I went to Imperial College, London, to study computer science, and spent time thinking how you could solve problems; put music on to the Internet and charge for it, or build a better bookings system for a company like the one I worked for. I thought about how the Internet needed quality guarantees. I came up with all kinds of hare-brained schemes about how we might build a super-fast network, with prioritised access for premium business users.
I got support from my tutors - it wasn't impossible, it just hadn't been done. Two or three other students helped me to think through my ideas. I've always been able to stand on the soapbox and have people say: "That sounds good". I had a lot of confidence and very little fear. Once you're in an industry you appreciate that it takes a long time to do anything. Starting out, you don't have this understanding and that can make you powerful.
We set up an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that could offer different levels of service, but realised we had to build some technology; it wasn't available out of a box. I went to see a family friend and said: "I need pounds 20,000"; I was in my second year, and got the college to write a note saying that if I wanted to come back, if it all fell to pieces, I could. I was confident it was going to be worth something to the end user, solving the premium services problem with security and quality.
Our first offices were in the basement of a funeral parlour; we used to hear the thumping of the coffins. At times we couldn't raise money and I had to go out and do consultancy work. I'd get pounds 2,000 per day, and that would keep the company going for a month. I'd lie in bed and think: "What have I started? Is this going to turn into anything tangible?"
Our chairman, Alan Bates, joined us in February 1997. He put some money into the business, and Hermann Hauser also invested. Hermann didn't even see a demo. If you ask why, the answer would be something like: "He had passion, and what I could understand of what he was saying he wanted to do had tremendous value."I had lunch with Esther Dyson at the Landmark in Marylebone Road and she said: "I'll give you pounds 100,000."
By August 1998, we needed a senior person to stand in front of the team and draw up an action plan. We had all these big companies sniffing around saying: "This looks exciting", but we needed to turn the research into making money. Knowing where to put a full stop and say: "Let's just sell what we have", was not natural for me.
Alan had known Ashley for 15 years. Ashley said he would come and consult; we had conversations where I said: "I don't want you to train me, I think we need you here." Eventually he agreed to come on board as deputy chairman and chief operating officer.
I was fascinated with the idea of solving the problem, not selling it to thousands of people. Ashley's always thinking: "How can we turn this into something profitable?" We had a fantastic idea, knew everybody in the industry and were clearly ahead with our insights.
We hit it off; I was the ideas person while he pulled together the team. I was desperate for someone to take that load. We agreed he would become chief executive and I would take a satellite role. That gave him ability to take the reins and focus the management team, to keep the company on a stable path towards revenue. For me, it was about stepping back from making decisions. It can be incredibly frustrating, like having your mouth Sellotaped. But my schedule as an evangelist has been chock-a-block.
I pitch to him all the time. When we started, I would do almost all the talking and he would listen because he needed to learn. Now, it's 50/50: I think 75 per cent of my ideas richochet off him, but he buys 25 per cent. Ashley has given us gravitas. He has also brought a constant obsession with customers.
There's a lot of common ground; we're both bullish and good judges of character, and we talk about other people. I'm very lucky to have someone like Ashley; he doesn't patronise me. He doesn't need to father me - he is much more a mentor. I hope I'll take on some of his characteristics over the next 20 years.
ASHLEY WARD: I was an actor before I became a racing driver in my early twenties. At 27, I decided I didn't want to be an ageing instructor so I got a job working in a computer company. I started my own company and spent five years developing that. I was probably a lot like Charlie, but less technical. Charlie really has an incredible grip on the technology, and I understand the business and the people in it. My strengths were in selling and in getting people to deliver more than they believed they were capable of. Life is incredibly short, it's important to have fun and the way to have fun is to achieve things.
My company went public, but I was romanced by my own success; I made and lost millions before I was 30, and learnt big lessons. In Silicon Valley they say: "Don't get drunk on your own Gatorade" - don't believe your own hype. I got involved in other businesses through the 1990s, improving them, then moving on. I had been managing director of the technology company Anite Networks and sold it to Cable & Wireless. When I met Charlie, I was looking for a buy-in; initially, I talked about giving him some coaching.
He was the brightest, most articulate 23-year-old I had met. I wondered if I had been left behind. I'm quite a young 45, but I hadn't had any direct Internet experience. I had a bit of a crisis of confidence. There were things I couldn't get my head around and it took me a while to figure out that this business wasn't different from any other - I just had to get up to speed and not forget the reasons why I'd succeeded before.
Charlie is a visionary and has a natural feel for running networks; I listen to customers so much I have a good feel for what they're looking for. I never had doubts about the value I was bringing in terms of focus. Often, people don't understand the arithmetic of investment requirements. One of our strengths is that we understand the risks and respond to them.
At first we went through a difficult patch, but emerged with Charlie saying: "Okay, you know what you are doing - you've done this stuff before". It was immensely hard for him; I became chief executive and he became founder and president, and from that moment he was completely clear I was in control. He was the evangelist and has been living on aeroplanes doing conferences all over the world. He doesn't find travelling stressful - he copes with it unbelievably well.
We have a relationship that's as good as you could imagine. His energy hasn't changed, but he thinks a great deal more and he has improved radically in communicating. He can now explain what we do in seconds - when we first met, it took five hours. He's seen the benefit of keeping the messages simple in a complex area.
He's also cottoned to the first rule of wisdom: that you have little knowledge of the enormity of your own ignorance. When you've got an idea of its colossal nature, you can start claiming to be wise. Charlie has a grip on what he doesn't know. He knows he can do what he wants to do with or without me; he'll make zillions whatever. But he thinks I can help him, and reduce the chances of him having to learn an expensive lesson. I find it flattering because Charlie has great potential. I wish, when I was in my twenties, I'd had somebody similar.
Interviews by Rachelle ThackrayReuse content