How the net became his Boomtown

Bob Geldof's latest project, WapWorld, will deliver sports and entertainment news to mobile phones. Has he at last found a piece of technology he likes?
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"I've got the internet, but I never use it. I got connected because the kids wanted it, I find it's of no use to me whatsoever." Now that's just not the kind of comment you would expect to hear from one of Britain's most successful Net entrepreneurs. It all starts to make sense, though, when you realise that this reluctant internet mogul is erstwhile pop star, actor and TV production exec Sir Bob Geldof.

Sir Bob might have turned his attention to developing internet businesses over the past couple of years, but he's still one of the Net industry's fiercest critics. "I got into the internet business because it irritates me, that's my motivation. I'm pushed into doing things by my irascibility."

Geldof's track record clearly proves his theory. After all we are talking about the man who was so irritated by the situation in Ethiopia in 1984 that he set up the giant Live Aid and Band Aid projects and managed to raise over £60 million to help fight famine in the country.

So exactly how did this self-confessed Web hater get involved in the internet business? After selling off his £5m share in the TV production company Planet 24 to Carlton in early 1999, Sir Bob found himself with a bit of cash rattling around his pockets. At about this time he was approached by James Page, a former partner in the games company Eidos, who wanted to set up a travel site.

Sir Bob takes up the story: "He made me look at the internet to check out other travel sites. I thought it was crap and rubbish and low and awkward and clunky. I said this is bollocks. Why can't you just type in where you're going and within a matter of minutes it gives you, with no bullshit, the cheapest flight. James then went away and built the site." The result, deckchair.com, was launched in April 1999.

And it's true deckchair.com does have an almost Zen-like simplicity about it. You just select the appropriate dates and destination, and the site hits you with a huge selection of flights, listing the cheapest first. Deckchair.com hasn't done too badly considering that no money has been spent on marketing or advertising - of course, having a mouthy chairman like Sir Bob helps enormously when it comes to getting those vital column inches.

"Our revenues are multiplying greater than those of many other famous websites," Sir Bob claims. And we're a recognised brand, largely through me cracking on about the site... I like Deckchair in the same way that I liked Planet 24; it had an idea, it worked, it had a personality. "

Stage two of Deckchair is about to hit the Web and Sir Bob is characteristically bullish about the revamped site: "It will piss on everything else that's out there."

WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), the technology that gives you access to internet services through your mobile phone, is Sir Bob's next big project. He's invested in WapWorld (www.wapworld.net), a WAP portal specialising in providing sport and entertainment information. The business is a joint venture between Geldof's Ten Alps media company, former England rugby union international Brian Moore's digital marketing business Abacus and Jingo Communications. Moore claims that "WapWorld will have hip content generated by an in-house editorial team who know the things people want to read and listen to."

The business is doing pretty well already. WapWorld has already done a deal with the Carphone Warehouse to sell mobiles with WapWorld pre-installed and the company recently signed up Waitrose in a deal that will allow customers to order groceries direct from their mobile phone handsets.

Sir Bob seems to be at one with mobile phone technology - during our conversation he breaks off to answer his ever-ringing phone. Finally, it seems we've found a bit of new technology that Sir Bob actually likes. "When people can go online without them even knowing they're on the internet, then it's working... WapWorld is cool, I carry it around with me and my mobile phone is much simpler to use than my PC. We're on the first step towards ubiquitous information and that I like."

But don't expect Sir Bob to sell up and ship out of the Net business; no, he's in it for the long haul. "What I really want to do is build a business. I did it with music and I did it with TV and radio. The point is that Deckchair is a service. It's a business. If you're saying that you want a consumer to use your service then you've got to deliver. And I'm really quite interested in building that up. So now we employ 32 people, we're going to scale up to 64 in the next month, and we're moving offices."

Sir Bob has been scathing about the City's understanding of internet businesses, claiming that they don't understand how quickly e-commerce and technology is moving. Nevertheless, we can expect his Net businesses to float. "You need to float eventually because you need those revenues to expand and plant flags in other places," Sir Bob explains.

But the hype surrounding the huge fortunes being made, and lost, in the industry really gets his goat. "All that stuff about instant internet millionaires is bollocks. I know several of them. They got their arses taken out of their trousers.

"A friend of mine raised money for a Net proposition of his. Theoretically, he's an internet millionaire, but he works a minimum 100-hour week, he doesn't go on holiday, and he'll be stuck there for the next four years. He doesn't see any of the money and the investors in his business won't allow him to get out of there. He can't fucking move for years.

"You have to ignore all of that, and make up your mind to use these revenues to make your business into something significant. Right now, in this marketplace, we're a significant force. We need to take the Americans on at their own game, which I believe we can, and I believe Britain can." Makes you proud to be British, doesn't it?

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