While Tony Blair was schmoozing Bill Gates in Downing Street last week, Freeserve's Chief Operating ...
While Tony Blair was schmoozing Bill Gates in Downing Street last week, Freeserve's Chief Operating Officer Mark Danby was reading the riot act to assembled fund managers in the City. Not, to his credit, about the punishing 30% drop in his company's share price, but over their timidity in grasping the concept and opportunity offered by the online world
When he first stepped up to the microphone, most of the audience thought the diminutive youth adjusting the gear was one of the conference technicians battling the irritating buzz which had punctuated the otherwise illuminating morning presentations. Not for Danby the usual tedious reference to his struggle with podium technology
He subdued the errant sound system instantly and called the convivial lunch gathering to order with dire warnings about the fate awaiting real world-only businesses. The arrogant, the ignorant, the lazy and the inept would go down in a broadside of disintermediation, cost-effectiveness, immediacy and contextualisation, he warned, and financial services were right in the firing line
From the off, roughly 80% of the listeners visibly struggled to get a grip on the language, hurriedly despatching the last of their summer pudding and créme anglaise in an effort to focus better. Sensing he would have to slow his bolt to a gallop, Danby repeatedly brushed his hands back over his forehead, the very picture of tested patience
Happily, an earlier speaker had raised the subject of internet stocks, offering the view that the US market was being driven by technological improvements and productivity, and that the Revolution had only just begun. While not everyone agreed, they broadly understood. But Danby spoke of innovations hardly dreamed of, peppered with references to "no-brainers" that were clearly not as self-evident as he had hoped
Question time revealed the depth of bafflement. How do you value these internet companies if you can't use DCF, asked a jargon-slinging sharpshooter. "I'd say your job just got more difficult," replied Danby, unhelpfully. Tables started to empty as knotty-eyebrowed Venerables shuffled out
Another punter wanted to know how much it would cost to get on to the web. "See me afterwards, I'll give you a 23p CD which will give you a free site, but you might need to advertise the fact that you're there." Freeserve, he added smugly, had zero advertising spend in its first three months
Seldom is the juxtaposition of old business versus new seen so publicly. There was just a hint of how ruthless technological change is going to be and just a glimpse of the mute anxiety it is provoking amongst the old guard. By the end of the afternoon, PC World across the road had welcomed quite a few badged browsers and shifted a clutch of "Internet for Dummies" books
While the rush of new internet and technology funds appears to have slowed for the moment, the latest focus seems to be healthcare. "Demographics" is acquiring all the gravitas of The Net as a Big Idea. Don't confuse this with the currently unloved pharmaceutical sector. Think spectacles, hospital beds, stairlifts or those electric mobility units that terrorise the pavements
Or hearing aids, whose potential market is as big as the world's population of six billion. Only 10% can ever hope to own one, but of those, just 15% already do. The technology owes much to the telecoms industry but is converging with you guessed it personal computers, the internet, TV and radio. In the US, Microsoft and Symbian's EPOC are already there. A thought for Freeserve's Danby: why not sell the hearing aids first and then deliver the message
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