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The Brains Behind a Brand; an interview with Aaron Simpson of Quintessentially

Aaron Simpson certainly has a sense of humour; ‘Strike the gift for the journo,' he exclaims on discovering that the scented candle in my Whistles bag isn't a gift bought especially for him. But the co-founder of über concierge brand Quintessentially has more attributes than just an ability to laugh at the often ridiculous nature of press interviews (‘keep the swearing in!'); he's got some serious business acumen to impart too - no small coincidence that the brand started as a high end concierge service, has grown extensively (and organically) in the twelve short years since he and his co-founder Ben Elliot decided to unleash their particular brand of stardust on the world. 


And what a sprinkling of glitter; 38 businesses, 700 staff globally, only one branch thus far that hasn't worked (more of that later); all in all, an incredible roost of achievements. The boy clearly done good. Hence why I'm here; armed with questions, (yes every video and article ranked by Google has been scanned, like a Bletchley Park operator cracking a code), and now I'm ascending to Simpson's penthouse office; a chic, converted townhouse (white, black and nothing in between) just a stone's throw from Oxford Circus. But, hang on a minute - isn't he sick of doing interviews? ‘I used to be bothered about it. Now I don't give a toss,' he smiles… Ahhhh and to top it all off, he's refreshingly un-PC - in a world of PR spin, doctored quotes and tweaked rhetoric, I have to say, it's nice to be in the company of one so unguarded.

So now to the meat of the story - the first question burning a hole in the back of my mind; why did Quintessentially succeed where others have failed? What is that 5%; (think Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point) that well, tipped them over the edge? ‘It's really difficult to assess. There's that whole thing about "x number of CEOs are actually sadistic, masochistic arseholes." I'm sure they are. But I think it's balancing that sense of fear, and hope of getting it right. If you can get that right as a mix, then you can bring an army with you.'

An army duly followed, but did Aaron ever imagine the scales to which him and his co-founder might reach? ‘No,' is the answer. ‘I actually invented Google before Google. But I forgot to do it, so I did Quintessentially instead… Now we have plans, so we know where it will probably be in five years - but we certainly didn't know where it would be ten years ago. Fate takes over, doesn't it?'


Fate may have dealt its hand; throwing Elliot and Simpson together at Oxford where they first met, but much of the brand's success is down the assured business acumen applied to a relatively simple idea. The mysterious ‘je ne sais quoi' that delineates the Richard Bransons from the world's Joe Blogs. ‘I don't think you can learn it - It's just sort of there… A bit like being able to hit a football in a goal instead of round the corner - or singing. I can't sing, I can't play football - but I can eat Crunchies!'

There it is, the proverbial sense of humour setting the tone of the interview. It's hard not to warm to Simpson, the self proclaimed ‘softie', who hails from Essex (‘born and bred in Leigh-on-Sea'), launched himself on (and into) Oxford University, almost getting kicked out for producing too many Shakespeare plays, and then used some added chutzpah to attack with grit the world of film production, eventually running his own company Flashlight Films (there was even a stint working for Elton John). He's a man with his hand in many pies and a seemingly infallible recipe for producing them. ‘The ability to just start something, get it going, is very easy for me - because that's how I'm programmed. For other people, who have to analyse everything I say: "Look. Lick your finger. Is the wind blowing in the right direction? Have a go."'


‘Having a go,' might as well be his motto, another might be ‘Use everything at your disposal' which brings me to the topic of his relationship with Elliot; would the pair have been able to achieve as much without the inherent ability to network, to make the most of the rich diversity of their social group? ‘Did I have a background? Yeah, we did, we were fortunate to have lots of connections in different industries. We've knocked on a lot of doors… We've wasted a lot of time and effort on things that have gone nowhere. But also we're old now. A lot of the people we knew twelve years ago are now running companies. It's just the process of ageing. Some people you met twelve years ago and you thought: "He'll get nowhere" or "She'll get nowhere" - now they're running companies! Wow! Thank god I didn't say that to their face!'

Another hearty chuckle, accompanied by a warm ebullient smile, but what of those who work for him, is he as soft on them too? ‘A lot of people say when I walk into the office, if I'm in a good mood, bad mood, different mood - it affects the whole place. I don't see it, because I'm me, but that's interesting, I think.'

Gut instinct was clearly the bait that drew him to Elliot, but what kind of relationship do the founders have? ‘It's a pretty good relationship actually - mostly, I get my way! I have the biggest bark.' A bark tempered by an unshakable faith in people; ‘I come over as quite tough, but I'm really soft. I'm really pretty easily convinced, because I'm a positive person so I just want things to get going and get done - and to have fun. It's easy to say no, isn't it? So I give it a crack and see how they go…'


So there we have it - the personality, the brains if you will, but what of online, how will Quintessentially continue to scale the insurmountable heights of world and web domination? First up is SEO, in the form of a digital marketing company under the Quintessentially umbrella; ‘We're getting into that area quite strongly - social media. I know everyone bangs on about it and I use it sometimes, but my goodness - the amount of money spent on this! Do they return? They must return, I suppose.'

Simpson is the first to admit the brand was slow to capitalise online; despite their stealth mentality, they are speeding up however, with a dedicated team currently focused on the launch of an "all singing, all dancing, will do anything" app. Other plans include Quintessentially Vodka, Quintessentially Ventures (investing in young entrepreneurs) and there's also a range of spirits and an online reputation management service to come. So he's quite busy then? Is there a chance, (and I know I'm wading into dicey territory here), that the Q brand might be spreading itself a bit too thinly? Here he visibly irks; ‘No. Everybody bangs on about that; you know: "Ah, you're too everywhere." No.' Despite his assertions, a recent Q venture - a dating service called Quiverz was recently shut down. ‘That's basically the only one that's been what I would call an outright failure,' Aaron explains. ‘But then we look at someone like Virgin Group. They've opened about sixty or seventy businesses over a period in their brand, and they have only eighteen left. So, our hit-rate is pretty good - one in thirty-eight isn't bad.'

What about young people? What advice would he give them? ‘Don't spend any money, make money. That's entrepreneurship. It's not about getting the right amount of money and spending it on a bet… The best thing is to get out there and have a crack, especially when you're young. You have no responsibilities whatsoever. Listen to people, especially the consumer and what they tell you. You'll know relatively quickly whether you've got a hit on your hands. You must never do it for the money. Otherwise, become a lawyer or a banker. That's where the money is.'


What of mentors… Does Aaron have any of his own? ‘Not on a daily basis, but somebody I call upon is Tom Hunter. He built a clothing empire from nothing. He brought Britain the shell suit (which he should be shot for!) - but he's someone who's built a business from ground zero. And sold it, I think, for a few hundred million. Brilliant businessman, good friend, and a very good guy.'

So there it is - a whistle-stop tour around the world of Aaron Simpson; a hell of a lot has happened in the last 12 years, but does this entrepreneur, new father, and all round ‘sound bloke' have any ambitions left to fulfil? Just the one, and it wouldn't be fitting unless it was seriously frickin' ambitious. ‘I want to win an Oscar. I am! I'm going to win an Oscar!‘ he laughs. ‘Seven Oscars for the Best Films over seven years,' he adds, a cheeky glint in his eye. And I have a funny feeling; just like everything else he'll won't rest until he's had a ‘crack.'

Interview by Alice Kahrmann 2012.
Alice Kahrmann interviews quirky, cool, Quintessentially co-founder Aaron Simpson.
Aaron Simpson
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2013