Virtual Empires

It took three minutes from beginning to end. Found the web site, then the video, registered credit card and address details and pressed the “buy” button. Having traipsed fruitlessly from one Dublin retailer to the next before Christmas, in search of Un Coeur en Hiver, I’ve now tracked it down with a few clicks of my mouse.

In doing so I have made three Belfast web entrepreneurs infinitesimally richer and, by adding to their customer database, marginally enhanced their attractiveness as a takeover proposition.

Less than two years ago, Jeremy Glover, Tony Bowden and Darryl Collins launched the internet video store Blackstar with minimal capital. Last August, American venture capitalists undertook to invest £3.5m in the company, which now employs 75 people. Next month it moves into new 14,000 square feet Belfast premises, and later this year it plans a stock market flotation. Market analysts put its value at about £300m.

The three founders, who previously worked in advertising and film making, have done what almost every journalist I know has spent the last year dreaming of doing. There are few things more certain to aggravate one than the knowledge that soon, all too soon, some collegues in this scurvy trade are likely to be walking around, a carefree spring in their step, as freshly minted millionaires. It is known as John Connolly Syndrome, and the only difference between the new variant and the old is that web ventures, not novels, are now the favoured route to riches.

Thus, when two or more gather the talk turns to the virtual, to the purity of selling nothing but an idea and the promise of profits, and even to the erotic heights of the initial public offering, or IPO, the event that turns people with a convincing line of patter into dot com millionaires. Unlike Blackstar, even whoppers such as the bookseller Amazon, have yet to turn a profit. Their marketability is based almost entirely on confidence and, despite a few recent blips, confidence has seldom been higher, with the rsult that entrepreneurial Dublin media types have seldom been more agitated at the prospect of missing the gold rush.

Having in the past invested with spectacularly mixed results – one company’s shares doubling in value in a matter of months, another suffering the ultimate ignominy of being de-listed from the Dublin stock exchange, the joke bourse of the universe – I find that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to dunk one’s head in cold water and sit in a darkened room pondering the fate of previous bubble markets, such as the Dutch tulip crash of 1634, until the fever abates.

It never fully recedes, however, because depite recent market shudders there is the nagging knowledge that the biggest land grab the modern world has seen is taking place in the virtual domain, where the traditional rules of business do not apply.

It’s a world in which a once small player such as Gerry McGovern can grow a small Irish company, Nua, into a top contender; it’s also one into which a media force such as The Irish Times can swagger and launch a portal site, as it did last year, only to wath it falter.

Those of us who haven’t ever reached the starting blocks can take heart from such inversion of the traditional order. There are market niches to be filled, and even such a formidable outfit as Blackstar has room for improvement. Though not short of moody French films starring Emmanuelle Beart, it stocks nothing by the brilliant American documentary maker Ross McElwee, who made Sherman’s March and Time Indefinite. Empires have been built from less promising opportunities.

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