One of my first really vivid childhood memories was sitting in front of a blackboard with my primary school class and being asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. One of the most ambitious responses came from a pigtailed girl who was determined to become a lorry driver, but the most disturbing was from a scruffy looking lad called Jamie who stuck his hand up and declared, “Mrs Allan, I want to be a robber”. The boy in question showed unwavering commitment to his dream vocation over the years, and has been in and out of prison for the vast majority of his adult life.
Becoming a footballer was my big aim, but alas, I lacked the level of dedication to the beautiful game that young Jamie did to burgling houses, and unfortunately I missed the boat.
As a teenager, I also dreamed of rock ‘n’ roll stardom – I even joined a band called Pregnant With Dogs, but our musical talents sadly mirrored our ability to choose a name that didn’t disgust everyone we came into contact with.
Like me, Harry Dewhirst grew up in a quaint village in England, harbouring dreams of rock ‘n’ roll immortality. Like me, he also joined a band with a dubious name – in his case the slightly less disturbing Kung Foo Kamikaze Killer Cabbages. Unlike me, Harry went on to make millions as a pioneering entrepreneur in mobile advertising after a meteoric rise to prominence in what was then a fledgling industry. The fact that he’s vastly wealthier than me, not to mention a decade younger, makes me want to dislike him. Intensely. Alas, that’s not possible – Harry is charming and eminently likeable to boot.
It’s mid December 2013, and Harry and his lovely partner Veronika have invited me to join them on a friend’s boat at Keppel Bay. Harry has the luxury of running his own race these days, and the vintage bottle of Dom Perignon suggested an enjoyable afternoon was in prospect.
It’s been an unbelievably swift voyage to the top for Harry, who first soared to prominence back in 2009 when he was crowned Rising Star Of The Year at the annual Media Week Awards. It’s fair to say that the long-running magazine backed the right horse.
At the age of just 27, Harry oozes success – from the vintage bubbly, to the jet-set lifestyle, to the fabulously cut electric-blue suit that he’s sporting. Fashion is now a massive interest for Harry both personally and professionally, but more on that later. Let’s rewind four years.
In January of 2010, RingRing Media – the company that Harry co-founded just two years previously – was acquired by Amobee, the mobile advertising technology giants owned by SingTel. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but at the time of the sale, RingRing Media was representing some of the largest brands in the world – including Yahoo and Microsoft – and was exchanging more than four billion mobile advertising impressions and claiming revenues of more than S$2.4m each month. Those numbers suggest that Amobee won’t have done the deal at a bargain basement price…
However, having sold a company for such big bucks in the early stages of his career, it begs the question: Does he still possess the same drive and hunger for doing business?
“Absolutely,” he replies, quick as a flash. “I love business. “I may vary the pace or the industry I work in from time to time, but the best things in life are better enjoyed after a hard day’s work.
“My end game is to die happy and fulfilled. I really do believe it’s about the journey and not the destination. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of start-up mentoring; it’s incredibly rewarding and I would like to think that in the future someone cites my help as a contribution to their success.”
It’s rather odd to hear someone so young talk like a wily veteran who’s determined to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. Harry himself wasn’t raised by entrepreneurial or business-minded parents back in the UK, but the life lessons they taught him proved invaluable.
“They’re both teachers and very astute, and always encouraged me to think for myself,” adds Harry, who was brought up in a quaint village in Warwickshire called Napton-on-the-Hill, which has a population of less than a thousand and a school (during Harry’s time) which boasted just 45 children and two teachers.
“My parents are incredibly well travelled and worldly having lived and taught in places like Addis Ababa. They wanted me to chart my own course. There was never any pressure to pursue any specific path and they really let me find my own way. My Dad built an apartment separate to the house when I was younger, and at 16 I moved in there with a mate. It brought a huge amount of independence, which I think certainly contributed to my future success.”
This independence was also allied to a strong work ethic. Harry was never late for his paper round, and he also learned a great deal about work and business from his time working in a restaurant in his teens.
“It was called The Butchers Arms, and it had a very diverse customer base – from celebrities to business leaders,” he adds.
“I’d recommend anyone to work in a restaurant when they’re young; it’s a great way to learn how to deal with people from varying walks of life – you learn how to make people happy, and you have to be adaptable because different people want different things. It was a great lesson; after all, in business, people buy people.”
Harry also supplemented his restaurant income by trading on eBay; his most profitable items being re-writable CDs and DVDs. “It was very unglamorous, but profitable. I was always keen on trading. Buying and selling the most random of items on eBay was a good way to fund the lifestyle of a young teenager.”
His work ethic and entrepreneurial activities on eBay proved to be a signpost for his future career, but he still had an itch to scratch – music.
“I was a percussionist and played a lot and also created my own music, which was pretty eclectic and rhythmic. I’m into bands like Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, Interpol, Prodigy, Jamiroquai, Mumford & Sons, and I suppose that was the kind of sound I was trying to create,” adds Harry, who went on to study music technology at Warwick.
“At the time, I desperately wanted to be in the music industry. I was initially in a band, and then that ambition morphed into wanting to become a producer, but I did an internship at Warner Music and quickly realised that, despite the occasional glitz and glamour, it was a very tough industry with lots of ‘personalities’ shall we say. It wasn’t for me.”
Harry began his “real” career at a business-to-business telesales organisation in Warwick, but he was swiftly headhunted by one of his customers to work in London for the ringtone company, Pitch.
“I was selling to the person who hired me in London. He went away on holiday and, with my impatient streak, I thought I would just send him the contract and see if he would sign it anyway. Alas, he didn’t – but I was invited down to London for a meeting, which transpired to be more of a preliminary interview. Thankfully it went well.
“I’ve always gone the extra mile for customers. Service and good relationships are key – with partners, customers and colleagues.
“Pitch was incredibly fast-paced – a small company which grew very quickly. I was employee number 20 and when I left it was over 80. It was a rush working there and I loved it.”
Harry moved on to work for the American firm Medi, before the time came to branch out on his own, and he co-founded the mobile advertising business RingRing with friend and Medio colleague, Ben Tatton-Brown.
“We saw that there was a bigger opportunity in Europe that was not being realised – the focus for Medio was the US. This is when we decided to part ways and set up on our own.
“We sought a lot of advice from friends and associates beforehand, which really helped. Some people say that it’s possible to receive too much advice, but I disagree.
“It was tough initially. This was 2008 remember, so raising money in an economic crisis was far from ideal. We raised a round of equity funding from our network of friends, family and business angels, and we had a plan to use this to get the business profitable.
“In the beginning there were plenty of scary moments where if a few small things had gone against us we could have been out of business. Fortunately, we achieved profitability in 15 months after picking up clients like Nokia and Google, and we went on to sell the business to Amobee after 24 months. That’s what brought me to Singapore three years ago.
“Part of our ultimate success was being very early in the industry so there was little competition. Mobile advertising is now a $12bn industry; when we started it was $1bn. And it’s still growing with 60-percent-plus year-on-year growth expected.”
With a tidy lump sum in the bank thanks to the sale, you could have forgiven Harry for taking things easy – maybe buy a dream home on a Caribbean island and spend his days drinking rum punch, smoking cigars and getting fat. But not a bit of it. Instead, he made the seamless transition from technology to tailoring, and became a major shareholder in Victor York, who specialise in high-quality shirts.
The company was set up by Daniel Victor York Morby in 2002, and they’ve now expanded across Hong Kong and the Middle East. But what made Harry make the move into the rag trade – a notoriously competitive industry?
“Quite simple: I started out being a customer and quickly came to the conclusion that this was a brand that deserved much wider exposure,” he adds, with real passion.
“Every time I wore one of their shirts or suits people would always want to know more. All I’ve done is taken my customer advocacy and put my money where my mouth is.
“I ensure I get to spend as much time as I can in the boutique – I’m proud to say that despite being one of the owners of the company, I help with everything from fabric buying to packaging.
“We hope that eventually Victor York will be the custom-made equivalent of Thomas Pink. We want our customers to have the perfect shirt every time and we want the experience to be easy and smooth.
“It’s a competitive market, but I believe that our quality stands out. This is due to the fabrics we hand pick and also the fact that we can control the quality first hand because the factory is here in Singapore.
“My background in technology is also a huge asset. In January, for example, we launched a new tool for inside our stores which means all orders are processed in a centralised platform (which we developed from the ground up) – this means, no matter if you buy things in store or online, you can always see your order history and re-order shirts which you love.”
With all his business interests, early-hours conference calls and jet-set lifestyle, is there still room in Harry’s life for that frustrated teenager who dreamt of rock ‘n’ roll stardom…?
“Music is still a massive passion, it just wasn’t something that I chose to turn into a career.
“I still go to gigs and festivals. I remember dancing in the Jazzworld field filled with cider with some police officers in 2005 at Glastonbury. That was one of the wet years!
“I’ve been to Glastonbury ten times. One year my tent was so flooded I slept in my Ford Fiesta with my feet out the window.
“I’m going again this year, but taking my mum, so we’ll be glamping. I’ve already booked a private caravan off the main site with top facilities and hot showers – that’s the only way to do it these days. I’ve obviously changed!”
Winning Rising Star of the Year at the 2009 Media Week Awards
It was a surprise. I’d been listed in Media Week’s “30 under 30” which profiled young up-and-comers, and I was then in a shortlist of five for the Rising Star award. I had to give a presentation to some serious big hitters in the media industry in London, which was nerve-racking to say the least. Winning it was unbelievable – my cheeks still hurt from smiling!
What makes him stand out
That’s a question that others would be better at answering, but if you press me I would probably say my worth ethic. “It ain’t over until it’s over” is a particular mantra. I also believe that total – sometimes brutal – honesty is crucial. I’d also like to think I’m a fun person to work with.
Why he’s been successful
I never expect someone to do something that I wouldn’t do. I will always pitch in to help at that moment in time where I feel I can make the most difference and, of course, to understand a process even better. Some would call that “hands on” – I want to be surrounded by experts, but I want to “get it”. That results in better decision making.