A Gap Year Guru who wrote two books, released a didgeridoo album and lived on Pot Noodle sandwiches as he surfed the crest of the dotcom surge – it sounds like a plot for a BBC3 comedy, right? But you will be mesmerised – and inspired – if you ever get the chance to hear Tom Griffiths, a Sunday Times Top 100 Entrepreneur and disruptor, tell his tale.
Self-confessed workaholic Tom is a business growth consultant, start-up incubator and philanthropist who donates his time to forging creative initiatives.
The former Gap Year Guru was born in Suffolk and got the travel bug at the age of 11 when his brother went to Australia. “I thought ‘I want to go there’ – that was my first obsession. So when I finished school I took a gap year and headed off round the world to Australia, via the Pacific islands, and back through south east Asia, and had an amazing time,” he recalls.
While he was studying Economics at Manchester, Tom continued his travels, highlights being hitchhiking across Canada and a trip to Siberia.
“I was sitting on the loo at uni when I had this Eureka moment and I came up with the idea to write a book – Before You Go – giving advice for first-time travellers,” he says. The book was funded by money Tom raised by busking with his didgeridoo, a surprisingly lucrative skill he had picked up in Australia.
Tom found a publisher, persuaded actor and author Michael Palin to write a foreword and, aged 23, was named Young Travel Writer of the Year. “I was known as the Gap Year Guru and started appearing on shows like BBC Breakfast, Radio 1 for the students and Radio 4 for the parents,” he says.
The next big wave was the internet and Tom teamed up with IT guru Peter Pedrick in 1998 to launch his first website – thegapyear.co.uk. This was soon followed by ‘Gap Year’ magazine. “As I pitched for a bank loan to fund the mag, the bank manager admitted her nephew had just wasted his gap year and thought it was a great idea. Bingo!” Tom adds.
Meanwhile the website evolved into an online community where people could meet. However, the pair ran out of money and moved into the London design agency that was publishing their magazine.
“We generally started work at 6.30am and we worked all the way through to midnight or 1am,” Tom says. “We lived on Pot Noodle sandwiches. We literally had nothing – we slept on the office floor.
“What we didn’t realise is that we had just launched one of the world’s first social network platforms.”
A second book followed with Virgin. In his foreword to it, Sir Richard Branson commented that “Tom’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious!”.
The website grew rapidly. In 2000, at the age of 26, a venture capital company invested £1.65m in the project.
“We changed the perception of a gap year from something that just rich kids did to something that everyone could do – work, volunteering or travel,” Tom adds.
In 2010, with over two million site users, they backed gapyear.com into Flight Centre, one of the world’s largest independent travel companies, offering experiential travel for all ages.
In 2013, Tom moved with his family to Northern Ireland as his wife Carolyn is originally from Holywood. The decision was sparked after the couple nearly lost their youngest son to meningitis at just five days old.
“It was the wake-up call I needed. I realised I’d been a workaholic and I hadn’t really seen the two older children grow up because I was always working. We realised the next 10 years were really important.”
Now he is a business growth consultant who helps companies to find fresh direction and create high-impact marketing campaigns.
Tom’s stand for seafood cooperative Sea Source won an award at the Balmoral Show, and the #loveto campaign he created for Voluntary Arts Ireland became the UK’s largest digital arts campaign with over 60 million social impressions.
Other memorable content includes artisanFUNK, a fun take on the Bruno Mars classic hit, Uptown Funk, for the #artisanNI group for the NI Year of Food and Drink.
“I’m always looking for new clients who want high impact campaigns or who need help with a global marketing/sales strategy – now I’ve got a few Northern Irish businesses under my belt, it’s an area I’m confident in and excited about,” he explains.
Tom also donates his time to creative groups keen to make a big impact on a small budget, such as the #DERRYcreatives group he originated that aims to establish Derry as a music capital of Northern Ireland.
He has also set up Acorn Incubator, an informal service that helps entrepreneurs, such as Kilkeel-based Bite to Savour.
“Northern Ireland has incredible potential,” Tom says.
“However, we need our youngsters to take more risks because that is what is going to make us stand out in the world. We need to lead, not follow.”
Find out about Tom’s work a www.linkedin.com/in/tomgriffithsni/www.acornicubator.com