There's a surprise in store for anyone visiting internet service provider (ISP) Virgin Net's London offices in St James's Square. The 18th century townhouse may not look like the type of building to inspire an aggressively expansionist 21st century ISP, but a plaque on the wall shows that when it comes to planning ahead, this house has seen it all. It was from here that supreme allied commander Dwight Eisenhower directed the D-Day landings of June 1944.
Ironically, Dan Hülsmann, one of the chief players in Virgin Net's latter-day expeditionary force, is German - though you might not guess it, such is his apparently effortless grasp of the English language, which he rounds out nicely with a good working knowledge of Essex jokes.
This is quite some feat, given that when he arrived in the UK as a student a decade ago his English was non-existent. But even a short acquaintance with Hülsmann, who as director of development and production at Virgin Net is responsible for managing a third of the company's 150 staff, it's clear that he possesses a certain kind of quiet effectiveness. He might appear diffident, but underneath there's a undercurrent of drive, determination and self-confidence.
"People who work for me see me as an enabler. I'm a strong believer in leading by example," he said. "My worst fault is that I'm probably impatient. I'm a high-maintenance person with strong beliefs and goals."
Hülsmann joined Virgin Net in 1996, shortly before the service launched, at a time when there were only 12 people in the company. "It was an exciting time. I was brought in to bring a development force into the company," he said.
Although much of the infrastructure work was outsourced to Virgin Net partner and shareholder NTL, Hülsmann can claim credit for devising and implementing the site, as well as many of its associated services and projects.
The evolving model
In many respects, it's a process akin to painting the Forth Bridge. "We've been running nearly five years and we've changed the business model nearly as many times in line with the way the net has evolved," said Hülsmann. Much of his role, therefore, involves second-guessing future trends and then implementing ecommerce opportunities and services to capitalise on them.
Take Bush Internet TV, a joint venture with TV manufacturer Alba. Hülsmann was responsible for setting up "a slightly smaller replica" of Virgin Net's infrastructure for the new project, as well as redesigning its entertainment and leisure content "to look great on a TV platform" - all within two months.
"It's a massive role," he admits, encompassing both strategic planning and operational responsibility. "It can be very, very high pressure - anything customer-facing is a potential nightmare. Another real challenge is evolving the service in a scalable fashion. Anything we add - be it a new service, or a new channel - needs to be done in such a way that we can expand it very quickly. My job is not only developing new things, but also leveraging outcomes. Setting up the right service levels is critical."
Unlike the standard dotcom venture - where implementing one good idea successfully is seen as pretty good going - Hülsmann is under pressure to come up with a continuous stream of viable ideas to boost the ISP's online presence. "In the last six months we have added between six and eight new services. At any point in time we need new ideas," he said.
The difficulty lies in seeing beyond the hype and coming up with concepts which can be practicably implemented. "The mistake that many online operations make is that they set concepts which are too heavily biased on the marketing side," said Hülsmann. "They don't pay enough attention to the processes that have to underpin the front end." So far he claims to have avoided falling into this trap. "I can't think of any particular mistake I've made," he said.
Not surprisingly, given his prowess in this web arena, Hülsmann is frequently buttonholed by friends and former colleagues for help with their own ebusiness plans. A potentially irritating state of affairs, one might think, but Hülsmann takes it all in good part. Time might be tight - he's also planning to complete an Open University MBA next year - but he's generous with it. So much so that he is also a member of the Prince's Trust Business Panel, advising on internet business ideas. "I find it rewarding to use my experience elsewhere to help people who wouldn't ordinarily have access to that advice," he said.
"Many of the schemes tend towards being repetitive - they're a carbon copy of something that's already out there. The advice I always give is to be focused. Sometimes creating things on a shoestring can give you a much better basis for success than having access to too many resources," he advised. "Focus on the local business-to-business opportunities. There's still a lot to be exploited there."
But maintaining links with the rising generation goes beyond straightforward altruism - it's also a good way of spotting future talent and ideas. "I've come across some very bright people, and have occasionally considered making a personal investment," he said. Were he to do so, he maintains that the most important quality he would look for as an indicator of success is energy, "that kind of entrepreneurial spirit which is innate".
No doubt Hülsmann - a youthful thirty-something with a smart Kensington flat, Virgin Net share options and the wherewithal to indulge his passion for frequent adventurous journeys to exotic places - is a worthy enough role model for these wannabe entrepreneurs. But he would be the first to stress that this appealing front end has been rigorously underpinned by a combination of hard work and sheer grit.
"Looking at my career, it doesn't follow a typical path," he said. "But probably the best advice I would give is to get a very solid technical background to build upon. The commercial and customer-focus aspects will follow. I've learnt a great deal at Virgin Net - my own knowledge about online business has grown with that of the company."
Hülsmann was born and brought up in a town near Dusseldorf, at the centre of Germany's industrial heartland. Despite being "a child of technophobes", he claims to have been a technical enthusiast from an early age. His first real exposure to technology came from a three-year apprenticeship with a coal-mining company at the age of 16.
"That experience made an important contribution to my career further down the line: it was all about working with people from different backgrounds and building trust," he said. But he was given a heavy responsibility for one so young. "I was mainly focused on the remote-controlled operation of the coal face. If I screwed up, I would be responsible for lives."
Signing up for an electronics degree at Essex University in 1988 was something of a gamble given the language difficulties, but it paid off. "I made a lot of friends and contacts - people who are now in important electronics roles all over the world. University days are important in terms of forming a lifelong network of relationships," he said.
Hülsmann continued the work he had been doing on interactive multimedia while at Essex when he joined electronics giant Philips on graduating. "Philips really gave me a solid grounding. I was working on a precursor of the internet; it was extremely exciting and I learned a lot from a technical perspective. But I felt I was missing out in terms of the more commercial side of things - being able to take products to market. Before I became too stuck into a research environment, I caught the right moment and jumped ship."
Nonetheless, there was a degree of persistence involved in persuading the City firm Salomon Brothers that he had more to offer than straightforward technology skills. "I wanted commercial exposure and I thought I was fit for the job." Much of this determination sprang from having the discipline to sit down and analyse his personal strengths and ambitions. "I've always been very interested in how markets tick, and at the same time very enthusiastic about technology. So I wanted to combine both," he said.
Despite doubling his salary on joining Salomon Brothers, his time there - while providing a useful eye-opener into the commercial world at its most frenetic - proved disappointing. Hülsmann joined a team developing a multimedia distribution platform for financial information "but the experience turned out to be both commercially and technically limiting - I didn't feel I could deploy the skills I'd learned over the years. In hindsight, it didn't give me enough growth potential. I felt the business could gain much more from technology, but Salomon was such a large organisation that projects didn't move ahead quickly enough. I felt I could do more elsewhere."
Approaching the net
When he saw a small ad detailing the Virgin Net job something just clicked. "I was intrigued by the combination of Virgin and the internet - that this huge consumer champion was getting into the net," he said.
In many ways, Hülsmann is a typical exponent of the new concept of business management that Virgin and its founder have done so much to promote in the UK: work hard, play hard, spot your chances, and strike the right balance between home and work.
"I have a lot to learn - things are evolving so fast that you can never stop the process," Hülsmann concluded. "You have to keep one step ahead of the market, both technically and commercially."
He allows himself the occasional indulgence in future dreams, however. "In 10 years' time? Well, I would love to be travelling. I like being away from civilisation. I love to immerse myself completely in nature." In the meantime, there's a holiday to Uganda to look forward to.
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