Small businesses in the West Midlands that take full advantage of the ‘wired world’ can overtake lumbering corporations, according to Michael Acton Smith, the co-founder of the hugely successful internet retailer Firebox.com.
Mr Smith was the keynote speaker at the National B2B Centre’s inaugural annual conference, which took place at the University of Warwick.
The entrepreneur said he had borrowed £1,000 from his mum and sold his body for medical research in 1998 to fund the set-up of the company, which sells gadgets online, as the dot.com boom was reaching its height.
The firm survived the crash early in 2000 and is now turning over £12 million a year.
He believes the success of his company and the likes of Google prove that small businesses can make a mark in the world much more quickly than ever before.
“When we started, Google was just two lads in a garage,” he said. “The internet has changed considerably in the past ten years.
“We thought we had a great idea for a business but at the time the customer-base on the net was nothing like it is today.
“There were times when we could have easily given up but we had to find a way round our problems – it did get a bit depressing when we were turning over about £18 a month!
“We came up with an idea of a chess game involving different size glasses of alcohol to sell on the site. We sent out the world’s worst press release but managed to get loads of interest and even appeared in The Sun.
“That set us on our way but during the dot.com crash we were on the brink of insolvency but we came through it again and have turned a £400 a year loss into a £400,000 profit.
“Now there are more than one billion people connected to the internet so amid all the doom and gloom, I think entrepreneurs will find a way through.
“The world is completely wired now and it provides a whole host of new opportunities. In my opinion, this is not the time to be a big lumbering business.
“It is the time to be a small, dynamic company that can adapt to changes as they happen.”
Mr Smith shared the bill with a host of other speakers and seminars as about180 businesses attended the event at the West Midlands’ e-business centre of excellence.
Martin King-Turner, the managing director of the National B2B Centre, said: “We are delighted with the turnout for the event.
“It is clear that the level of activity on the net presents both an opportunity and a challenge to businesses.
“We have to get technology to do things for us that we ourselves couldn’t do before.
“It is a crowded market place on the internet but if you can be different as well as being better and can stay ahead of your competitors rather than keep up with them, this is a great time to be a small business.”