Dolly Parton, Cliff and the new online travel site

Simon Evans talks to Moneysupermarket's founder about his new venture
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The Independent Online

Having scooped a personal fortune of more than £130m when he floated Moneysupermarket.com in 2007, Simon Nixon has little to prove, save perhaps for honing his handicap on the golf course.

But the golf clubs are nowhere in sight. And he really doesn't strike you as the plus-fours type, anyway.

Dressed in a leather jacket and rather trendy-looking open-collar shirt, Nixon cuts a relaxed figure, despite telling me of his heavy workload since he quit as Moneysupermarket's chief executive.

"After we floated the firm in 2007, I wanted to see if I could become a corporate entrepreneur," says Nixon. "I enjoyed it for a bit, but the daily grind of corporate governance, meeting with the City every six months, meant it wasn't for me in the end. It all became a bit routine, and that's why I decided to step back. But I do wish I'd taken a year off like other executives. It's been non-stop."

Instead, Nixon has stayed on as deputy chairman, working one day a week – no doubt to keep an eye on his majority 54 per cent stake in Moneysupermarket. But he has also turned his attentions elsewhere, with two new travel ventures.

"A big part of the new business is proving to myself that I can do it from scratch again," says Nixon, who refused an offer of a place as a Dragon on Dragons' Den in order to kickstart his new travel ventures, Simonseeks and Simonescapes.

"Dragons' Den is six weeks of solid filming. The Dragons have their own businesses professionally run by other people, but I've always been hands on. No, I wouldn't have been right for Dragons' Den."

Instead, Nixon has put in more than £15m of his own money into the new businesses – one he says will be profitable, the other probably not.

"I found myself getting really frustrated when trying to get inspiration for a weekend break or a holiday," says Nixon. "If you key something into Google, you basically get lot of stuff back that is commercial and certainly not independent. So I decided to launch Simonseeks."

The site is a compendium of 800-word City guides written by travel enthusiasts and professional travel writers, who extol the virtues of their favourite destinations, favourite hotels, favourite restaurants and other attractions. Visitors to the site can directly book recommended hotels and restaurants, with booking sites such as Expedia and Hotels.com paying commissions. Simonseeks already has 2,000 guides online, growing at a rate of 20 a day.

The site, which has been running now for three months, currently garners a modest 2,000 hits a day, though Hitwise, a company that monitors website traffic, said it was the fastest-growing travel site in the UK last month.

"Our goal is to monetise everything from those guides," says Nixon, using the formula honed at Moneysupermarket. "The writer gets paid for every recommendation. The more people follow their recommendations, the more they make. The key issue is that every guide is independent. If the guides become biased or heavily commercialised, people will vote with their feet. The incentive is there for the writers to write the best guides and make the most money. We rank our most popular guides, which should keep the writers true."

Currently at the top of the guide rankings is "Five budget hotels in New York", by the travel writer Fred Moir.

But it's not just a budget site. Nixon has roped in plenty of celebrities to write about their favourite destinations, too. "Jim Kerr of Simple Minds owns a hotel and lives in Sicily, so he has written a piece for us," says Nixon. "His brother tweeted us about writing a guide because he is passionate about the island. Levi Roots from Dragons' Den has written for us about the Caribbean, Cliff Richard has written a popular guide to the Algarve, which is the top earner on the site. Dolly Parton's guide to the Smoky Mountains, home of Dollywood, is coming online soon as well."

Nixon ploughed an initial £1m into the business, hiring 20 staff to help run the site. The popularity of the venture means that each month since then he has had to sink an extra £100,000 of his cash into the project.

"With Simonseeks, we are trying to use experience gained through Moneysupermarket," says Nixon. "The customer is clearly not ready to pay for online content at the moment, and we think we have happened upon a strong model that will pay for us and the writers, and ultimately the consumers get interesting, independent and hopefully inspiring guides."

Beside Simonseeks, Nixon has recently begun a more modest second venture in the travel space. He has bought up prime holiday properties across the UK in places such as the Cotswolds, Cornwall and Wales, turning them into high-end, luxury holiday homes. "This one is all about having fun because I don't think it'll be massively profitable," says Nixon, who dismisses the naysayers who believe launching a luxury offering in a recession is foolhardy.

"If you have a good proposition, I don't think there is ever a bad time to launch," he says. "You shouldn't worry about the recession – you should just go for it. To be honest, a recession is a great time to launch, with less competition out there."

Nixon has already spent £14m of his own money buying and furnishing the luxury properties, using famous interior designers such as Kelly Hoppen. And he plans to spend a lot more.

"Our hotel in Cornwall, outside Padstow, will be the best in the county when it's finished," says Nixon. "That might sound a bit cocky, but it will be."

The Padstow venture will be kitted out by Jill Stein, and guests will be able to order in dishes her husband, the celebrity Cornish chef Rick Stein.

"This is essentially a bricks and mortar venture, but it's fun too," says Nixon. "With the capital outlay, the designer furniture coupled with the amount we will charge to customers, we aren't looking at big profits. But where we are going to make money in the long term is the capital appreciation on the properties that are in the best locations – you simply can't buy lots of these properties because there aren't many around."

Nixon is currently looking to buy properties in Lake Windermere and Devon, although he has no plans to develop the offering abroad. "There is a real desire from people to book into top-end, luxury accommodation that isn't a hotel," says Nixon. "We've already received our first repeat booking from a party who stayed in our Abersoch property."

With one eye on his watch, Nixon tells me he has to go to a lunch with Brent Hoberman, co-founder of Lastminute.com. This is after an early-morning train ride down to London from his home in Chester, which came after a two-day brainstorming session with the Moneysupermarket executive team.

"It's not an easy time for price comparison sites," says Nixon. "The smaller players are finding it hard. You have to have scale to survive, so a lot of these guys are either going out of business, changing their business models or being eaten up."

He adds: "But Moneysupermarket is in a good place. We finalised plans for developments for the next three years and we have some great ideas. If I didn't think there was an opportunity to grow Moneysupermarket, I'd have sold my stock a long time ago."

Curriculum Vitae: Simon Nixon

Nixon dropped out of university at 20 and, after a spell selling pension products, launched a magazine advising mortgage brokers on the best deals on the market.

In 1994 he teamed up with software expert Duncan Cameron and together they launched Mortgage 2000, an online system allowing brokers to find deals in real time.

The pair used the groundbreaking system as the basis for Moneysupermarket.com which launched in 1999 and quickly became a household name. In 2003, the pair expanded their offering to cover insurance and, in 2004, Travelsupermarket. com launched, initially as a flight comparison site. The franchise was floated in 2007 and was valued at £843m, making Nixon more than £100m in the process.

Today, he owns 54 per cent of the business and serves as the group’s executive deputy chairman, overseeing strategies such as expansion into European markets and product development. Now aged 41, Nixon is focusing his efforts on Simonseeks.com, a site enabling users to write travel guides for other users in return for cash.

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