Learning to walk again

My new ‘social’ life: Learning to walk again

By Martin Skinner

In many ways I now see myself as having started my life over again in 2009.  I’ve always been a fortunate soul and believe I’m lucky to have a ‘glass half full’ attitude.  Even so, my last ‘life’ concluded painfully after a glorious period I think I’ll call my roaring 20’s.

Magda & I testing the Gumpert Apollo with Roland Gumpert

Magda, I & Gumpert Apollo

My last life

A Nice Group team meeting

A Nice Group team meeting

With a background in technology, I deserted the world of direct employment in 2003 to embark upon an unforgettable entrepreneurial property adventure.  For seven years I worked hard to build up the ‘Nice’ brand. It began with my own property portfolio followed by a property services group (run together with my partners Paul and Guy) before eventually hitting the heady heights of joint venturing with big City fund managers.  It was a fantastic journey and I met and learned from a great deal of amazingly intelligent people.

Example Nice Room Bedroom

Example Nice Room Bedroom

Lettings cars

Lettings cars

Tenants' welcome pack

Tenants' welcome pack

In Nice Group my partners, friends and I had built up a substantial enterprise with a magical atmosphere. Our staff actually wanted to come to work, bold plans were made for creating a new asset class for affordable young professional accommodation – and there was much, much, more to come… until disaster struck in the form of the credit crunch.  After a gruelling period of redundancies through 2008 we were effectively wiped out in March 2009 when our financing was pulled with just 24 hours notice.  Worse still, we were due to hit profitability again that month so heartbreaking stuff.  The following months were not the happiest of times and I don’t dwell too much on them. These things happen, so learn from them and move on. So without further ado I’ll move on to my new life …


My new ‘social’ life

I never considered looking for a traditional 9-5 job. I’d got a taste for building up a business and I wanted more.  So I threw myself into helping a couple of friends plan a new business.  Pledging to revolutionise the way fund managers treat their partners and their customers, the concept for Inspired Asset Management was born.  Simon Hussey is the financial services expert and Alistair Britton covers the legal, financial & private equity fund raising bases – and they’re both brilliant to work with.  I look after the branding and marketing, with help from a group of exceptionally talented friends and contractors.

Now I’ve always been a pretty hardcore networker. I love meeting new people and connecting them up with people that can help them – and London is a great place for it. But apart from signing up to a few sites and occasionally chatting to people on Facebook,  I hadn’t really followed what was happening in the world of social networking/media.  I was too busy running my businesses.

But now I suddenly had the chance to immerse myself in an online world where you can meet, connect to and build relationships with pretty much anyone and everyone. Soon I began developing a strategy for Inspired to develop, market and support products through social media.  And it led me to one of the first people to come up with the concept of search engine marketing – David White of Weboptimiser.  His webinar about Twitter got me interested in an application that I had previously thought to be purely for pointless ‘celeb’ chat/following.  David has provided superb and effective online marketing advice ever since – although my genius copywriter Mark will never forgive him for his grammar.  I’ll be forever grateful to David for getting me started and keeping me on the right track.

Around the same time, I met a remarkably helpful American gentleman by the name of John Corey, who appeared to spend his whole time helping property investors, including me, to invest better.  For the [second] life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he would be so generous without trying to sell me something, charging any money or even asking for a role with Inspired.  I later discovered he attracted a considerable following both online and offline – and suddenly everything made sense.  John is a true gentleman as I’m sure those who know him fully appreciate.

Burning Man

By this time it was August 2009 and a long-since-booked first pilgrimage to an event called Burning Man beckoned. I say ‘first’ because it was such an astonishing experience I can’t for a moment imagine it’ll be the last. And I say ‘pilgrimage’ because it provides so much meaning for so many of the people who attend.  Burning Man is a collaborative social experiment that’s been running for nearly 25 years, yet is almost impossible to describe because of its sheer magnitude. Instead, I’ll let you try and make sense of a list of random facts, figures and rumours:

  • Started on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986.
  • 4th largest city in Nevada for one week then vanishes without a trace
  • “The Man is a wooden monument to nothing specific, in the middle of nowhere” – The Burning Book
  • Highest concentration of billionaires in the world for one week
  • 50,000+ people, survival conditions, middle of the desert
  • Mix of Mad Max, Hunter S Thompson and The Grateful Dead for all ages
  • Astonishing celebration and spectacle of endurance, art, music, comedy, spirituality etc
  • Pure gift economy

In my opinion, Burning Man has a lot in common with social media – particularly with its gift economy. I doubt that it’s a coincidence that Burning Man takes place so close to San Francisco and is frequented by so many movers and shakers from there.  It’s a seriously, fabulously crazy place and an experience that will inevitably affect my future endeavours. If nothing else, it’ll make any events I help to organise a lot more fun.


Back to reality and a ‘bump’

Big Little Baby

Big Little Baby

Wow, the unsung heroine and love of my life, my gorgeous and incredibly supportive fiancé Magdalena is pregnant.  Magda’s indomitable strength and determination have never ceased to amaze me. Combined with my insatiable entrepreneuring, I can’t wait to see what kind of little maniac our offspring turns out to be.  It does up the ante though and will require us to put new foundations down and establish a replacement income pretty quickly.

Both our mums have been superstars.  They’ve helped us financially and emotionally throughout and will be there to help us when the baby arrives.

Adapting fast

I think it’s fairly safe to say that social media is going to accelerate the rate of progress and dramatically change the worlds of education, work and leisure over the next few years.  The way information now flows around the web in real time allows people to learn faster and more collaboratively, so much so that working practices will inevitably have to adapt and evolve.

While investigating opportunities for promoting the first Inspired property fund to financial advisors, I came across Philip Calvert who runs IFALife.com – a very successful social network for financial advisors.  Phil kindly agreed to speak about social media at our launch event in October.  He also recommended Penny Power’s book Know Me Like Me Follow Me.

Penny’s book is a great read and provides a rare heartfelt view into a world of individual capitalists competing on almost equal footing with the big corporates and building their own personal brands.  The stories she tells about learning from her children also give great insights into where the original demand for social networking sites first came from.  After reading the book it only seemed right to join their online social business network Ecademy.com – another superb find that deserves much praise for its innovation and emphasis on sharing knowledge and skills.

Nick Tadd and his wife Vanessa Warwick provide an excellent example of entrepreneurs embracing successful new ways of working in this brave new world.  They’ve founded and encouraged a number of new enterprises and online/offline communities.  They’ve dedicated their property and social media activities to honest sharing and mutual benefit.  In fact, I paid for a days’ coaching with Nick and it was probably been the best investment I’ve ever made.  Even Tim Watts, or the ‘man from the Pru’ as I like to call him because of his natural aversion to technology, was convinced and went away to buy books on blogging.

Tim has joined Inspired after running the largest listed residential property company in the UK and he’s an icon in the industry. It was a real coup to get him onboard, and for me, the first sign that our efforts to brand the business well and create new working practices are starting to pay off.  Coming just at the point where I succumbed to personal bankruptcy, Tim’s arrival couldn’t have been better timed: a vote of confidence that provided me with a much needed dose of fresh inspiration.

The supremely educational meeting with Nick Tadd led to my joining the 4Walls and Property Tribes social networks. I also upgraded my Ecademy membership to Blackstar status and subsequently met some great characters including William Buist, Judith Germain and Clare Gilbanks.  A more supportive group of people would be very hard to find.

Most recently I had the pleasure of joining 10 other social media devotees on a two-day retreat with Thomas Power in Surrey.  Thomas taught us how to clearly express our key personal values and then link them up with our contacts across a variety of different networks.  A rare group of great human beings – I hope to stay in contact with them for a long time.

Learning to walk again

It’s been a remarkable journey so far and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting an incredibly rich and diverse mix of new people, many of whom I haven’t yet mentioned. I’ll make up for this in future blogs.

Yes, I’m still an entrepreneur. Yes, I’m still a residential property investment specialist. But today, sitting here right now, I’m also a social media evangelist.

So how does it all combine? Well, the Inspired Urban Share fund has achieved its first close and can now start buying properties.  We’re working to develop an investment community with financialtribes.com – many thanks to Nick Tadd for the name, and to Jamie Steele who was at the social media retreat and is building the platform for me.  I have some exciting ideas to develop on it including a contribution currency and a decision market.  And our launch event went well with another planned for the 11th February.

In keeping with the gift economy leanings of the social media universe, the Inspired launch event was an educational and entertaining affair.  PowerPoint presentations were banned and we didn’t overtly promote our products.  It went brilliantly and caused a real stir with our audience – and it was great fun too.  Good connections were made all round in the bar and I’m hoping it will be the first in a long line of future events, attracting more and more investors and advisors to our cause.

What I do find slightly bizarre at the moment is finding myself introduced to senior investment and property professionals as a social media expert – a title certainly not yet deserved, but one that demonstrates that opportunity awaits anyone prepared to adapt quickly and incorporate social media into their business and social lives.

So when it comes to reinventing myself I think I can say so far, so good. But I’m not calling it a comeback … not just yet.

Some key messages on social media from my journey so far:

  • “The biggest shift since the industrial revolution” – Erik Qualman
  • “The group gets better together” – Clay Shirky
  • “You should focus on creating a web of findability” – Nick Tadd
  • “Be random, open & supportive” – Penny & Thomas Power
  • “Serendipity occurs more often in a collaborative environment and more frequently the larger the breadth and depth of your social network” – Penny & Thomas Power
  • “Given the right conditions and the right problems, a decision market’s fundamental characteristics – diversity, independence, and decentralisation – are guaranteed to make for good group decisions.  And because such markets represent a relatively simple and quick means of transforming many diverse opinions into a single collective judgement, they have the chance to improve dramatically the way organisations make decisions and think about the future.” James Surowiecki
  • And most importantly “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change” – Charles Darwin
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