MD Block9, Entrepreneur and one time lawyer
Spiritland Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 8XX
Describe your career path in two or three sentences including any twist or turns ending with where you are now.
I’ve had a relatively alternative career after starting off in the most conservative profession ever, law. From an early age, I had wanted to be an entertainment lawyer so I went to law school and spent three years practising as a lawyer in Calgary, Canada which is not exactly a hotbed of entertainment. That prompted an early mid-life crisis and resulted in my move to London in 1998, where I did practice entertainment law for 6 years at Coudert Brothers, the world’s oldest law firm.
From there, I went into an in-house role at British Telecom where I was part of the senior executive team that launched their new television service, BT Vision. It is at BT that I had my major career change and I ended up flipping from being the legal and business affairs person to the commercial director and I have never looked back.
I then did a stint running an online company called Babelgum, a curated short and long-form online video platform which was very progressive at the time. Unfortunately, YouTube decided to move into our space and I saw the writing on the wall. I needed to critically examine what I wanted to do in the next phase of my career — should I go into a big company like Google or Apple or Facebook which were in the video space at the time or continue working with start-ups like Babelgum or go it alone? I spoke with friends for advice and my wife, Timiko, in particular was very encouraging, she said, ‘we don’t have a big mortgage, we don’t have kids, I have a good job so why don’t you start your own business?’ And that’s what I did.
In 2011, I started Western Sky Media to combine my commercial skills in the digital and music space, with my legal skills focusing on strategy and implementation to help businesses, large and small, at a critical inflexion point in their business. It’s been incredible and I have been fortunate to work with highly creative and extremely smart business people from across the globe. This leads me to where I am today, almost a decade later as the MD of Block9 which creates large scale temporary alternative realities.
What decision / experience proved to be the most helpful to your career?
Definitely, the day the CEO of BT Vision called and asked me if I was prepared to take on the senior commercial role on an interim basis for BT’s new television service. I said yes and pivoted from being a legal guy drafting agreements to a commercial person negotiating those agreements.
What do you think are the most important qualities are for sustaining a fulfilling career(s) as you grow older?
Courage. It is the courage to put yourself out there, to drop yourself into a situation that scares you, one that maybe you don’t have the exact expertise or experience in but you do have the underlying belief that you can do it. I have basically spent my entire career telling people I can do stuff then parachuting myself in. The first week is nerve-wracking but ultimately I slide into the role and reaffirm to myself that I can do it. So definitely, the courage to try and the courage to take chances. Mark Eitzel has a song called “Take Courage” which is about beer but has been my mantra my whole career.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self knowing what you do now?
I would still go to law school, it gave me an amazing grounding and way of thinking and has served me well every day of my career even when I stopped practising as one. The other bit of advice would be to find a mentor, someone you look up to respect and stick close. The best new directions my career took were always at the hands of mentors and I still have them today.
What do you think the biggest challenge people face making a career re-entry or re-invention in later life?
Unequivocally, is staying relevant. I look at my brother who was in marketing at Universal Music in Canada and was the top of his game and really respected within the industry and then just whole swathes of the business, including his role, became irrelevant at age 50 because he didn’t keep up with technology or how the music business was changing. So I have always tried to be on the front foot and make an effort to monitor and understand trends and just stay connected. It sounds trite but if you know what people are talking about in a work or social setting you are 90% of the way there.
For those thinking about re-entry, it is about putting yourself out there even if you are not a 100% match and using your experience in other areas to push yourself forward. It goes back to courage. If you get offered something that makes you nervous. Take it. Get back in there and prove yourself.
It is important to maintain a super good network of friends. It’s going to be very hard to find your next job from after a certain age, say 40, by using LinkedIn or going to a career consultant or blindly applying to roles. You need to tap into your network of friends who are in roles and have a wide array of contacts themselves to help you out. I don’t think people should be shy about asking friends to keep their eyes and ears open for them about potential jobs.
What do you think the opportunities are for people wanting to work in their 50s and 60s and beyond.
Honestly? I don’t think there are many opportunities for people in their 50s and 60s if they need to find a job. Companies constantly are eliminating senior roles in favour of cost savings. Older generations can’t possibly relate to new ways of, say, marketing, through social media. I think we are in an age where youth trumps wisdom and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Although I have massive reservations about the gig economy and think it is a euphemism for shrinking traditional jobs, I do think thinking more entrepreneurially and flexibly about work is helpful. The idea of starting your own business, even a very small one to at least establish yourself will allow you to speak in a much more relevant way. So for example, if you wanted to get back into marketing you could establish a niche marketing business, take on a few clients, work with some friends and maybe do some free work, this then gives you the voice to speak to bigger, more traditional companies who will look at your recent experience and not the fact that you were out of the world force for years. Of course, this is all predicated on whether you can afford to make this kind of a jump and take a low (or no) salary for a while to establish yourself.
What is your top tip for staying relevant in today’s job market
Hang out with young people and don’t have the mindset that you’re the old guy in the room. And don’t rest. I am constantly reading magazine articles, blogs, podcasts in my industry so I am aware of what’s happening and of shifts both subtle or seismic.
Recommendation: Favourite book to read, podcast to listen, website to browse while drinking coffee?
If related to a career path then I struggle with this one. I don’t read any of those books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or similar 250 page tomes with cute titles that could be distilled into five paragraphs. I do think it’s important to be well rounded in a cultured context. So I would say don’t read The 7 Habits but do read fiction and bookmark Dezeen and watch documentaries of all kinds and stay on top of the news and get a subscription to the New Yorker and listen to Gimlet podcasts. And make sure you are drinking really good coffee when doing so.