Me And My Partner: Robert Proctor and Simon Henderson

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The Independent Online
When Robert Proctor was offered rent-free space at Whiteleys shopping centre in London, he opened an Internet cafe and recruited Simon Henderson as financial director. Now they have 10 Internet Exchanges, and plan 40 more

ROBERT PROCTOR: The first time I met Simon we went out and got drunk. Half the evening was taken up with me explaining what I thought made the company and concept different, and how it worked. As I was running through, Simon got every bit of what I was describing. My initial impression was that he was exceedingly smart, and that hasn't changed.

I had been a sole trader, then a venture capitalist came in: it was clear that other, high- quality people were needed. We've since been in a zillion and one meetings with big companies, and Simon's still the smartest businessman I have met. He's able to take on board an idea and instantly get to the core of what makes it good or bad, then redefine it. He cuts through all the bull and gets right to the concepts. Also, he displays his abilities in a non-arrogant way, and engenders ongoing trust with people.

I was working for Mansfield Breweries when the landlords at Whiteleys offered me two units. I said: "Yes, but I haven't any money." They said they would give me them for 20 per cent of my profits. I was in the right place at the right time. That was three years before anyone had heard of the Internet. My father gave me decent advice: you'll never get rich working for someone else.

When the no-risk opportunity presented itself, I just turned up and did it.I went to the States five times looking for a new concept for the units, because it was a bog-standard cafe at that point. A friend took me to an Internet cafe with horrid decor, but lots of people were using their computers. I hadn't a clue what it was about but there was certainly a demand. My friend got me an old computer. I said: "Where's the `on' button?" I had never used one, and that was four years ago.

I messed around on the Internet for a couple of weeks and decided to go for it. Then I spent 18 hours a day for three months learning how to use it. I figured that, as a severely non- technical person, if I can get into this and enjoy it, everybody can. There are still preconceptions to shatter. If you asked 100 people what their vision of an Internet cafe would be, 85 would still say: "A dark, dingy place with nose rings and dodgy carrot cake." We're transforming that: we generally don't have any doors or windows, no barriers to entry. .

Simon and I have a pretty similar mindset in business and life. We're only here once, and what we do is intensely important to us, not only from a business point of view, when you work as many hours as we do. In the early days, it was me and Simon against the world. It almost became like a religion to us, to convert the world. At the heart of everything, we knew we've got an absolutely brilliant business. We have lunch together most days, and we have to look at each other every day. We are like Laurel and Hardy: a bit wacky, but Simon's there picking up the pieces before the wife comes home.

SIMON HENDERSON: We met at Whiteleys: I had come back from San Francisco to set up my own business. I was talking to potential funders about my ideas when one said: "Before you go that far, why don't you meet this guy Robert?"

My first impressions proved right - he's very smart and comes up with ideas all the time. Stick him in a room with a problem and he'll come up with a solution.

I knew I could work with him. Robert's one of those characters who loves you or loathes you: I fell into the right category. I started taking time off from my job, working with Rob and building a business plan. We used to sneak off to the back of the cafe at Whiteleys, or hire a room upstairs: our plan was originally on napkins.

Head office was my dining room at home. We gave up sleep the day we met one another. We went from one to 10 sites in 14 months. But we had a critical mass to roll out properly, and that led to relationships with players such as Starbucks and Welcome Break.

We like to call ourselves entrepreneurs. I'm risk-averse, and tend to think in a business-like way. Rob's good at ideas - he never discards anything and uses me as a sounding board. Rob has a marketing degree and held various jobs in blue-chip companies. My background is in strategic and financial understanding. But we had a common goal and a similar vision: that the Internet should be seen and used.

Internet cafes used to be cliquey, friendly as long as you were a techie. These days, it isn't about that. If you get staff members babbling about it, half the customers will say: "What? All I want to do is send an e- mail." There aren't many Internet cafes in prime retail space. Sites like Whiteleys are a big step forward.

Rob and I get on extremely well in a boardroom situation. There's an uncanny ability between us to give each other all the airtime we need. If you're the silent one, you can tell who's nodding their head, who's looking at their watch, who's wanting to get out. Rob and I read the situation the same way. We have very clear ideas about the roles we need to play. We're reasonable communicators, fairly confident, and have a good deal of passion.

It's been incredibly hard work, but there's tremendous support. I tend to start early, and Rob has his lie-in, then we'll work till whatever. With e-mail, you can't escape one another.

Rob's good at laughing at himself, and he's creative. I put meat on the bones. The only frustration is that Rob has so many good ideas, and there are only limited resources. It's a shame not to capture them.