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High on E . . . from top of the town to top of the world

High on E . . . from top of the town to top of the world

When it comes to running a world-class software development house that specialises in e-commerce and Web development applications, MultiEmedia.com's executive chairman Adrian Ballintine claims `being old helps'.

At 43, Ballintine believes his main advantage is his 18 years experience in the IT industry - a lifetime in Internet years.

`I've been in the IT business for 18 years and seen some of the big shifts in the industry. I've been around the world and I'm experienced in seeing opportunities and making opportunities work.'

Yet Ballintine started his career in local government. `By 25 I was a qualified Town Clerk in the city of Prahran in Melbourne. I did actually practise as a Town Clerk and I think I was the youngest ever in Australia. But whoopy doo! I realised I could be doing this for the rest of my life and I decided I had to get out. That's when I moved into IT.'

From 1981 to 1987 Ballintine worked in sales for two large Australian-based software vendors and in 1988 decided to team up with Geoff Mcleod-Smith and set up shop on his own.

The pair's first project was a client-server software company, Gupta Asia Pacific, which listed on Nasdaq in 1992.

Yet their real success came in 1993 when they founded MultiEmedia.com, then known as Multimedia Asia Pacific (MAP).

Three years ago, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the world's five richest people, made a substantial investment in MultiEmedia.com.

At the same time, the company made a $3 million investment to deliver its own products, focusing on the Web and e-commerce.

Since then MultiEmedia.com has created some of Australia's best known Web sites, including Thrifty Car Rental, Hamilton Island, Nissan Australia and General Motors Holden.

For companies that don't have $100,000 to invest in their Web site, MultiEmedia.com offers ZoneStudio, developed with the National Australia Bank to provide small and medium-sized businesses with the ability to create their own e-commerce- enabled Web site for around $100 per month.

`ZoneStudio gives the look and feel of a $40,000 Web site for people who want to pay nickels and dimes,' Ballintine said.

MultiEmedia.com's other products include IntraZone, SalesZone and EduZone.

IntraZone is an intranet tool that enables organisational information to be stored in one central location, providing an easy, logical way for companies to manage their day-to-day operations.

SalesZone allows large organisations to control the activities of their sales force and manage their reports back to home base using software.

EduZone is an online learning tool which facilitates taking and scoring classes remotely and transferring textbooks over the Internet.

Through these products, Ballintine claims MultiEmedia.com is very focused on the application service provider (ASP) market, where applications are hosted on a remote server and rented over the Internet.

`We're very ASP-specific. We use telcos, banks and ISPs to deliver our products to customers under the ASP model. We've spent the last three years developing and investing in these markets, but they've only recently invented the term 'ASP'.'

MultiEmedia.com is a member of the Worldwide ASP Industry Consortium, and Ballintine said that, while Australia has been slow to embrace e-commerce, it is clearly one of the world leaders in ASP technology.

`Australia, the US and Europe are in exactly the same position in terms of ASP development,' Ballintine said.

`By comparison, there's been relatively slow take-up of e-commerce in Australia. There are maybe a dozen banking institutions here, compared to several thousand in the US, so it's less bureaucratic there. The beauty of ZoneStudio is that the e-commerce component works seamlessly with numerous banks, and that gives it an advantage in the US market.'

The company's next goal is to deliver applications through mobile phones, using wireless application protocol (WAP) technology.

According to MultiEmedia.com's chief technical officer, Gavin Gregson, the content and design of Web pages would have to be geared to the phone user.

`The display and user interface on a WAP phone are limited,' Gregson said. `You would have to provide new content on a second page. The needs of a mobile user are different to the needs of someone at a desktop. They don't want the same information or detail.'

Over the next 12 months, MultiEmedia.com is also planning to expand from its Melbourne base and open new offices in Sydney, the US and Europe.

The plan incorporates an eight-week feasibility study of the US with a goal to establish a permanent base by January.

Research and development divisions will remain in Australia, focusing primarily on developing ASP-based Internet development tools, creating portals and establishing intellectual property partnerships.

The aggressive expansion program will be made possible through strategic partnerships with companies and industry leaders like Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures, ASP giant Ten North and venture capitalist Asia Pacific Ventures.

According to Ballintine, MultiEmedia.com takes an organic approach to growing its infrastructure and revenue.

`We take our own technology and grow it, rather than taking the route of acquisition and ending up with disparate technology.'

Yet the biggest challenge facing the company is still rapid expansion and staff management, according to Ballintine.

However, he maintains the much-hyped IT skills shortage has not had a substantial impact on his company, because MultiEmedia.com's profile has managed to attract high-quality staff.

`There is a lot of new technology and not a lot of experience, so those that have experience are in high demand,' Ballintine explained. `But if you have an exciting and challenging company [to work for], you will attract people. We've had a few defectors come and work with us. We also have a share incentive scheme for staff and, since May, shares have gone from 4 cents to 94 cents. My staff are enjoying their work, being challenged and earning dough.'

Ballintine said MultiEmedia.com will also take on and train newcomers, and this is becoming less cost-prohibitive now as tools get simpler.

`You can do seven steps in one compared to what you used to, so it's not so much of a learning curve.'

MultiEmedia.com presently has 45 staff based in Melbourne, but plans to expand that to 60 by Christmas, as well as taking on staff in Sydney and the US by Christmas and Europe by the first quarter next year.

`By the end of next year that could easily double,' Ballintine said.

`The challenge is managing all these people. We need to have a clear vision of where we want to be, but let them be creative in getting to it. It's a hard task when there's so many. We've got half a dozen MBAs, Masters of Commerce, philosophers etc and they're all fairly free-thinking people. Fancy me, poor old failed Town Clerk trying to manage the whole process - give me a break!'


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