The new economy may zip around effortlessly on its own superhighway, but ICA council member turned technopreneur Anita Monteith last month had to tackle the very old economy problem of a petrol crisis from her worldoftraining.com office in London.
Marketing staff 100 miles down the M40 in Birmingham were sitting around in an empty and cavernous NEC, as thousands of would-be conference visitors with empty petrol tanks were forced to stay away.
‘A petrol crisis affecting a dot.com – it’s ridiculous,’ she laughs.
‘But we’ve managed to turn that to our advantage – we’ve registered all the exhibitors.’
It’s the sort of quick thinking that has taken the 42-year-old chartered accountant from chairman of the English ICA tax faculty to a director of am internet start-up that is looking at taking a 2% cut of £17bn market by 2004. All in the space of just 18-months.
Set up in April, worldoftraining.com offers a one-stop online shop for training courses, including accountancy, and is the first e-training marketplace in the UK to attempt to bring 30,000 training providers with users together online.
Monteith explains: ‘Companies put together career development packages, we just provide the training bit.’
Customers range from SMEs, who are either approached directly, through professional bodies or via partnerships with employment agencies such as Hays, to managers in large firms targeted through exhibitions, such as the Accountancy Age-sponsored National Accountancy Exhibition in June.
She says the size of multinationals requires link-ups with other to provide a full human resources training solutions.
The idea for worldoftraining.com came to Monteith after a Tax Faculty brainstorming session, when a colleague told her about a major bank that didn’t know where to go to train its accounts staff and ended up paying its auditor a large fee to provide an updated course.
‘I was stunned, because I could have told them half a dozen places they could have got that training from,’ she says. ‘It would have been cheaper and better value.
‘It occurred to me that people ask me a lot about training, where to buy and what to do, because that’s my background.’
A chartered accountant and tax specialist, who qualified with Deloittes, she was a director of the Financial Training Company for 11 years and a council member of the ICA.
After stepping down as president of the tax faculty last year, she had more spare time on her hands and began to think more and more about her idea.
A chat with friend and fellow accountant Yvonne Hardy, a former management development specialist at Deloittes who is now the company’s training manager director, led to the question – where do you get management training?
Although their knowledge of the internet was limited to the occasional use of amazon.com, they soon realised that it offered the ideal medium.
Friend and Australian chartered accountant Lynee Flynn, who is now an adviser with the company, shared from the outset her IT database experience.
The household was soon a hive of dot.com discussion and planning. ‘The three of us got together around our garden table which was moved into my study, we didn’t have a big enough table, and we began to map out what would work.’
Husband and fellow chartered accountant, Jim, was soon hooked on the idea and within weeks had handed in his notice as FD of Douglas Jenkins, a listed marketing group, to join the venture full-time. He is now chief executive.
‘An internet entrepreneur we knew advised us that internet time was seven times faster than normal time,’ explains Anita. ‘I didn’t understand what he meant then, but now I think that estimate was conservative.’
Number five in the founding team was another friend and chartered accountant turned venture capitalist Richard Weavel.
By November, the fledgling business took its first offices and on Boxing Day last year, the team swelled when Andy Collins, another contact, and general manager at BT Internet, agreed to join as IT director.
‘We are actually quite old for a dot.com group – but it has been hugely helpful to be fortysomethings rather than twentysomethings,’ she says.
‘We know what we are doing which has opened a lot of doors, and people take us seriously because we know what we are selling.’
Therefore, with their collective experience in finance and business, the five knew that their idea was going to be expensive and a financial risk.
‘Dot.com start-ups often underestimate the amount of cash they are going to need, but we knew when and where to go for capital.’
The five provided their own seed funding of £250,000 and Richard soon organised meetings with venture capitalists. And the first financier that agreed to meet the five, e-Vestments, agreed to back the business with £2.5m.
E-Vestment now has a 12% stake in the company, and two other venture capital houses, e-capital and Arlington, also have six per cent each.
Setting up a website was the next challenge and then they decided they needed to spend in the region of £150,000 to build a site that would bring the customers in.
The group took on emotioninc, a young design company in Leeds, responsible for phonefactoring.com’s site, and the middle-aged e-preneurs were rubbing shoulders with designers who were ‘the very model of the youthful dot.com revolution’.
A couple of months later the new site went live just two minutes before the company launched as the doors of the Institute of Personnel Development’s Human Resources Development conference opened for 10am in Olympia.
‘These are the sorts of things we had to live through,’ she says. ‘And I also moved house down the road in Dulwich.’
But what is the personal toll of starting up a dot.com?
‘Christmas last year was cancelled, with Jim on the phone the whole time discussing who was going to be doing our website for us,’ she admits.
‘It’s all very well for internet time going rapidly, but there’s not enough time to do anything else.’
Three boys and a dog also vie for her attention, while an allotment in Dulwich Woods taken up only a month after the launch of WoT has had to remain this year largely fallow.
Monteith also takes issue with the impression that dot.com finance was dripping out of every doorway. ‘What was not mentioned was that every venture capitalist worth his salt has 300 or more business plans per week arriving on their desk – and you need to offer something more than a good idea to even get through the door. If you just dreamt up an idea as a 25-year-old and didn’t have a penny to build a website it’s going to be difficult,’ she says.
Tomorrow, the world
Her future plans include ‘world domination’, she laughs, and a director is already in San Francisco looking at the US market, where US-based Thinq, formally known as Training.net, is a direct competitor. Among her more short-term projects is an alliance with Accountancy Age to launch an accountancy training service through AccountancyAge.com.
Now the five are looking at how to secure second round funding and the benefits of floating on the stock exchange.
‘When you go to IPO, it involves so many more people in the company, which can slow down your ability to make changes.
‘A lot of people have been slowed down by venture capitalists, possibly their own fault, because venture capitalists usually have no knowledge of the businesses. They are lending the money on trust, and so you have got to know what you are doing.’
Monteith’s advice to accountants thinking of setting-up a dot.com? ‘You will have to go into it with your eyes open and be prepared to give up large amounts of your spare time. And as an accountant remember your cashflow statements that you were taught on your book keeping course, because it is critical that you manage your cash.
‘Look at the dot.coms that have gone down,’ she adds. ‘Is it any wonder if you travel first class and stay in the Ritz that you go out of business – and they’ve got only themselves to blame.’
WHY ACCOUNTANCY IS PERFECT FOR ONLINE TRAINING
‘E-training is a market waiting to explode,’ says Anita Monteith.
‘People too busy to do face-to-face courses will hugely benefit from internet-based packages, but need to be convinced they have time to do online courses.’
Figures vary but estimates from researchers at IDC indicate that the US IT training market will be worth almost $15bn by the end of 2003. Crucially, around half of that – just under $7bn – will be delivered via technology rather than instructor led. To put that in perspective, the market is currently worth around $10bn but less than $3bn is currently being delivered via technology.
Monteith adds that the internet, is just another addition to a range of training packages – but for worldoftraining.com it offers huge time and cost-saving benefits by cutting out delivery mechanisms needed for traditional training, such as conferences or face-to-face training courses.
‘Accountancy really lends itself to online training,’ she says. ‘Accountants need regular training in lots of areas and can fit online training around work needs. Firms may know about accountancy programmes, but may not know where to get health and safety or leadership programmes.’
New growth opportunities in Aberdeen, North East Scotland, are being invested in by Grant Thornton
If businesses do not take cyber security seriously in their business planning regulators may do it for them, the ICAEW has warned
The Financial Reporting Council has issued guidance regarding the annual reporting of 1,200 large and smaller listed companies. The letter highlighted the key issues and improvements that can be made in the 2016 reporting season
Deloitte's north-west Europe foray; BDO, Smith & Williamson investment paths; Shelley Stock Hutter; and Wilkins Kennedy discussed by editor Kevin Reed on our Friday Afternoon Live broadcast