. There’s no safety net – you’re on a roller coaster and that’s exciting. I love the freedom of it.”

Jenkins’s time on Dragons’ Den might be coming to an end, but his voracious appetite meant that 2017 needed to have a freeing-up focus. “This year I’m trying to find more spare time – because I do feel like I’ve got too many plates spinning. It’s easy to be pulled in lots of interesting directions, but I need to get the right number, because I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface on so many things.”

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