(Full disclosure: My wife worked for the company described, about 16 years ago. But we had Chinese Walls.)
In the early stages of the Internet in Ireland, access was the primary problem. If you’ve read the Dialup ISP articles, you know that some company founders were forced to build access networks who would otherwise have hoped to build communities, or web companies. There was, however, a company who came to the game just at the right time to be entirely web, and they rode the wave of that, right to its crashing end.
NuaThe Irish for “new”. was the brainchild of Gerry McGovern, Antóin Ó Lachtnáin, and Niall O’ Sullivan. Antóin was well known in the Internet community, having partaken in a number of the early IEDR conversations, as well as being an Internet Éireann user. Gerry was already at the stage, in that duality which is perhaps unique to Ireland, of being regarded both as being a visionary with powerful ideas about what the Internet could be, and a pretentious tosser-culchie who was getting ideas above his station. His background was in journalism, having written for Hot Press. Niall O’ Sullivan ran a design shop and kept a much lower profile than the others, but was not short of savvy, as we shall see.
Gerry and Niall apparently got connected on a marketing contract, and Gerry convinced Niall that they needed to get into the Internet business, since he had “felt from the first time that I saw the Internet that it would create a revolution of some sort.” But they needed a technical partner. The Internet Eireann usergroup was to provide, as it provided so much else in the early days.
Turning back to Antóin, at the time of Nua’s
The Nua Logo. intimated to Gerry that he really needed to be getting a real job kind of thing! I don’t know if he said that exactly, but you would be getting that kind of feeling definitely. It was just a small magazine. So Gerry and myself went hacking at it, and I was doing the techie stuff more or less. I’d say we started off in early 1996, and off we went trying to find people that wanted to get websites. The problem was, no-one wanted any websites because no-one understood [what they were], no-one could see the point, and what was the goal anyway? We were at the cusp, but clearly before it rather than after it. We went through the list of the top 500 companies in Ireland, which seemed like an obvious thing to do - to figure out people who wanted the Internet - but as we started going through them, we realised a good chunk of them didn’t even have fax numbers, never mind getting into this stuff.
It’s true that a good number of them, e.g. the likes of IBM, big pharma, etc, probably already had very much their own people looking into it, but it was still early days. Although Bill Gates’s famous memo on the Internet had been published in May 1995, Microsoft in Ireland was not doing that much, and many of the bigger corporates who would naturally be slower to move were essentially waiting for everyone else to take the first step. It was, as Antóin says, not exactly universally clear that the Internet was actually something that had a future; for example, Telecom Eireann were working with MiniTel, which might have been as much of a success in Ireland as it was in France.It wasn’t, though (see the Ireland On-Line article). Somewhat bizarrely, apparently the office building that Nua moved into after the buy-out, of which more later, was the one that MiniTel had been in before.
Nua got initial funding from a company called Enfer Scientific, small but innovative,They famously came up with the best test for Angel Dust and BSE. and the main movers behind it were two gentlemen from Kerry,Clearly a co-incidence that Niall O’ Sullivan was from Killarney. Michael O’ Connor and Louis Ronan.
Animal by-products was their game and they decided to take a risk, and they invested in our company. We were also looking for that with Declan Ganley Investing. It didn’t happen, thank God, but Declan Ganley comes back into the story later. The contract that actually got us going, though, which must have been late 1996, was Telecom Éireann, for their ISP, Telecom Internet. It was the biggest contract there was going [to do all the web bits for their ISP], and we were in the middle of it because of the relationship we built through Telecom Éireann. Those were the days! I remember their explanation about ADSL - we were in the Telecom Éireann office at the time, and they said well, you know ISDN, yeah, well you know that really came out in 1989 or 1990, and basically looks like it will take about ten years by the time it’s fully deployed. So, ADSL will be like that, and it will take another ten years after the year 2000 to roll out - that was basically their view on the natural speed of things: they had to recoup the money they spent [and on those timescales was their plan]. These were the kind of insights you got from being inside the thing. Anyway, Enfer Scientific invested money, fair play to them, that got us a certain way - it gave us the working capital to make it through the night, basically, and in retrospect, to actually do the Eircom job. Then we were gearing into the Telecom Éireann flotation, and they ended up investing in Nua - a chunk of change over a million Euros.
Happy days. The deal was done in 1998, but was actually primarily for a site called Local Ireland -
local.ie - in which TE took a 90% stake for about £5 million Irish pounds,About 6,348,690.39 EUR. and a 20% stake in Nua itself for about £1.3 million.About 1.65 million EUR. The business plan was, in retrospect, perhaps “a little bizarre”,You can think of Local Ireland as kinda-sorta being a local business directory for the smallest places in Ireland, more structured than Wikipedia, but way ahead of it’s time; it was trying to obtain local information for places that had barely heard of the net, never mind had people capable of communicating about it. but it kept the company growing and investigating things it could do, so that was all fine.
So, off we went into Internet consultancy like crazy. There were a few problems in retrospect; we didn’t really know anything about running a consultancy company, and then the labour market got tight. Then we had the brilliant idea to convert into a product company, which was an excellent idea, except for one problem: we didn’t know anything about making products.
Indeed, Nua’s world-wide reputation (which was genuine) had been made mostly off the back of its free newsletter, Nua Internet Surveys. Nua Internet Surveys was an interesting beast;To quote from David’s article, “McGovern says that he came up with the idea for Internet Surveys from listening to rap music, with the sampling on the tracks suggesting to him the synopsising of survey data.”. it was essentially a summary of the Internet-growth-related press releases (or other similar information sources) placed into an easily digestible form and sent around as email, or viewable as a web page.Here’s a very old cached version that I found, which will probably expire soon. It was reasonably low effort, it provided some value (the aggregated information in one place), it “drove traffic” (i.e., probabilistically sent some people to look at the Nua website, the perceived source of this information), and it was, in it’s own way, a valuable record of the craziness of that first wave of hypergrowth. It was so well known, it’s even still referenced in sites that really should know better, about a decade after it ceased to be used!
It started on foot of an idea from Gerry, and took off quite rapidly:
Gerry decided to do something about what was going on the Internet: how many people were joining, all sorts of stuff, and we were cited in books, [articles] and so on - we became famous for that, [being] the information source. We would keep counts: continent by continent, country by country, how many people were supposed to be on the Internet from all the different sources [we could find]. We had a big spreadsheet somewhere, and we put it all up. That worked well, and we basically cornered that market - we could see the numbers going up every month. Big consultancy companies came to see us, like Diamond, which was a big big consulting company at the time. They came over to have a look it and they thought: who the f**k are these guys?(In retrospect, perhaps Nua should have talked to them more, in order to figure out what to do with themselves, but that would - unfortunately - have been only a short-term measure: Diamond wouldn’t have been better than anyone else at sorting out the long-term direction, and arguably worse.)
Nua enjoyed a relatively idyllic initial growth phase, with their year-ish head-start in Internet knowledge getting them access to a wealth of companies who were looking around for expertise. As the technology underwent the typical hype cycle, the usual behaviour was observed: companies starting becoming gradually aware of the technology, looking for expertise outside and either vastly overpaying or underpaying, then bringing the expertise in-house, then deciding that the expertise is no longer needed in-house because it has been effectively commoditised, then outsourcing it. But at this moment in time, we’re in the “expensive exploration phase”, and Nua did quite well out of it, with clients such as McCann Fitzgerald, Barclay’s, UL’s BTiS and Quay Financial Software, amongst others.
Another thing which seems clear in retrospect is how much Gerry (and Nua generally) actually got right, in their forward thinking. He captures something of the spirit of the times in this section:
The future used to be some point down the line, some point off in the distance. It used to be something you thought about, planned for. But right now in this world of continuous change it is hard to know what time we have, what time we are in.
… and you wouldn’t have gone wrong if you’d taken the line of thought developed in this article and used it to imagine how a future of doxxing and swatting would work out:
It strikes me as interesting that so many people on the Internet don’t want to be their standard selves. This is particularly the case with regard to how people behave within what have commonly become known as chat areas. It’s also reflected by the amount of people who use Hotmail-type accounts in order to achieve anonymity.
Very pertinent today in the post-Real-Names era of social media.
However, although there was a considerable honeymoon period while Nua could ride the wave without too many other surfers cramping their style, it was only ever going to be a matter of time until the larger consultancies acquired the right expertise, and started muscling in on profitable territory. Furthermore, as Nua continued to grow in staff and experience culture change - particularly acute after the acquisition from Telecom Éireann and the move to considerably more corporate officesA building my wife describes as being profoundly sick. in Booterstown - it became more pertinent to talk about the future direction of the company. It was decided to try to turn Nua into a software company, specifically a content management company system company, where it was felt that the pressure from larger and smaller companies chasing the same business would be greatly reduced. Nua talked to a number of consultancies about how to bring this about, paying a lot of money for the privilege, and ultimately giving up:
We looked at doing different things with them and we never quite got it to work, but in retrospect that might have been a good thing to do because they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t actually have the direction for the long term, they didn’t actually have where the company really needed to expand to, which we actually did know, but we just couldn’t actually deal with it. We didn’t have the skills as managers, or anything else, to do it. We thought we needed to convert Nua to a product company, and the irony of it all is that we went off developing the software for a content management system, but in fact we’d already got a piece of software that we’d written for the surveys, called Survey-o-matic which basically did this.
An employee called Pete Sealy had written it; he was originally an industrial designer, but had great expertise with essentially anything technical and just made it work. What Survey-o-matic did was put a nice relational database underpinning the content management problem:
So you put in a survey story, you put in an abstract, it had a related link of some sort - typically out of the title - and then there were some categories. You clicked which categories you wanted the story to be in from a select list, you pressed save, and then it appeared on the website like magic. This was a HTML-free editing experience in 1996! You just put it into the form and off you go. In retrospect, we had 90% of modern blogging software functionality in that thing, and arguably implemented it better than Moveable Type, since we actually had a template language that wouldn’t drive you f**king crazy. Maybe it wasn’t as flexible or cool but it was certainly better than Wordpress or Moveable Type. It was a decent piece of software: if you looked at the source code for 45 minutes, you would actually know how it worked and how it was written - in Perl. It basically did everything you actually needed for a content management system, it was just a matter of adding more templates to it. The only thing we didn’t have was a comments feature which I realised later we really should have. But Gerry didn’t really believe in comments features at the time I think.
Sounds like good product-market fit, as they say today. Unfortunately, though, Nua got trapped in a fairly standard trap (a trap more avoidable today, in the era of strongly articulated “agile” values) of attempting to over-engineer a system that did everything. Since, y’know, enterprises do everything, and we’re going to need that, right?
We decided that wasn’t good enough […] for the enterprise, and we started going down the path of creating workflows and modelling who reads it first, then it goes to someone else, and they check it, and they edit it and put it into context and all this kind of stuff. Nonsense - complete rubbish. Completely unsustainable: you are just passing stuff around and nobody takes any responsibility for it for a start. You just need a tool that basically somebody takes responsibility, maybe has an opportunity to leave the post in drafts so somebody else can look at it before you actually press the big Go button, but basically, that’s all you need. And we had that in 2000, and then we went off trying to design content management software. We already had a perfectly good piece of content management software [and didn’t realise it] - in retrospect, we had the product, but no - we had to go and develop another product, an enterprise edition in Java and all this complete nonsense. We crashed and burned the whole thing.
Antóin maintains even today that writing software for the Internet is comparatively simple, and talks about SQL backends and simple frontends; my take on it would be more that, quite apart from Pete’s individual skills at making software go, it was more about the size of the problem. The size of the problem for Nua Internet Surveys is one size, and results in tractable difficulties. The size of an all-singing, all-dancing CMSBy the way, if you ever hear the phrase “all-singing, all-dancing” used in connection with a piece of software, the result will inspire neither singing nor dancing. solving all kinds of workflows for the enterprise market seems unsustainable and substantially less tractable.
Yeah. it is an impossible problem I suppose. But it turned out that you could solve enough of those problems with the Nua Internet Surveys type approach - i.e., that most people’s publishing problems, when it boiled down to it, could be beaten into the formula if you really looked at it in the correct way. You know, we weren’t all that far off, we had most of what we needed, but we just couldn’t see it at the time - and the market wasn’t ready for it either.
True enough. I expect that writing the world’s best blogging software in 1993 would also not have worked. Furthermore, at that time, the money was in enterprise software (and indeed hardware; this was the era of Sun Microsystems selling you big iron in order to run your database and website on). At least, everyone thought so. And in the era of hyper-growth, hype-reverything, with continual pressure to expand, and continual pressure to acquire funding, it would have been very hard to make the right decisions amidst all the chaos. Nua actually tried to decouple the visionary role that Gerry was filling from the “manager of a large company of 100-200 people” role that he was also kind of filling by hiring a £200k/year COO from the States, but it didn’t work out and he ended up going back after a relatively short time. Making matters worse, and a familiar story from other Internet companies of the time, cashflow had been actively deprioritised in order to allow the company to focus on the product. That implied a continuing inability to meet costs without futher loans.
We did all that stuff, we did all the mad corporate stuff because then we took in even more funding. We took five million from Eircom, and then the plan was to raise another 25 million internationally, but the market had turned against us by that stage. Scott McNealy had said in 2000 that there was a certain day in February 2000 and basically everyone stopped ordering on that day! By then the ERP systems had come in which allowed companies to know that you weren’t selling anything, so when the dot-bomb hit, sales cratered, then everyone stopped buying product, stopped buying raw materials, and stopped projects and the whole thing just ground to a halt. Everything was rocking along and then all of a sudden everything stopped and we were on the wrong side of it. We had started investing and growing out and doing things that seemed like grown-up things for a company to do - you know, we were doing some pretty dumb things too - but the market was going against us on top of that. So it really couldn’t end well then. We looked at restructuring it in different ways and different people came in and they were very generous with their time and effort. I was waking up one morning at a quarter to eight and the radio would came on and I heard something about Nua, that this particular guy had said he was coming to invest this money in Nua and came on the radio and said he was going to do it which kind of pinned him into doing it. But he didn’t do it and in retrospect he was dead right not to. Another bit of investment wouldn’t have got us through the night, or anything like that - it would have taken quite a lot to make it successful. The whole thing didn’t lift again then until 2003/2004 and it never would have lifted again enough for us to do it on the level we were on. So that was the end of the chapter.
Antóin does maintain that it was possible for the company to survive, but very much not in the form it was in right then:
It was a large payroll, and when when we started losing the consulting business, because the consultancy business goes away if you don’t really work at it, that was a disaster. Say if you come up with a software product or get point of sale system or router or something, if you start selling something suddenly orders come in no matter what even if you insult the customers on the phone or stop answering the phone, people keep ordering stuff because they just need your thing and they are used to ordering it and they keep on going until you give them a really good reason to stop ordering. But with consulting you have to go out and get your money every month: at the start of every month, you have to think, where am I going to get the payroll this month? So it starts to dissolve very quickly once you take your focus off the business, and in retrospect we should probably have fired everyone. If we were going to be a product company we should have fired everyone except say six people, and just been a product company and we could have stretched five million Euros for a very long time if we’d done that. It probably would not have been a great decision either to be clear, but that is what we should have done. You need to confront the thing. We had a few rounds of redundancies but it wasn’t doing any good; we couldn’t get the thing around to viability because we kind of killed off the revenue streams but we hadn’t opened up a new product revenue stream.
However, although it was not good news for Nua, after it folded, the technology and the people made their way into a number of influential places. Niall O’ Sullivan’s next company, Arconics, bought the NuaPublish suite, which quickly pivoted into a information management product for the airline industry, and they are doing fine:
Arconics is still going strong, and they are doing a pilots case, I think they are calling it the Arconics pilots case. All your apps and everything are on a tablet, it plugs into the plane and you get the air speed and all that stuff is read out. They are doing the software for that. Ryanair was their original customer. It was really just about making Ryanair efficient because a big chunk of running an airline is managing the documentation. There is documentation that everyone has to read, and it has to be in the book that goes on the plane, and if you’re small you can manage it okay with one or two good people. But if you have multiple hubs, it becomes pretty tricky and of course, if you are Michael O’Leary you are looking at the stats - there hasn’t been a crash in the London area for a good few years, but there are a lot of planes up there, and its basically inevitable there is going to be a crash in the London airspace eventually. If you are Ryanair, you are half the planes up there. So you know the odds are not looking good in the long run, and basically when the crash happens, if this crash happens, you want to be sure that all your paperwork is in order.
Ireland is less well-disposed towards business failure than the US is, so shortly after Nua’s collapse, Antóin went to Singapore and worked for Virgin Mobile for about a year. He had some personal debt in the company, but not that much, and he was able to work his way out of it. Nua’s legacy was blazing a trail that other companies found more profitable to walk at a measured pace, a collection of really interesting thinking - some visionary, some naive - and a lesson in the exigencies of cashflow. Who could ask for a more interesting time?
Contrast this experience with another web business which ended a little more happily.