"I don't have a life any more," says Cliff Stanford, when asked how running Demon Internet has changed his life. "I used to go and eat out a lot. I used to do normal things like see my child, even my wife occasionally." Sitting in his surprisingly cramped, glass-walled office in the company's north London headquarters, it looks and sounds like a dog's life: "I just spend all day here or at home on Demon-related things, or replying to e-mail."
Mr Stanford, a portly man with greying hair and a quick, direct manner, is not complaining, though. He was a disciple of the Net long before he set up Demon, the first low-cost dial-up service provider in Britain - indeed, long before most of us had even heard of the Net. "It's always been my hobby and what I've enjoyed most," he says.
But to treat Mr Stanford as a hobbyist or "techie" is to misunderstand him. He has little sympathy for those who want to keep the Net as an elitist club. "The techies will find something new. Nobody's hobby now is fax machines," he says dismissively. That last comment is the key to his thinking: Mr Stanford wants everyone to have access to the Net, so that it becomes as important as the television and the telephone, and he wants Demon to be one of the key providers of that access.
Demon already has a head start. In the three and a half years since he founded the company with Giles Todd, now the technical director, it has become Britain's, and possibly Europe's, largest dial-up Net provider. It now boasts more than 50,000 subscribers and a local access network that covers the whole of the UK. Unlike other much-hyped Net companies, Demon is also making a healthy profit.
Mr Stanford started Demon in 1985; it was Demon Systems then, just another software company. But when in the early Nineties he heard that Pipex had started offering leased-line Internet access for pounds 20,000 a year, he decided it should be possible to go to the other extreme, offering an individual dial-up service for pounds 10 a month. "Internet for a tenner a month" has subsequently become the company's unofficial motto. "That was what we really pioneered," he claims, "low-cost access."
Demon was born in May 1992 with 200 subscribers, eight modems, a few phonelines and a Net feed leased from Pipex. Its modest aim was to gain 400 subscribers in six months and perhaps 1,000 in two years. At that stage Mr Stanford did not intend to give up the software business. But events rapidly overtook him. Suddenly, the Net became trendy and his fledgling company was inundated with wannabe Netsurfers. In 1993, the World Wide Web emerged and Demon headed towards the stratosphere. In the past year, the number of accounts has been doubling every five months.
This deluge of subscribers, however, nearly spelt doom for Demon. Its network became hopelessly overloaded, and it could not install modems fast enough to ease the pressure. By this time last year, the situation was becoming so serious that many subscribers were thinking of leaving. …