From Cardiff to the valleys ...
PROFILE : JOHN CHIPLIN ...California's silicon valleys, that is. David Bowen meets the man masterminding Superscape's surge on the Internet
Sunday 09 March 1997
John Chiplin is in fact Welsh. He has lived in California for a decade, but he was born and brought up in Cardiff. Just occasionally the dragon shows itself - a lilt here, an expression there - but the Stars and Stripes holds up well. What Welshman would wear a bright blue tie with a large lemon on it?
The speed at which expatriates take on accents tells you a good deal about their attitudes to their old and new homes. Chiplin says he could not wait to get rid of his "dorky" accent, and California is his spiritual home - even though he describes it as "like Victorian England, very brash, very moralistic".
This is not irrelevant to Superscape, the most successful of the three quoted British virtual reality companies. Not that that is such a great achievement. One of the others, Virtuality, has been in administration since January, while the other, Division, has seen its losses steadily deepen. But there is no doubt that Superscape is proving successful - not least because it has jumped aboard the Internet bandwagon with aplomb, and been rewarded with a series of joint ventures with Microsoft, Intel and others. It does not yet make a profit - what small IT company does? - but it is growing very fast: turnover grew from $1.6m (pounds 1m) to $3.9m in the last financial year.
To keep up the growth, Chiplin believes, Superscape must follow his own example and move to California.
"Two years ago nought per cent of sales were in the US; in the last financial report 53 per cent were," he says. The company headquarters has already been moved from Hook, Hampshire, to Santa Clara, south of San Francisco. The next step will be a de facto shift of its share listing from London to Nasdaq, the US high-tech stock market. The company has raised pounds 23m so far in London - but in the future, funds will be coming from the US.
Chiplin talks happily of the "US-isation" of Superscape. "We're trying to convert it from an English technology boutique to a company with the look and feel of a high-growth software company," he says. And this can be achieved only in California. "The IT industry hangs around the West Coast, so you have to be there," he says. "If I have a spare evening, I can have dinner with a vice-president from Netscape." He notes proudly that even Americans have remarked on the aggression of his sales team.
Chiplin says Superscape's goal must be to "cross the chasm", to move from clever ideas to profit. "Our strategy is based entirely on how to do it."
John Chiplin - lanky, sharp-featured and curly-haired - was born 38 years ago in Cardiff. A clue to his childhood, and perhaps to his later drive, comes from the dedication on his CD: "When I was 12 years old my mother bought me an old piano. She borrowed pounds 20 to buy it, and paid pounds 5 to a neighbour to deliver it. Bailiffs tried to take it several times, but somehow she always managed to hang on to it."
At 17 he headed for London to make his fortune as an instrumentalist. He failed, and after two years "living off crisp sandwiches" he swapped his musical dream for the prosaic world of Nottingham University and a degree in molecular biology.
He ended up with a PhD, but towards the end of his six years at Nottingham he found himself looking for a better way of viewing molecular structures. The answer was three-dimensional computer modelling - just a short hop from virtual reality.
At 26, Dr Chiplin was given a job by Molecular Design, a US company that was looking for someone to set up its European operation. He knew nothing of business ("I learnt it on the fly") but was good at selling to scientists. In 1986 he was asked to repeat the trick by a Californian company, Biosym Technologies, and after another year of success was asked to go back to head office. That was the start of his great Californian career.
He spent seven years moving around the company - including two years in Tokyo - before it was sold for $100m, many times the original investment. As he had a "significant share", he found himself, at 36, a multi-millionaire.
In England he had lived at Hartley Witney, in Hampshire. One of his neighbours there had been Ian Andrew, a computer whiz-kid who had founded Superscape in the early Eighties and had developed a strong niche in business-related virtual reality. Architects, for example, could use his software to create a "virtual" version of an unbuilt building to show their clients.
But at the end of 1994 Superscape was struggling. It had been floated in the spring of that year, and the share price had drifted downwards. Ian Andrew asked his old chum if he would come back from the States to see what he could do. Mrs Chiplin was keen to bring the three small Chiplins back, so the family headed east.
Chiplin found a small company "which had fantastic technology but which was very light on sales and marketing". That it had done so well with these defects - and with an almost total reliance on the UK market - was a sign that it had vast potential. "I found a phenomenal opportunity for British technology to be developed on a worldwide basis," he says. He reckoned that if Superscape had done as it had in Britain, it should flourish mightily in the States. "For a small technology company, England is not a natural homeland," he says.
After a year the company decided to throw its lot in with the Internet, and Chiplin started cutting deals to push its Web-based technology. Early last year he scored a high-profile coup when Superscape joined up with Intel to launch a "virtual Stonehenge". That provided a basis for more commercial applications - CompuServe, for example, now has a virtual shopping centre that uses Superscape's software. If three-dimensional Web pages catch on, he says, there is nothing to stop the company becoming a giant.
Meanwhile he has thrown himself back into music. If you see someone penning quavers while flying business class, it could well be Chiplin.
He is chairman of Unicorn Records, and in 1995 he wrote and produced a CD called The Road Less Travelled. It is an eclectic collection, ranging from an adaptation of Growing Up by AA Milne to WH Auden's Funeral Blues, and it highlights the real shared ground between the Welsh and the Californian valleys: a deep and rather attractive sentimentality.
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