Network: The Digerati; A late-flowering ambition

Two years ago, Danny Kelly set up an Internet publishing business with two partners. Today, their 365 Corporation produces 14 websites and is valued at pounds 460m after a stock floatation. By Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Culture
Danny Kelly likes to joke about his late development. "Obviously, my childhood and the birth of computers were a long way apart," he quips. "I was born into an age when the abacus was considered new-fangled, and people dreamt of seed drills instead of seed capital." These days, he says, he feels out of place among "Internet people who are all 20 and wear skateboard shorts to work".

It's a remark designed to throw all comers off the scent. The jokey exterior is a deceptive front that allows him to get on undisturbed with his plans to conquer the world. Here is a man who at 42 still rivals a teenage Bill Gates for intensity. He's also grown what began as a football website into a company worth a projected pounds 460m, with his own stake valued at around pounds 3.6m.

His ambitions, he says, have only just begun to flower. "I got into radio in my mid-thirties, into TV in my late thirties, and started an Internet company when I was 40. I've still not given up hope of playing football for England, and having watched the team's recent performance I might be rather nearer the top of the list."

The young Kelly had other things on his mind. "I was highly strung and energetic, but sheltered. My dad was a railwayman and mum was a dinner lady, and I never had any ambitions or aspirations at school. I wasn't very rebellious at all. But I was an intense, skinny teenager - I've calmed down a lot as I've got older, though people who know what I'm like now will say `Blimey!'."

He found his way into creative pursuits through competence rather than vision, he claims. After being thrown out of the University of Leicester, which he puts down to "lack of effort and punk rock", plus a love affair with an older woman, he joined British Rail. For two years he worked on a complaints counter, where he developed an acute awareness of consumer muscle. Then it was back to college for a media studies course, and from there to the New Musical Express.

"I've always got into things because people have asked me to help them," Kelly muses. "I'm responsible, which is rare in somebody who might also be characterised as creative. In rock journalism, anybody who's prepared to do a rota or organise freelances gets offered more and more opportunities. When I was at the NME in the mid-1980s, the paper was going to hell in a hand-cart. Myself, James Brown and others managed to restore it to where it should be."

Rock journalism, he says, wasn't as glamorous as is often made out. "I got to meet people I never thought I'd meet, like Morrissey, but I missed the opportunity to fly around the world from one cocaine orgy to the next. Instead, I sat behind my desk getting the paper back up to the kind of circulation figures that meant it could hold its head up high. I didn't see any difference between populism and high quality."

Kelly's blend of light touch with commercial acumen and awareness has enabled him to forge ahead in the Internet stakes. At first, he was slow to catch on: "I remember two Americans came over to talk to EMAP about the Internet. It's gone into folklore that I did this 20-minute rant which ended in my swallowing a large bottle of turquoise ink, but I lost the argument in my mind. I got it into my head that the Internet was fantastic - the fact that people come to it, and that it's got a wider reach than TV."

Soon after, David Tabizel of Durlacher approached Kelly to ask him to produce content for an Internet start-up. Kelly met the other team members Dan Thompson and Simon Morris, and the trio hit it off.

In particular, Danny Kelly admired Thompson's financial savvy: "Many Internet companies come up against the fact that they are spending more money than they are making. We took positive steps not to let that happen, and Dan and I stood back to back and said `If nothing else, we will stick together.' I'm pretty grateful to have found such abiding comrades in an environment which is every bit as highly pressured and creative as the one I'd been in."

Kelly believes that Internet companies need to get back to the basics of entertainment. "People want to be engaged, to feel part of the club. Where it gets difficult is in the enormous amount of interactivity and responsibility that the Internet seems to offer, not just to entertain but to empower.

"You suddenly find you're writing in new ways to get people to respond. The scariest thing is being that close to the customers - and it's also the most satisfying. I've adored it. I love the fact that our cricket product, which is made in Australia, will be read in the far corners of the world. We get mail from people in Alaska."

This closeness to consumers - Kelly employs two staff solely to monitor incoming e-mails - has resulted in faster turnaround and rapid changes to website content. "You have to be prepared to take things that you have created and very quickly put them to sleep," Danny Kelly observes. "You no longer have any excuse for keeping something alive just because you like it."