Tom Wheeler – The entrepreneur with a giving mentality

Many business people have never really known the mixture of terror and excitement that goes with starting a company from scratch, with little more than an idea. This form of ‘pure’ entrepreneurialism takes a certain type of person, able to overcome multiple setbacks and remain relentlessly focused when their goals seem far out of reach.

Tom Wheeler, Founder of IR Global, is one such person; a man who took a good idea, a laptop and a kitchen table and developed it into a successful multinational professional network. Getting people to buy into an idea is never easy, but Tom’s unique selling point (USP) was his belief in the power of giving. He was able to convince his early adopters, that joining a network where giving was paramount would also lead to them gaining more than they realised.

This giving mentality continues to be central to Tom’s success on both a personal and professional level. It has been instrumental in building IR Global, as well as two successful record labels and a charity focused on the promotion of indigenous culture.

Tom began the entrepreneurial journey in 2010, while working in advertising and publishing. Many of his clients were lawyers with membership of international networks or alliances. Looking into this phenomenon in more detail, and understanding the frustrations and shortcomings felt by his clients, convinced him there was another way.

He conceived of a network model based on flexibility, freedom of choice, openness and transparency. Most importantly, this involved finding members who wanted to help others, rather than those simply motivated by immediate gains.

“Leaving a successful career in advertising was a big sacrifice. I gave up a stake in the previous business I worked for, went back to live with my parents and started the network with my brother using our kitchen table.”

He says: ‘Leaving a successful career in advertising was a big sacrifice. I gave up a stake in the previous business I worked for, went back to live with my parents and started the network with my brother using our kitchen table. During the first year we were working from dawn until late into the night, slowly building traction. Thankfully, a lot of people identified with our vision and what we were trying to create in terms of cultivating a giving mentality. It wasn’t perfect in those early days, and we made mistakes, but there was goodwill because we had great members, and they knew it would take time.’

Part of the ethos that Tom has built around IR Global involves non-exclusivity. This means that members are not obliged to refer business within the network, but when they need to and they can also choose to be part of other networks. IR Global Member Spotlight: Tom Wheeler, April 2019 focuses on niche specialisms, finding members with specific skills and experience that might not be available in other alliances. In doing this, they hope to provide added value to their members and clients alike.

Tom says: ‘Forcing members to refer within a network is not the way to guarantee best client advice. If a firm has been working with a contact in another jurisdiction for 20 years, they are not suddenly going to drop them just because they have joined a network, and neither should they have to. Via IR, members have access to niche expertise across a large global community, as and when specific needs emerge’.

He adds: ‘IR Global judges the value of its members individually, rather than based solely on referral numbers. Certain jurisdictions or specialisms have a lot of outbound work and others less. Firms in more inbound-oriented jurisdictions can contribute in many other ways, whether that is input into the steering committees, white papers or thought leadership pieces.’

As IR Global has grown in numbers and prominence, its culture of cooperation has come to the fore, ensuring the membership remains open and active. Each member firm is reviewed annually in a bid to ensure they are engaged and utilising their membership to optimum effect. Tom also ensures that leadership positions are not held indefinitely and committee members are rotated on a regular basis.

The beauty of explaining clearly to members the kind of behaviour you expect, is the way it naturally roots out the people you don’t want and excites those you need.”

‘The beauty of explaining clearly to members the kind of behaviour you expect, is the way it naturally roots out the people you don’t want and excites those you need. It is not the numbers of new members that is important, but the attitude they have. Furthermore, we always arrange meetings between new members and senior ‘ambassadors’ at our conferences. This allows existing members to share experiences, including how best to get value from the network, and help to build connections.’

Tom also gives credit to the team at IR Global for his success. He says this is less to do with education, expertise or experience, than it is about trust, team spirit and truly caring about what they do. When challenges arise, he knows each member will stand up to be counted and help each other out. He describes Ross as the glue that holds the business together, performing a managing directorial role that frees Tom up to focus on longer-term strategy from his base in Amsterdam.

He says: ‘Our structure means I stay away from the day-to-day running of the business and this frees me up to think creatively and strategically. If I was in the office, I wouldn’t have the space and clarity to think about the next steps for the business. However, I do, of course, travel back to the UK when needed for important planning meetings.’

Tom’s entrepreneurial and giving instincts stretch beyond IR Global into his other major passions of music and promoting positive social change. He channels the latter via Sinchi, which is a notfor-profit initiative founded by Tom and borne out of his love for culture. The charity is dedicated to supporting indigenous peoples’ rights, documenting their culture in order to preserve it for future generations, while sharing their stories with the Western world. Projects are currently on-going in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, Botswana and Benin.

Tom also runs two Amsterdam-based record labels dedicated to electronic music. Under the Sinchi Collective banner, these labels aim to sign and produce electronic music from new artists and promote it globally. To this end, Tom also organises music events across Europe to showcase his artists. His most ambitious project to date aims to tie together modern electronic music with indigenous music, raising the profile of the respective indigenous cultures involved.

He concludes: ‘We will be recording traditional music in different communities around the world and getting it remixed by acclaimed music producers. This will raise exposure and awareness for the communities and will be shared in traditional languages using art from the community. This modern interpretation of their music should get some significant press, and all the money raised will go back to the communities, along with the intellectual property rights.’