The inside story of the internet boom and bust, of the business deals which made headlines, and the colorful cast of characters behind them. Google became a verb, countries waged war games in the new digital universe, and WikiLeaks sent shockwaves through a superpower. We got to this point from a place that was called the dot.com bubble. Few booms in Australia have been faster or more furious than this bubble. The brightest and best investors dived in, technology geeks grew into overnight millionaires, and miners stopped digging dirt and started surfing the net. The market surged and crashed, as the dot.com bubble became the dot.com bomb. Australia witnessed a truly extraordinary efflorescence of unrestrained investment fervour. Tagged as "irrational exuberance" by Alan Greenspan during the boom's formative period, it became a wild moment of fin de siecle and millennial madness. A new way of valuing companies (on cash flow entirely, rather than boring old profitability) was invented to match the new technology in play. What began with internet services and telecom start-ups stretched to any kind of business that could be sold on the net—from Balmain bugs to sex toys. Some entrepreneurs jumped off the rollercoaster as millionaires; more stayed on, crashed, or sank without trace. While there have been a number of books in the U.S. on this extraordinary historical period, this is the first comprehensive, colorful telling of the wild Australian ride. And looking back, we learn that while the internet promised to level the business playing field it has in fact done the opposite, as the market dominance of Google, Apple, and Facebook attest.
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How We Wrangled, Conned And Argie-Bargied Our Way Into The New Digital Universe
By Kate Askew
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Kate Askew
All rights reserved.
How we got online
Back in 1992 Malcolm Turnbull was heard to remark that he never wanted to be poor again. This was many years before he had taken to driving a middle-class Volvo XC70 station wagon to Canberra's House on the Hill from his mansion situated on Sydney's swish Point Piper most weeks for work.
Malcolm Bligh Turnbull was at this time a man in want of a fortune. Working for Kerry Packer, the richest bloke in the country, in his Park Street, Sydney, headquarters in the 1980s had been a good start. So had hitching up with arguably one of the Australian Labor Party's greatest politicians, the venerable Neville Wran, in a merchant banking operation that ran from the late 1980s through to the 1990s. In spite of the alluring image created by its fancy, column-dressed offices (an initiative from the Nick Whitlam side of the partnership), merchant banking simply did not provide the kind of fortune that Turnbull wanted. On at least one occasion he sought counsel among those men richer than himself in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs as to how he might further his aspirations to amass not just a good, but a very great, fortune indeed.
To this end, the lawyer-turned-banker experimented with the smaller, faster end of the local stockmarket. There was a listed logging company that worked, appropriately enough, in the densely forested Solomon Islands. Then, through another listed tiddler, there was the promise of gold deposits in the wilds of the Irkutsk region of central Siberia, the biggest untapped deposit in the world, no less. The first ran into trouble for its environmental practices, incurring the local prime minister's wrath. The second was an even more complicated matter, also involving politicians. Star Mining, which had an interest in a Russian company with rights to mine the Sukhoi Log deposit, had its deal scuppered by a fickle Russian government after it rescinded the mining right.
But Turnbull's real chance to salt away swagloads of cash didn't come until 1995, when an opportunity presented itself for him to take a bet on what was to be the next stockmarket fad — technology. Oz-E-Mail, as it was first known, was the innovation that Kerry Packer let slip through his powerful fingers and, when Packer stepped aside, Turnbull and fellow former Packer acolyte Trevor Kennedy opened their chequebooks.
After dropping out of medical school when he realised he couldn't stand the sight of blood, in 1980 Sean Howard borrowed against his mother's home to launch the magazine Australian Personal Computer. By 1984 that decision paid off when Packer's company Australian Consolidated Press agreed to pay $1.5 million for a 60 per cent stake in the magazine. Howard stayed on in the Packer camp until 1992, running their computer magazine division, which contained both APC, in which he retained a stake, and other magazines in which he had no stake. But then an acrimonious split — there were few other types of splits when senior employees left Packer's empire — saw him depart, taking with him the experimental electronic mail provider Oz-EMail, then in embryonic form. During his first few years at ACP, Howard had enjoyed the freedom afforded him by his then boss, Trevor Kennedy. When Richard Walsh stepped in to run ACP in 1986, his hands-on approach and focus on the business's bottom line was less suited to Howard's independent disposition.
Howard exited from Australian Consolidated Press with OzEmail, as it was now known, in his clutches, while taking background advice from Trevor Kennedy, who had also departed from Packerdom under less-than-friendly circumstances. Howard had approached Kennedy for financial backing for the new venture and asked for $1 million. Kennedy said he'd put up half and find someone else to front the other half. Kennedy approached the flamboyant Sydney stockbroker and his some-time business partner, Rene Rivkin, who declined the offer. Next Kennedy went to Malcolm Turnbull, by then yet another disaffected ex-Packer employee, who agreed. So, with Turnbull and Kennedy behind it, OzEmail set out to be the viaduct that would connect Australia to the internet. In 1993 OzEmail was a fledgling dial-up internet service provider, and not even one of the first in the country: it was way down in the ranks at number 33. The difference was that it had solid cash backing — Turnbull and Kennedy put up $450,000 each — to fund its plans.
As the internet came into everyday use, OzEmail thrived with its simple technology that allowed households to connect to the internet and access email through their telephone line. It listed on the US NASDAQ market in 1996, followed by a compliance listing — one in which no extra capital is needed — in Australia. Turnbull ran the US roadshow to sell the Australian company to American investors and was by all accounts brilliant in the job, so brilliant that it mattered little that he stopped midway through one presentation to ask an institutional investor, who would have been a valuable addition to the company's register, to leave if he couldn't be quiet. The investor acquiesced on both fronts — he remained quiet and he did later invest in the business — such was the sway of an investment in OzEmail that it outweighed Turnbull's characteristic caustic commentary.
Yes, nothing could keep Turnbull down. Not even a Boston limousine driver, who warned Turnbull, Howard and OzEmail operations head David Spence that the female fund manager from Fidelity that they were visiting was so ferocious that the last company executive to visit her had emerged in tears. The trio were ushered into a conference room where Turnbull set up the computer on the table for the presentation. Howard dived under the table to plug it into the power point. At that very moment the terrifying fund manager entered. Turnbull introduced himself and Spence and then said: 'Our chief executive Sean Howard has heard how ferocious you are with companies seeking capital and so terrified is he that he is hiding under this table.' She burst out laughing and said: 'Aw, c'mon, I'm a pussy cat,' at which point Howard looked out from under the table and said 'Hello', whereupon she almost fell over laughing. She took a big slice of the IPO.
Then of course there was the evening Turnbull and Spence abandoned their smoke-smelling rooms at a hotel just outside Philadelphia in favour of themed rooms. It was only as the boardroom curtains opened at the next day's presentation in a fund manager's office that they realised Turnbull had glitter stuck to his face and hair, picked up unwittingly in his themed boudoir.
OzEmail was a far easier way to make money than the four Aeroflot trips into central Siberia he had made two years earlier while trying to negotiate Russian goldmine interests.
The company distinguished itself in Australia through its rapid growth. It was first to tap the NASDAQ stockmarket, which would become the holy grail for dot.com hopefuls in Australia. Listed on the NASDAQ, its shares were trading at $US14 giving it the improbable price to earnings ratio — a valuation of a company's current share price compared to its per-share earnings — of 457. 'It's insanity. There's no way to value some of these [internet and technology] companies. People are buying them because they're going on the presumption they will keep going up,' Michael Metz, chief investment strategist at the US investment firm Oppenheimer & Co., told leading financial magazine Barrons at the time. It would be four years before people's presumptions took an about-turn.
The major players in Australia sized up OzEmail for purchase. Hans Torv, brother of Rupert Murdoch's then wife, Anna, had been given the task of expanding News Corp's electronic business. He offered Turnbull, Kennedy and Howard $2 million to buy OzEmail. Telstra also took a look, as did the chaps at ACP who had let the fledgling business out of their grip. It offered $5 million, which the trio also rejected, though Turnbull was keen to sell at the time.
By 1998 use of the internet was doubling every four months. Within five years OzEmail's employees had grown from 4 to 700. By that year it had become patently obvious to the OzEmail triumvirate that, if it was to continue to compete, it needed its own infrastructure. Without that, the telecom majors would eventually outgun them.
To that end OzEmail set about raising $250 million in debt and equity. Its plan was to spend this money creating fibre- optic loops in Australia's big cities. But the collapse of the bond market in September 1998 — care of the $4.6 billion in losses that eventually came to light at the hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, forcing a US government-led bailout — prevented this happening. In the wake of this disaster US stocks plunged, including internet-style companies; OzEmail's NASDAQ-traded American Depository Receipts suffered a similar fate.
The obvious alternative was to set about being swallowed up by one of the majors. By the end of 1998 that strategy became an eventuality — the US giant WorldCom was looking for opportunities outside the US. Its advisor, Merrill Lynch, came knocking. Given that most internet traffic at this time was directed to US websites, non-US carriers like OzEmail were having to pay American ISPs as their users surfed their websites. This was expensive for non-US ISPs such as OzEmail, which made a deal with a company like WorldCom very attractive. Kennedy and Turnbull were always concerned that the light at the end of the OzEmail tunnel was going to turn out to be a freight train; in other words, that OzEmail's journey to profitability could end in a train wreck if it could not fund its ambitions. And so the deal was sealed, but not before Kennedy had to do some quick talking to get Howard — who initially believed the business could be worth $1 billion — across the line. Kennedy told him he was always happy to leave something on the table for the next fellow. In the final negotiation, which was being handled from the library of law firm Ebsworths in Sydney's Martin Place, Turnbull was talking to the WorldCom sub- sidiary UUNet, and said, as he endeavoured to get an extra dollar: 'You don't want to lose this deal by nickel and diming.' At that point Kennedy, who was hovering over Turnbull with Howard at his elbow, took the phone from his hand and with a deadly earnestness said: 'And that applies to you too, Malcolm.' So Turnbull took the phone back and split the difference with UUNet.
Bernie Ebbers, a one-time basketball coach from Mississippi, ran WorldCom and had taken the company into the telecoms big league. A WorldCom subsidiary finally bid $US520 million for OzEmail in 1999. Turnbull had been working on the deal along with Merrill Lynch as advisors, but it was Turnbull's superior deal-making skills that saw WorldCom bid over and above the trio's price expectations. Some at the time judged it underpriced, and the local dot.com boom was still well short of its zenith, and Kennedy walked away with almost $60 million. Turnbull's shares were owned by his merchant banking partnership — a fact which was never revealed publicly — so he had to share his $60 million with Neville Wran. Wran owned 30 per cent of the partnership and Turnbull the rest. Turnbull made his debut in BRW's must-read annual Rich List with an estimated net wealth of $65 million — nearly $60 million of which was attributed to his OzEmail sale. It was not corrected. Sean Howard pocketed $118 million and retained a role in the company.
Under American ownership OzEmail was split into its corporate subscriber base, which was shunted into the WorldCom subsidiary UUNet and its residential subscriber business. But when WorldCom fell on hard times in 1999, OzEmail suddenly found itself up for sale. A year later there were various sale negotiations. NewsCorp sniffed around, thinking OzEmail could be a way to leverage itself into the internet access business. Telstra was interested because it wanted to shore up its own market and offered $400 million, but it was immediately outgunned by eisa, another ISP, which bid $325 million including a commitment to spend up to $200 million using WorldCom's network.
In 1998, Trevor Kennedy had been effusive about Sean Howard: 'He's a very brilliant man. [The OzEmail concept] looked fantastic. It was one of those things that always looked as though it had endless potential. But it was Sean who foresaw that rather than the rest of us. It's not something I could or would have found myself.' With those words Kennedy summed up the nature of what was to come in the internet boom in Australia — clever guys coming up with ideas that were then carefully manipulated into public-company frameworks, backed by investors with moolah to spare but not necessarily a clue about the internet and its various aspects.CHAPTER 2
Thomas Koltai's finely tuned strut was surely modelled on John Travolta circa 1977. Born in New Zealand in 1958, he was a cool dude in Darwin's budding information technology sector. It was 1989 and the first company to get Australians online, Pegasus Networks, had just set up shop. The IBM personal computer had been around for about six years and Australia's Academic and Research Network (AARNet) had just that year begun building Australia's commercial internet network.
Darwin was well placed to be at the forefront of the new technology, having been a link in the support chain for the Overland Telegraph that connected Australia to Europe through a submarine cable to Java. Koltai fitted right in with that pioneering spirit. A computer programmer by trade, he launched Kakadu Konnection in 1989 to capitalise on an existing system which had been a precursor to the internet. Five years earlier a company called PC Connection Australia had come up with an idea for a bulletin-board system, which users could log in to and communicate with others. Two years later Koltai had commercialised the bulletin-board concept — making it as commercial as was possible with something most people regarded as a hobby — and within another two years he'd taken this hobby both interstate and international.
It was hardly a wonder that by 1995 he was one of the backyard outfits trying to capitalise on the introduction of the internet in Australia through his own internet service provider, Ausnet, which had begun life in 1993 as NT-Net. It was one of the first four ISPs of the time but Koltai preferred to describe it as the fastest growing.
Ausnet was undoubtedly one of the largest. Its strength in attracting customers by the truckload came from its easy-access package, which could be bought in thousands of newsagencies, and its cheap rates. Koltai the i-evangelist had a vision. He saw a future in which ordinary people would have access to this brave new internet world as well as to other services, such as long-distance phone calls and cable television, at a rate of about one cent a minute. He railed — and still rails — against the influence of the big telecoms. So driven was he by this vision that he tried to implement it three times.
To put that in context, in 2000 the head of Australia's consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Professor Allan Fels, criticised the nation's biggest telecom, Telstra, for its wholesale interconnect costs (that is, its charge to other carriers using Telstra's network to connect their customers) of 2.3 cents a minute. Along the way Koltai managed to convince some of the largest telecommunications players to back him. Internationally, those who signed up to his vision included majors like Lucent and British Telecom. At home, his backers included Telstra.
But his first foray into the world of ISPs wasn't to last long. Koltai's big problem came not because of lack of funding or a faulty business plan but because of an external problem. In 1995 a colourful fellow who went by the name Skeeve Stevens, later to become known as the Optik Surfer, undid Koltai's plans for internet domination within Australia's shores. Stevens' agenda was to demonstrate that the internet was not the safe place for consumers that many thought it was. Rather, it was a flawed arena where appropriate checks and balances were not being made and personal information was open to abuse. Stevens offered to check the security of Ausnet's systems and was rejected, so took matters into his own hands and hacked into one of Ausnet's servers, taking the credit-card details of 1200 of its customers. He then generously published these credit card details on the internet, proclaiming that he wanted to prove the point he had already made to Koltai — that his system was not secure. Stevens had earlier visited the offices of the Sydney Morning Herald and offered its computer editor the story of Ausnet's flawed security system. It was from these offices that he hacked into the Ausnet system.
Stevens liked to model himself on the characters in the Hollywood movie Sneakers, in which Robert Redford played a computer hacker determined to show up flaws in computer systems and raise questions about privacy issues. Perhaps Stevens hammered his point a little too far — he spent 18 months in the clink as a result of his need to make a point.
Excerpted from Dot.Bomb Australia by Kate Askew. Copyright © 2011 Kate Askew. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Pioneers and Visionaries,
1 How we got online,
2 Stayin' alive,
3 At the edge,
4 The real deal,
5 Creative sparks only,
6 Peakhour rush,
7 Big bet,
8 Two bags,
9 Australian pin-up,
10 Reputations that ring a bell,
Part Two: Opportunists,
11 Chinese whispers,
12 Dot.come up and see me some time,
13 Mining the net,
14 A stampede of white-shoe'd behemoths,
15 A recipe for success,
16 Big fat media profits,
17 New media barons,
18 Shop mauling,
19 Travels in cyberspace,
20 Slow-moving scions of the times,
Part Three: The Morning After,
21 The resilience of optimists,
22 Never say die,
23 A decade on,