When millionaires party, the world watches with envy and begs for the leftovers.
The Internet can offer you a gilt-edged invite and if you turn up early you can leave with a huge party pack of squillions. Amazingly, though, the man who invented the revolutionary software for the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, explained to me why he never made a cent out of his creation. Also, the four self-made Net millionaires I interviewed claimed they’d never planned to amass a fortune. And it seems they’ve still never learnt how to become shopaholics, choose a personal trainer, psychic and tennis coach. They never want Nigel Dempster to tell the world about their every playful smirk, glance and scowl. They never rate a mention in Jennifer’s Diary in Harper’s & Queen. I’d expected to spend a couple of days following each of them around on luxury yachts and Sony jets, but they just sit around in offices all day, frantically answering emails.
Tim Berners-Lee, 41, is a relatively unknown, modest British man invented the WWW, who’s based at the Laboratory for Computer Science at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Sun Microsystems chief technical officer Eric Schmidt was quoted in The New York Times as saying: “If this were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize. What he’s done is that significant.” So why didn’t he make squillions out of the Web? It’s a question he’s thought about often. “It wouldn’t have worked. The big questions companies were asking me at the time was `How much would it cost us to license it? Or how much for a site per year? $3000?’ Once I’d started charging, no-one would know when I’d stop. So it would have led to other companies building competing systems. If you need seven browsers to read documents, the Web will no longer be the Web. You’d have a scenario where you would have clicked on a Web site and a message would say: `Sorry, can’t read it’. That would have taken us back to the dark ages when a floppy from a PC wouldn’t read on a Mac, and a Wordstar document wouldn’t read in Word Perfect. It’s fine for individuals whose work is going to be transient and who aren’t worried about being read by anyone. But the whole concept of the global Web would have been lost.”
Berners-Lee is still very precious about his creation and actively fights to protect its existence. He is a director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organisation that sets global standards for the Web, so all the software and hardware interacts smoothly. And it’s an incredibly difficult job, especially when multinational heavyweights, such as Microsoft, IBM, Silicon Graphics and Netscape, are vying to control the Net and set their own technical standards so they can monopolise the market. “It’s difficult because things move very fast. For planning purposes, one Web year equals 2.6 months [a figure he “made up off the top of my head”] and there’s a lot of excitement and money involved. It’s also easy, though, as companies realise they’re in a win-win situation because there are so many new markets.”
Berners-Lee began with a blueblood pedigree in the computer industry. His parents met while designing the UK’s first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1. He says his Dad often recounted a story about how young Tim, 5, used to try to make computers out of cardboard boxes. “It was during the 1950s and Mum and Dad were working on a project at Manchester University. I’d been in to visit Dad at work and I saw the big Ferranti console with a filing cabinet on either side and a big rack in the middle and a clock standing on top of it. When I got home I put together some cardboard boxes in the same arrangement and drew a little clock on it.”
His other favourite playtoys were huge rolls of five-hole computer paper tape. “They were wonderful, enormous reels of 5/8th of an inch-thin tape. You could do lots of things with them – push out the middle of it and make a big tower. Then the tower would collapse, spread everywhere and fill the whole room.”
Inspired by these early cognitive experiences, he later went on to study physics, as a “compromise between maths and engineering”. “I went into the IT industry because that’s where things were happening. But physics was probably an influence on the design of scalable systems, which is what I was interested in.” He graduated from Oxford University in 1976 with 1st class honours in physics, despite being thrown off the Oxford University’s nuclear physics lab’s computer after he’d been red-handedly caught using it for rag week activities. This setback, however, inspired him to cobble together his first computer. “I started with a broken TV I bought for a fiver from a secondhand shop, which could still be used as a monitor. Around the same time, I had a temporary job at a timber yard, and one day I was emptying sawdust into a big skiff, and there was an ancient calculator, with valves, at the bottom of a dustbin. I salvaged the buttons and created a quirky sort of keyboard, covered with Letraset. Then I bought a M6800 microprocessor and paid £13 for a character generator chip. The most important benefit was that it gave me autonomy, and I could work on my own projects.
“In the early days, like many other engineers, I used to skip lunch and lose track of time. When you’re creating something, it can be very addictive. I used to dream a lot and had the desire to make those dreams come true – I think it’s called Attention Deficiency Disorder now.”
He unknowingly took the first steps towards inventing the Web while he was an independent software engineer consultant at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1980. “The idea for the Web gelled in my mind over about 10 years,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it at the time, but later I found out that the idea for something similar was first thought of in 1945 by Vannever Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the US during World War II.” Berners-Lee developed a program called Enquire, a hypertext notebook made for his personal use while he was at CERN so he could keep track of the ways new parts of the system, people and modules were added on and connected. “It was really useful for keeping tabs on all the random associations one comes across in real life and which our brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn’t. But its main limitation was that I couldn’t access external links. Then I began thinking it would be really neat if everyone used this program so we could all link up.”
The World Wide Web browser made Net access so much easier that by 1993 the number of users increased phenomenally by about 350,000 per cent. As for future developments, Berners-Lee would like to see the Web become more interactive, with tools such as video-conferencing. “I’d like the Web to become universal, like paper, and have the ability to be able to point to absolutely everything.” As for favourite Web sites, one of his favourites demonstrates the fastest way to light a barbecue using three gallons of liquid nitrogen. But Berners-Lee rarely uses the Net for recreation. “I can’t say what my favourite sites are, because then they’ll plaster “Recommended by…’ all over it.”
The main price of fame has been living with the awesome reputation of being a genius. “It’s pretty silly really,” he demurs. “There’s lots of other clever technology and hundreds of geniuses. It’s just that the Web happened to have more impact because it’s global.” Ultimately, Berners-Lee says he never had a sense of destiny about creating an exciting invention which would change our view of the world. “I’ve just always been excited about building things,” he says.
And while Tim’s busily promoting his creation, hundreds of entrepreneurs have made their fortunes by helping us get on to the Web.
The most high-profile UK Net millionaire is Clifford Stanford, managing director and co-founder of Demon UK, which was one of the first companies to offer public Net access way back in 1993, for only £10 a month. He drives a pink Rolls [he did – it was stolen within a week of the .net article coming out, which featured photos of the car]. “Someone must have seen it in the mag and taken a fancy to it,” he spelt out later on. Still, he has plenty of dosh to buy another snazzy set of wheels. Demon’s worth about £26.7 million on paper, and his share is about £14 million. He became interested in computing during the 1970s when he bought a Texas programmable calculator in 1977 and taught himself how to program. Then he traded up to an 8K Commodore PET, decided that computing was more interesting than accountancy and started a programming company. “From 1979 I ran my own company called ImPETus. I’ve always managed to make a good income. I’ve been in the right place at the right time. With Demon, we need the company to get big enough so when everyone else starts up, we can see them off. Now we have about 70 per cent of the market.”
Stanford keeps extremely busy. “I love every minute of work, though sometimes it’s hard to find time to see people. There are about 2000 e-mail messages I have to glance at which takes all of Saturday to catch up on. The main disadvantage is that I don’t have time for my wife and family – I never see people. My mum and sister work for Demon, and we always talk about work when we see each other, because they find it difficult to catch up with me in the office. When I eventually get home at 9pm I start working again on the computer.”
His life’s more hectic now, but have there been any benefits from millionairedom? “I still live in the same flat as I did in the beginning and I still have the same 18 year-old car – a pink Rolls Royce which cost only £9,000 as part of a business deal. It looks wonderful. I’ve always had old cars. I don’t have time for leisure or hobbies, so I like to have a nice car to get me between places. I’m happy because the Internet is my hobby. But other than that, I haven’t seen much of the money. The only ones who have are Grahame Davies and Owen Manderfield, who each got a nice going away present of about £1 million each. Mine’s all on paper. Growth causes most of our problems. All the money I make goes straight back in to keep up with customer demand, and I have to invest heavily. If Demon goes public or when the Internet stops growing, then it’ll be phenomenally profitable. Demon would be very easy to run without the growth. It’s the growth that really hurts.”
And what if he lost it all? “I’d be terribly sad if everything went horribly wrong because I’ve worked very hard. My employees are tremendously loyal and I’d be extremely upset about them losing their jobs. They’ve put in a lot of extra effort.”
Grahame Davies, managing director of Easynet, admits he only took about £850,000 when he left Demon, but he’s been busily increasing his fortune with another Internet access provider, Easynet. He began working as a humble computer operator in 1980, doing day and evening shifts for Unilever Computer Services in Watford. He was on a measly £3,200 a year. “It didn’t seem that bad. I was 19 and had a Commodore PET at home and taught myself how to program,” Davies recalls. He started at Demon with Clifford Stanford and Owen Manderfield in 1985. “In the early days we weren’t working long hours and weren’t making much money. I was on about £12,000 a year. We turned it around in the late 80s and it gave us a reasonable salary. We worked Monday to Friday and hardly ever stayed back late. We’d have occasional days off to play golf. But that all ended from the 1990s onwards and we were very busy. My eldest child was born in March 1993, and when I did tech support I used to have the baby in one hand and the mobile phone in the other. I often got so many calls, I used to hold the screaming baby near the phone and people would say they’d call back later. It was extremely hectic.”
He said Stanford came up with the notion of providing Internet access to the public. “I thought it was a great idea. None of us saw the vast potential – we were dreaming of having about 5,000 users. Within three years there were 45,000. It was a very exciting time. After the first few months we were working seven days a week, from 1993 onwards. We had to do a lot to keep up. I never believed we’d make a lot of money. When we did I was happy. It turned out really well.”
The pace has eased off slightly at Easynet. “I don’t work weekends. I have a long five-day week and work back a couple of evenings. My hours have cut back since leaving Demon.” He said he was philosophical about his settlement when he left Demon. “People said that if I walked away with less than £4 million then I must have been mad. I got about £850,000, which was disappointing, but I have still done far better than I thought I would. And there’s still a lot of money to be made.”
How has it changed his lifestyle? “I drink a bit more wine than I used to. And I don’t have to worry too much about the bank balance. I’ve bought a house in Woodside Park. I treated myself to a good family car and my wife doesn’t have to go out and find a job – she’s bringing up our two children.
“I’ve put a bit of money into Easynet. I’ve never been extravagant. It wasn’t like winning the lottery or having a sudden windfall. The profits were from my hard work, ideas and efforts. Having a lot of money is a big responsibility and I don’t want to blow it too quickly. I’ll see how my new career pans out. If it goes badly, then at least we have a great house.”
The elder statesman of the squillionaires, John Kimberley, is chairman and president of Firefox, which develops Internet access software. He declined to reveal his age, but said he’s been “around for a while”. “I didn’t plan to be a millionaire by the time I was 30 – I wasn’t even sure I’d live until then. I’d always aspired to be successful. It’s all relative – potentially, I’ve made a lot. Firefox is worth about $US30 million and I own about 11 million of the company’s shares. I was a millionaire before Firefox,” he says.
“I can take some of the money, but the rest you can’t, because of stock exchange rules. About 90 per cent of them can’t be sold.”
This West Midlands-based computer software company capitalised at $US120 million (£70.175 million) last year. Now it has overseas offices in the US, South Africa and Korea. By the end of the year, Firefox plans to have operations in Germany, Sweden and Singapore. Since its flotation the company’s share price has increased from $18 to $28, valuing Firefox at $US175 million. About 75 people are employed at its UK offices in Solihull and Luton.
“I have been impoverished in the past, but I’ve also put a lot of money into Firefox, so I’m still in an exposed-risk situation. Originally we’d planned to launch ourselves on the UK stockmarket in 1996, but we just couldn’t hold back any longer. By late 1994, demand for our products was considerably greater than we’d envisaged – but significantly, we felt our products compared very favourably to those of our rivals. The US is our largest marketplace and we’ve readily been welcomed into its entrepreneurial culture.”
He says he spends about 80 per cent of his time away from home and works about 78 hours a week. “That’s a big sacrifice. But when you’re building a global company what can you do? I’m driven to make Firefox a global company. Quite soon the sun will never set on the Firefox empire.”
How has all of this changed his life? “I have an air mile account because I spend a lot of my time flying around. But I never get to use the frequent flyer prizes, because I don’t want to spend my free time doing more flying. Otherwise, I’ve been very boring with my money. I have a BMW, which I bought years ago. I gave my wife a piece of beautiful jewellery from South Africa, when I mixed business and pleasure and treated myself to the South African tour to follow the rugby last year in June. Money doesn’t make happiness, but it does make life more comfortable. I just hope the business provides me with a pension plan and provides for my wife and four kids. I don’t know when I’ll slow down; it depends on how things go. Maybe I’d like to retire early, but not yet.”
Peter Dawe, 41, is now working on several of his own projects, including the Internet Watch Foundation, which is trying to do something about online obscene material. Dawe invested £7,000 to set up Unipalm, a computer-networking company, in 1986. Now his investment is worth around £30 million. He was the chief executive and main shareholder of Unipalm Pipex, a UK Internet access provider, which was bought by US internet provider UUnet. Microsoft owns 15 per cent of UUnet, and Dawe was placed in charge of providing the UK infrastructure in Britain for the Microsoft Network (MSN), which planned to support more than 500,000 British subscribers within 18 months.
A London University graduate with a Bachelor of Science and Statistics, Dawe trained as an accountant before turning to the computer industry. He worked as a programmer, systems analyst, sales rep, technical engineer, computer hardware designer and technical support manager. Dawe was also employed at Cambridge Micro Computers where he designed software to integrate different manufacturers’ printed circuit boards into general purpose UNIX computers.
“When I was 33, I started my business and set out to make £2 million so I wouldn’t have to work anymore. It was going to be my pension plan,” Dawe said. “No-one had heard of the Internet then, but I’ve been involved with it since day one. And I nearly achieved my financial goal within four years. But unfortunately I was unable to convert my position into cash and I failed to come to an agreement with the other shareholders. Now I’ve hit nearly £30 million and I’m still carrying on.”
He works 10-hour days but never on weekends. “During the past eight years, the level of stress has increased. Now I’m responsible for the income of 250 families and I don’t want to screw their lives up. And I’ve steadily put on weight. My sense of humour’s changed too – it’s harder than it used to be. Success tends to breed arrogance. It seems to be a symptom of doing well. I’m frequently apologising for being too arrogant.”
Dawe hasn’t splashed out on extravagant luxury items. “I’m not a hedonistic person. I had a diesel Cavalier until recently when I bought a second-hand Renault. And I took out £500,000 to pay off the mortgage a month ago. I have a house in Cambridge, which I think is a very dry part of the country. It never rains there – well, it never seems to. I have enough money to retire, so that takes some of the pressure off.”
His official one-page corporate biography lists his hobbies as clay pigeon shooting, horse riding and taking his two springer spaniels for walks. “But I hardly have any time to do those sorts of things,” he sniffles.