Cloud memories

A face in an article in the Observer business section got me thinking about how long this cloud stuff has been around.
Dan Wagner, Web 1.0 pioneer, founder of a successful fashion blogging empire, and the man behind ecommerce engine Venda. (Oh. And possessor of one of the worst bleached hairstyles I have ever seen in business. Thankfully, by the look of the Observer’s portrait, now grown out).

Back in the post-dot-com-bubble-burst days of the early noughties, BBC Worldwide had a very expensive set of ‘web properties’ under the brand Beeb.com. It had been set up in the late 90s, with a flood of joint venture capital and lofty ambitions. However, it fell by the wayside as probably the only clear commercial victim of the BBC’s public service web activities (another story for another day).
What was left when the decision was made to wind Beeb.com up were two content websites (Radio Times and Top Gear both successful enough to exist to this day), a dial-up ISP service (Beeb.net, a white-labelled ISP service whose days were numbered with the rise of broadband), and the bbcshop.com.

The JV to set up Beeb.com had been with a technology company, and as a net result part of the bbcshop legacy had been a lot of bespoke code, written expensively in Java, to provide so-so functionality. To the management team now running the commercial service, it became quickly apparent that this was a huge disadvantage to actually making any money, and alternative approaches were investigated.

The technology was the least of the venture’s problems. With the rapid expansion (and associated buying power) of Amazon and other online businesses, it was nigh on impossible to provide products to end consumers at a price that was anywhere near competitive. This will remain with me as a salient reminder that just because you make it, doesn’t mean that you can sell it efficiently to end consumers. BBC Worldwide was mostly a B2B operation, and scaling down to supply to the individual was problematic to say the least.

However, on the technology side, there appeared to be an answer- Dan Wagner’s company Venda. I am not entirely sure what my views on the service were at the time (as you’ll have read, my only clear recollection is of his terrible haircut), but I am fairly certain that at first I would have been pretty resistant. Here was a multi-tenanted, software as a service offering. Because of the former JV relationship, we were used to having complete control over everything. Where ‘everything’ was an increasing rotten set of code that simply didn’t offer what end consumers wanted from an online shopping experience, and anything we wanted changing was expensive and slow.

The Venda model worked because there are comparatively few companies that need to provide differentiating technology to allow people to shop online. Nowadays, as well as the BBC, Venda provides the back end to dozens of major brands.
Interestingly, at the time all of the above was being implemented, another part of the sales organisation at Worldwide had done a deal with Amazon, to set up a BBC shop within the Amazon walls. The supply of technology was only part of the challange for the self-owned shop, and the Amazon deal neatly sidestepped all of the physical logistic, supply chain and customer service headaches that were also in evidence (something it appears is today causing issues for Google).

I’d love to know the comparative profitability for the two services to the BBC, but would bet heavily that the Amazon approach was both proportionately and cumulatively the better approach. When making suggestions about how technology should be provided to an organisation, maybe the first question should be “should we even be doing this activity ourselves”?

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