A Corner Shop on the Web

When Jeremy Glover and his colleagues set about dreaming up online blockbusters, they thought Green Shield Stamps and a one-stop wedding site. Then they thought DVD.

In 1997, a little advertising agency with a large amount of cheek threw down the gauntlet before Jeremy Glover, who was then creative director in Northern Ireland for the international agency McCann-Erickson. Glover had been visiting his brother, a research scientist in Edinburgh, and on surfing the net for the first time was curious to find out which agencies had web presence.

“I searched for our company and instead found this small US agency which listed all the big agencies saying:’None of these companies have a website.’ That was smart”.

Glover left the agency the same year and stepped into internet territory himself, becoming one of the creative brains behind BlackStar (www.blackstar.co.uk), which now leads the market in online DVD and video retail. Growing from a tiny database of customers two years ago, the company is now forecasting a £20 million turnover, and its founders are looking for it to be valued at up to £300m when it floats this year.

The seeds of this online video empire were sown in an early meeting between Glover, his agency colleague Darryl Collins and their friend Tony Bowden, a theology student who had also founded one of the first web design companies in the early 1990s. The three sat down before a big whiteboard and listed as many internet ideas as they could come up with. A loyalty site based on Green Shield Stamps? A one-stop wedding shop? A site selling clerical shirts?

Glover himself had once signed up to study computer science at Brighton Polytechnic but dropped it in favour of a job in print shop. Back in Northern Ireland, he attempted to set up a private members’ club in Belfast.

“I wasn’t afraid to try things out. I learnt how to identify good partners, how to handle banks and that if you don’t have a skill in-house, you’re better off learning it yourself than calling in consultants.

“I had a plan to teach the staff to ride mopeds so that they could take clients home after a few drinks. But after I had done a considerable amount of work with architects and designers, the bank pulled out and it all collapsed”.

At 35, Glover decided the time had come to take a deeper plunge. In September 1997, he left his agency job, sold his house and racked his brains for a way to take advantage of the internet boom.

“With the Green Shield Stamps idea we would have had to create crtical mass, and we just didn’t have the budget. Video was on our list and the main reason we went for it was our passions: Darryl’s background in film, and mine as a frustrated actor in amateur dramatics.

“We were watching what was happening in the United States and noticed that videos weren’t being shipped outside because our PAL format differed from theirs. With books and CD’s there was a standard, but with video there was zero penetration over here.”

By December, the team of three had got no further than the whiteboard stage.

“If we weren’t careful, the money was going to run out. We thought, let’s just get something up there. Tony said: ‘We’re going to build a video shop in seven days’ – him being theological, it had to have a religious connotation. Unfortunately, I had kidney-stone problems, so it took nine days.”

The three wrote up reviews of their favourite films and television shows, and kicked off with 55 customers (Glover claims 45 are still regulars), packing videos from the top of a table-tennis table. The next month, they had more than 200 customers. Then a couple of business angels gave them £100,000 to employ professional designers and programmers, and things began to take off.

Glover sees his job as creative rather than technical. “Leonardo Da Vinci ran around and had lots of projects on the go, Michelangelo said he was going to paint the Sistine Chapel and picked the ceiling. To me, BlackStar is very much a Sistine Chapel. Or to take a film analogy, Robert Altman’s The Player has a long panning shot and if I was at an advertising agency I would cut between close and wide shots. Here at BlackStar, it’s like one continuous shot.”

What has he learnt about the Web in two years there? “I’ve realised the site needs to be constantly improved. While Americans have been good at using technology to personalise their websites, I think it is more important to personalise the service, that corner shop mentality.

“We have created a powerful retail experience because customers can check the actors, look at everything for £5.99, order by catalogue number. We threw it open to customers to say what they’d like to see there.

“You can strip away a lot of prejudices. In the real world, a customer would sense if the person selling the video has had a bad day. That doesn’t come across on a computer. I’ve heard it said that customers need to contact the vendor for one in every six purchases made online. That’s an opportunity to talk, but it needs to be proactive and positive.”

BlackStar raised a few hackles when it advertised Titanic in Empire magazine for just £9.99, prompting phone calls from offline retailers. Glover, who with his partners has since raised another £4m in venture capital, just shrugs.

“The reason we advertised offline was that we needed to create presence to make ourselves look big, not by taking quarter page boxes but by taking full-colour, full page adverts”.

His approach to empire building is very similar to the way he learnt to type e-mails: slowly, with one finger at a time.

“Our strategy has been about slow-build, about managing customer expectation. The good thing for us now is that the doors have closed and everyone who’s not in the club now won’t get in, because the barriers to entry are too high.

“We’re the only specialists in this space and we see ourselves as selling passion – not a product but a service.”

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