Ed Bussey was just 16 when he embarked on a journey that would change his outlook on life. “It was international youth year and I won a competition to go on a six-week trip to Alaska,” he recalls.
“I was out in the wilderness, miles from anywhere, and I remember looking at this enormous view of mountains and thinking at the same time you could hear a pin drop. That shifted something within me.”
Bussey’s desire “to do something adventurous” would set him on an extraordinary career path that began with joining the Royal Navy aged 17. He would go on to work for the Foreign Office in counter-terrorism, make his fortune selling women’s underwear, trek to the North Pole, earn another fortune with a mobile app, and climb the Alps.
Most recently, Bussey won the award for Great British Entrepreneur of the Year as CEO of Quill, which provides content for over 150 companies worldwide. “I’ve tried to avoid structuring my career as if everything is a pre-planned LinkedIn page. Life is too short. So I’ve always followed what I’ve thought is an exciting opportunity. That means I’ve taken some pretty hard turns left and right.”
This philosophy has served him well. “The navy taught me great skills around leading and motivating people. There are some business problems you can solve through spreadsheets and analysis but invariably the more challenging problems are to do with people.”
While on secondment at the University of Cambridge, where he studied experimental psychology, Bussey set up an online directory for businesses, which led to winning an Entrepreneur of the Year competition. The prize would provide another spark: “There were about 2,500 young entrepreneurs from around the world who converged upon this event in San Francisco,” he says.
“At that time building a business was all to do with money. The word ‘entrepreneur’ had some negative connotations. But I never saw it like that. What I took out of the experience was the ability to create something from nothing.”
After the navy he joined the Foreign Office, but left in 2000. “I left primarily because I had this entrepreneurial seed sown in Cambridge and I hadn’t had the chance for it to flourish.”
He reunited with former colleague Mike Ross and worked on Figleaves.com. Bussey recalls: “Figleaves was really Daniel Navarro’s idea. He is Mike’s second cousin. And Daniel was the one who put his house on the line.
At that stage, 70 per cent of shoppers on the high street were women but online the numbers were almost reversed. Daniel took the view that this was going to change and we should focus on selling products for women.”
Spirit of adventure
Within four years, Figleaves.com had a million customers. Bussey sold his share and then became COO at Zyb, a growing Scandinavian tech firm. In 2008, Vodafone bought Zyb for £28.5m. Bussey suddenly found himself with an opportunity to get at one with nature once again.
A friend asked if he would join a group on an unsupported charity trek to the North Pole. “The way I would describe the North Pole is that almost everything there is conspiring to kill you,” says Bussey.
“You’re in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet for polar bears and you pitch up after a long winter of these animals hibernating with a pulk full of food and they can smell you from miles off. A team ahead of us got attacked. After two or three days I started getting frostbite on my right hand. I had pins and needles for three months afterwards.”
Did he wonder what on earth he’d left himself in for? “Yes. Every day! But I’ve been told I’m missing that chromosome when it comes to fear. I came back feeling very proud of what I’d achieved.”
Soon after his return, Bussey was ready to start afresh on what would become Quill: “We specialise in helping e-commerce companies with content to convert people browsing for products into buyers,” he says. “What is unique is that we produce content at a speed and a scale – meaning the number of languages we can write it in and the topics we can write about – like nobody else.”
Last year, Bussey was voted Great British Entrepreneur of the Year but stresses that Quill is a group effort. His ability to build and manage a team harks back to his time in the navy.
“When it comes to building teams and taking them through tough times, the leadership skills I learnt in the forces and through adventure have been really beneficial. Then there are communication skills. I want to sit in an open-plan area with my team, not in some loft office where you can’t be seen.”
Above all, the spirit of adventure that he discovered in Alaska has never left him. “My big passion is climbing. I go to the Dolomites or the Alps normally in spring and autumn. I would love to do a bigger peak but I made the mistake of taking my wife to see the movie Everest. So I think that’s been scotched!” Bussey concludes.
“Getting to the summit of a mountain, and the exhilaration I get from doing that, is worth the pain. But I need to do it alone. My wife, Dilek, is very forgiving. She knows this is something that is important to me and I come back from those three or four days feeling completely recharged. I guess you could say my spiritual home, with a small ‘s’, is on a mountain.”
Gallery: Ed Bussey and his training regime
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