Me And My Partner: 'Any more time together, we'd marry'

Simon Burgess founded e-learning company Zenosis in 2002. Richard Bethune joined him as operations director the following year, having spent 13 years with a pharmaceuticals multinational
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The Independent Online

Simon Burgess

Simon Burgess

My father is an entrepreneur and I was brought up in an environment that encouraged me to work for myself, not for other people. It is the freedom of being responsible for your own actions, of being able to say, I tried but failed, or preferably, I tried and we succeeded.

I've always had a creative approach to business. I graduated from art college and did creative advertising at university, and much of my early business experience was in advertising and marketing. It might seem unrelated to what I'm doing now, but whether you're developing a business based upon advertising or pharmaceuticals, it is still about building a business. Developing any business is about creative problem solving.

I'd already set up Zenosis in 2002 when I met Richard. I needed an operations and commercial director, someone that I could work closely with, who could bring into the business skills that I didn't have.

But before we had a chance to look for this individual, Richard dropped me a line. It came absolutely out of the blue. His background and experience looked perfect on paper, so I arranged a meeting.

We got on really well. We were chalk and cheese. But Richard was so passionate about what we were trying to do. We had a young business with the potential to grow. I felt Richard was exactly the kind of character I could work with to do that.

He has quite a sobering effect on me at times. I can tear off at 3,000 miles an hour, wanting to make giant leaps and Richard pulls me back a little bit and calms things down so we can collectively analyse a situation. He implements a phased approach to achieving my giant leaps. He's a very methodical northerner, whereas I'm an over-excitable southerner.

He embodies the elements that Zenosis was missing, which was a methodical, systematic approach to developing a very complex business. He runs it, while I focus on business development.

We're both passionate about the business. As far as the ongoing strategy is concerned, we cross reference and we discuss things with each other, but he doesn't have to consult me on general operational issues. He's extremely capable and more than able to make those decisions himself. With regard to the general direction of the business, in terms of contracts and sales, that's really down to me.

Richard has come from a big, corporate environment. He went through quite a steep learning curve when he joined us in terms of the multi-tasking that is the lifeblood of an early stage company. You have to be responsible and involved in so many different elements. That doesn't happen in a large corporate environment. But Richard impressed me with the way that he tackled those challenges. It didn't phase him at all.

As far as socialising together is concerned, we don't really do that. We spend so much time together at work, or talking to each other at weekends, if we spent any more time together we may as well give up our two partners and marry each other. There isn't a lot of life outside of the workplace at this stage. But that's normal for any early stage company.

Richard Bethune

When I was younger, I had this vision that I would like to run my own company. But I ended up at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Although I would never have imagined myself working for such a big company, it gave me some fantastic opportunities for self-development. I did a degree, I worked in various places around the UK, I spent time in Singapore and the United States.

After 13 years with them my position was made redundant. I was left with a choice, do I stay with GSK in a different role or take the severance package and try something else? At times like that you re-evaluate. I sat down and thought about what I would really like to achieve. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to build something from scratch. If not my own business, then another small start-up where I could get stuck in and help take it forward.

At GSK, I saw an internal position advertised in e-learning and applied for it. I'm a big believer in personal development and I thought this was a great use of technology. But when my original position was made redundant I took the severance package. I was mulling over starting my own business when a job came up with UK eUniversities, the government-backed e-learning provider. I took the job but quickly realised that it wasn't what I was looking for. So I started looking around.

One of the ideas I'd had for a business had been based around e-learning in the life sciences sector. I was researching the idea a bit more when I came across Zenosis. I tracked down the website and took it from there. It was similar to what I'd been thinking about. It looked good, well branded, so I wrote to Simon. He invited me in for a chat and offered me a position.

Simon is a natural salesman. Very positive and passionate about everything in his life, but especially about Zenosis. And we hit it off straight away. We're very different in a lot of ways, but have a similar mindset. I knew almost immediately he was someone I could work with. He is very open, very driven and has great belief in the business.

We are very different characters, but I think that's why we work together so well. He has got the marketing and creative experience of how to get a company off the ground and get people on board. And I've got the operational skills that you get with a big company. You don't necessarily recognise that you have those skills until you need them. I could look at Zenosis and say, you can do it this way for five people, but actually, in two years' time we will be 50 people, so maybe we should do it like this.

It's a very different environment to GSK. Our roles need to be very flexible. There's no rigid structure about who does what and when. It is more a case of, this needs to be done to take the business forward, Richard you're looking in this direction, Simon you're looking in this direction - go off and do it.

I learn a lot from Simon about marketing, sales and starting a business. Hopefully, he learns from me some of the practical strategies you use in a corporate environment. And we make sure we have a laugh. It is hard work, but we enjoy ourselves.