A paradigm shift on muggle earth, Alice catches up with the CEO of Pottermore, the nucleus of Harry Potter's world.

In the sky above Warren Street, lies a truly magical land; an office the size of a Quidditch Pitch, where immortals, ancient monsters and boy wizards nestle between state-of-the-art Macs in a New York loft inspired interior. Whether you’re a member of Gryffindor, an alumni of Slytherin or have simply strolled past platform 9 and three quarters, the chances are you’ll know this charmed world, where the Muggles of digital publishing commune with the dark forces that lie beyond. Yes this is the epicentre of Pottermore, the nucleus of Harry’s world - created as a ‘unique reading experience’ to complement the series of books that rocketed J.K. Rowling to the top of the bestseller lists and into the hearts and minds of generations of adults and children alike.

And here I am (in a very sleek glass walled office) granted an audience with CEO Charlie Redmayne, the brains entrusted with ‘bringing new people into this extraordinary franchise’. The digital chops behind one of the most successful (might I say paradigm shifting) websites ever to grace the Earth. Right - to the first question (burning a Weasley shaped hole in the back of my mind); how did Redmayne (a picture of erudite professionalism in his shirt and dark blue jumper) feel when he got ‘the call’? ‘I was interested to have a chat,’ he says with classic understatement. ‘It was a huge opportunity. It was about digital publishing. It was about start-up, online businesses. It was entrepreneurial and at the same time I got to work with J.K. Rowling. What’s not to like?’

An opportunity too good to refuse, but what of the much lauded ‘chaos’ Redmayne set about creating; turning digital publishing on its head; a journey that started with Rowling’s incredible foresight (withholding the digital and audio rights to all seven books) and ended with Pottermore holding all the major digital bookstores to ransom in a deal that saw Amazon and a variety of other sites (Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Kobo amongst them) effectively become a ‘link to buy’ sales portal, pushing traffic directly to the Pottermore sites where the audio and e-books are sold exclusively. ‘The deal was very simple,’ Redmayne says somewhat underplaying the achievement. ‘Amazon are a brilliant company and they are strategically extremely smart. They want to provide their customers with the widest possible selection of books, at the cheapest possible price. So when asked if they wanted to have Harry Potter eBooks available on the Kindle and, as they would only be available from Pottermore, at the cheapest possible price then clearly the answer was going to be yes.' Apple however were the only ones who wouldn’t play ball, ‘I would have loved to have extended it to iBooks,’ he says, ‘but they wouldn’t play. Apple is all about buying into the whole ecosystem – they won’t push customers out of that ecosystem even if it limits their offering – however, customers can still buy from Pottermore and push the books into their iBookshelf and read them there.’

Rowling’s passion for making her work available to the largest possible readership was indeed the catalyst for a new DRM free version of the books [Digital Rights Management refers to the technology that inhibits the use of digital content after sale] - another historical shift that saw digitally watermarked versions pushed to all manner of devices, an innovative - some might say risky approach to the legions of book pirates just waiting to rip the life out of the eBooks as they hit the market. What happened though surprised all the naysayers – and Redmayne himself; ‘Immediately they started appearing on file sharing sites,’ he says. ‘Then what happened was that the bloggers in the digital space started saying: “Seriously guys, here is a company that’s finally done what we’ve been asking for, and you guys go and set the content up on a file-sharing site. And on top of that you must be the stupidest pirates in the world, because they’ve got a watermark, which takes it back to an individual sale. They know who you are, where you live, and they’re probably coming round to your house right now.” So suddenly we saw them all coming down again.'

'Piracy of Harry Potter e-books today is running at about 25% lower than it was before we made them available. That doesn’t mean that going DRM free reduces piracy; what it means is that making content available on the platforms that people want to consume it (and at a price they’re willing to pay) – that reduces piracy. DRM doesn’t protect you. DRM is the easiest thing in the world to break. For us, taking DRM off, in order to get the strategic win of being able to sell directly, was the critical thing.’

Going live with a site as ambitious as Pottermore was also a ‘trial by fire’ experience. ‘When we opened the shop on the 27th of March last year, I drove into work on that morning and I was extremely nervous. We were about to switch on the site - to make the Harry Potter e-books available for the very first time. And when you switch on big digital platforms, all sorts of things can happen – like nothing,’ he laughs. ‘Fortunately, that didn’t happen.’

It’s easy to spot the unique attributes that attracted Rowling - strategic decision-making, business acumen, gut instinct - all perfectly suited to the Pottermore role. But what of the man behind the digital facade? How would his colleagues describe him? ‘It’s a hard question,’ he smiles, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever considered it. I know how I think of me,’ he says with a glint in his eye. ‘I hope I’m pretty approachable, I hope that I’m fair. I work hard; I try and lead from the front; I’m certainly not the smartest person in the room, but I’m quite good at spotting ideas. My management policy has always been to surround myself with really brilliant people who are amazing at the things that I’m bad at. What other people think of me? I do care. I just don’t know.’

Looking at Redmayne’s CV; it would be easy to assume it has been a smooth upward trajectory – a privileged upbringing paving the way to a career that has layered success upon success. But as with every career, mistakes have been the building blocks. ‘One of the worst was when I was working for a quite large media company. I sent an email to the people in the travel business with a recommendation - that they should get rid of the companies they were currently working with. Unfortunately I hadn’t noticed that on the email trail were the companies I was recommending should be fired. One of the biggest lessons in life is to make sure you know who your emails are going to!’

‘What means a business will be unsuccessful is if it has a boss who can’t make decisions,’ Redmayne reflects. ‘If you procrastinate you end up with paralysis. I’ve learnt to make decisions, and consequently sometimes the decisions I make are the wrong decisions. You just try and fix them, move on, learn from them, and don’t do them again.’

These days Redmayne’s ducks seem to be lined up in a very neat row; but which of these is the most rewarding? ‘Apart from being paid - which is clearly the most rewarding,’ he jokes. ‘I remember way back when, when I was about 25, I was in a job where I was so bored. I decided that I was never going to do a job again that didn’t mean that I woke up on a Monday morning and said: “I really want to go to work.” So I never have. Everything I’ve done I’ve looked forward to doing. I’ve bounced out of the bed in the mornings. I work with one of the most brilliant creative people in the world. I’ve hired a team of some of the smartest minds in digital publishing, who are also incredibly nice people. We are perceived to be at the cutting edge of what we do. I’m delighted with where we’ve ended up, and pretty happy.’

What of further ambitions? Are there any left? ‘Yes but I’m not telling you,’ he laughs. ‘I cannot see a time in my life when I wouldn’t want to be challenged by stuff. I want to build bigger and better things, and I want to do bigger and better things. My dad is 75 this year, and he’s still up at 7 o’clock every morning and behind his desk by 8.15, working in the city.’

The interview has clearly taken a more personal tone than Redmayne is used to, though he takes it in his stride (ever the consummate professional). Who, I wonder, has inspired him to reach such dizzying heights? Number one on his list is his family, though a series of previous bosses are also etched on his memory: ‘As a young person, if you’re lucky enough to work for people who are extraordinary, then you see what they do and try and do some of that. When I first started working at TV AM we had a Chief Executive, Bruce Gyngell – I’ve never seen anyone unite a team the way he did. As I go through my career, I’ve worked with people who are inspirational and brilliant. My last boss at HarperCollins [Redmayne held the role of Chief Digital Officer from 2008-2011], Brian Murray, is somebody who I’ve learnt a huge amount from and continue to do so.’

And then we come to education; ‘I was very lucky that I went to a school that was more like a university than a school,’ he says rather cryptically. Hmm, I haven’t heard of that one, I probe. ‘Eton,’ he replies rather sheepishly, though he qualifies this with: ‘I’m not interested in the cards that people get dealt. I’m interested in what they do with them. I have one set of experiences, I have one education, I have one life. I try and make the most of it. Do I look where people went to school? I certainly don’t, no. It’s not a relevant thing. You can get fantastic education in lots of different places. But did I get a good one? Yeah, I got a good one, and I’m very lucky.’

Redmayne certainly speaks with authority; there’s a decidedly ‘Alpha male,’ aura about him, no doubt the four years he spent as a Lieutenant in the Irish Guards (1985-89) played their part: ‘I learnt a lot,’ he says, ‘about real life, real people, and what it was to earn their respect. Learning to stand up and speak in public at a young age. Learning to make decisions in pressurised situations – which, in the army, believe me you have to do. I slightly regret not going to university. A lot of my friends had an enormously good time there. But did I learn more, being a soldier? I suspect I did.’

I wonder what he’s like outside of work - less businesslike perhaps? But of course there’s a role to play – that of the CEO manning the decks, setting an example, the spokesperson for an aspirational life-affirming brand. I can see too why he inspires such devotion in his staff; he’s the boss you’d always want to impress, the CEO always investing 100%; one of the first to get in and one of the last to leave. ‘I don’t want people working here if there’s nothing for them to do, just to impress. But if there’s a lot to do then I want all hands to the pump – and I’ll be there as well.’

Clearly the years at the grindstone have placed Redmayne in the perfect position to offer advice, especially for those who want to follow him into the digital world of Muggles and magic. ‘If you don’t understand something, don’t do it,’ he says. ‘The biggest mistakes I’ve made are when I’ve been really impressed by someone who I’ve considered to be far more intelligent than me, and they’re recommending something which I simply can’t get my head around but because they’re so intelligent, I go: “You know what? You just go and do that.” Invariably it’s ended up being the wrong decision. Because if I can’t understand it, then the consumer can’t understand it.’

Nevertheless he’s full of optimism for the next generation; ‘digital natives’ – young people who understand products and devices at a cerebral level; ‘After a year and a half they’re in a meeting with the CEO because they understand it. The people running a lot of these businesses are really challenged, because they don’t. There’s a huge opportunity to be rapidly promoted in a way that really has never been before to this degree and certainly wasn’t when I started.’

Redmayne is refreshingly candid; ‘The internet came to be when I was between the ages of 20 and 35, so I’m in the category of people who never really understood it but made a career out of it anyway.’ There it is – the self-deprecating charm come full circle. And last, but certainly not least, just out of interest does he enjoy doing press interviews or are they a necessary evil; the Voldemort to his Harry? ‘I was reading an interview by Michael Gove yesterday in the paper,’ he laughs. ‘He said that he was never going to be Prime Minister, because he was a ‘Mr Blurt’ - someone who just said what he thought. Obviously I’m never going to be Prime Minister – but I’m also a Mr Blurt. I’ve almost never done a press interview without upsetting somebody. Do I enjoy doing them? I know my business, I know my mind, and if people ask me questions I enjoy answering them – but I invariably end up in trouble!’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann 2013.