Only those ready to rush to a judgement conclude that the dotcom era is essentially a clash between the old and new economies. The internet may be a new medium, but many of the crucial skills needed to run an online business are essentially old school.
It should come as no surprise then to find an experienced accountant working on a dotcom project with a 16 year-old schoolboy as his managing director.
Edwin Hamilton, 39, is chairman at pupiline.net, an online start-up designed for, and written and compiled by, school children between the ages of 11 and 17.
It is a remarkable project for a whole host of reasons. It’s a dotcom start-up at a time when the online market has found itself out of fashion.
It’s a very professional website mainly compiled by non-professionals.
And perhaps most astonishing of all is a board chaired by a former Big Five accountant and an MD who is yet to finish secondary school.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a boardroom conflict waiting to happen. But Hamilton is clearly at ease with the situation and only has praise for Oli Watts his MD still doing his GCSEs.
Pupiline, Oli’s ‘bedroom’ creation, was born out of a nasty experience with school bullies. In an effort to connect with other teenagers who had suffered the same fate and who might help him come to terms with his own experience he started up the website.
Before long the site’s potential began to become apparent as its ‘for us, by us’ approach generated a phenomenal response. Encouraged, Oli decided to launch the site as a full-blown online magazine and spent a summer with school friends programming and developing content.
Its aim now is slightly broader, attempting to bridge a triangular gap between parents, teachers and children. Type in the URL and you find a highly developed site with a features section tackling issues like bullying, exam stress and what to do on leaving school. If those aren’t challenging enough the site also takes on pregnancy, finances, sex, ‘dating and dumping’.
‘Cool stuff’ covers favourites like films and music, fashion and gadgets and for the pocket money starved techno buff there’s plenty of ‘free stuff’ to download and play with.
It’s quite an achievement and popular enough to attract more than half a million hits and first round funding of #250,000. Oli himself has only attracted awards for the work. Esther Rantzen has given him an award for his efforts against bullying while he also scooped Young Achiever of the Year in the Internet Business Awards. He now finds himself a consultant for Young First Tuesday and in April will fly out to Washington to receive a Childnet 2001 award for children working on the internet.
Oli has certainly created something special but it takes a professional like Hamilton to spot its potential and provide the business know-how to keep the site running. And, despite insisting upon the ease that he has in dealing with Oli, working with a 16 year-old MD must present its own challenges.
Talking to Oli reveals an articulate young man, keen and eager to learn but unnervingly mature enough to listen to what Hamilton has to say about running the business. And the former business development manager for British Energy has had to impart a great deal. Setting up a company, legal obligations, boardroom protocol – Hamilton’s had to explain it all, playing business mentor while maintaining the usual role of chairman.
That said he has nothing but unmitigated praise for Oli. He says: ‘He’s a got a quick grasp of what’s happening. He’s a very bright lad.’ And he refers to Oli’s ‘understanding of the market’ while almost eulogising ‘Oli’s vision’. High praise indeed, especially for a lad who still retains enough teenage exhuberance to reveal on the website that his greatest skill is ‘unbelievable smoothness and charm’.
There is therefore apparently no stress in dealing with Oli at board level.
‘What particularly attracts me to Oli is his level headedness and his clarity of vision. People have a vision of teenagers being like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, being bolshie and arrogant. But Oli does listen. He’s very clear on what he’s trying to achieve, but he listens to advice, which is one reason why we get on very well,’ says Hamilton.
And they certainly seem comfortable in each other’s company. Posing for pictures they are certainly at ease, treating each other with boyish equality rather than a ‘master/student’ relationship that could, perhaps be expected elsewhere.
After training with KPMG in London and then working for the firm in Hong Kong Hamilton worked with GEC Marconi in various senior position before becoming finance director at Eastern Generation taking care of overall financial direction and risk management. Then came the move to British Energy where he took over the group’s UK and overseas commercial development.
After resigning, he devoted his time to various online development projects and is also chairman of Iwant2b.com. Clearly he’s a man with a vision of the future and it’s online.
But the interesting thing about Hamilton is his belief. Not only does he speak in an impassioned way about the internet and dotcom business opportunities, but he clearly has belief in Oli.
In fact he speaks with so much passion he could easily be mistaken for someone whisked along by dotcom mania, focused only on the fact that his business is online and that he’s got a young creative who is clearly touching a nerve with his punters and can do a lot of the techie stuff.
But Hamilton has clearly thought it through. This is not all about a teenager’s passion. He’s looked a bit deeper and found substantive business reasons for pushing ahead. Sure, he may have left a lucrative post to take on Oli’s vision but this is no blind headlong rush.
‘You basically switch from a high salary for equity risk. It’s a decision many accountants have faced in the last year with the downturn in the dotcom economy. But it being a tougher decision now doesn’t mean the rewards, if you get it right, aren’t there. There are fantastic rewards if you get it right. ‘And a lot of the ways of getting it right aren’t that complicated or particularly new. It’s about applying common sense and sound business practice, which is very much my training and ethos.
‘You have to look at the fundamentals and what it takes to build a successful dotcom. Issues like technology can be quite simple and I work to basics.
Then I look at the brand, whether there’s an outstanding brand. Look at whether you’ve got a really compelling proposition underneath that brand.
‘And in pupiline we certainly have a very true brand. It’s not just a name with a proposition behind it like Sainsbury or Virgin. Pupiline means what it says. You can build customer fulfilment behind a brand like that.’
He adds: ‘When you look at Oli’s vision you can see the building blocks and that they can be put in place quite straightforwardly. I wouldn’t say its simple. It’s a major project management exercise to do it, but it can be done and I just find that a hugely exciting challenge.’
Hamilton is keen to push the idea that pupiline is a radical move in its sector, that its simplicity is what makes it so attractive and that the brand is potentially huge. The vision is for something more than teenagers writing about their favourite ‘stuff’. Already Burger King, a major employer of teenagers in part-time work, provides an online job application form through pupiline. It is an example of the direction in which the site is going.
But the site could also incorporate the interests of teachers and parents.
Given that, and the limitless interest shown in education, the scope for pupiline as a global brand, not just a local UK entity, is huge. Hamilton believes this is possible despite recent fears about the dotcom sector.
The first round funding is modest and further funding needs are also expected to be small in scale. Help with design and technical advice has been leveraged against equity and there is apparently much enthusiasm among the funders.
But an accountant isn’t an accountant if he hasn’t thought about the cost benefits of doing something and Hamilton is not all wrapped up in the vision and the brand.
‘The beauty of pupiline is that you can run it on a shoestring,’ he says with no small amount of relish. ‘We have partners involved who are not taking money out. And this is why it comes back to the basics of business.
If you manage your cash out you will survive.
‘The dotcom market is very spooked and the investors are spooked. But we can use the power of the internet on what would be petty cash to most big business. You can raise that from friends and family. The important thing is that you understand the cashflow and commitments so you don’t over commit and you’ve always got enough money to deliver what you say you will deliver. Providing we stay within those boring, traditional values, we will survive.’
Hamilton does play some cards close to his chest. He’s not keen to talk about the size of revenues so far, which is understandable. The site has been tested on a local basis and proved promising, his next big task is to help his teenage MD get it rolled out nationally and then across the world. But by that time he may no longer be a teenager and will expect a decent pay package. – Go to www.pupiline.net for more information.
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