Brian Greene has experienced the Irish internet industry from two very different perspectives. As partner in a three-man web design firm, Doop Design, he recognises the virtues of belonging to a small, lean and entrepreneurial outfit that, despite its small size, has made a considerable impression since its formation three years ago. As a former employee of Baltimore Technologies, on the other hand, he has seen the internet industry at its bloated height.
He was web master at Ireland’s one-time dotcom star for a total of two years and nine months and he recalls those days with a mixture of repulsion and fascination. “It was a 40-person company when I joined [in June 1998] and a 1,400-person company when I left. I left six weeks before the first round of redundancies happened. By then the thing had become a bureaucratic monster. I could see the writing on the wall and it wasn’t a pleasant place to be.”
He says, however, that in the early days Baltimore was a scintillating place to work. Staff members regularly worked 70-hour weeks and were hugely loyal to CEO Fran Rooney, who quickly earned respect as a man of action – a ‘doer’. “The camaraderie and the passion and loyalty to the vision of the company given out by the CEO was amazing. You’d get it nowhere else,” says Greene with feeling.
While salaries were below that being paid by peer-group companies, the financial rewards were potentially huge, due to Baltimore’s soaring share price. Greene casually notes that he was a paper dollar millionaire at one point, although he could not have sold all those shares together. Even so, he cashed in enough paper to clear about 90,000 punts net of tax, he reveals matter-of-factly.
Greene is an unusual beneficiary of the dotcom boom in that he is a self-professed Marxist, who in theory should be eschewing the trappings of capitalism. In fact, he credits his decision to sell shares to his firm belief in the Marxian idea that bust must follow boom. If only some of this colleagues had been so left-leaning.
“I didn’t do too badly. Other people in there fully believed in the market economics and thought the bubble would never burst but unfortunately it did,” he says.
While Baltimore was at one time an investor’s dream and stock-market darling, Greene contends that it never felt like a capitalist machine, mainly because Rooney did not act the part. “He was interested as a businessman in redistributing wealth and he certainly did it with very favourable option plans for his staff.”
The high point of the whole enterprise came on 4 September 1998 when, as a result of Rooney’s manoeuvrings, the company’s technology was used by messrs Clinton and Ahern to create digital signatures at Gateway’s plant in Dublin. “It was massive,” Greene recalls. “It was broadcast all over the world and it put Baltimore on the map in many respects.”
Five years later it is sobering to think that Gateway has gone from Ireland and Baltimore is clinging to life by a thread. However, Greene himself has been a lot more successful since he joined Doop Design, a print and web design outfit set up by two friends of his two years ago. His work as technical manager there earned him the accolade of Web Designer Excellence at the Irish Internet Association’s awards last month.
Although the name ‘doop’ means nothing it is not totally meaningless. “It’s a design thing,” explains Greene. “It’s an ambigram – you can write it backwards, flip it, whatever, it looks the same.”
At one time size mattered in the web industry but the sector has undergone a dramatic slim down/shakeout since the height of the boom. Names such as Nua, Internet Business Ireland (IBI) and Spin Solutions have gone to the wall and others, Webfactory and Labyrinth for example, have been acquired (by Horizon and Esat BT respectively). According to Greene, Doop survived these treacherous conditions firstly because it stayed small where other firms grew too fast and secondly because it kept to its core services ethos and didn’t get involved in developing and boxing products.
He notes that contracts have shrunk both in numerical terms and value. “The crazy money is gone. It’s down to necessities now. People have put a lot of thought into what they want before they approach a design company. There’s not a lot of tyre-kicking going on.”
Greene does not lament the passing of the big web design names as they partly contributed to the madness by charging exorbitant ‘get out of bed’ fees, he observes. And because those big names have gone, industry pricing has returned to much saner levels.
Overall, he concludes, it is not a bad time to be in the web design business especially if, like Doop Design, you are small. “We would not go out of business very quickly,” he says confidently, “because all we have to do is meet our costs and pay our wages.”
By Brian Skelly