The fast show of hi-tech

Shopcreator has got rich quick by speeding small firms on to the worldwide web, says Roger Trapp. Now another firm is offering cheap internet solutions
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The Independent Online
No one could accuse Andy Kitchener of being easily put off. When a venture capitalist turned down the chance to invest in his idea on the grounds that IBM was offering something similar, it just spurred him on. And 18 months later his Shopcreator business is growing so fast that it is on track to go public next summer with a market value of up to pounds 250m.

This will make 39-year-old Mr Kitchener very wealthy. But he insists that making money is not the driving force behind the company, which is dedicated to enabling small and medium-sized businesses to trade over the internet.

He admits, though, that in some ways he is "completely crazy and completely driven". As a result, he has only recently given up working 16 hours a day, seven days a week at the company, based in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Instead, he works just 12 to 14 hours a day and tries to take Sundays off.

What is causing his frenzy is a simple idea - a software program that enables the smallest business to build an e-commerce capability in hours.

Shopcreator accepts that it is not the only company offering a service of this type. But Mr Kitchener and his colleagues claim that what makes their product special is the combination of powerful technology with ease of use.

These features have also been recognised by the British Computer Society, which in October awarded the company a gold medal for innovation and excellence, ahead of the likes of BT, ICL and IBM.

Shopcreator has deliberately written the software so that customers' products may be easily found by internet search engines, while ensuring that going online is as simple as filling in a form. Enabling customers with even basic information technology skills to build their own sites, Shopcreator can keep costs down.

For as little as an initial outlay of pounds 199 and pounds 10 a month or, as Chris Ledgard, the company's head of corporate and international marketing, puts it, the cost of an advertisement in a local newspaper, a business can begin promoting itself around the world via the net.

The more products a business wants to promote online, the more expensive the package becomes. But a fully functional online store offering more than 50,000 products can be set up for pounds 999.

Taking this approach can produce surprising results. Fox Saddlers, the Yorkshire supplier of equestrian equipment which became Shopcreator's first customer in July 1998, soon found itself handling enquiries from enthusiasts as far away as the United States and Australia. Likewise, The English Teddy Bear Company of Bath found that its online store paid for itself within two weeks.

Interest is running so high that Shopcreator appears well on its way to becoming a net star. It is growing at an average of 100 per cent a month and in the past month alone 200 customers have signed up, giving it a total of 600 in Great Britain and Ireland.

And yet only three years ago Mr Kennedy had trouble obtaining financial backing, even though he been working in the IT sector since he left school. The venture started with just him and his wife, Ann, who is still customer services director. But Mr Kitchener, who made his move after realising that consumer interest in the internet was making "e-commerce the way to go", was already thinking big.

Using his contacts in the industry, he hired a team of senior professionals, persuading them to take pay cuts in return for a stake in the business. "In the early days we started with no salary. As we got our first customers, we divided up the money and left some in the pot," he says.

The company also invested heavily in technology, creating huge web servers to prevent the slowdowns that net users find frustrating.

So convinced was he of his vision that when the venture capitalists turned him down, he remortgaged his house until Fox Saddlers and other customers started to provide the revenues needed to pay the bills.

Then, earlier this year, the ball started rolling. Since receiving a pounds 100,000 loan from the Department of Trade and Industry, which has repeatedly emphasised its interest in promoting e-commerce, Shopcreator has attracted two rounds of venture capital investment. Thanks to its rapid growth, it is suddenly finding itself highly popular in private investment circles. But Mr Kitchener's future plans are so ambitious that it will take something much bigger to realise them. He wants to build a worldwide presence quickly.

He has forged partnerships with companies such as Planet Online, the large internet service provider for which he worked briefly before launching Shopcreator, and the telecommunications operator Kingston Communications, and he has appointed people to spearhead moves into Australia and the United States.

Hence the flotation next year. If that happens, attention will be focused on the value of the 30 per cent of the company with which Mr Kitchener will be left. But he stresses the importance of every member of the team.

"Everyone is brilliant. Everyone puts their all into the business," he says. "I'm a funny sod. I want them all to be millionaires, because if they are millionaires, I'm laughing."