A man with real Eurovision

Kevin Moir, founder of Virtual European Office, tells how his company plans to help internet adolescents make the transition to e-commerce adulthood
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The Independent Online

Early one evening in Paris just before Christmas last year, the crush at the doors of a prestigious First Tuesday event was tight. Solidly built Kevin Moir, both co-host and bouncer, was turning away hopefuls by the dozen, including Dan Taylor, chairman of the London-based investment fund e-capital.

Taylor forgave the slight. When he and Moir, founder of business development firm Virtual European Office, met in more congenial surroundings, they soon found points of synergy. So much so that last week they announced a merger in a no-cash deal worth around $11m, e-capital agreeing to buy VEO in exchange for 10 per cent of its own stock.

"Dan was looking for an operational company, and we were halfway through our fund-raising round, says Moir, 38. "It seemed logical to go with e-capital; I could offer Dan something real, not just paper."

With three years' experience in pan-European market assessment, entry strategy and partner search and selection, Moir saw his business as the ideal partner for e-capital, formerly Cambury Investments, whose directors include city entrepreneurs Damian Aspinall and Hugh Osmond.

E-capital had already invested in 28 European technology companies but plans to double its deal flow through VEO, while Moir now has $1m to spend on increasing his team from 13 to 50, and will shift his own focus from closing deals to integrating the two firms.

He insists that the merged company will not function as a management consultancy or as an incubator. "We say fast-track business development. If you say management consultant, people expect you to write a nice report and walk away. If you say incubator, people expect you to give £50,000 to two kids. When those children come to adolescence, e-capital and VEO will take them into adulthood."

Start-ups are less interesting to Moir and Taylor than "started-ups". The aim is to take minority holdings and to add value. "The incubators can take care of the kids and do the strategic stuff, but we will follow it through. I really don't see anyone else with that kind of positioning," Moir says. "We are not trying to bear hug. Other investors in these companies will share the risk but will also add value. The entrepreneur is the best person to run the business, and we're not seen as a threat."

Moir got his own starting orders at a Paris bar. He had just finished an MBA when he came across Tom Virden, now Lastminute.com's European director, who had secured funding and a licence to manufacture set-top boxes and create web TV across Europe. Moir joined him, but the set-top boxes didn't take off.

"We were way ahead of our time, and felt we were hitting our heads against a brick wall. It didn't make us the big equity gain we'd hoped for, and sales went down, but for 18 months I talked to every internet company in Europe - ISPs, telcos, media operators - about strategy.

"In 1997 we said, let's leverage this knowledge. Let's go back to Silicon Valley, tell American companies that Europe is the place to be, and tell them we can help."

One of the first companies that the new-look VEO took on was Netscape Netcenter. "They said 'We need a Europe portal' and we said, 'Not possible. Think 15 different countries and 15 sets of regulations'. There's no homogeneity, and for us it had been a real education process. We became their sales force in Europe."

Sales was always the driver for Moir, who talks of his love of competing and closing deals. He studied physics but soon got into sales and marketing at ICL and Hoskyns. "I am not a techie. If my computer breaks down I'm on the phone to my guy in Paris. A lot of technology is more hassle than it's worth, and I still run my life from my to-do list."

One of his big sales successes was for Richard Downs' ski service Iglu.com, following an urgent call one night last September, just weeks before the season started. "He said: 'We've been so busy building this all-singing, all-dancing site; we haven't thought about distribution. Can you help?' " Within six weeks, Moir closed deals with service providers such as Deutsche Telecom, Lycos and World Online. "I happened to be in the office, and was able to help them to localise their model."

Other clients who have conscripted VEO to help them conquer Europe include Lastminute.com, Infoseek and About.com. The traffic isn't all one-way, either; having focused on American companies, Moir now finds half his clients are European companies, and anticipates they may soon be casting covetous eyes towards the less-developed interactive TV and mobile markets in the US. "I have a couple of guys in the States and I see it as a medium-term opportunity," he says. "Whether I want to go for it or not, I just don't know yet."

With the e-capital merger come several opportunities closer to home, initiatives such as Eggsbenefit, a British catering-industry portal; Exonet, a Greek ISP; and eighteenglobal, a golfing aggregate.

"At VEO I could have taken funding from one of the more established companies, but I liked e-capital because they haven't yet gone into exponential growth. I see us as being able to influence the way they go forward. They're smart financial engineers. We can add the depth. The challenge is to grow a really pan-European company. There's a difference between translating the words, and really localising something."