Phil aka Spreadshirt’s CEO has been with us for 10 years now. Lea, currently interning at the HR-Department has met up with the chap from Wiltshire for a good old cup of tea and biscuits.
10 years at Spreadshirt, Phil – that’s a good chunk of a lifetime. Congrats! How does it feel?
I’m surprised. I didn’t expect to be here for 10 years. I came to help with the sales and marketing team ten years ago and I became CEO about 7 years ago. And suddenly it’s 10 years that have rushed by. Because it was fun!
It’s fair to say you weren’t born a CEO. How did you get there?
My career started in advertising for British newspapers like ‘The Guardian’, ‘Telegraph’ and then women’s magazines like ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Good Housekeeping’. In 1996, I moved across to what they used to call “New Media”, meaning online media. I did my first e-commerce site in 1999 selling VHS videos; that’s how old I am! In 2001, I moved on to Tesco, to the grocery retailer. After that – having been in e-commerce for quite some time – I then left the corporate world to work for clinical skin store in America selling skin care.
When I returned from America and I joined Spreadshirt, I found the business model really interesting and it was very international. Until this day, we continue to become more international and we develop more models and ways of working. That’s why it doesn’t feel like it’s been 10 years. The fast-growing business makes it seem like a world of a difference from the CEO I am today to the CEO I was two or even four years ago. It feels like a new job every couple of years.
How does this reflect in the day to day business? Does every day still feel like a new challenge?
A lot of my role is closely coordinating between the various teams, usually dealing with the topics that don’t fit precisely into any one particular team. I’m working on how to adjust them to a team so that those teams can run them. So mostly I’m dealing with the bits of strategy and operations and problems that exist between teams. I’m trying to make them work better together, but it’s different every day.
Is it fun to be a CEO?
I enjoy it a lot. Although I spend most of my time living out of a bag. In fact, I live in Berlin and come to Leipzig during the week. This means even my weekdays are spent living out of a bag. But I’m very happy flying and traveling all over the world meeting people. The best thing about being Spreadshird’s CEO is actually meeting people and working with people and the teams we have. We have a lot of interesting people who care about what they do, and they also care about their colleagues and support each other. That’s what makes it fun. It’s nice to come in and see people that you like being with.
Were there times when you wanted to quit, or you felt overwhelmed?
Absolutely. There was a phase when our technology was outdated and needed to be replaced with new technology. That absorbed 60-70 percent of our engineering time and attention from product and business teams. The old tech required a lot of maintenance and we were unable to grow the business. At the same time, our shareholders really wanted to be able to sell their shares and needed us to grow the business. And we just couldn’t. For a couple of years, we had to work really hard at improving the business underneath so it could grow afterwards. That was a time when we just could not move our service or our technologies forward, which was very frustrating.
Did you have any strategies on how to deal with this?
Yes. Keep smiling. Even now, whenever I’m having a bad day, all I need to do is walk around the corridors and say hello to people. Smiling at people helps, it makes you feel better. So I try to get up and smile when things are tough.
Did you make any mistakes that helped you grow?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are basically what you call experience. You learn from them and shouldn’t be afraid of making them. I once upset a ‘Cosmopolitan’ editor so much that she started throwing copies of a magazine at my head while screaming at me. I survived. You make mistakes and it lets you try new things and helps you move forward. Without mistakes you’d never move anything forward. And a mistake is not only a mistake – it’s a learning opportunity. As long as you don’t make the same mistake three times in a row, I encourage people to take risks and make mistakes.
And that’s what makes you successful, I suppose. Talking about success: what’s more important to you – personal success or the company’s success?
Most of the time I think about Spreadshirt. Today we have six or almost seven businesses that are doing well. Today we are doubling the volumes that go through our factories. This year we’ve taken the first step of the Spreadshirt group becoming 10 to 12 businesses with 500 million in revenue. And just seeing that growth and seeing the capability to do more things growing the whole time – that’s the success I’m looking for.
On a personal level, I’m not after a fancy car or a yacht. I once had a little plane, but after spending thousands of euros on it, it crashed. So honestly, if I sit down at six o’clock on Friday and know that we have solved a lot of problems – that’s a good and successful week for me. Then I can relax with a beer at six o’clock on a Friday with not having to worry about work until Monday and just being Phil.
You seem to be quite the company man! If you were my age and could choose a department for an internship at Spreadshirt – which one would that be?
I think I would like to go back into marketing. And work out how you get paid marketing and social media to work well. That’s really hard. There are so many people using social media and we still haven’t yet found the right formula to make it work. And I’d really like to play and make some mistakes, I just never have the time and I have lots of other people working on it.
Did you dream of becoming a CEO when you were a kid?
I grew up on a farm. I thought I’d stay on the farm. And then when I got bored of being a farmer, I imagined I´d join the army. I never thought I’d be in sales and marketing. But when I saw computers emerging, I thought there could be something with entertainment that would make computing interesting. That’s why I swapped over to do a computing degree in the late 80s.
Did you see a connection between the computers and marketing? Something you were really passionate about?
Yes. Selling things to people, because selling something to people requires advertising. When I moved into e-commerce, I felt I helped selling something good to people that made them happy. Good sales actually make people happy. You sell something that somebody wants and that makes life better to a certain degree. At least more fun, whether it’s advertising that makes a business work better or just a T-shirt that makes people feel happier and more passionate.
Okay! Now for a round of three random questions. Ready for number one? If you were to meet the Queen, what T-shirt would you wear?
Well that’s still an ambition I have, I would like to meet the Queen. There are two pictures of the queen in my office. However, I can’t imagine meeting the queen in anything other than a full three piece: suit, shirt and tie.
Alright! Random question number two: what’s Spreadshirt’s biggest strength?
I think it’s the people. Altogether, there are 900 people in our company with an average work experience of four years each. That’s 3600 years of experience on how to do what Spreadshirt does! This keeps improving every single day and helps teams getting better every day. So that’s the cool thing about Spreadshirt that makes us successful.
Working with those people and seeing the teams develop is just amazing. I guess maybe we will be twice as big in two to three years. I’ll have to be a different type of CEO then as I’ll need more teams and more countries and more management body to work with. We’re always evolving.
So, ten years from now you’ll still see yourself at Spreadshirt?
There’s a secret plot: 10 years from now, Spreadshirt will be present in round about 50 countries and I will resign job as CEO. Just to become Country Manager in Thailand. I’m already recruiting my team!
Nice! You can count me in as your HR manager in Thailand.
Alright, we have a deal.
I’ll take you up on that 😊