Archive for March, 2000

Why Eddie Irvine’s got a BlackStar on his head

Friday, March 31st, 2000

How many eagle-eyed grand prix viewers have noticed the new link between Eddie Irvine and his native Northern Ireland?

Check out his helmet. The re-design unveiled just before the start of the 2000 Formula One season not only bears allegiance to is new Jaguar team but also to his first home grown sponsorship.

Blackstar are the Belfast based Internet video and DVD retailers who have been among the first here to embrace the e-commerce revolution – and they are the first from Northern Ireland to become invoved in F1 sponsorship.

Jeremy Glover, BlackStar’s marketing director, was the man who bought the expensive space on Irvine’s helmet but he won’t say how much it cost.

“I couldn’t possibly comment on that,” he laughs, “but we are convinced it will be worthwhile.

“This exercise is not about the size of the logo on Eddie’s helmet or how much it cost. It is much more than that.

“You’ll notice that it doesn’t actually say BlackStar. That’s deliberate – it is about getting people to notice and to wonder what it means.

“We are trying to build a brand name that will be famous around the world and what better place to do it in one of the most global sporting arenas of all.

“We already have customers in 134 countries and we would like to expand on that with Eddie’s help”.

But it was close home connections which brought about the Irvine link.

“I’m from Bangor, he’s from Bangor or more accurately Conlig, which is just up the road, and we knew each other years ago,”explains Jeremy who founded the UK’s largest on-line video store three years ago with Darryl Collins and Tony Bowden.

“Maurice Hamilton, the F1 reporter who wrote Eddie’s autobiography, is a friend of my family and Michael Cooper, the grand prix photographer who took our promotional pictures at the Australian Grand Prix is from Belfast. It’s a small world even in F1”.

Irvine is happy to have an Ulster sponsor at last. “It’s great that Blackstar have come on board because it is the first real sponsor I have had from Northern Ireland in 17 years of racing. I’ve had a few friends helping me out over the years but never a commercial sponsor”.

Blackstar also see the link with Jaguar as important. “The Jaguar name is is seen as representing all things good about Britain and among our biggest selling lines are classical TV series. The two tie together very well,” adds Glover.

BlackStar has formula to win

Friday, March 17th, 2000

Online video sales outfit BlackStar is aiming to be in pole position with the sponsorship deal of Formula One racing driver Eddie Irvine. The company has sponsored Irvine’s new crash helmet so that the BlackStar logo appears on the side panel.

Jeremy Glover, marketing director and founder of BlackStar, said: “As a Belfast based company we are very proud and excited about our association with ‘local hero’ Eddie Irvine.”

Meanwhile, BlackStar is making a play for the legions of Star Wars fans by offering 20 per cent off on pre-order for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment blockbuster is not the only title to be discounted on pre-order. BlackStar offered the same deal on the Indiana Jones trilogy box set, Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me and the DVD versions of American Pie and The Blair Witch Project. It also delivers the titles free.

The Internet company is now targeting the DVD market heavily and has placed a 24 page branded supplement in the April issue of Empire Magazine. The supplement looks at the 50 ‘must own’ DVD’S and includes a three for the price of two offer running through March.

It’s all in the head for Ed

Wednesday, March 8th, 2000

Eddie Irvine has decided to ditch his tried and trusted crash helmet design in order to blend in at Jaguar.

The flamboyant Irishman decided that a new image was in order after it was pointed out that his traditional orange livery would clash with Jaguar’s green hues, and has unveiled a black-based helmet featuring the company’s big cat.

The helmet also advertises two new sponsors for the former ferari pilot, who claims that ridding himself of the old design also cuts his last ties with his former employer, whose logo he also proudly displayed on top of his head.

Joining HSBC on the helmet are Irvine’s new backers Playstation and BlackStar.

The latter, he admitted, gives him particular joy, in that it is the first company from his native Northern Ireland to take an interest in his career.

BlackStar shining brightly

Sunday, March 5th, 2000

Gone are the days when people working in IT were referred to as nerds or anoraks. The sort of person who retreated from human contact to immerse himself in the machinations of mice, keyboards and hard drives.

To work in the virtual world of IT has become one of the most desirable professions around with high wages and companies clamouring for young, skilled workers.

Once it was the jet-set who were considered cool – in the new millennium it will be the Net Set who possess cachet and a big bank balance. Indeed, the world’s six wealthiest people are all information barons, with Microsoft founder Bill Gates at the helm.

Following his example, increasing numbers of young people in Northern Ireland are deciding to set up their own IT companies – perhaps it will only be a matter of time before the Province is able to boast the next Mr Gates.

Belfast-based on-line video store company BlackStar (www.blackstar.co.uk) has become a worldwide success story.

Founded in January 1998, BlackStar’s meteoric rise has seen it become one of the largest on-line retailer of videos and DVDs in the UK with customers in over 120 countries and over 80 full-time staff.

All day-to-day operations, from programming to graphic design and order fulfillment, are carried out in-house from the companies offices and a warehouse on the Ravenhill Road, Belfast. A London office handles all sales and marketing activities.

In January it was announced that the company plans a stock market flotation before the end of the year in a move which could see it valued at more than £200 million. Ryanair chairman David Bonderman is one of the main shareholders in the company, which is chaired by former A&L Goodbody boss James Osborne.

It is planning to carry out the initial public offering on the London and Nasdaq markets, but may also consider a Dublin listing.

BlackStar is the brainchild of chief executive Darryl Collins whose background is in film production.

“I saw the opportunity created by the growth of the Internet and the clear potential for retail demonstrated by the growth of companies like CDNow, Music Boulevard (now owned by CDNow!) and Amazon,” he says.

Another partner in the company, Tony Bowden, chief operating officer, set up the first internet company in the Province, NIWeb, which has gone through several hands and is now owned by Anderson Advertising and renamed The Internet Business.

Tony also has a very keen interest in films and, according to Darryl, probably has one of the biggest video collections in Ireland!

“Tony and I decided to set up an office together which would monitor and research internet developments. We had no clear plan, but we wanted to do something! We also realised that the missing link, so to speak, was a lack of sales and marketing know-how in-house.

“Having come from a TV commercials background, I had developed a very good close working relationship with Jeremy Glover, who was working at McCann Erickson advertising in Belfast, and naturally turned to him for advice. He quickly saw the scale of the opportunity and elected to join us as marketing director.”

Darryl adds: “We figured that it had to bring in cash to be able to ‘prove’ that the concept worked. When we looked at the different areas, we quickly worked out that selling videos and DVDs presented a unique opportunity.

“There was no American competition – video is in the NTSC format in the US as opposed to PAL in the UK and most of Europe – there was little High Street competition – most retailers hold around 5 percent of what is on release in the UK – and no significant on-line competition. So we just got on with it.”

So having come up with the idea they put the site together in a week and launched it. Their idea was to get customers to help shape how it worked by encouraging feedback, not to have it fully functioning with everything in place from day one.

In many ways this has been a core strength to how we work – 23 months of tweaking and improving is very hard to catch from a standing start!”

However, Darryl concedes that in the beginning it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“There is an innate conservatism in financial and professional circles in Northern Ireland, so most people we talked to either didn’t know about computers, hadn’t heard about the internet, did not know that ecommerce was possible or did not know anything about our ‘real’ business of retailing entertainment products. It was a tall order to find someone in Belfast with money or resources in 1996.

“We quickly realised that Northern Ireland-based professionals and high-net-worth individuals would only really get it when it was too late, so we started to look for finance closer to home – from family and friends and from further away, London and Dublin.

“Because we were the first Internet retailer to approach various local Government agencies we had a lot of explaining and persuading to do. We evidently failed to communicate the scale of the opportunity, and they failed to recognize our ability to execute a dynamic plan. To this day, we have not received a penny in public funding.”

He says one of the key problems which will be faced by many businesses doing things on the Internet is the difficulty in predicting growth and thereby sales.

We knew we were on to something, but creating a three to five year plan for a business that has never been possible before the Internet, was impossible. There were no precedents. No ‘rules of thumb’. No way to judge what the company, business or market would be like in 12 months time.

“Although we had fast growing revenues, we also had very few assets or cash on our balance sheet until we raised venture capital funding. Banks don’t like that! Whilst we ‘knew’ our efforts were creating long-term value for shareholders, much of that was intangible and hard to quantify. When we need overdraft facilities, local banks behaved true to form – they wanted security for every penny. If it were not for the foresight and confidence of one local bank, we might not have got over that particular hurdle.”

Another obstacle which the company encountered was finding an appropriate office.

“How do you find flexible space, with room to grow at reasonable rates in Belfast. Most developers are looking for a 5-10 year commitment. Having grown from three people in March 1998 to over 80 today, every option we looked at presented a problem in the future. We would either have to pay for space we didn’t initially need or end up out-growing a space and having to move with an ongoing liability.”

BlackStar has no significant high street competition as full-range video retailers in the UK high street music stores stock a limited range of 2,000 to 3,000 video titles, whilst BlackStar has a product line of around 50,000 video and DVD titles.

The company has consistently experienced orders growth of between 30-60 percent per month.

According to Darryl BlackStar thrives on competition. “We believe that competition brings the best out of companies like BlackStar and customers tend to benefit from that competition. However, we have many key advantages. For instance we sell 100 percent of what is currently on release in the UK, including the 95 percent that is not available in a Virgin or HMV. We are also open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. And we deliver to your door free, worldwide.”

BlackStar is a shining example of a local company with a global outlook. Its three founders have stuck to their guns and, it would appear that for BlackStar the sky really is the limit.

Commenting on where he sees the company going over the next five years, Darryl says: “Bigger and better! If, as people say, the Internet works on doggy years, then your 5 years is really 35 years at Internet speed… I can’t possibly comprehend, let along articulate, what might happen by then…”

Share your online shopping experiences

Wednesday, March 1st, 2000

I’d just like to use your mag to praise the Internet mail order company BlackStar, which advertises in .Net. I bought a DVD from BlackStar back in September, and got excellent service. It wasn’t a big purchase or anything-just one disc. Just before Christmas, though, I received loyalty gift from the company. Usually, this would be a book of money off vouchers or something else of little worth, but BlackStar’s gift was more substantial – a video copy of that superb Christmas favourite. It’s a Wonderful Life. As a great James Stewart fan, I was very pleased. So thanks, BlackStar. It was much appreciated.