No doubt you have heard of Freeserve, the UK’s first free Internet service provider. Originally owned by Dixons, it launched in 1998 and within a matter of months had gained over a million subscribers. In the summer of 1999 it went on to become Britain’s first dotcom to be listed on the stock market, at one point reaching a market cap of £9 Billion. After the dot com bubble of that time burst, its share price collapsed and it was eventually sold to France Telecom for £1.6 Billion.
What is not so well known, is who first came up with the idea of Freeserve. Back in 1998 Ajaz Ahmed was working as a PC World store manager in Leeds, and it was Ajaz who came up with the idea of Freeserve, convincing his Dixons bosses to launch it.
Easyspace recently caught up with Ajaz Ahmed to ask about his involvement with Freeserve and what he’s been doing since then:
Q1. Ajaz, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to coming up with the idea of Freeserve
I was a Manager at PC World in Leeds, which was the time the first PC World in the North of England. Dixons had just bought PC World, which had 4 stores in London and they were in the process of rolling out PC World throughout the country. I moved across from Dixons where I had worked since I left school having failed all my exams.
At the time computers were still expensive and most homes didn’t have a PC. We opened our Leeds in 1995, the same year as the World Wide Web was invented and of course very few were on the Internet in the UK.
In 1996 I had heard about this thing called the Internet and wanted to get on it, so I bought a modem from my own store and went around asking the staff “how do I get on the Internet?” Nobody could tell me.
Eventually one of the technicians in our technical centre said, “why don’t you try Demon Internet?” so I phoned Demon and told them I wanted to get on the Internet and asked “What do I need?” the response was that I need a browser and that I could “FTP one from their site” I thought to myself “What the hell is an FTP” so I gave up and eventually got a CD from a magazine cover for CompuServe.
When I finally got onto the Internet I had a eureka moment. I started to reflect on my experience and I thought to myself, if I found it difficult then our customers must also find it difficult to get onto the Internet and if we become an an Internet Service Provider (ISP) then we would be able to get to the customer first before our competitors because the customer is stood in front of us because we had just sold them a computer. I thought that we were selling a Trojan horse, we were letting other people make money from our customers and we needed to control the first page the customer sees once they get onto the Internet.
I figured that we could outsource the technology and that we would not have to spend any money on acquiring the customer as millions of customers are walking into Dixons, Currys, PC World and The Link stores every week. We also sold more computers than any one else so I figured it would cost us next to nothing to set up an ISP and we would also make a fortune from the website.
It was a simple and obvious idea.
Q2. Tell us how Freeserve was developed and what your involvement was in setting it up.
The short story is, I went to see the Managing Director of PC World to tell him about my great idea but he didn’t get it and said “No”, I persevered and eventually I got to see the Group CEO and he said “yes”.
We found a local Leeds ISP and did a deal with them to outsource the technology. I focused on Business Development and did all the deals for the portal, things like the search engine, the content and merchants for the shopping channel.
We were not the first free ISP that was a company called Extreme. We were very successful for two main reasons, our proposition was easy to understand and consumer friendly, but the biggest reason for our success was because we had a great route to market, all the Dixons stores, without that we would not have been a success. Just imagine, we didn’t have to advertise our service because we had all these customers walking into our stores every single day.
We were an instant hit and became the largest ISP in just three months, I looked after Business Development and did all the deals for the website, it was a great job.
Q3. What was it like being part of Freeserve during the dotcom boom time of 2000, which in a relatively short time had a market cap of £9 Billion?
It was a great time but also a crazy time, it seemed that everyone had a business plan for an Internet company. Lots of companies came and went but lots of great companies were also born in that time, companies like Google, Yahoo and Amazon to name just a few. Being the largest Internet Company in the UK meant that everyone wanted to do business with us, it got to the stage where I had to remove my mobile number from my business cards because I had so many calls.
One of the reasons why it was easy for us was that we were part of a big group, Dixons, and we used their resources and management, without that we would have made so many mistakes and I doubt if we would ever have been that big. We never had to worry about at lot of the things that most small businesses have to worry about.
Q4. Eventually the dotcom bubble burst and Freeserve was sold to France Telecom, for a still very respectable £1.6 Billion. What would you have done differently if you could relive those years again?
Dixons decided to float the business at the right time and they also decided to sell the business at the right time, we almost sold it to another company earlier on for much higher price but that deal fell through. I think the France Telecom deal was amazing for a company that was only three years old. I don’t think we could have done anything differently, it was a good outcome and being part of big company made it a lot easier and the experience has helped with other businesses that I have been involved in since Freeserve.
Q5. Since leaving Freeserve you have gone on to develop a number of other businesses including www.browzar.com which allows users to surf the web without leaving traces of their activities, and website-developer www.quba.co.uk. Tell us about these businesses and why you decide to invest in them?
Since leaving Freeserve I have sat on a number of company boards including Yorkshire Forward, which was a Government Regional Development Agency. I also sat on the Governing Council at the University of Huddersfield and now am on the Board of the Business School. I’ve been waiting for the next big idea but you never know when that is going to come to you.
Browzar is a great idea, it’s used by people all over the World and was the Worlds first privacy browser. But since we launched every major browser has now got privacy features built in to it but Browzar was the first. Customers have told us that it’s great for carrying around on a USB stick for when you need to use someone else’s computer.
Quba is a nice solid business, as long as there is an Internet, companies will need websites built and Quba does a good job of building websites for companies. I often look at websites and think that companies don’t understand that a website is their shop window, it’s often the first thing a customer sees and first impressions are everything. Companies need to pay more attention to how their websites look, first impressions count.
I’ve also invested in things that haven’t worked out and the lesson there is that mistakes are worth making if you learn from them.
Q6. Tell us about your latest venture www.legal365.com
You don’t wake up one day and decide that you are going to get into the legal market. I went to a dinner at the National Media Museum and sat next to Janet Street-Porter who was great, sat next her was a lawyer who I hardly spoke to, he called me a few weeks later and asked if we could meet up. When we met he told me that the legal market was going to change and how the Government had decided to de-regulate the market and allow non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms. This would open up the market, introduce competition and new business models could emerge that would be in the customer’s best interests. They wanted to sell legal services over the Internet but really didn’t have the experience and asked if I wanted to join them in a new venture.
I looked into it and concluded that nobody was doing it right and that this was indeed a big opportunity. Legal services is a huge market, it’s far too complicated and expensive, lawyers haven’t done a good job of selling themselves or providing good customer service.
Someone needed to make legal services affordable and accessible for everyone, I thought that this is the big opportunity that I’ve been looking for.
The opticians market was de-regulated and just look at it now, remember what it was like buying glasses and getting your eyes tested just twenty years ago?
We now sell over 300 legal services for the consumer and small business market. Everything is in plain English, it’s easy to understand with helpful law guides and everything is a low fixed price. Some of our services are even free, if you ever want to challenge a parking ticket or a speeding fine or if a company is not paying a bill, then you can take care of it for free on our site.
But the real disruption is going to come when the next phase of plan comes into effect, which is to open a chain of high street legal stores selling fixed prices legal services. This is a real revolution, we’ll be open 7 days a week, staffed by professionals trained to talk in your language and most importantly everything will be at a low fixed price. No more charging by the hour. I believe that one of the most popular services will be the ability to call in and ask a lawyer a question for a fixed price. Come in and tell us what your problem is, we’ll listen and then tell you what the solution to your problem is and you don’t have to worry about the clock ticking.
We have a unique online and high street proposition and I’m very excited by the prospect of change in the legal industry, it’s long overdue.
Q7. How do you market Legal365?
We haven’t started to market Legal365 in a big way yet, we’ve tested a few things things but we are waiting till our first store opens then we will market it in the normal way. It’s going to be all about the message.
Q8. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote your businesses? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?
Social media is great but I think it’s misunderstood, we have too many so-called experts who don’t actually deliver anything. Its like the “Emperors new clothes”, it’s ok to ask for actual proof what what difference they’ve made to businesses. The problem with with social media is simple, once you put a message out there, you have absolutely no control of where or how far it will go and most business messages are not that interesting for people to “pass it on”.
If you advertise in the paper, radio or TV then you’ll know exactly how many people you can reach. It’s interesting to note that Google, Apple, Microsoft still advertise on the TV and in the papers to spread their message.
Q9. How has the UK legal establishment reacted to Legal 365?
A big part of the legal industry is in denial about the changes that are going to happen, most lawyers are very much “glass half empty people” and will tell you why things can’t change. Everyone is watching us closely and we are very well known and I imagine that a lot of people hate us because we are challenging the industry and changing the charging model but that doesn’t bother me. My main concern is the customers.
Q10. What’s it like managing your business? Describe your typical day
I consider myself very fortunate, I’m involved with a number of things so I don’t have a 9-5 routine, no two days are the same. I work from home and our office in Leeds, I’m also on the board of the Business School at the University of Huddersfield so I attend University events. My week is made up of meeting people, working on new ideas, attending events and dinners. I also get asked to speak at events all the time which I enjoy doing, so no two days are the same and I can be working several different businesses on the same day.
Q11. Does Legal365 have many competitors and how do you plan to keep ahead of the competition?
We have competition, it’s a big market so other companies are going to try come up with new propositions. It’s very simple really, the winners in any sector are the ones where customers understand their proposition and vote with their feet and spend money with them. If we can’t do that, then we won’t have a business.
Q.12 How do you plan to grow the business?
The demand for legal services is so big that we are confident that most towns can support one of our stores, once we have opened a few and perfected our formula we can then scale our operation and role out more stores.
Q.13 In addition to the Legal365 website, you are also going to open high-street stores – why have you decided to do this?
The reason we want to open high street stores is because I believe that with legal services face-to-face contact is important and something that customer will always want. They want to be able to ask questions and talk to a person, we can only do this with a physical presence and solicitor’s offices today are not in convenient accessible locations.
Q14. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?
It’s no good retiring and then reflecting on your life and thinking about all the things you could have done or should done. If you want to start a business then start one, but make sure that you know what you are doing, read about how other successful people achieved their success. Business is mostly about common sense, take time to look at other business and if you see something that you like, copy it, be inspired by what other companies do, even if they are not in your sector.
Don’t retire and then look back with regret.
Q15. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
I haven’t been inspired by one person, I’ve read about so many and the people that inspired me were the ones that started with nothing and achieved success against the odds, even when they were told that there idea was no good. The main lessons that I learnt are:
• It’s about doing the obvious before it becomes obvious to everyone else
• Perseverance and persistence are very important
• People will try and tell you why things can’t be done, listen to them and then ignore them if you believe in your idea
• There are no secrets in business, it’s mostly common sense
• Don’t go around with blinkers on, look around you all the time and get inspired by others success
Q16. What are your future plans for Legal365?
To disrupt the legal industry with a proposition that customers love and lawyers hate.
Thanks Ajaz, from everyone at Easyspace. Good luck with your new business.
To find out more about Ajaz Ahmed and Legal365 visit www.Legal365.com