Dressed in an open-necked shirt in a funky office in London Bridge's vibrant Butlers Wharf, 32-year-old Mark Pearson looks every inch the successful internet entrepreneur. With a personal fortune estimated in the region of £150 million, the MyVoucherCodes founder carries with him a mixture of self-confidence and humility that has thus far served him very well in the cut-throat world of dotcom ventures.


In many ways, though, Pearson is a rare breed of entrepreneur. Not because of his background, which is depressingly familiar in terms of a tough childhood and a feeling that education wasn't really for him, but because he is someone who actively sought, and thoroughly researched, a business opportunity which evolved into one of the most successful online operations to date.


There was no blinding moment of inspiration; no long-held vision of a business idea that might just work; not even the strong technical background that marks out many of his peers. "I always wanted to be entrepreneurial and in the dotcom boom I'd seen these teenagers become internet sensations," he says. "I just wondered how they did it. I didn't have a clue; I didn't even do IT at school."


Brought up on a council estate in Liverpool by his mother, Pearson initially embarked on a successful career as a chef. "It was literally one-in, one-out with the careers lady at school," he recalls. "I said I wanted to be a chef or a fireman, and I don't know where that came from. But I went to the local catering college and, for the first time in my life, I was doing something that I'd decided to do, not something I was made to do."


After a while his lecturer told him there would be a career in catering for him if he wanted it, and encouraged him to enter local catering competitions. Before long, this had progressed to regional and national events, and he eventually took the title of student chef of the year. "I was thrilled because I'd actually achieved something," he says. "It really drove me and from that I got lots of job opportunities."


He soon realised, though, that these would not be in his home city and eventually took a prestigious commis chef post at Gordon Ramsay's Claridges restaurant in London. But catering was not for the long term. "It was very long hours and really low pay, and there's a culture within the industry where people work hard and party really hard, so you're just burning the candle at both ends," he says. "At that age it's OK, but you can't even afford your travel. But what really frustrated me was the overtime because there was this culture of not writing it down so you don't get paid for it. I'd look at the other people who'd been there quite a long time and I just thought I didn't want the bad money and long hours for ever."


After 18 months he landed another role in a start-up restaurant, which gave him exposure to the business side of things for the first time and set him on a course that would ultimately see him running his own chain of restaurants, when a regular customer who owned a number of pubs offered him the opportunity to start selling food in those locations. "For the first time in my life I had an opportunity but didn't have any money so I went to my family and asked for about £3,500 to buy plates and stock. So I was 21 and I was now running my own 100-seater restaurant."


He quickly expanded to three venues but, again, frustrations emerged. Chief among these was the problem of staffing. "When one or two chefs didn't turn up I'd have to close one of the venues and then I had the landlords giving me hassle," he recalls. "One of the biggest things that really got to me was whether it was scalable or whether I was always going to be constantly chasing these staffing headaches."


He took the decision to leave his booming business behind him, naively handing the restaurants back to the respective landlords rather than looking to sell them, and took time out to research his next move. "I would just sit on the computer, researching about the internet and reading blogs and forums," he says.


Eventually he stumbled across a product that allowed customers to write messages on the petals of flowers, which was already up and running in the US and China but not in the UK, and invested in a website, using his newly acquired online marketing skills to send it soaring up the rankings. A press release he put out generated an appearance on ITV's This Morning ahead of Valentine's Day, sending sales soaring.


"I realised very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to produce them all and ended up closing it because I couldn't take any more orders," he says. "I shipped in my family and friends and everybody worked more or less 48 hours to get it all done. I was in the same situation with a massive scalability issue."


Cracking the code

It was around this time, in 2006, that the concept of MyVoucherCodes began to emerge and Pearson would, almost single-handedly, transform the UK online space. First, he was contacted by Interflora and accepted an offer to host banners for their own offerings on a cost-per-acquisition payment basis.


At the same time, he started promoting a voucher code for his own business, and hit on the idea of a site that would bring together different codes from a wide range of products, using the cost-per-acquisition model to monetise it. "There weren't really any sites in the UK that were doing this but in the US they were very popular with a lot of users and directory-listed searches," he says. "I wondered if it was illegal over here or something; it just didn't make sense because there was a big void."


The business proved an instant hit, and Pearson soon found himself playing off potential partners against each other and moving to a point where the site would only list offers where the business received a commission on any sales generated. In the company's first year of trading it turned over £1 million. "We were making 50 or 60% margins but I didn't know what a good margin was," recalls Pearson. "It wasn't until later on that someone said it was a phenomenal margin, but I was always hungry to make the margin bigger."


After a year, he realised he needed to expand and took on web developers and salespeople. Initially these were based remotely around the UK but, with the business turning over £10 million a year and one eye on international expansion, he made the decision to get an office, round the corner from his rented flat in Croydon and shortly after in central London. "I didn't really want to have an office," he admits. "I visualised people who worked in offices to be grey and and I was in a very creative industry which was very fiery and quick. It's more fashionable now for offices to be more liberal and open but that was always my vision."


What followed was a period of rapid growth where the company moved into new markets and dramatically expanded. The recession had almost no impact, other than, Pearson suggests, to finally lay to rest stigmas around bargain-hunting, which played directly into his hands. But there were hard lessons too. "I was recruiting people who were way too junior and I wasn't even specifying the roles properly because I didn't really know what I looking for," he says. "It was a very wobbly period in the business, and something I could have done better."


With dedicated marketing, sales and content teams, the business started to expand, initially into the US, France and Germany and more recently into Canada, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Brazil. "I got to a point a few months ago where I started to drop a few balls and I just couldn't keep up with the workload," he says. "Everyone was reporting in to me and I realised I need to get managers in place, and that's a big thing for any entrepreneur to do."


With more time to shape the direction of the business, however, Pearson is now looking at new areas. Two years ago the company developed a mobile app that offers customers the ability to download coupons on to phones - initially iPhones but now also Android and BlackBerry - which can then be shown at the point of sale.


In the longer term, he expects this to evolve with the use of contactless technology and digital wallets into enabling customers to redeem vouchers electronically when they pay for items through mobile phones. "Closing the loop is quite important, because then we can give retailers proper data and develop proper charging methods for this," he says. "Some of this is not generating revenue now but some of it is."


The business as a whole certainly is, though. Last year it turned over £12 million, and Pearson - who still owns the company in its entirety - expects the investments made over the past couple of years to reap handsome rewards in the next few years. "I'm looking at a hockey stick kind of curve, because essentially a lot of investment has gone in over the last year and a half," he says.


Branching out

There have been other businesses, too. Pearson launched MyCelebrityFashion as part of a joint venture under a separate company, while Markco Media - the holding company for MyVoucherCodes - also launched location-based mobile marketing firm VouChaCha and Groupola, based around the concept of paid-for vouchers. At one stage this was number two in the market, says Pearson, but the scale of investment in rival business Groupon forced a change in direction.


"We were still doing well but they were really pushing it very hard and it was diverting resources from the online vouchers," he says. "I decided to turn it into an aggregator, because by that time a lot of other deal sites had sprung up. I don't see that as a failure but it's always wise to analyse where you should go." Today there are 100 people employed by Markco Media, and a further 50 by five other brands Pearson is involved with, including social media gaming platform NoisyDuck, celebrity ticket site LastSecondTickets and, more recently, worldwide discount site mydeals.com.


Pearson is also extensively involved in backing other start-up ventures in the online space, including hosting "Hackathon London", a weekend-long event where entrepreneurs can come along and pitch ideas to a team of investors and work alongside developers to turn concepts into reality. "I make it quite commercial so it needs to be something that's going to make revenue," he says. "A lot of entrepreneurs think they'll get that later but that's complicated; we can't all have Twitters." As well as the potential for securing investment, there's also the prospect of landing a job for one of Pearson's companies.


Pearson's advice to anyone starting up their own business is to take it steady and make sure they've done their homework. "Don't think you've got to get £100,000 investment on day one," he says. "If you've got a good idea, work on it in your spare time and at the weekends. The more you move that idea forward, the better the chance that someone's going to take that opportunity seriously. But if the market changes don't be scared to change direction. It might not be your first idea that works, it might be the second or third, like in my story where one idea led to the other."


He admits, though, that being a true entrepreneur is not easy. "I love what I do and I wouldn't give it up for the world but I am a workaholic and I'm often up at 3am writing emails and coming up with ideas," he says. "Sometimes it can affect your social or personal life. You can run a business nine to five, but if you're going to go for the big growth, your family and friends have got to be very tolerant of a very alternative lifestyle."


The hardest part of his job is making the tough calls that are often necessary to drive the business on. "You have to be the angel and the devil," he says. "Sometimes you can make very good friends with your staff but you might have to deliver them bad news. You've got to step back and say what's best for the business. When you let your heart come into it, you're probably on a downward spiral very quickly. But I find that quite tough."


Reality check

Pearson's own profile has expanded rapidly over recent years, notably through an appearance on Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire in 2010, when he went undercover in Nottingham and found himself exposed to the realities of gun crime and domestic violence. "It was a really good experience for me but there were some real big lows," he says. "Some of the things I saw were pretty horrific. I live in my own little sheltered world where everyone's nice and friendly, but it's not all that cosy and it really affected me." Eventually he donated £115,000 of his own money to three charities, and remains in touch with these today.


Pearson says one of the reasons the programme appealed to him was because he had always wanted to do something for charity but could never find the time. Finally, though, this could be about to change. "I think we'll roll out something this year in the company, perhaps giving staff a few days a year where they can go and do charitable things," he says. "If you have 100 people giving up three or four days each that's a lot of hours which could be helping on the ground. Now we've got good management in place, it's something we can afford to do."


For Pearson himself, though, the immediate future revolves around continuing to build up MyVoucherCodes - the company hopes to launch in India, China and Japan this year - while growing his other businesses and making more investments along the way.


"To date we've focused solely on the voucher space and we're still very heavily focused and committed to that but we've got a lot of ideas in the pipeline," he says. "Markco Media Ventures is about to be born and we're going to have lots of new start-ups created through that, some of them from our own staff.  A few months ago, we had an event called Markco's Got Talent where we let the team come up with the next big business idea for Markco Media. Some of the ideas were a bit wacky and weird but some were really good and we've decided to invest in the winner of the event."


As for his own future, he won't rule out a sale but admits it would need to be "pretty spectacular" if he ever did. "I'd want people to say ‘wow', so is it ‘wow' yet? It's nice, but it's not ‘wow' so we'll just keep on going. I think there's a good many years left in me yet to keep on pushing. In the long term, when I settle down, will I relax a bit more? Maybe." Just don't bet on it happening any time soon.



From kitchens to coupons: How Mark Pearson shook up the world of online retail

1980: Born in Liverpool and grew up in a council house with his mother


1996: Left school and joined a local catering college. He went on to win the title of UK student chef of the year


1998: Took a job as a commis chef at Gordon Ramsey's Claridges restaurant, leaving Liverpool for London


2001: Left his role to take up an opportunity running restaurants in various gastro pubs around Clapham, London. Staffing headaches made him realise this was not a long-term option


2004: After taking some time out to research business opportunities, he launched an online floristry company called Roses By Design, which allowed customers to write messages on rose petals


2005: Appeared on This Morning promoting his new business, which saw sales increase from around 10 a day to 3,500 in the run-up to Valentine's Day. Around this time he discovered the potential of cost-per-acquisition marketing and online voucher codes


2006: Launched MyVoucherCodes after spotting a gap in the market for a website that brought together special offers on the internet. The company turned over £1 million in its first year


2009: Launched VouChaCha, a mobile marketing business that offers customers coupons when they enter the vicinity of certain retailers


2010: Took part in The Secret Millionaire, going undercover in Nottingham as an unemployed chef. Gave £115,000 of his own money to help charitable causes


Launched a mobile app to enable customers to download vouchers on to their mobile phones. The business also expanded into the US, France and Germany


Launched Groupola, a business based on paid-for offers sold direct to consumers. The site was later adopted to become an aggregator of such offers in the wake of fierce competition from Groupon


2011: Launched the business in a further seven countries around the world. The company itself moves from an office in Croydon to Butler's Wharf in London Bridge


Named entrepreneur of the year Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards


Invested in LastSecondTickets, a site offering individuals the opportunity to purchase unsold tickets for concerts


2012: Developed the concept of Hackathon London, bringing together investors, entrepreneurs and web developers to work on business ideas over the course of a weekend. Two events have been held so far


Invested in global discount site mydeals.com in a joint venture with the original web designer he'd used on MyVoucherCodes


Invested in NoisyDuck, a social media gaming platform where users can build their own virtual theme park on Facebook