Meet Spiderman. His name is Simon Nixon, and the virtual spiders that work for him crawl all over the web, hunting down bargains for users of his price comparison sites.
They must be money spiders, because the 38-year-old paid himself a dividend of £5m last year. Since 1999 the pre-tax profits of his company, Moneysupermarket.com, have jumped from £227,000 a year to a forecast £30m this year. Sales have risen from £445,000 to more than £100m.
Meeting Mr Nixon, you cannot help wondering whether you should have dropped out of college too. But then you worry whether you could operate in the discomfort zone inhabited by Mr Nixon, a tall, rangy bundle of energy who says he is motivated by “the fear of failure and the fear of letting people down”.
His office, in a building on an anonymous business park near Chester, has a transient feel. It contains a few pieces of cheap-looking furniture. An unplugged kettle sits on the floor. There are no family photos. It is lunchtime, but no film-covered plate of sandwiches makes an appearance.
Mr Nixon needs to play squash a couple of times a week to burn off surplus energy. But he apparently does not need to eat. He is too excited talking about “a new business we think we will launch in the next few months that will outstrip Moneysupermarket in revenues and profits in three years”.
News of the project, whose target market is under wraps, may not be hugely welcome to operators of e-commerce websites. Mr Nixon’s spiders have a habit of turning up unannounced and collecting price data without wiping their hairy little feet. Mr Nixon describes the process as “screen scraping”.
However, a slew of financial services and travel companies pay fees to jazz up their listings on Moneysupermarket.com, which compares personal finance products, and Travelsupermarket.com, which assesses holidays. They get a logo and a link to their own site, with charges levied on a pay-per-click basis.
Mr Nixon explains how Moneysupermarket.com differs from other aggregators such as Lastminute.com, which levies commission on purchases. He says: “We are not a broker. We are just a marketing company that charges a fee for initiating a lead. These days [in personal finance] if you are not on Moneysupermarket it would be like a store chain withdrawing from the high street.”
But not everyone is happy, as Mr Nixon admits. “Direct Line does not trade with us. It does not want its prices compared. People have a perception that Direct Line is cheapest, but one day that will change.” Direct Line says: “We do not deal with aggregators because the whole point is that customers should deal with us directly.”
Duncan Cameron is someone else whose nose appears to have been put out of joint by the unstoppable rise of Moneysupermarket.com, which now employs 440 staff. He is not a competitor or a potential customer. He is Mr Nixon’s former business partner.
To explain how they met and parted, it is necessary to spool back to the beginning. Mr Nixon started his career as a mortgage broker. He had dropped out of an accounting and finance course at Nottingham University because he was bored. But he encountered a new variety of tedium phoning around lenders getting quotes for clients. He also scented a business opportunity. In 1991 Mr Nixon launched Brokers Update Magazine, a fortnightly listing of mortgage deals run off a photocopier. “I realised instantly I had hit on something,” he says. “I would send out 1,000 magazines with an order form in each and 10 per cent of the recipients would subscribe.”
But, after a while, take-up fell. “Mortgage brokers had bought computers and wanted daily updates. We had to go online or die,” Mr Nixon says.
His girlfriend at that time had a brother – Mr Cameron – who was doing an information technology degree. Mr Nixon persuaded him to drop out of college, too, and help launch an online version of the magazine called Mortgage 2000.
In return Mr Cameron, now 35, got a 50 per cent stake in the business that became Moneysupermarket.com. When Mr Nixon receives a multimillion- pound dividend, Mr Cameron does too.
The official line from Moneysupermarket.com has been that Mr Cameron is “semi-retired”. But Mr Nixon now says he has not spoken to Mr Cameron for five years, and has no idea what the IT specialist is doing. “We sort of fell out,” he says.
According to Mr Nixon, Mr Cameron’s main focus was running Mortgage 2000. The rapid growth of Moneysupermarket following its launch in 1999 made Mr Cameron feel “alienated, and as if he was a silent partner”.
It was the time of the tech bubble. “Every investment banker in the world was pounding on our door telling us we should float,” says Mr Nixon, “but the first thing they said was ‘one of you needs to be the chief executive’.”
Mr Nixon, as managing director, could slide more easily into that slot than Mr Cameron, the IT director.
Mr Nixon says: “Duncan had seen us as being on the same level, and [our relationship] began to go downhill. So he left.” That was five years ago.
The Financial Times was unable to reach Mr Cameron to get his side of the story. But it is possible to imagine how he may have felt without impugning Mr Nixon’s integrity. Mr Cameron may have thought that his contribution to the success of the business had been underplayed. He may have believed that he was being edged out deliberately.
Moneysupermarket.com hopes to float. Banks have valued it at £700m-£1bn. A listing would give it greater visibility with consumers and the financial firepower for acquisitions costing £50m or more.
But according to Mr Nixon: “The main reason we would float would be to get Duncan out. He is not active in the business, but it is uncomfortable to have someone with that size of shareholding who could be a loose cannon.”
Negotiations with Mr Cameron are taking longer than Mr Nixon had anticipated in June, when he told the FT a float could occur by the end of this year. He says: “We are negotiating with him on what he would get paid. The ball is in his court.”
Mr Nixon is good at problem-solving. For example, the mortgage channel on Moneysupermarket.com performed poorly at first. Customers were nervous of dealing direct with lenders. The fix was to turn the channel into a lead-generation agency for independent advisers. Similarly, Mr Nixon is encouraging coy holidaymakers to book hotels through Travelsupermarket.com, by aggregating hotel reviews online.
But for the moment, the challenges that consumers pose are nothing compared with the ticklish task of severing links with his erstwhile partner.
Simon Dixon says...
On self-criticism: “I’m never happy with what we’ve achieved. We do not beat ourselves up over mistakes, but we do learn from them.”
On rivals: “Don’t try to wipe out your competitors. You need them to keep you on your toes.”
On motivation: “People tell me I could retire, but I would get phenomenally bored. When you get to a certain stage [in business] people respect you, and that is a nice thing.”
On avoiding ‘Yes’ men: “You have to surround yourself with people who are better than you in their field. My other directors are strong people. We have a healthy debate and make decisions as a group. No one tells me: ‘Great idea, you’re a genius’.”
On overseas expansion: “It sounds cool to say you have an operation in Germany or France, but it’s much easier to expand in your home market. Companies that are huge in the US come to the UK thinking it is the 51st state, but fall flat on their faces.”
On cars: “I had a number of Ferraris in my early 30s. As a man, it is something you need to get out of your system.”