An Internet café? They said it would never work

Cyberia was three years ahead of the market and usually that's a Bad Thing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

WHO WANTS public Internet access in the high street? Well, judging by the financial reports from the cybercafé industry, a lot of people want it and want it now. However, five years ago, when I and my fellow Cyberians were looking for funding for the world's first cybercafé, the banks were simply not interested. We had a great concept, fabulous technology and a bunch of dedicated Internet evangelists. But there was no Internet market, so the investment community didn't want to know.

WHO WANTS public Internet access in the high street? Well, judging by the financial reports from the cybercafé industry, a lot of people want it and want it now. However, five years ago, when I and my fellow Cyberians were looking for funding for the world's first cybercafé, the banks were simply not interested. We had a great concept, fabulous technology and a bunch of dedicated Internet evangelists. But there was no Internet market, so the investment community didn't want to know.

In the end, we scraped around for the private investment and started on half of a shoestring and a borrowed coffee machine. Four PCs were linked up to 9.6K modems and the digital world opened up for all curious visitors at £3.50 for half an hour's access.

The opening was a massive success, and in the first week we managed to get enough money to buy a proper cappuccino-maker. Cyberia was alive and kicking, and we helped to lead the digital revolution that has created an industry worth £7bn plus.

Today we are celebrating the fifth anniversary of Cyberia café group, and I can't help thinking that this is only the beginning. Things are looking better than ever. Today's innovators have access to funding and Internet start-ups are the place to be for everybody, from the toffs to the kids from the housing estates. The industry is based on merit and skill, and nobody gets ahead because of their accent or connections, but only because they contribute.

Yet the journey from the shoestring beginning to today's booming industry was a tough one, and there were moments when we were sailing rather close to the brink of disaster. For all of us involved in the first round of funding, the investment in Cyberia was a gamble - the level of risk was considered somewhere between "mad" and "totally insane". But our collective gut instinct outweighed any logical arguments against our rather ethereal business model.

It was a pretty tough few years, though. Cyberia was three years ahead of the market and, in business terms, usually that's a Bad Thing. Most companies simply do not survive that sort of lag, and indeed many early Internet companies tanked, despite having a good team and skill sets.

The streets of Soho are full of corpses of the first wave of Internet start-ups that simply started too early. Many of them, such as Webmedia, didn't grow; the development capital wasn't there to take them to the next level. Others, such as Obsolete, have suffered internal battles; the founders have fallen out and decided to split.

Others still simply ran out of steam and motivation, as start-ups require a lot of stamina and ridiculously long hours.

Finally, the creation of the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) didn't help matters. Many companies got stuck on a market that never really happened but instead stifled the growth of the industry.

So, all in all, it wasn't all roses, and companies such as Net Names, Cyberia, Easynet and Netbenefit that have managed to hang on in there and brave the unwelcoming winds are all the stronger for it, and in a good position to compete in today's exploding market. The first wave of Net companies created an excellent training-ground for the second wave of more seasoned digital entrepreneurs.

Cyberia has managed to create a niche for itself and inspired new generations of the digital artisans. Over the last five years we have released a lot of strong Net talent and developers who are now creating and leading new Internet companies. FunMail, FUK, Sunbather and DeltaBravo, plus the top five advertising agencies and virtually all of the Web portals - the Cyberian mafia is leading the digital revolution.

The most interesting thing is that usage of the Internet has changed radically over the last few years. It started with e-mail, moved to content and then to e-commerce and music, and is now moving to the living-room via interactive TV. The Net is a lively beast that keeps reinventing itself on a weekly basis. Every time something goes out of fashion, the users move on to a new application, learning how to use auctions, download MP3 or brave the credit card doubts and buy online. There is no end to fun applications, so the industry will continue to grow, serving a new type of intelligent Net user who is hungry for cool toys.

Strangely, we have all learnt to live with the constant change, and the fact that nothing is safe from the refreshing breeze of the digital wind of change. Some industries, such as music and records, are in their final stages of analogue-to-digital convulsions; book publishing will be turned upside down by digital distribution; and digital video has opened a route to distribution to young film-makers with modems.

The crÿme de la crÿme of this year's university graduates have been headhunted by US e-commerce companies arriving in the UK. But the really smart ones have headed direct to the venture capital companies, to get funding to run their own start-ups.

This new generation doesn't want to play safe, doesn't seek status, but will try to push the envelope and create something of their own.

The new post-digital world will be composed of many small but flexible nodes that will be run by individuals who like taking risks and can handle the responsibility of spending other people's money. The opportunities are there; the only limit is our own imagination. Phase two of the revolution is just about to start. Cyberia will be there, growing the talent, creating the new experimental ways for using the Net and loving every minute of it.

Comments