I’ve been extremely lucky to have met some extraordinary people very early in life that afforded me amazing opportunities in my professional career. Looking back — they were more than just people I worked for — they were mentors and role models for how to lead an interesting and fulfilling life.
Writing this post has mostly been for me — but I also hope that it inspires anyone reading, especially younger people, to consider the roles of mentors and role models in their own lives. A common narrative I hear is today’s job market is competitive — a University degree (and certainly not an Arts degree, like mine!) a minimum requirement for even the most entry-level positions, and that oftentimes very young employees have sky-high expectations in regards to starting salary, flexibility of working hours and work from home entitlements. I don’t necessarily want to argue strongly against these desires — certainly, I was always fairly paid for the work that I did and felt empowered to do it basically anywhere — however, I think people can do themselves a disservice by overestimating their own value early on and passing up the opportunities to get in at the ground level and learn from people who are invested in the relationship and your long-term mutual success. Personally, I’d rather accept a modest salary working alongside interesting people in an interesting company, over maximising my earning potential from day one.
In writing this post I hope to inspire younger people to take a break from trawling Seek or talking to a long list of recruiters, and perhaps consider exploring a less traditional career path. Or perhaps if you’re a little older you might reflect on who in your own sphere of influence you could help by role modelling behaviour or more consciously stepping into the role of a mentor.
This post is a small thank you to some of the mentors and role models in my own life…
Richard & Nicky Thompson
I owe a huge amount to my old friend Richard Thompson and his wife — Nicky. Together, Richard and Nicky owned Model Air, a small hobbies shop in Greenlane just around the corner from where I grew up in One Tree Hill. I absolutely loved that place as a kid — the Tamiya Mini 4WDs, the Star Wars models, the WW2 fighter planes, the battleships, and eventually when I was a little older, the R/C cars.
As a twelve or thirteen year old I would walk to Model Air in the weekends and just hang out with Richard and Nicky — probably annoying them with a million questions and generally looking at stuff I couldn’t afford to buy. I remember my parents regularly ringing the store and checking with them it was okay I spent so much time there, and did they need to come and pick me up…
When I was fourteen or so, Richard upgraded me from customer to team member, and offered me my first part-time job. I remember the huge sense of accomplishment I felt telling my friends at school I had a job. I can still see images in my mind of Nicky ringing up my weekend pay on the cash register and putting twenty dollar notes, along with a beautifully typed payslip, into a small white envelope at the end of every shift. I think back then I was paid something like $6/hour and I probably spent most of it on spare parts for my R/C car. Realising my time and ideas were actually worth something, even as a very young person, was a huge gift.
I learned all the fundamentals of great retailing at Model Air. How it’s important to only sell products you love and would use yourself. How to approach a customer and use your knowledge to be genuinely helpful. How to clean and merchandise shelves to create displays designed to sell. How to process new stock and apply a margin. How to help customers with repairs, problem solving, and faulty products. I even learned marketing and how to create a community of regular customers — licking my fair share of stamps for the monthly Model Air snail-mailer. I also happily made plenty of tea and coffee, but didn’t partake myself “ew — old people’s drink…”
My biggest break at Model Air came when Richard and Nicky entrusted me to build the store’s first website — this was way back in something like 1998. I remember learning Microsoft FrontPage at high school and being really excited by the possibility of testing out my new skills in the real world. I remember starting out with a laptop behind the counter — creating badly formatted HTML tables and adding products one by one, line by line — taking a short break whenever a customer came to the counter and needed to be served. It wasn’t long before I needed an A4 colour scanner and my mess was slowly taking over the shop — so Nicky bought me a proper desktop PC and installed me in a small office upstairs so I could work on this project full-time and without distractions. Fun times…
Sadly, Richard passed away about three years ago. A great man that touched so many people. My fondest memory of Richard was the love he had for the customers, the team, people. He delighted in helping customers choose the perfect paints and showing them how to use an airbursh. He could talk for hours about the latest Tamiya kits and generously shared his expert modelling techniques, and offered to proudly display finished kits belonging to other customers in the glass cabinets dotted around the store. He ran countless school holiday programmes and taught kids how to build models and all the important life skills the come with it — problem solving, how to follow instructions, how to be patient enough to let the glue or paint dry before moving onto the next step. He organised and hosted R/C car club events — built race tracks, printed certificates of achievement for the kids — he did more than participate in the community, he created it.
Richard probably didn’t realise it at the time, but he was more than just my first boss — he was a mentor and a role model — and someone I still think about often. Developing a love for model making during his time serving in the NZ Army, he showed me it was possible to leave a secure job and start a business doing what you love. Creating a home and living above the store with his wife Nicky, he showed me the importance of taking risks and giving everything 100%. Investing so much time in me as a teenager, as well as countless other kids with school holiday programmes and R/C car club events — he taught me the importance of being generous with your time, sharing your passions and helping other people whenever possible. He lived these values both in his retail business — and in his “spare” time as a volunteer for many charities. A truly great man.
Simon & Vicki Barton
Eventually my passion for videogames overtook my passion for plastic models, and I started asking Mum & Dad to drive me to GameZone on Symonds Street where my path would cross with another married couple in business together — Simon and Vicki Barton. GameZone would eventually become Gameplanet Store which would eventually become Mighty Ape. Much like my earlier relationship with Richard and Nicky, I would spend countless weekends up at GameZone asking a million questions and generally making a nuisance of myself. “Sorry! It’s time for Mario to go to bed…” I distinctly remember Vicki saying to me late one Saturday afternoon as she switched off their freshly Japan imported Nintendo 64, followed by the lights, signalling it was time for me to call Mum and be driven home.
Eventually Simon and I swapped ICQ numbers (the days before MSN! And way before Slack!) and our conversations about which was better PlayStation or Nintendo, web design and retail, quickly moved online. Looking back, a key reason my relationship with Simon eventually took centre stage was probably in large part due to us both being entirely comfortable interacting daily in an online environment — we both really loved the internet. Our online time was also peppered with weekly coffee dates at local cafes and beautiful home cooked meals every Tuesday for Survivor and regular plotting sessions. I remember designing flyers in the spare room of their house before they had kids — I remember stickering R18 videogames on the living room floor while watching Team New Zealand compete for the America’s Cup. Work was fun and it was never far from our minds.
I’ve now worked with Simon and Vicki for over 20 years and it’s impossible to give credit to everything I’ve learned from them, but I’ll pick out some highlights. Even from the early days Simon refused to put a limit on his thinking and and encouraged others, including me, to be the same way. Both Simon and Vicki truly believe that anything is possible and they back both themselves, and anyone working with them 100%. They have your back. Throw the ball a far as possible and see if you can catch it etc…
When it came to retail, Simon understood that maximising value and potential had a lot to do with reaching as many customers as possible, improving the lives of as many customers as possible — the more the better. The Internet was a way to reach more customers without having to open more stores. Simon is a great systems thinker — with a deep understanding of both how to create demand and fulfil demand in the most efficient way possible. Whenever I’m solving a problem at work — I always try to build a system — solve it once so you solve it forever. Move on. Think bigger. I learned that from Simon.
Under Simon’s umbrella my education in retail marketing levelled up from snail-mailers to email newsletters, merchandising shelves became curating the website homepage, ringing up sales on the till became creating easily repeatable processes for the warehouse team(!) to pick, pack and dispatch customer orders — serving customers over the counter became learning how to provide excellent service in an online environment —efficient email queues, live chat widgets, transparent and easily understood delivery information in the Checkout. Being a bricks-and-mortar retailer first and foremost, everything we did online was reduced down to first principles and helped us both to put the customer at the centre of our thinking.
Simon always wants the best for people and is great at throwing people little challenges, and then being there to support them as #1 fan and cheerleader. I remember when he flicked me a message around 2006, as we were both kinda bagging on Trade Me’s average (at the time) seller listing tools, egging me on to do something about it with him. “We should probably stop complaining about this and do something about it. I have $5k to put toward starting a new site — how ‘bout you? Keen? :D” and with that the seeds of our auction site Zillion were sown. Still holding down part-time jobs at both GP Store, and the University of Auckland, my focus shifted to figuring out how the hell to build a development team, a complex website and an online marketplace — no easy task. But Simon and Vicki were both there every step of the way helping me to apply everything they’d learned with GameZone and GP Store. We grew Zillion to something like 100,000 members and were considered a viable option for kiwi sellers to consider alongside Trade Me. We never did manage to properly compete with Trade Me’s established network effects, but we learned a tonne, eventually sold the business to Sella, and continued to apply everything we learned to Mighty Ape — and retained our awesome team members over too.
Like Richard & Nicky, Simon & Vicki blurred the lines between work and play, and saw business as a fun challenge that could form a natural part of everyday life — a healthy part of your identity. No matter where they called home at the time, their dining table resembled something more like a workplace — a boardroom, or maybe even a war room — with business plans, to-dos and invoices being moved to one side at dinner time to make room for food. They’d casually discuss business with me, and their boys as they grew older — an education you’d never find inside textbooks or University lecture halls.
Simon & Vicki also role modelled the importance of being yourself — being proud of who you are, and not changing yourself to fit the expectations of others. Vicki bought me Mario slippers to wear around the office and encouraged me to wear them. Simon’s favourite interview questions usually included “what Games do you like to play” and Vicki was well known for offering people jobs before candidates even left the interview room. Team members who proved themselves typically wrote their own job descriptions and were encouraged to follow their passions and find ways to apply their talents for the mutual benefit of themselves, the company and our customers. Putting people into boxes was never an option for anyone willing to rise to their own potential.
Even today, having sold Mighty Ape and being in the position to retire if they wish, they’re busy laying the foundations for a new family business, a new challenge, a new fun adventure. Simon and Vicki continue to role model that life is about finding new challenges, discovering your potential, enriching the lives of team members and customers — and hopefully creating something of long-term value. I’ve been super lucky to grow up and live daily with their example to look up to.
There have been others too, Michelle Irving & Stuart Jeffcoat who hired me to work inside their Market Research firm Mobius while studying at Uni — trusting me to pitch for work, do the work, and write it up and present it back to the client. Stuart taught me how to come up with ideas, test the ideas, and then aggressively sell them to a client — skills that have helped me throughout my career as I’ve formed teams to execute on seemingly crazy new ideas and projects. My old choir master Indra Hughes who taught me to accept nothing but the highest standards — and if you’re going to do anything, you may as well do it properly, or not at all. I carry this value with me now wherever I go, and think of Indra whenever someone presents work that’s half-assed or anything less than excellent — although, I like to think I’m a little softer and more forgiving than my old Oxford trained choir master. My own parents, whilst obviously different from a mentor, have both been incredible role models also — owning their own businesses, making sacrifices, working hard and teaching me the value of having choices in life.
Finding good mentors, role models, interesting people going places — is a lesser travelled path to success, acquiring new skills and having a fulfilling career. I’ve been super fortunate to find and hold onto amazing mentors on my journey so far — and I’m not done yet. As I look to begin new chapters, I’m looking forward to adding to my own pool of mentors and role models, whilst also recognising my own role as a mentor to the next generation for whom I now have something to offer.