"There's more chance to rest later in life, and now is not the time": Insights from Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé

7 min read
30 Oct 2020

urious to know how the founder behind a monthly publication-turned global media brand went about starting up? Meet Canadian journalist, entrepreneur and magazine publisher, Tyler Brûlé.

Many of you are likely to have heard of Monocle before. Launched as a magazine briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design over a decade ago, today, it’s a complete media brand headquartered in London, including a 24-hour radio station, website, retail ventures and cafes.

In spite of all this, founder and editor-in-chief of Monocle Tyler Brûlé tells Startup Guide he doesn’t consider himself to be an entrepreneur, but rather, a journalist. Tyler’s also a columnist for the Financial Times and the founder of Wallpaper magazine.

What’s the story behind his success? And what were the main issues for him launching Monocle? In an in-depth interview with us, Tyler answers these questions, discusses what motivates him and reflects on some of the best decisions he’s made throughout his journey.

So Monocle's your baby. How did it come about?

Monocle came about partly because I had an idea for a second magazine for a long time before Wallpaper, so it wasn't just a case of waking up one day and saying 'I want to do this.’

Was journalism something you always wanted to do?

If I go back to probably the '80s, I was always interested in news, not magazines, and probably thought I would end up working in news or television. But life took a very different course. I launched Wallpaper, and then we launched our design agency. But Wallpaper was probably the magazine I always dreamed of doing. It happened and was successful and of course continues to exist to this day.

What happened next?

We then launched our branding business, which became an interesting stepping stone to develop what has become a much broader brand in the case of Monocle. In many ways it's been a succession of different things, but you can't really look at Monocle in isolation because it's part of quite an interconnected journey so far.

I have a dreadful work-life balance. I think that is often the challenge of being an entrepreneur.

Had you always set your sights on starting up your own business?

I started my career as a journalist properly in 1989 when I came to the UK, started with the BBC in Manchester and did a series of jobs in broadcasting, never with a focus on print necessarily. I was never interested in being a print journalist at all.

So what do you think made you create Wallpaper?

It was really circumstance and frustration with the media and working in television and being frustrated with the quality of TV. Even in 1991 I was a bit disheartened by the state of TV news, that's why I thought it would be interesting to get into print, and I think I had a pretty good run from 1991 through to 1995 just freelancing and having the odd contributor’s gig at various magazines. Then I went to Afghanistan, got shot and all of the forces that lead up to the launch of Wallpaper in 1996.

Launched in 2007, Monocle is a London-based magazine reporting on politics, social and cultural affairs. Photo: Startup Guide

So you never saw yourself starting your own business?

There was a long track record of doing a variety of things in journalism, but never with the idea that, 'Oh, I wanna run a magazine,' because in many ways I just wanted to be an employee rather than be a publishing entrepreneur. There was no intention of running my own show.

Would you call yourself an entrepreneur?

I wouldn't, but others do. I still just see myself as a journalist, even if I have to fill out an immigration form when I go into a country and it says profession I just put journalist. I never use that overused word 'founder'. I'm a journalist, that's what I do.

What would you say are the main issues in starting up?

I think it’s always financing, proof of idea and convincing people to come on board. Obviously the business I'm in is a sales business; you have to convince readers to buy a product and get advertisers to support you and convince the news trade to stock your magazine. So one side of it is just making sure you've got a compelling product people want to purchase or partner with, and to get there it's really about refining your brand and what it's going to be. Also, it's important refining your pitch too, to make sure you can get your foot in the door.

Did you have problems raising cash?

Obviously in starting up any project the main issue is funding, and it took a while. But going way back to Wallpaper, that was a different sum of money, we were raising £120,000 in 1995, very different to how we raised £3 million to launch Monocle, aside from our own money – and again, a little bit harder, but that was ten years later and we had more experience and more contacts.

So would you say there were any big mistakes you made that you've learned from?

I always look back and think maybe I sold Wallpaper too early, but I'm not sure what the alternative was at that time, I don't think there was much of one, I really did have to sell the business. I guess that's informed this time around, but now I have a business which I own over 80 percent of, so it's one that I control with space for other investors.

Why did you need to sell at that time?

Due to cash flow; we'd run out of money, and that was it. Also, we needed partners with some muscle and scale, and it was complicated to launch something which had global ambitions and wanted to establish itself globally very quickly. To sustain that without the muscles of a big publishing partnership was very difficult.

Photo: Startup Guide

What’s the best decision you ever made?

There was no single decision, but I was guided by a couple of principles, and one is: working with and choosing partners that you really like and are in it for the long haul. Both colleagues and investors. Not just people who want to be in and out in three years and get a fast return. Secondly, we've always tried to invest in good environments. For whatever amount of money I've had, we've always tried basing ourselves in quite central locations, and creating an attractive work environment that people want to come to everyday and your clients want to visit.

It's important to run a tight ship, lead from the front to demonstrate in a very clear way so your colleagues know exactly what the expectations are of the brand. You have to be very articulate and focused in terms of reaching people, and the vision has to be 100 percent clear in your head; it's not a movable feast that's ever-evolving.

You need to hire a mix of individuals who of course are talented and will deliver the skills you need for your business but are also just good people to be with.

From your experience, is there any advice you’d give to startups?

I think it's important when employing people that you don't always go for the best CV in the pile, you need to hire a mix of individuals who of course are talented and will deliver the skills you need for your business but are also just good people to be with. The person who is qualified for the job might not always end up being the nicest individual, and no one wants to work with an asshole all day. That's a problem many people fall for.

What does a day in the life of Tyler Brûlé look like?

No day is the same; I travel 275 days a year, there's not a set regime. I would like to say that I get up and run every morning, but the truth is some weeks I run five times, some weeks I don't run at all.

With all that travel, how do you keep a good work-life balance?

I don't! I have a dreadful work-life balance. I think that is often the challenge of being an entrepreneur; if you have a group of people who in some ways depend on you as much as your family does, it's very hard to balance that, so I don't think there's a magic tonic. I believe there's more chance to rest later in life, and now is not the time.

I bet you'll be saying that when you're 75.

Yeah exactly, we'll see.  

What motivates you?

Well I love launching things, that's a big part of my drive, so seeing these new projects through to fruition, part of that drive is that once you've built something, you need to maintain it, and it is highly motivating to think you've got 200 people working for you and you need to ensure there'll be enough money for everyone at the end of the month. If that's not motivation, I don't really know what is.

This interview was originally published in our Startup Guide London book in 2016.

Main photo: Tyler Brûle