Feature: JDi's Chris Phillips, born to do business

- Leadership - Dec 01, 2017

Business Review Europe speaks exclusively to Chris Phillips, whose hugely successful investment firm Just Develop It has made him one of the continent’s standout young entrepreneurs.

Chris Phillips has already squeezed more into his 32 years than most business leaders fit into a lifetime.

Phillips is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Just Develop It, one of Europe’s most ambitious investment and incubator hybrids. It works with over 25 separate businesses through a network of over 300 employees, investing hundreds of millions of pounds to aid growth and profitability.

The venture led to the Portsmouth-born entrepreneur pocketing an estimated personal fortune of £70mn before turning 30, earning him recognition on numerous young persons’ rich lists alongside the likes of Ed Sheeran and Andy Murray – but Phillips’ rapid route to success hasn’t always been smooth.

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Growth speed at Dot5hosting, the web hosting service representing his initial foray into business, saw the company accumulate an uncontrollable amount of debt before it was eventually saved through a sale. Phillips pinpoints that period as a defining time in his short career.

“Those lessons were probably the most valuable because we learned what not to do in business, which is just as important as the success,” he tells Business Review Europe in an exclusive interview. “It was great watching the sales and the money come in, but it was the things that we did wrong that probably put me in best stead for the business we did after that.”

Like most enterprising businesspeople, Phillips can trace his entrepreneurial instincts back to his youth, when his desire to enter the world of work, along with his lack of interest in academic pursuits, pointed him in one direction.

Most teenagers take on a paper round to earn money, but Phillips took this to another level, obtaining four rounds from a local agency before subbing them out to his close friends. By the age of 16, he was selling web hosting space to his father – the beginnings of the business that was to become Dot5hosting, the £10 per month service that would eventually attract thousands of customers.

“It was kind of a case of right place, right time as the industry was just taking off,” explains Phillips. “I was in a nice bubble where anyone who was much younger than I was couldn’t do it, as they were still in school. Anyone that was too much older didn't really have a grasp of what the internet was, so to speak, and they were already set in their jobs or university courses anyway. Everyone wanted a website though, it was the .com boom. Everyone wanted a site, everyone wanted an email, everyone wanted an online presence. And it just snowballed from there.”

Dot5hosting’s eventual sale to iPower led to Phillips working as a contractor for the company in the US for 18 months before he returned to Europe, eager to prove himself once again, but now armed with the money to kickstart the venture capitalist firm Just Develop It.

Having initially harboured ambitions to match the power of the Virgin brand, Phillips and his team quickly established that investing in a company’s own image and people while driving to develop those areas left them with the flexibility to approach any business in which they saw potential. It proved to be a smart decision. 

While Just Develop It still works with companies that share their roots in technology and computing – including JustHost, another hosting service that turned over £25mn worth of revenues – its success can be also be put down to the branching out into more varied sectors, such as leisure and property. The firm now runs over 200 properties in the UK.

“I have a theory that the general principles of business are the same,” adds Phillips. “If you're selling bananas, if you're selling web hosting, a house, a jet, antivirus software – whatever you're selling, the core business principles are the same.

“Obviously every business has its own problems, its own categories. For example, with our aircraft business (Xclusive Jets) you need important people that really understand the legal side and the safety side. If you're building a house, you need to have someone that really understands the foundation and the structural side. But from a high level, I think the core principles of what you're doing in business don't really change.”

Risk-taking is also at the heart of Phillips’ philosophy. He adds: “In order to have the growth that we have, there needs to be an element of risk, especially when you're competing. Particularly on the internet where there are so many people competing in your space: in web hosting, antivirus, cloud, whatever you're in.

“We've always been particularly aggressive in our marketing stand and the way we promote the product because it gives us that edge. Up until about five years ago, any time we started a company, we would roll on and then pretty much 100% of those proceeds would go into the next business.”

Just Develop It doesn’t define itself as a regular venture capitalist firm, however: it looks to do much more than just accelerate the growth of its businesses through finance. Companies that Phillips and his team see potential in can also expect to receive expert mentorship and guidance.

As part of the package, startups will benefit from Just Develop It’s expertise in finance and exit strategies to sales, marketing, HR, branding and design, giving any kind of company the opportunity to succeed. 

A culture of togetherness is fostered in the company’s new Fareham headquarters just outside Portsmouth, where a number of its businesses have gathered under the same roof. Phillips is careful to create a collaborative environment where resources are pooled and ideas shared, but his primary focus is on the people he works alongside, from the CEOs to Just Develop It’s growing team of workers.  

“Any business that we invest in is more for the person than the business,” says Phillips. “With most business ideas, it's not necessarily that business that's going to make them money or be their success, but the person behind it. We like that because the idea might not be great, but we're going to go along for the ride because, eventually, they're going to have something else.

“I work directly with the CEOs of every company, sometimes with the COO, and you learn things as you go just by being involved in the businesses. The knowledge I have is probably 5% of what each of the CEOs has within their company, and we give complete free range to anyone that runs whatever company, which allows them to make some mistakes and learn from them. 

“They take everything on personally, and they're responsible for their own section and their own company. That kind of helps the businesses run themselves, and we don't have to get too involved on a day-to-day basis.”

But what of his own personal profile? Phillips has achieved a remarkable amount not just for himself but for a number of other business owners in his short career, but has he grown used to his wealth being compared to that of some of the country’s most famous musicians and sportspeople?

“When it was the first time that it (The Independent’s list of the 24 richest people aged 30 or under in Britain) came out, it was like five years ago and I didn't know I was actually going in the paper,” he reveals. “I can remember someone telling me and I leaned down in shock, right there. That first one was specifically cool!”

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