Fast Track: Netting a fortune

You don't have to be a techie, or rich, to start your own e-company, writes Emma Williams
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The Independent Culture
The number of hi-tech multi-millionaires in the rich list published by The Sunday Times could double in the next year alone, according to its compiler, Philip Beresford. What's more, it is graduates who have opted for a career on the Internet who seem to be getting rich the fastest.

So what do you need to make it work for you? Do you have to be a computer whizz-kid or is an innovative idea enough? How do you find a gap in the market? And how do you form a team that is going to make your idea a success story?

Two unlikely candidates for an online business are fashion graduates from St Martins College, Johnston Campbell and his partner Alistair Taylor. They shifted away from their backgrounds in fashion into interior design in order to create the website which enables users to discover information on a range of interior design companies. In addition, there are links to very detailed sites for each of the companies listed.

"We considered it criminal that there is all this brilliant design sitting out there not being used, and the only showcase for it is big department stores," explains Campbell, who claims more than 10,000 visits to a week.

Campbell and Taylor established their self-financed company in 1996 with money they had made from freelancing. In fact, it was not until a year ago that they received a large investment from a company they had pitched which has since enabled them to expand. Their research consisted of little more than surfing the Net for six months, which was how they first discovered that nobody was amalgamating interior companies under one site, making it complicated to access the latest designs. So what about the shift from fashion to technology?

"We like the extreme," says Campbell. "Fashion was a bit restrictive and not creative enough for me. I always wanted to invent or innovate something."

Zia Uddin, founder of the new website, is surprised that graduates don't enter this sector more often. "The Internet is a revolutionary medium which has been accepted by the masses as a global success. In return for hard work, the potential success that can be achieved in this industry is phenomenal," suggested the graduate from Oxford University.

Uddin's website offers free e-mail, shopping channels and auctions, but the essential difference is that he is offering to pay users as long as they display an ad-bar while online. Uddin spent time in Asia and the USA researching his idea, where he observed the success stories and the failures.

His background as an investment banker helped in some respects, he claims, because: "It was very good training in the execution of a business deal. It didn't matter that we didn't have a computer experience though. We assessed what we needed and brought in what we didn't have, which was mainly technical expertise." His background in banking also enabled him to save up the money needed to get started.

In fact, it is not only new starters that are discovering the benefits of e-commerce, says Steve Andrews, who established Triad-Design 11 years ago. Originally majoring in corporate identity work, Andrews accepted that the progression into website design was vital and now offers detailed advice to businesses wanting to expand into new media.

"Over the last eight or nine months, things have changed dramatically," he claims. "Companies are now recognising the merits of e-commerce as a marketing tool to promote business."

The bonus for graduates is that this means more and more people are using the Net on a daily basis. Andrews is quick to specify the importance of keeping your website buoyant and attractive to give people a reason to re-visit it. Research your specific area by scanning the Net and identifying the areas that are unexplored, he adds. Mike Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurial Studies at Harvard Business School and contributor to The Entrepreneurial Venture (McGraw Hill), says there is potential to make a huge return on investment.

The best news of all for graduates, Roberts adds, is that to set up your career on the Net, you don't have to be a computer buff or a millionaire. "The Internet has advanced to a point where you don't really need a lot of technology background to get a sophisticated website up and running. You can out-source the production and running of it." And like Uddin and Campbell, you can start off by financing yourself. Uddin speaks from experience when he says: "Anybody with a good idea, drive and enthusiasm has a very good chance of succeeding."