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Transformation During Crisis | Simon Leslie

Transformation During Crisis | Simon Leslie | 465

Enduring through disastrous times in order to thrive on the other side.

An interview with Simon Leslie that originally aired on September 22nd, 2022, as part of our Leveraging Thought Leadership Live series on LinkedIn.

Imagine running a $100,000,000 company that produces airline magazines. Great, right? But then came the Covid era in 2020.
When the world literally brings your company to a standstill, how do you move forward?

Today, I’m talking with Simon Leslie, the co-founder and CEO of Ink Global, a media company that connects brands with global audiences. Simon is also the author of several books, including, There is No F in Sales: A Book About Selling in Every Market Condition and Equanimity: The Diary of a CEO in Crisis.

We start our conversation by talking about Simon’s first book, There is No F in Sales, which shines a light on his years of sales experience. Publishing the book brought a new level of credibility to his thought leadership, allowing Simon to take bigger steps in telling the story of his business to wider audiences.

As if the world wanted to put his book to the ultimate test, the pandemic ground his business to a halt. Still, that didn’t stop Simon. He shares how a series of conversations with other business leaders, meant to inspire his team, caused the spark that turned into his third book, Equanimity. Like many good stories of hardship, Simon’s ends with an epic comeback! With courage, Ink Global made a huge transformation, heavily investing in digital technology and leading the way to new horizons. Now their content can be found on screens at gates, bars, and restaurants of airports around the world.

Plus Simon explains how they feed their content into passengers’ social media, based on their travels, to connect brands with audiences in an all-new way.

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Being a visible thought leader for your company allows you to tell the story of your brand on stages you might never get invited to.
  • Don’t look at your business and think “we are doing ok”. A handful of good or bad deals is all that separates failure and success.
  • Have the courage to keep moving forward and transform when needed.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.



Peter Winick And welcome, welcome, welcome. This is Peter Winick. I’m the founder and CEO at Thought Leadership Leverage. And you’re joining us on this, a LinkedIn live version of our podcast, which is Leveraging Thought Leadership today. My guest is Simon Leslie. So Simon is the co-founder and CEO at Ink Global, as well as the author of two books. Number one, there is no F in sales, and the latest one, which we’re to spend some time on equanimity, The Diary of a CEO in Crisis. So let me let me just give folks some context here. So Simon and I were fortunate enough to meet in Q1 of 2020. So this was back when you left your homes, back when, you know, the dinosaur age. And we’re scheduled to meet up in his place, his office in Florida, which is where he is now to do some work together. And about a couple of weeks before, he said, I don’t know what’s going on. We’ve got to reschedule this thing. I got the worst flu I’ve ever had. So this is like January of 2020. So he was clearly on the early adopter side of COVID. I think he’s the first person I know that had it. And then at that time Ink Global was, correct me if I’m wrong, Simon, a $100 Billion Company in the business of producing primarily airline magazines, correct? Yeah. And then if you think about if you had a make up like a storyline of a business you did not want to be in, in, say, I don’t know, March of 2020, moving forward for quite some time. That would probably be it. So Simon’s business blew up, lost a ton of revenue, lost a lot of sleep, lost a lot of stuff, and then built it back up in a in a more digital, really amazing way. He and I have become friends since, and it’s always fun to talk to. Simon, so welcome aboard.

Simon Leslie Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to this.

Peter Winick Cool. So when you and I were talking originally, we were focused on there is no F in sales, which is the book that you did on sales, because you led sales and still do lead sales at your organization and we’re going to do some stuff with that, etc., etc.. And then you wrote The Diary of a CEO in Crisis, which I’m going to guess is somewhat autobiographical. So give me a sense of what the experience of writing this book was and why.

Simon Leslie You missed the book in between What?

Peter Winick Oh, yes.

Simon Leslie Which sort of joined the two of them together because it threw my best thinking and ideas into a fable. You know, when you write a book, there’s no F in sales. And then within six months, you go from 150 million rally road track to do to zero. That is what you call the law of attraction. You got to be very careful what you put out because we basically attracted it and we had no sales.

Peter Winick And then you didn’t want to come out with a new book called There Are No Sales. Nobody would buy that. Right? That could have been another book.

Simon Leslie There are lots of sales. Please bring them back quickly. It was it was the knock in sales was it was a sort of what you do from start up to add all the challenges that you have running a business and sales being the backbone of any business. You know, you have a lot of time when there’s no sales and you’ve got you’ve got to reinvent yourself and you’ve got to keep this thing going to keep pivoting. Pivot means go round in a circle. You know, you’ve got to keep moving forward. And I’ve been tested. I’ve had 911, I’ve had 28, 2012, 2014 where I, I tried to pivot too much and fell over. And then this came along in 2020. And if you took all the worst events of the of the early 2000s, this was ten times worse in all of them. And that’s I had to use the skill. And sometimes I went back to There’s No F in Sales, and said, there must be something in here that’s going to give me some inspiration as well.

Peter Winick Yeah. But this book was came out of your questioning things, right? So everybody had a different COVID project. Some did puzzles and some got pets and some did whatever. But, you know, when I read through the book, it was really not just your thoughts, but what was really cool is you had conversations with all sorts of interesting folks, many of them mutual friends of ours, to get a sense of what they’re thinking, because in the in the know up in sales book, your take was, hey, I’ve been through, I’ve been there, done that. Let me share with you what I’ve learned, what I did correctly, what I did incorrectly, and take from it what you will. In the midst of COVID, you didn’t have any of the answers. Nobody had any the answers, right? So you did. What we all do is, well, let’s just talk to the smart people that we know, admire and respect and see what they’re doing.

Simon Leslie And guess what? Not many them knew what to do either. There’s no there was no previous. We’ve never been locked down before. We’d never been in this place of. I don’t know what to do, what to tell somebody. You know, where we’re getting questions fired at us from every angle. So from our teams, from our investors, from our clients, from our advertisers, they all want to know, what are you going to do about this? This is a message. You’ve got to sort it out. Okay? And it’s prioritizing who which fire you put out first. And it was just fire up to fire up the fire. And that’s the only thing that I could do. I stopped. I mean, I thought about the only I can do is let me look after this team. Let me make sure the team remains as strong as possible, because I reckon this will be 6 to 12 weeks and we’ll be done. Now, if I’d known it was going to be 102 weeks, I probably would have hung them up. I mean, someone asked me this yesterday, Would you start it? Would you stop? And I said, probably because at the time I said, there is no way in God’s earth I’m going to sell PPA because this will be gone and done. I’m not credible. I’m not going down that route. And so I started phoning some of our mutual friends and said, Look, can you help me, please? Can you come in and inspire the team and. What transpired was that they weren’t just helping the team, they were actually giving me ideas and insights, and that’s why I was never going to write a book. This was the intention. You know, it was sort of. As we got towards the end of it, I thought to what? There’s so many wonderful messages and what these guys have short and I’ve learned so much that if I don’t share this, it’s criminal that it’s all out there and they’re going to be people, especially as we enter into what that what they’re ordering us into this next recession. Very quickly. There’s lots of companies in crisis.

Peter Winick And let me let me ask.

Simon Leslie This one really important point. Not many companies fail during COVID because the government’s propped up so many companies. Yeah, that was a challenge because you didn’t get rid of the chaff. This time you’re going to lose a lot of rubbish. And I think that now I think it’ll be a different experience as well.

Peter Winick Yeah, I think, I think that’s probably so. So. I want to go down this path with you for a little bit. So your primary focus, time, etc.. You’re a CEO of a company. You’re CEO of a company that was in crisis, that is now stable and back on track and doing digital things. And we can talk about that in a bit. But you spend a fair amount of your time on thought leadership, right, from the three different books, talking to people, interviewing people. You know, one is I know personally you’re a lifelong learner. You love to consume stuff and get your head wrapped around stuff, etc.. What is the benefit to the business of having a CEO that’s become a bit of a personality that you’ve never personality before? This Is it about talent attraction? Is it a different story to tell customers? How does the business benefit from all this energy and effort that you put into various projects? On the thought leadership front?

Simon Leslie It’s a great question. I certainly see myself as a.

Peter Winick And Michael is listening, so you’ve got to have a good answer.

Simon Leslie For me. I’ll tell you, one of the reasons I wrote the first book was I realized it was getting very hard for anybody to take us seriously or give us an ethics, give us some PR exposure. We were doing these amazing things. We were dominating in the space and I wanted it. I want a queens, a woman, I wanted an MBA, I wanted a knighthood, and nobody was taking us seriously as a business. And I thought, What if you write a book? Then people have got to talk to you. And so that was one of the main drivers for us in that first book and then was quite cathartic. And then I started getting more invited on more shows or more interviews in newspapers, and I realized how much that gave me an opportunity to sell the story of the business to the PR business. And that’s why it’s important, not because it’s about me, it’s about you get to be on a stage where you can talk about your business from a position of strength.

Peter Winick Right? No, exactly. And I think that being someone that’s worked with you, a number one on the talent attraction side, you’ve got an amazing team, right? Not just from the front line sales folks to everybody around you. And I think there’s this connection to the brand that you represent and the books represent as well is when you come on board it ink, it says something, it represents something. There’s a promise there, as any brand would. But I’m talking about the internal, you know, brand in a time where selling print is not easy, selling any sort of advertising is not easy in COVID, in a recession in any time. But you’ve got this really fantastic team and give them great opportunities to better themselves.

Simon Leslie Because I’ve got a great story to tell the differentiator between our media and our audience. COVID killed that because of the recession that killed it. Because even though you might be in recession, people don’t sacrifice the holidays. People have to go out and find business. So they’re still doing that business trips. So it didn’t slow down our business. So that’s why I’m not worried about a recession coming, because that’s not going to affect us the same way as us as lockdowns.

Peter Winick Yeah.

Simon Leslie If you have a great audience, if you have a great product, then it’s easy for your team to sell it. But sometimes, you know what I believe is a great product. They might not, you know, unless I’m shouting about it from the rooftops and I’m out in the market and saying, look, this is this is the people you want to reach. This is the people who’ve got multiple homes. This is the people who are spending multiple thousands of dollars on holidays, on gifts. This is this is that. This is your consumer. We’ve got your consumer. And if you’re not, if you want to reach them, whatever you’re doing at home, it’s no good now because they’re not there and I know they’re going somewhere else. How are we going to spend them? And I think that’s why it’s so powerful. So it gave me an opportunity to really talk to my customers, new customers, old customers, our customers, future customers, and tell them what I’m doing. Yep. We should have strength and confidence as opposed to, Oh, here’s another email, here’s another phone call, something else. So people are already aware of our product through that thought leadership. And I think, you know, you helped me position that a lot in in at the end of ’19.

Peter Winick If you’re enjoying this episode of Thought Leadership Leverage, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five-star review at and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcasts and on all major listening apps as well as at

Peter Winick Yeah, yeah. Thank you. So, I want to talk a little bit about and I hate the pivot word also, and I think what you did was not a pivot I. I think what you did was a radical business transformation under times of tremendous stress. Pivot is, you know, a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, whatever. But the story as I know it and correct me is print organization, print media, selling print media into the airlines, really good business growing, growing, growing, growing. And then literally because of COVID, whatever, 98% of the business gets vaporized, planes get shut down, no planes, you know, no airline magazines, no planes, etc.. So had a lot of time to sit around and think and talk about the transformation, the pivot, and where ink is now largely, although not exclusively, a digital company.

Simon Leslie Now, what we created was this marketplace. I guess that’s way you describe it. I think about 5 million people will travel today. We’ve seen the last week more travelers than ever when least it’s up on 2019. That means it’s a record date. There’s never been any more travel day. And we’ve had about ten days now where we are in record territory. And bear in mind that you’re matching that with cash at the airports, you know, limited in inventory and some on some routes just because the capacity is just full. So, you know, this has got a way to go in terms of growth. And it’s it it’s a good it’s a good place and it’s about to explode.

Peter Winick Right. So you went from. Magazines to talk about the digital, the screens and all that. So the magazines are back, obviously.

Simon Leslie So we created this marketplace. And the marketplace is. Magazines. We still got three magazines left and we started with 36 something. Now you’ve gone off magazines. Haven’t gone to magazines at all. I bought a magazine called Business Traveler in that six months ago, and we just got sat Dwayne Wade on the cover and he just tweeted it. So it’s 19 million fans. So, you know, Dwayne is got so much to do. That being on the cover of a magazine is such a powerful thing for him that he wants to put that out to his to his audience. Right. People forget how powerful it is. Only a great small picture. Me on Instagram. Being on a magazine is still really powerful. So we got four magazines with The Business Traveler and one more coming back in the fall. We have reached TV and I am in the Reach TV studio so you can see it. Yep. Which is a beautiful studio in Miami. We built this during COVID. We really invested in this REACH TV. We’ve been partners and reach TV since 2019. It was a small network and we got to use the word lucky. But we saw an opportunity on January the 12th, 2021, when CNN decided during COVID, they wanted to close their network and we managed to secure quite a big chunk of it. And now Rich TV is at multiple gate screens as well as the bars, restaurants, the luggage racks know we are really we are the biggest airport network. So in some ways we’ve gone from the biggest in-flight magazine producer to now having the biggest airport TV network.

Peter Winick So it’s a logical connection from the standpoint of your business was connecting the advertiser to the traveler, be they business traveler, family travel or whatever. The primary way to do that used to be print. Now the primary way to do that is through digital consumption of content. Whether you’re sitting at a gate or at the bar, at the Admirals Club or whatever. And it was logical that the infrastructure came to. But it took guts and courage to acquire something that CNN, a company, you know, 100,000 times your size, was ultimately pulling the plug on and throwing in the trash and saying, get this off my balance sheet. Right.

Simon Leslie And you saw what they did with sin and plus has a even.

Peter Winick Yeah, right, right.

Simon Leslie We have this for 25 years. That was the first question. My investor said to me, how are you going to make a success of this when CNN couldn’t? And I said, That’s why you don’t pay me enough money as the coin across the screen. But we also use sports and technology. And there was a there was a product which worked with a couple of the airlines in Asia. That allowed us to retarget the airline’s audiences so we know that somebody is going from Dallas to New York today. It’s taking three days. What, cut class a cabin they’re in? Yep. And we managed to take that technology. It was it was really roll with me when we when we acquired it and we spent a lot of time and money developing it and growing it. And now we’ve signed up 13 of 15 major airlines around the world where we work with them. And it allows us to give them content in a completely different way. So the content is sort of arriving in a print form or an email comes in shall media, we can target them in their Facebook, in their Instagram, in a Google search. So if you get a New York instead of me saying, Oh, Macy’s, here we go, I could do the best shopping to New York. Brought you by. X, Y, z. So is this useful content? For me, a magazine is just delivering content that fits together. So yeah, we’ve got a brilliant digital platform combined with print of the app, combined with relationships that we’ve created with a wide array of partners. Now we, we bring sponsors to the Wi-Fi partners and get free Wi-Fi on planes because we’re generating revenue for responses to pay for that, which is little things which are all part of the passenger. 20 is now sitting within us.

Peter Winick Very, very cool. And that’s really the really the cool part of the companies are way more of a digital technology company than a print company. Again, print probably will never go to zero, but I imagine there’s going to be exponential growth in some of the things that you talked about today versus unlikely we’ll be sitting here in a year where you be telling me you have 200 magazines, right? Interesting.

Simon Leslie Hundreds of airlines will still have hundreds of millions of travelers. I would just be content in a different format. But we still have about as far as I could say, we still got the magazine format. We have magazines and that shows on Reach that we get is exciting.

Peter Winick Yep. So, give it give me in the last couple of minutes here, the three biggest things or the biggest takeaway is that you’ve learned from the interviews that you did for equanimity for the book.

Simon Leslie The first one is, you know, if you’ve got a company that’s physically bankrupt that you can turn around and get it back in this year, 2022, it will be the best year that Ink has ever had, in terms of profitability. So, if you start work, it’s just not worth paying the 14 bucks for that. I don’t know what else it will be, but the compensation and the review was like, you know, one foot in front of the other. Just that’s all it is. It’s one step. First, take the big step before you go crazy. Tim Grover, Tim Story. Jordan Belfort was, you know. Jordan Belfort and as aggressive as anything. And there were just there were just amazing insights in gratitude. Chester Ellison just gave us so many soft skills, softer ideas of what we should be doing during the day that we had negotiation and brainpower. Chris Voss, this late night deejay, just coming in and inspiring us. The people in here have given their time and the information so gracefully, and I hope I’ve done them just justice by just telling those stories. And I think it will it will be a playbook for anybody who’s running a business. Because, remember, we are probably two deals away from failure and one and a half deals away from success. It’s a fine line to stay in business. And I think if the insights in this book don’t help somebody, whatever, you know, whatever stage of the business, because I hear people say, you know, do it or write it one day away, one day away from home. So be prepared. Have a think and have a look at your business.

Peter Winick So that alright mentality though. So, I want to just touch on that because entrepreneurs that have earned their gray hair and beaten up have been beaten up a little bit. Never feel all right, even when things are awesome. Not that you want to be insecure, but complacency is dangerous. Thinking you’re invincible is dangerous. You know, resting on your laurels and focusing on the golf game is dangerous. Not that, you know, I think the one deal away, maybe that’s dramatic, but, you know, I think it’s a great question for women to ask themselves what are two or three things that if they happened to the next week to month, would be game changing in a negative way. You know how many people have been 30% of their revenue with one client or based on a technology or a contract that expires or something like that. And I think a little bit of that fear is healthy.

Simon Leslie I think there’s lots of questions and they’re going to challenge you about what you’re doing, You know, what are using your time. How do you use your time? How much time are you spending setting yourself on fire to keep everybody else warm? How many things are you doing that you don’t need to be doing? It should be designated somebody else. You know a lot of people. I find it fascinating how quickly you can grow a business if you have a completely different mindset, if you if your vision and your dreams and your goals of the team are all positioned in a far more aggressive way because things can change so quickly in an instant, you can go from I don’t know how I’m going to survive to I’m going to go with thriving again. And that that whole year, probably from January 12, 20, 21 to December 21, was unbelievable. We were by September 21, we were still millions and millions of dollars in the in the black, in the red. And by the end of the year, that final quarter, we just we figured it out. We got the switch right, we got the momentum, we got our belief and we just we were back in profit. And that was just a that was testament to an amazing team that we have here. And you talked about it, people who believe what I believe came on that journey with me and now they’re starting to benefit to see the benefits of it. We’re back doing tricks again with that going on adventures that we were that we were famous for, I guess is now starting to happen again. And I’m super proud of what we’ve what we’ve achieved.

Peter Winick Excellent. Well, there’s been a lot of fun. I always enjoy our time together and thought it’d be a great opportunity to share your story, which is an amazing story of overcoming everything and courage and a lifelong learner and not being afraid to put it all out there. So I appreciate you and appreciate your time today, Simon. Thank you.

Simon Leslie Can I give you a plug?

Peter Winick Sure.

Simon Leslie So anybody.

Peter Winick Who says no to that, right, you can do.

Simon Leslie Whatever you are in business. Find somebody like Peter, who’s going to sit there, who’s going to challenge you, is going to ask you difficult questions, going to look at your process is going to really look under the bonnet and really put your business through the spin up. Because if you hadn’t done that at the end of 19, I don’t think I would have been able to do a lot of the things that I did. So I appreciate you. I thank you very much.

Peter Winick Thank you.

Peter Winick To learn more about Thought Leadership Leverage, please visit our website at Thought Leadership Leverage dot com to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at and please subscribe to Leveraging Thought Leadership on iTunes or your favorite podcast app to get your weekly episode automatically.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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