Mark Wright talk
Image: Fred Leung

A Q&A with Mark Wright: From backpacker, to BBC Apprentice winner, to millionaire

After ordering a hazelnut latte from the campus Costa, Mark Wright, winner of The Apprentice 2014 and founder of the digital marketing company ClimbOnline, made his way to the Oculus and sat down with a few of us to discuss his business, Brexit and the phenomenon that is the internet. As I sat across from him, I immediately noticed the easy-going confidence he brought with him; being young, successful and Australian, this is the kind of presence you would expect from Wright. A lot was learnt from our thirty minutes with Wright prior to his talk, covering topics from, of course, The Apprentice and the future of artificial intelligence to why Britain is the ‘land of opportunity’.

His business, ClimbOnline (or ‘ClimBonleen’ according to another candidate) specialises in search engine optimisation (SEO) which helps companies rank higher on Google’s search results. When asked about organically ranking higher on the search results, Wright simply remarked: “You can’t. They’ve changed the algorithm!”. Rather than spew the usual economic spiel that most students sleep to in lectures, he explained using contemporary examples such as LadBible that it was no longer possible to organically boost your social media posts, as Facebook had put up a monetary barrier. As a result, previously popular websites like LadBible had gone into administration. He emphasised that having good customer service and a product that you are passionate about was key as “business breeds business”. He also recommended starting in London as “people have a softer landing ground” despite what he labelled as a “self-prescribed recession” over Brexit.

He suggested that, unless you had the mindset, capability, or career type to make use of the fantastic facilities universities have to offer, it would simply be a waste of three years

Wright had never been to university. He didn’t even have the support of his business teacher back in school, but he now makes an annual turnover worth millions from an online company he launched with the help of Lord Alan Sugar. So, it seems, we can put Wright in the same box as other well-known entrepreneurs who didn’t attend university, namely Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Lord Sugar himself.

When asked whether he would be where he is today if he had gone to university, Wright’s immediate answer was that he didn’t like university and that for him personally it wasn’t the best idea. This detail, coupled with the fact that he didn’t know who Lord Sugar was before 2014, sets Wright up as someone who has done very well for himself. Wright seemed to believe university would have left him worse off, with no money and a permanent hangover; knowing this, he wrote the notion off completely, instead turning his attention directly to the working world. He suggested that, unless you had the mindset, capability, or career type to make use of the fantastic facilities universities have to offer, it would simply be a waste of valuable time that you could be spending making your own money. “So if you’re here for the right reasons you’ll go further than I could have ever done,” Wright reiterated, “but I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer” so it seems attending university only would have held him back.

Experts suggest that our economy is slowing down, but the direct effect of this on British companies (of which only 20 are now in the world’s top 500) is not yet apparent

The opportunity to ask about Brexit inevitably came up, with Wright referring to it as a “looming cancer in this country”. Wright agreed with the notion that Brexit would be a virus for businesses by cutting off the European market and subsequently causing a recession. He felt strongly about the UK’s decision to leave the EU, calling it the “biggest disaster of our time”. Stating that he, as a bystander, was merely sitting back and watching the “country self-sabotage itself economically” caused a few troubled laughs from the audience.

Wright believes that we currently have the worst Labour and Conservative parties the country has ever seen and compared the Lib Dems to going to the gym once a week – in other words, ineffective. Wright’s personality allowed the dire topic to become an almost humorous discussion, with the humour seeming to be inspired by a decision he perceived was reflective of the country’s stupidity and how bad of a state we are really in. “If you knew what’s about to happen, you would be at the pub downing shots, not sat here with me,” Wright retorted.

When it came to his business, the discussion was no more optimistic, as he explained the issue of no one wanting to work with his company while Brexit negotiations are underway. Experts suggest that our economy is slowing down, but the direct effect of this on British companies (of which only 20 are now in the world’s top 500) is not yet apparent. It is evident that ClimbOnline has been susceptible, as the last ordeal showed no progress forward nor any regression, resulting in a mere 0.1% revenue growth. Coming out of such a recession will not be without great hardship, patience and faith, but it could be of little consolation to know that almost all UK businesses are experiencing the same thing.

Perhaps the most surprising and interesting opinions Mark discussed were those regarding the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its impact on the world economy. He stated that he was “here for business” and “not a humanist” when it came to employment and would not mind running his businesses entirely by himself with the assistance of AI. Indeed, ClimbOnline has made much use of AI through the use of bots in customer relations and Wright didn’t seem keen to restrict the advancement of AI, instead seeing it as an opportunity for efficiency within a working environment. It seems being a “humanist” and striving for immediate success in business does not often go hand-in-hand, with Wright agreeing that he would be happy if it were just him and his algorithms running his company.

Although this may come across as controversial and unsympathetic to the preservation of jobs, the success of his company is Wright’s first priority and sacrifices must be made to obtain the best results. With ClimbOnline’s data being in the cloud and on automation, it comes as no surprise then that AI is very integrated within the business, along with AI training programmes. However, Wright believes that, instead of rendering people jobless, AI will instead force people to become more highly skilled and this will be beneficial for employers elsewhere.

Mark stressed that “only old people are risk averse” and that taking risks was better in the long-run

The future of ClimbOnline for Wright is an exciting prospect to consider given how much has changed and expanded up to this point. When he looks at life before The Apprentice, Wright gives us a little insight into the times he spent being “skint”, living in a house with 11 people and not being half the person he is today. So when we look at how far he has come it is impossible to say with certainty what the future holds, especially in terms of business where almost nothing is predictable. However, for our benefit, Wright gives us a taster of where he sees ClimbOnline going next, including international trade to America and Australia. He wants to take turnovers just sitting under 10 million to 100 million in 5 years “so that’s where I see my company, and I don’t know where I’ll be, hopefully still alive”.

In terms of investment advice for young people, Wright was keen to shake up the business world and move away from traditional investments to encourage tech start-ups and innovation. When questioned about what he would invest £1 million in, he replied that he would “just invest”, which was met with laughter from students in the Oculus. Specifying further, he stressed the importance of varying investments by putting half the money into “safe investments” such as property, and the remaining £500,000 into five different start-ups. Mark stressed that “only old people are risk averse” and that taking risks was better in the long-run. His own investments into blockchain, stocks, bonds and cryptocurrency have proved to be profitable, though he was honest about making losses due to the volatility of the markets in the current economy. All in all, Mark Wright’s business was one built originally on risk taking, and he encouraged young entrepreneurs in the Oculus to do the same.

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