The multi-million pound exit for voucher codes entrepreneur

From a council estate in Liverpool to a public market exit, young business builder Mark Pearson has always been at the forefront of innovation and market trends.

When Mark Pearson noticed the rapid adoption of smartphones he knew that his voucher code business would have to embrace mobile in a big way, he just needed the right partner to do it with.

Overseas competitors such as RetailMeNot and Groupon were charging themselves with hundreds of millions of venture capital ammunition, all positioning for the inevitable mobile battle. Rather than seek equity investment, Pearson was much more interested in finding a like-minded partner which could provide the kind of network, connections and tools to truly realise the potential of what he’d built.

‘We could have gone out and got funding, but when you do that you loose control and end up with a different agenda,’ Pearson explains.

‘I’ve always been able to change direction pretty quickly, but looking to the horizon and seeing challengers it was quite scary. They all had so many resources, while we were still the independent guy.’

Looking back

Pearson’s journey is as impressive as it is diverse, taking him from the North of England, through five star London kitchens, launching his own restaurant and building off the back of the bust.

‘My background wasn’t the most privileged, which is what essentially drove me to want to achieve more – not knowing what direction, but something allowing me to put my stamp on the world in a business kind of way,’ he says.

The first thing Pearson found he was good at was catering, something that led to job offers around the world. Too early and scary for him, he took a job working at Claridge’s in London and became well versed in ruthless working hours and conditions as well as the pursuit of absolute perfection.

Despite excelling in the space, he saw how long it was taking others to rise to the top – not something the ambitious Pearson was prepared to go through. The answer was to start up his own restaurant at the tender age of 21, borrowing money from friends and family to do so.

Already building and scaling then, soon he had three sites – but then found it hard to go beyond that due to a lack of available finance. Watching the evolution of the internet from his bedroom through the boom period got his excitement going, giving him the belief that despite a lack of IT savviness he could create something big.

Researching and looking for opportunities led Pearson to the US where the coupon culture was much more ingrained in the culture. While still deemed to be a slightly shameful thing to do in the UK, it might have seemed likes a bad stigma to build a company off of – but not considering the growth of e-commerce and the anonymity it brings with it.

‘Through the comfort of their own home people could save money using coupons that they wouldn’t use at a checkout. The money saved was a decent size so it became a real self-fulfilling opportunity,’ Pearson says.

Through a process of severe trial and error, the entrepreneur began to experience increasing demand for his service from retailers looking to drive online sales and lure new customers. His proposition was bleeding edge stuff, before the advent of Groupon meant discount codes and coupons became mainstream in society.

The model was a simple one, sign retailers up, post their offers online and then take a commission off the back of any sales. Not demanding a sum up front meant that adoption was quick, a ‘very fair’ business proposition, Pearson believes.

Fast pace

Looking back, he laughs at how much learning he did on the job early in the company’s life. Not going to business school, or even knowing many people who ran a company themselves, every day started with fixing ten things that weren’t operating correctly before he could get onto new projects. Factors such as accounting and employment law were completely abstract to him.

‘It is a bit of a minefield running a business, but a lot of it is actually common sense. One of my biggest assets was the internet and I used to use UK Business Forums a great deal.

‘There you could find a community of people to help and from day one to year three, when growth was crazy, I relied heavily on it.’

From its inception in 2006 as a bedroom business, Markco Media has been bootstrapped on its way to becoming a multi-million pound venture, with Pearson’s entrepreneurial efforts recognised through awards such as the EY Entrepreneur of the Year gong. The business has also moved out of the UK and into different overseas markets, taking advantage of the creation of frugal shoppers in a post-recession era.

Reaching present day, the now 34 year-old Pearson had the kind of realisation that many entrepreneurs have had before – I need to bring in a new partner to fuel the next stage of growth. The exit to Monitise that subsequently occurred was the result of multiple conversations that began not on the subject of an acquisition but how the two companies might work together.

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‘We were never actually for sale, but eventually they said we think your business would be a good fit. Monitise, with all their banking partners, have a fantastic opportunity to be mobile leaders in this space.

‘They power companies and said to me, if we can take your content and expertise into all these financial services, which are under pressure with not much loyalty existing, it will be powerful.’

Getting sale ready was one of the biggest lessons Pearson ever learned. Not building something based on where it was going to end up meant that a lot of details were missing when it came to tying up lose ends.

Founding before business became truly digital meant that many of the early contracts signed were difficult to access. Pearson’s advice is to keep on top of this, not something that comes naturally to business people when they are busy growing, but very important.

Announcing the acquisition, for £55 million, to his staff was one of the proudest moments of his life, Pearson says. ‘As far as career progression is concerned, the staff are ecstatic. Monitise are a global financial business, so it opens a lot more doors.

As a company which has long been B2C, the entrepreneur reveals that future offerings will be more like B2B2C – supplying companies with merchant offers and empowering it through the use of big data.

More on Mark Pearson and Markco Media:

On the side

Building a successful venture and becoming a well-known technology entrepreneur means that Pearson has also had the opportunity to lend his financial resources and business acumen in the form of angel investments. He has become one of the most active investors in early-stage companies in the UK, inviting all to set up shop in the Markco Media headquarters.

So far he’s invested in over 20 companies and serves as an advisor in a number of others. The move towards this kind of activity stemmed from Pearson spreading himself too thinly across products and ultimately not being happy with what went out.

‘A mentor of mine said I should focus on doing one thing well, which was actually quite hard to take as I wasn’t content in doing one thing forever,’ he explains.

‘However, I bit the bullet and killed some of the projects. One of the new opportunities that then came quite naturally was being approached for investment. This was a situation where I could let them lead it but invest time and money – keeping my little finger involved.’

Angel investing, and a new initiative set up to help young British entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds, appear to be the way forward for Pearson. But he has also now positioned his Markco Media business in a place where it has access to the kind of resources necessary to acquire market share and become a market leader in mobile.

Competition will be fierce when it comes to mobile, but Pearson has demonstrated a natural ability to forecast where the market is going and produce a product able to capitalise.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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