A Minute With… Ajaz Ahmed

Ajaz Ahmed is the co-founder of Freeserve, the UK’s largest ISP (internet service provider), now owned by Orange. He is now involved in running a number of companies including Huddersfield-based Browzar which provides a privacy tool for internet browsing.

 A Minute With… Ajaz Ahmed

The secret of success for an internet entrepreneur.

Ajaz started his talk by explaining why he was motivated to become an entrepreneur. He recalled how as a youngster he saw a television advert for Hovis bread. It showed an old man retiring from a lifetime’s work at the mill and proudly returning home with a clock. A clock, that was all he had to show for a lifetime’s work. Ajaz decided that he didn’t want that, he wanted something more. 

This isn’t the TV ad, but is the same style. This one was directed by Ridley Scott and was voted one of the Top 100 TV adverts of all time.

Ajaz left left school with no formal academic qualifications, although he was keen to point out he did receive a swimming certificate for breast stroke.

He got his first job when he spotted an advert for a sales assistant in high-street electrical retailer Dixons. He gradually worked his way up the managerial ladder and eventually became the manager of PC World in Leeds.

It was while working at PC World that Ajaz hit on the idea for Freeserve. Back in the mid-90s it was hard to get on the internet and despite working at PC World Ajaz wasn’t entirely sure how to connect his new PC. His staff told him to contact Demon who immediately started to make things difficult by telling him he needed a browser and could download it by FTP.

Ajaz thought if it was this difficult for him, how much more difficult it must be for the average customer buying their first home PC. They were already coming into the store to buy PCs so if he could make it easy for them to get on the internet then it was almost a captive market as they got to them first.

Ajaz made the important point that everyone can have good ideas – indeed lots of people do – but entrepreneurs do something about it.

He used the example of Ted Turner who did what seems obvious now when he launched CNN as the first 24 hour news channel. It was fairly obvious, but he saw it and did it first.

On 22 Sep 1998 Freeserve launched. It was an immediate success and within three months beat AOL to become the UK’s biggest ISP. Start-up costs were minimal as the only real cost for Freeserve was providing the free CD. Advertising was done by simply putting a tiny panel into adverts that Dixons was already running in the press.

Nine months later Freeserve floated. Up until that time it had only invested £240,000 and employed just three people. However, the bankers and financial whizz kids advised that it couldn’t float with a staff of just three as it wouldn’t be credible.

They had to go out and employ people 16 even though nothing for them to do

The secret of Freeserve’s success was to make technology simple. It made money not by charging a lot (it was free) but by collecting a very small amount of money from a very large number of people. The profit came from a tiny percentage of the phone call cost that came back from the telecoms operator.

Ajaz explained how the internet had changed the world for ever but that it was not over yet and stressed that it continues to change and will continue to change.

T’internet and the sales prevention department

In Yorkshire the internet is known as t’internet and that we could do with some more Yorkshire plain speaking on the internet and technology in general. He complained that internet people wanted to complicate everything and often tried to act as the sales prevention department.

He believes the next big thing where money is to be made is in making technology simple. A good example of this was Apple, which was a company going downhill fast until it came up with the iPod. The iPod wasn’t the first portable MP3 player by a long way, but it did make it simple and thus give it mass appeal.

He warned that many small companies went wrong by failing to talk the customer’s language and advised walking around a large, successful retailer and watching closely how it communicated with customers. To look and learn and not be afraid to copy the best ideas.

 He said he often described himself as just a simple shopkeeper, what he did wasn’t rocket science.

Other top tips included:

  • Use simple language such as is used in the Daily Mirror to explain things.
  • ask if you don’t understand
  • the first secret is there is no secret except common sense
  • entrepreneurs are people people
  • don’t piss people off – good people walk away if you don’t treat them good
  • not what you know but who you know
  • keep the message simple
  • articulate the proposition in a way customers can understand
  • entrepreneurs are savvy
  • take a risk – success doesn’t come on a plate
  • don’t dream it, do it
  • don’t let daily life hold you back

You don’t need to be an expert at everything, but you need to know someone who does. Ajaz can’t read a balance sheet but neither can Richard Branson and Ajaz keeps his accountant on speed dial.

He doesn’t know about technology either but finds good people who do (at Freeserve the actual technology was all outsourced).

Ajaz also talked about the difficulties of being an entrepreneur and how in the UK especially bankers won’t take a risk.

He also spoke about the importance of investing in good public relations and how it was essential for success. He used an example of Abdul’s another of his businesses which sells Asian food in Wakefield. To launch it they used racist comedian Bernard Manning and as a result received national press coverage for what was actually just the opening of a local curry house which wouldn’t have even made the local papers.

A Minute With… Ajaz Ahmed was recorded on Friday November 2, 2006 at the First Friday event organised by Wakefield First.


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