Anna Russell: 'The who, what and why of e-business'

A co-founder of Silicon, Anna Russell is bringing essential industry news to the eyeballs that matter most
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The Independent Online

You've heard of e-business, e-toys and e-mail. For Rob Lewis and Anna Russell, the founders of the IT news site, Silicon.com, e-luck was the name of the game. It was 1997, and they were among the first to approach the original Californian owner of the domain name "silicon.com".

You've heard of e-business, e-toys and e-mail. For Rob Lewis and Anna Russell, the founders of the IT news site, Silicon.com, e-luck was the name of the game. It was 1997, and they were among the first to approach the original Californian owner of the domain name "silicon.com".

Russell, 28, now Silicon.com's marketing director, says: "This guy's computer services business had just gone bust, so he was more than amenable to selling the domain name. We were like asking, 'how much do you want for it?' His outstanding debts were $25,000, so we did a deal with him and he was a happy man and we were happy.

"A week later, we got a phone call from the same guy, who was now very pissed off because he had just had an offer for about $1m."

That cocktail of speed, canny thinking and luck has seen the pair streak ahead of the pack in building a news and recruitment service tailored towards decision-makers in IT and e-business. Lewis and Russell, who both studied at Cambridge but didn't meet until after they left, came up with their business plan three years ago and in April 1998 established the media company Network Multimedia Television (NMTV), which now publishes Silicon.com as an internet-based TV news service.

Two years on, they have 380,000 users, of whom 81 per cent have IT responsibility for their organisation, and they record 3.7 million page impressions each month. Users can log on and call up video bulletins of all the latest technology news, recorded at NMTV's Chelsea studio, and will soon be able to forward clips by e-mail to contacts and colleagues. The plan now is to replicate that user base in Germany and France.

Russell came to technology circuitously, reading English literature at Cambridge, but at home working for her father's bar-coding company. "I didn't wake up and think, oh yes, IT is my career. I used to go and work for my dad in the summer holidays, and I was always exposed to technology."

After university she considered a career in advertising but a friend suggested she go for an interview with Lewis. He had previously set up his own publication at Cambridge and had by then launched Business & Technology magazine, which he later sold to Felix Dennis, the publishing entrepreneur.

"Most of my peers went off to become lawyers, accountants or bankers, but I remember going for interviews with research companies and thinking, I could do this.

"I was really interested in working for Rob. It was a young start-up and in the early days we didn't have a receptionist so I used to go out and get the post in the morning and there would be sackloads of subscriptions, which we all used to open. I did a whole bunch of things from sales to editing, but eventually I became responsible for content. Rob has the big picture; I do too, but I am quite focused on the detail."

Russell was then headhunted by computer giants, IBM, and moved into internet and e-business marketing, working internally to "try to get people to work together to understand the message. There were people there in 1994 who were saying: 'The internet is a load of old rubbish'. By the time I left IBM our corporate mission was the internet and new media."

In 1997 she joined up with Lewis again, who had developed a software business alongside his media interests. "He had decided online was the way forward and saw the benefits in terms of real-time news, personalisation and video-on-demand. I said to him, 'Look, you've got a software company and a media company, both with very different objectives.' We decided to split the two and make a media company, which was totally independent."

Their plan for Silicon.com, was to provide analysis and comment in combined text and video for the IT community. "Most people don't measure who their audience is, but because we come from a controlled-circulation background, we decided we needed to understand our user base in a really intelligent way. That has remained at the heart of our business from a revenue point of view," says Russell.

"Back then, PR companies didn't understand the internet; it was a poor relation to print, and while major players were dabbling in content, there was nobody really dedicated. I took the view that we needed a big team of journalists to cover the market effectively, because if you don't have that content you are not going to build up a quality user base, and if you don't have that you are never going to make any money."

Early funding for growth came from business angels such as Peter Ogden and Philip Knatchbull, and then last October in an £11m funding round led by the venture capital firm, Amadeus Capital Partners. Russell reflects: "I have had to sharpen up on corporate finance. It's not my natural environment and working in an investment bank would bore my head off. But I wouldn't have missed that experience for the world.

"We had people queueing up to give us money and I remember thinking, well, we can get the money from anyone. It's not a matter of how much, but do we like the people involved? What are they going to add to our business?"

Silicon.com now employs 70 staff and is about to launch a revamped site which includes a "silicon chip" loyalty scheme, a blue-chip recruitment section and a new logo strapline: "The who, what, when, where and why of e-business". Russell says the company will hit "long-term profitability" later this year. Revenues are mainly from advertising but a new research division and an e-commerce component are part of the future revenue streams.

The next big market for NMTV is the US, but despite having the dot.com name to die for, Russell says Silicon.com won't be rushing in. "We will do it when we are ready. You have to do it in a considered way. So we will set up a guerrilla operation first, with a team to research and to put our name out there without putting our head above the parapet."

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