Riding high on a cyber vision

Five years ago, Richard Latham saw the future - and he hasn't looked back
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The Independent Online

Richard Latham, 35, learned programming skills from a free booklet five years ago. His web design company, Bluewave.com, now has 65 staff and offices in London, New York and Singapore. For Richard, the Internet came along in the nick of time. He was 30, a graduate in civil engineering, and had drifted through a couple of jobs before he was signed up by the Market Intelligence Research Corporation to sell research to companies in Europe.

Richard Latham, 35, learned programming skills from a free booklet five years ago. His web design company, Bluewave.com, now has 65 staff and offices in London, New York and Singapore. For Richard, the Internet came along in the nick of time. He was 30, a graduate in civil engineering, and had drifted through a couple of jobs before he was signed up by the Market Intelligence Research Corporation to sell research to companies in Europe.

He says: "Until that point I hadn't been much of a high achiever. I gravitated towards business and I had always been looking for an opportunity. But it's one thing to want to do business, and another thing to have a good idea."

In 1994, Richard's job was to sell research about the Internet, but at that point nobody was interested. The Web itself was text-based and there were few commercial sites. "I was trying to sell to broadcasters, but they felt it wasn't important and wasn't the future. I hadn't been interested in computers myself until the age of 27, when I got a PC, but I had begun to use the Internet all the time and obviously realised it was quite a wondrous thing."

The disparity between received opinion and Richard's inklings of the way ahead became too great for him to ignore. "These large commercial organisations were thinking about this information super-highway, but they were completely ignoring the Internet. They couldn't understand the fact that it was not controlled by any single organisation. Maybe it was too anarchist or considered too hobbyist. I could see it was functioning well and other plans for the super-highway were doomed."

The next step for Richard was to step over the precipice of the known. He left his job and founded Bluewave.com, offering web design services, in 1995 - despite the fact that his first child was about to be born. "In the job I left, I didn't really have control over what I was doing. My views were changing, and I decided that I really wanted to go for it."

He says he had no serious competition until 1997. At the infant stages of the Web, everybody was learning from scratch. He named the company after the hypertext links, originally blue, which users would "surf". His only other useful skill was an understanding of how to position Bluewave.com in the emerging market. "Our first technical skillsets were from a free programming booklet which came with an American magazine. I got an office in the East End, and put up a website offering web design. Very few companies were doing this, so I got big accounts right at the start."

He began to concentrate on improving the Internet experience for the end user, making the interface more intuitive by taking into consideration the way in which the eye roves across the screen, for example. "Just by looking at a home page, you can get a feel for the company you are interacting with. We're looking at the relationships between the equipment and the surfer, the logical use of words and links."

Richard's vision of a cyber-future was sparked in the early Eighties, when he read William Gibson's book Neuromancer. "I had this vision that it was going to be an enormous human endeavour and there would be companies who would build cyberspace." As the vision has unfolded, the only thing he has been surprised by is the lack of surprises. "The Internet seems to be taking an inevitable path. Everybody is having the same idea at the same time. It's quite easy to predict the way it will go. It's a representation of the real world, of everything that you see built by human hands. And this building is going to require a lot of people."

After two years in business, Richard began expanding his crew from 15 to 65. Recruitment in the early days was easy. "If somebody sent you an e-mail saying 'I want to be a web designer', they were generally very good. The early adopters were smart people, and we recruited them over the Internet.

"I met our head of production in an Internet chat room - you interact by text so you can be a little more intense in the questions you ask. I asked, 'What do you look like?' and he sent me a web picture within half an hour. I said, 'If you can get here by next Monday, you'll get the job'. He was in Canada, but he said, 'I will be there'.

"The kind of people who work on the Internet have a different agenda. They are able to project their minds beyond their immediate environment and what they are interacting with. The amount of time you put in on the Internet does change the way you think. I think you become more aware and tolerant."

Richard says he tends to recruit people "better than me" and to put staff needs ahead of client needs - giving staff a four-month paid sabbatical every four years, for instance - but he is not so keen on developing larger partnerships. "I think it's a complete waste of time to get embroiled in lots of 'strategic alliances' when there's a lot of work to be done here."

Has commitment to hard work been difficult for a man who admits one of his biggest faults is laziness? Richard says: "I still have that trait, although I don't notice it now because I enjoy my work. The people I admire are those who are working flat out into their sixties, like Rupert Murdoch, and who obviously enjoy it. I don't think I will ever retire."

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