The Digerati

When Claudia Jay found herself stranded in the Paris suburbs with no British newspapers, she was forced to use the Web for information, and discovered where she was headed
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A yearning for English literature and for news from Blighty provided Claudia Jay, stranded in the suburbs of Paris, with an appropriately cosmopolitan introduction to the joys of the Internet. Studying for an MBA at Insead in 1996, her interest was fired not through classroom tuition but because she couldn't get hold of a British newspaper.

A yearning for English literature and for news from Blighty provided Claudia Jay, stranded in the suburbs of Paris, with an appropriately cosmopolitan introduction to the joys of the Internet. Studying for an MBA at Insead in 1996, her interest was fired not through classroom tuition but because she couldn't get hold of a British newspaper.

She developed a habit of getting her fix from the Web. "It was so different and satisfying to get it instantly. You can update it, you don't have to drive trucks around, you don't need a newsstand. I was a very early adopter of Amazon.com because I read a lot. It was fantastic to have this massive bookshop at my disposal."

Before completing her MBA, Jay's experience of computers was minimal. "During my entire time at Oxford, where I studied English Literature, I hand-wrote all my essays. On my first day at McKinsey, they sat us down in front of a portable computer and said: 'Open it up, type in your name and password, and hit Return.' I didn't know how to open the flap and didn't know what 'Return' was. I went on a crash course and did a lot of research. That was in 1992; I thought spreadsheets were phenomenal."

Willingness to learn on the job became extended, sometimes frustrating forays. "We had fantastic information services, but you had to be quite specific in order to use a lot of the technology, which I found frustrating because I'm used to finding stuff on my own. I inevitably wanted to do it in the middle of the night. I definitely felt it was not designed for me - you needed all these codes, and I thought, why don't you just have a button to print it?"

From McKinsey she joined Pearson, at that time rapidly developing its electronic media interests. In a somewhat back-to-front fashion - given that she is now tackling a hands-on role at a start-up - she was recruited as a strategist, an ideal vantage point for observing the development of new media. "I had time to think that if we didn't do this stuff, we'd be lost."

At that stage, her main interest lay in the Internet as a business-to-business tool. She says she underestimated the speed at which it would become a consumer network. "At Pearson, we had a lot of professional and medical publications - not books that look wonderful on the bookshelf or ones that people read for pleasure. Any way to facilitate people to get to them more quickly was clearly going to be the way forward. For consumer brands, there was still a strong feeling that people wanted to touch and feel books just as they would clothes. There wasn't the penetration or the weight of people to use the Internet; it was still thought of as a sideline."

Two factors - an explosive introduction to new technologies at Insead, and burgeoning opportunities back home - heralded Jay's rise into the digital premier league. "At Insead, people had been doing stuff at the forefront of Internet development. I got fired up; I began to understand the massive potential impact it could have.

"Back at Pearson, I went through an incredibly invigorating nine months. It became clear that the major growth area was ft.com - how to make use of the brand on the Web. It's always more fun being where the money and the focus is, so, having learnt how to assess and analyse a business in a much more well-rounded way, I went to work there."

Jay became its head of product development, and learnt the importance of "having all your different departments moving at 100 miles per hour in the same direction". She also began to scrutinise the ingredients of a successful website. "In 1996, the Web was a fairly horrible place to navigate; ugly, slow and clunky, and the e-commerce applications were pretty grim. People really hadn't though through the design."

Her work at ft.com came to the attention of Kevin English, founder of thestreet.com in the United States. His offer - carte blanche in setting up a similar operation in the UK - was too good to refuse. The move surprised both her colleagues and her father, who as a businessman shares with Jay "an obsession with logic, organisation and structure". "Part of him thought what was I doing, leaving a fantastic job at Pearson to work for a company he had never heard of? It was only when he read about it in the FT that he decided I was making a good decision."

"For me, it was an opportunity to be involved in a start-up, according to a business model which has already proven incredibly successful. I feel strongly that this is going to be focused on UK customers."

"I can't identify anyone else going after exactly the same market as us," says Jay. "Some sites are more focused on the private investor; at the moment I feel everybody is approaching this in a slightly different way."

But she predicts the specialists will succeed fastest. "While I wouldn't want to say that the age of the portal is over, I don't think that agglomeration is going to be so important. That's why I passionately believe that thestreet.co.uk has a real chance; we're going to do one thing better than anyone else."

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