Branson trawls for small businesses

Virgin's latest Internet venture has a specific target
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The Independent Online

RICHARD BRANSON is already Britain's best-known entrepreneur, but his latest plan is to become the world's favourite Internet businessman. His Virgin group of companies is already making significant inroads into the world of e-commerce. Virgin customers can book flights and train tickets and organise their finances over the Net. They can access the Net itself using Virgin Net, the company's own free Internet service provider.

RICHARD BRANSON is already Britain's best-known entrepreneur, but his latest plan is to become the world's favourite Internet businessman. His Virgin group of companies is already making significant inroads into the world of e-commerce. Virgin customers can book flights and train tickets and organise their finances over the Net. They can access the Net itself using Virgin Net, the company's own free Internet service provider.

Last week, Branson launched his latest online venture, Virgin Biznet, which will sell Internet services, including access, Web page design and hosting, and e-commerce and credit card payments to small companies. Virgin is targeting businesses with fewer than 20 employees. There are, the company calculates, 3.6 million businesses this small and just 3 per cent currently have websites. Branson hopes that Biznet will double that figure.

The move to offer services directly to business is a radical new venture for the Virgin group, which to date has concentrated on its consumer brands, from records to cola. But Branson believes that the basic tenets of the Virgin business philosophy - simplicity and fair pricing - and the company's experience gained from Virgin Net should find a ready audience among small businessmen and women.

"Small businesses that have been victims of the complexity of trading on line will be able to benefit from those Virgin values; we are making it simpler to go online."

Virgin estimates that it costs about £6,000 for a small business to set up and operate an e-commerce-enabled website. Virgin Biznet will offer similar services for between £50 and £100 a month, with a set-up charge of £150-£350.

Virgin will give each Biznet customer an Internet consultant, who will guide them through setting up their site and becoming an online business. Branson, who started his own first business from a public phone box near his school, concedes that life is now more complicated for entrepreneurs.

"I come into almost any new business knowing almost nothing about it," Branson says. "I'm always asking the simplest of questions to make sure I understand all the answers. We have tried in all our businesses not to complicate things with jargon."

Within his own companies, Branson is devoting considerable sums of money to creating an integrated, e-commerce solution that he hopes will position Virgin as one of the leading online brands worldwide. The project is reported to be costing £50m; the new operation, Virgin.com, will launch early next year.

The new Virgin.com site, Branson insists, will be more than simply an electronic version of his existing companies. "What we are planning to do is something more revolutionary and forward thinking," he says.

Branson believes that fear and a lack of technical knowledge are the main reasons why smaller companies are not making as much use as they could of the Net. For British users, the cost of telephone calls to access the Internet is another barrier that Virgin has identified. Branson plans to launch a Virgin-branded mobile phone service next month, and offering cheaper local calls, perhaps through Virgin Net, is an idea he has considered. "I suspect we could drive down telephone costs. It is something we are debating and looking at all the time.

"In America, people are charged monthly payments for Internet access; in the UK they are not any more so the only cost is the phone bill. Hopefully, those phone costs will be driven down. If we can, we would love to do it," he says.

For Branson, the decision to develop an Internet package for small business was driven by more than simply commercial considerations. "Every business has a responsibility and it is good to be able to help.

"Hopefully, thousands of small businesses will be helped to go online, and some of those might become very large businesses and large employers one day. It's certainly a worthwhile project."

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