What does it feel like to be the CEO of a high-profile company, leave that company and then realise you still have to make a living? That was the situation facing Mike Tobin when a falling-out led three years ago to his departure from datacentre co-location firm Telecity, one of the UK’s most prominent technology companies.
Tobin, who joined Telecity with the 2005 acquisition of Redbus, had a nigh-13-year run and had overseen a rise that echoed the times, taking a weak and battered company to become the multi-billion-dollar hosting force, and picking up an OBE along the way. He was almost as famous for his back story: brought up in Africa with a violent father in a dangerous environment, then living in a London squat and selling pianos. And then then there were the offbeat ideas for inspiring his teams (swimming with sharks, mock kidnappings) described in his book Forget Strategy. Get Results.
After all that frenetic activity building the company, he admits that at the end he felt an aftershock.
“There’s a natural point in evolution where it occurs,” he recalls of his departure. “It was business as usual, the stock price was ticking along nicely but there were some strategic disagreements between myself and the chairman that had been building up for some time and we agreed to go our own ways. There was lots of shock around the place: it was like a family, people came in crying… it was flattering. And then it’s ‘OK, I’ve got no income now, what do I do now?’”
Some advised taking a break but Tobin felt the need to jump straight back into business life while, he says with characteristic self-confidence, he was a “super-hot property”. He signed up for expertise networking at a rate of $750 per hour although he was restricted as to who he could work for by the non-compete terms of his departure.
A ‘golden goodbye’ lump sum had helped Tobin pay off some capital for an ambitious home-build project in London that was ongoing when he left Telecity but there was still an imperative to make money. He spoke to UK software giant Sage about its vacant CEO role but the opportunity passed: “I was a little too brazen for them, far too many buttons undone on my shirt. Stephen Kelly [who took the role] is gregarious but he still wears a tie.”
He says he didn’t want to squander energy on a full-time role to which he wasn’t fully committed to or excited about and his solution was to take on a series of non-executive roles, starting with his providing counsel to private-equity house Permira, acquiring South African datacentre operator Teraco Data Environments to gain the largest carrier-neutral facility in Africa, an area where Tobin saw potential rich pickings.
The roles kept coming in at companies such as Euro-Diesel, a Belgian supplier of backup power to airports, hospitals, datacentres and other facilities; Spanish datacentre connectivity firm Itconic; managed solutions provider Datapipe in New Jersey; UK communications firm Satellite Solutions Worldwide; and user activity firm Ultrahaptics. It’s a hectic life with lots of air travel and meetings and not much sleep – Tobin says he’s lucky in that he only needs three hours a night.
Still, and especially initially, Tobin frankly admits that stepping into the new world was scary stuff.
“In the first few weeks I would say there was mild panic. Self-doubt creeps in. I used to have 150 emails a day and suddenly it went down to five. I’d been winning awards and in the media a lot and I’m a narcissistic person so it was ‘oh god, nobody loves me’. My kids were asking ‘what are you going to do now?’ They could only ever remember me at Telicity.”
He confesses to some moments of despair but stresses that these were moments rather than spells and he says he noticed that he was prone to swinging between euphoria and lows in the space of a day, depending on how his projects were going.
Non-executive roles are often seen as political appointments designed to show corporate governance and best practice but, he says, he sees himself more as a trusted advisor who can pass on knowledge and, just as important, recall mistakes that showed what not to do in a given situation.
“I don’t want to be there and make up the numbers,” he says. “A lot of these people are money people – I bring experience on execution so I can provide insights such as ‘don’t go crazy and buy the next thing on the block’ because I know the subtle differences within a technology category. I can be the interface, the Rosetta Stone between the business and money talk. I can look back on so many mistakes and when similar situations crop up I can say ‘steer clear of that’.”
Tobin currently holds a grand total of 14 non-executive roles, some of which he is compensated for in equity rather than salary. His vision was that within three years of his new portfolio career these companies would start to ‘exit’ or gain an equity release “like cabs off ranks” at a rate of one every three to six months. However, he admits that that vision was only that: “I had no valid theory beyond hope but if you say it, you make it so sometimes.”
The overarching theme to these companies is technology and Tobin is a new tech bull. He says he has just bought an RFID kit with syringe so he can subcutaneously chip himself; he also recently took DNA tests using the latest digital kits.
But his status as a sole trader means that he has little in the way of backup so when he left his laptop on a plane the results were painful.
“There’s so much of that you miss,” he says. “You don’t have IT and you don’t have the time to get your computer fixed. In the corporate world I was vaccinated against negativity and now I’m less balanced and lurch between euphoria and despair three times a day, being ‘over the moon’ or ‘might as well kill myself’.”
“At Telecity we helped create the internet and we did it by having a lot of luck but also having balls the size of steel wrecking balls. That’s why I got my OBE: for services to the digital economy.”
Leaving that corporate life of deal making, big money, charity galas and hobnobbing with powerbrokers and celebrities behind has not been easy, he says, but there are compensations. His new life has left space for charity work and with typical chutzpah he took on, in his 50s, the challenge of doing 40 marathons in 40 days, starting out each morning from his London home at 3.30 and returning home at 8.30 to eat and have an ice bath before delivering motivational speeches to tech companies that had sponsored him.
That challenge helped protect against negativity too, he says. “We think we don’t have that much of a homelessness issue but when you run up Regent Street at 5.30AM every store has homeless people sleeping in the front. People do things like the CEOSleepout and think they know about homelessness. I say, no you don’t because you knew that after one night you were going to bugger off and have a shower. And for some people there’s no end.”
He also has his second book coming out in June, called Live. Love. Work. Prosper. Which argues that balancing work and life is impossible and integrating them is the only way forward; he says it will “save marriages”.
As for further out, he says he will “never retire… that’s just not on the cards. The most valuable thing we have in life is freedom of choice and I’d be happy knowing I could slow down if I wanted… but I still won’t actually do it.”
PREVIOUS ARTICLE«CISO perspective: The rise of massive cybersecurity ‘fire’ drills
Adrian Schofield sheds light on tech in South Africa
Mark Chillingworth on IT leadership