And GOD created access to the Net

Three entrepreneurs have found their niche with services such as the Global Online Directory.
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Fortunes are being made on the World Wide Web. And the gold rush is attracting all the world's wannabe millionaires. But who is having the good ideas and how do they get started in business?

Nethead is an interesting case history: a bunch of go-ahead entrepreneurs who have found their niche in the market with a fast-growing service that includes the modestly named Global Online Directory, or GOD. Their story sums up the have-a-go spirit of the Internet.

Oscar Jenkins, managing director, trained as a chef in Australia, ran a chain of clothes shops, networked the tills together, got interested in computers and came to London to set up a computer business.

Bob Stewart started work as a gofer in the House of Commons, rose to be head waiter, took O- and A-levels, then graduated to become a fully qualified computer science guru at the age of 29.

Steve McVickers was a paratrooper until he fell out of a tree on an assault course, joined the Hong Kong police, then became a City futures trader.

Keen sportsmen, Steve and Oscar met while they were surfing off the south coast.

In their south London office, Steve tells me: "Oscar rolled round to my flat one night and said: `G'day, buddy, have you heard about this Internet stuff then?' He opened up this laptop computer and said: `Have a look at this, mate.' He plugged it in, started typing away on the World Wide Web and found me some financial information. I said: `That's brilliant. Get me on there so that I can download all this and use it at work.'

"I started off as a paratrooper in the RAF, but I fell out of a tree on an assault course and injured my back. So I joined the Hong Kong police but got a knife through my shoulder - that's when I decided I didn't want to be a policeman any more. I came back to the City, to trade financial futures.

"When I met Oscar, I was desperately looking for a way out of the City. I was just moving money around - it's soul destroying not creating things. I thought the Internet looked like a pretty good industry to go into. It was a huge risk. I was very well paid, and I've given all that up, but I'm happy."

A standard part of Nethead's service is providing Internet access, in conjunction with the cable company Videotron and Energis. Videotron customers in London - who make up 50 per cent of Nethead's private clientele - enjoy free phone calls in off-peak hours.

But the company's main thrust is directed at the advertising and public relations world. Its speciality is designing and publishing upmarket World Wide Web pages, which help advertising agencies and PR firms to promote their skills on the Internet. A Web page is like a living advertisement - to attract an audience, it has to be a springboard to useful information or entertaining places on the Net.

Steve explains: "We decided to hit the agencies because they hold the corporate clients. Animation is what really gets to them - it's a novel medium."

Why advertise on the Net? Steve says: "Let's say you are an estate agent. You spend a fortune on producing a brochure every month, but by the time some customers see it, many of the houses are sold. On the Internet, a simple Web page costs between pounds 3,000 and pounds 5,000 to design, and it's quicker and cheaper to update than any other medium. It's also more flexible - a buyer could bring up a plan of a house, or the map of where it is. If you are, say, an American who is coming to work in England, you could start to look at houses while you are still in the US. That's the surprise - most of the businesses we have dealt with have a strictly local market. As soon as they get on the Internet, all sorts of avenues open up to them: a street-corner shop becomes an international brand if you advertise and market yourself well."

Nethead's own marketing has been bullish. Just after the launch last spring, Oscar managed to secure a free ad in Campaign magazine. (Text: "Want to get on to the Internet? Got no bleeding idea whatsoever what you're doing? Call Nethead.") They were mobbed by the top names in advertising. The first wave of 50 clients included Saatchi & Saatchi and Delaney Fletcher Bozell.

Steve says: "One of the reasons that we have been successful is that we have underground designers. They aren't interested in computer-generated graphics, just in stylish graphics that work on computers.

"What really upsets me is people who haven't put enough thought into how long the Web user has to sit in front of his screen waiting for pictures to arrive. With a modem, you have a very small line. We compress the information to get it down the line really quickly. Then we build up the design on the screen so that you get the outline of the graphic first, then the text, and it gradually fills in with colour."

Getting this clever technology to work was where Bob Stewart fitted in - not bad for a man who left school in Belfast with no qualifications whatsoever. He says: "I did everything the wrong way round. I joined the House of Commons as a gofer in the Smoke Room, and worked my way up to head waiter. Then I injured my leg playing football and I was laid up for six months, playing with a Commodore 64 computer, writing programs. I thought: `I could make a living out of this.' I went down to South Bank University and said: `I'd like a degree, please,' and they told me to get A-level Maths. At the A-level college, they informed me I needed O- levels. So I left the Commons, did my evening classes and paid my way by doing everything from roofing to Champagne-a-grams. (Oscar: "That's a good idea - you could offer them on the Net.") After my degree, I met Oscar at karate and he suggested I come and work with him."

After masterminding the creation of GOD, the company's Global Online Directory that attracts a million Internet visitors a month, Bob moved smoothly into corporate sales.

Where do they see the Internet going next? Oscar, the future-blazer, says: "Virtual Reality Modelling will be the next big thing. At the moment, everything is very two-dimensional. With VRM, if you are buying a house, you will be able to look at it and move through it in three dimensions. There is software already available that allows a salesman to talk to potential customers who are using the World Wide Web, and give them a personalised tour of an online shop. The customer has a microphone and can talk back to the salesman. In fact, you could make a fortune selling tours around the Internet."

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