Tim Dyson is the US-based chief executive of London-listed communications business Next 15 Group. Here he chews over his creative yen, his company’s moral impetus and what he learnt from Bill Gates
My mother joked that I was the kid who could charge people to be a member of his gang. She said that was probably a sign of things to come. But I don’t think anybody goes out into the world saying, ‘I want to run a company.’ You go out wanting to do something you really enjoy, and have as much control over it as you can, and then end up running a company.
I was always creatively driven. I grew up with a mother who was an art teacher, my sister is an artist. I was always fascinated by businesses and how they worked – what made them good, what made them bad. So I wanted to marry something creative with something commercial.
Careers tend to be a series of deliberate actions and accidents. I don’t know anyone successful who can say that everything they did was by design. An awful lot of unexpected things, good and bad, happen. It’s never a straight line, marching in one direction.
I desperately wanted to go and work in advertising. But in the 1980s, when I left college, there were no jobs in it because of the recession. Then I came upon this little company, Text 100, which was a public relations and technical writing start-up. Tech was my least favourite industry at that time – when I was in college it was all punch cards, big old mainframe computers and so on. Then I realised that it was actually all very exciting.
I spent my early career learning my job from my client – Microsoft. This was when Bill Gates was just becoming a household name. One of his principles was objective-driven management culture. He would insist on deciding what success looks like before anything else. Does it mean having a certain set of products, being a certain size, working with certain customers? No planning, no spending until that’s decided. It was a really smart way of thinking. I learnt a ton by sitting around someone that brilliant – a little bit of it rubs off.
When I officially became CEO in 1992, tech was still a niche topic. Being involved with it since then has felt like standing around in Egypt 4,000 years ago watching pyramids and temples being built. You felt you were lucky being right there with the people who were building these things, and truly changing the world, for the most part for the good.
Disruption is everywhere. If you go and meet with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and spend time in their labs, it blows your mind what is being done. We’re in a place now where, if you look at every vertical industry – healthcare, financial services, transportation – there is disruption taking place. Technology is turning business models on their heads everywhere.
We have a moral obligation. We should make sure we’re promoting something good. We don’t work with tobacco brands. I have a personal hatred of big oil, and am very keen for us to work with renewable energy. It’s amazing how having kids makes you care about the future of the world.
I’m not a micro-manager. I like to trust the people I work with and empower them to do what they do best. I care about the ‘who’ over the ‘what’. Everyone should play to their strengths rather than out of position. I’d rather make the job fit the person than vice versa.
It’s as easy to do acquisitions well as it is to do them badly. An awful lot of our due diligence is about finding out how good that management team really is. Getting acquisition right is about saying, ‘It was a good company before we bought them – all we’ve got to do is make sure we don’t change that.’ Then we’re looking to accelerate its ambitions.
If you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s amazing how hard you can work, so we have to be incredibly conscious of giving staff variety and flexibility. Burnout only comes if you don’t feel like what you’re doing is rewarding.
Running is my meditation time. There are a lot of fabulous trails in the hills in the part of northern California where I live. After the run, during that high period, you come up with all sorts of crazy ideas that you annoy people with the next day.
Kids can turn you into a better manager. Seeing the world through their eyes is a great way to remind yourself what the world should really be like. Perhaps they even make you a better manager – they certainly help you learn how to get someone to do something they fundamentally don’t want to do.
Tim Dyson CV
Born UK, 1960
1984 Graduates from Loughborough University and joins Next 15. Initial clients include Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Sun and Intel. Becomes Global CEO of the Next 15 Group in 1992
1995 Moves from London to set up the group’s first US business, based in Seattle, before opening offices in San Francisco in 1997
1999 Oversees flotation of the company on the London Stock Exchange
2005 Begins a string of acquisitions including Connections Media and Blueshirt in the US and Lexis, Republic Publishing and IncrediBull in the UK
2016 Next 15 employs over 1,250 people across 36 offices in 15 countries. Its revenue increased by 64 per cent and its staff by 44 per cent between 2010 and 2015
To learn more, watch the video at next15.com/tim-dyson-on-the-2016-interim-results