UK internet pioneer Cliff Stanford has died

The entrepreneur who sold dial-up modems when no one else thought folks would care


Obituary British internet pioneer Cliff Stanford, founder of Demon Internet, died last week.

Stanford also set up Redbus Investments, which put money into a number of projects including co-location and data centre facilities (Redbus Interhouse) and an early online film service (Redbus Films), and was a well-known chess enthusiast and supporter of the sport. He was also involved in the London Internet Exchange, and the Internet Watch Foundation. However, it is as the founder of Demon Internet that he found fame and fortune, as the many Britons who once had an email address which ended in "demon.co.uk" will attest.

He was always an entrepreneur. As a child he had a paper round in his native Southend. In a bid to increase sales one of the papers offered a promotion to the kids delivering papers: whoever got the most subscriptions would win a bicycle. Cliff worked out that the cost of taking out a few subscriptions himself would win him the prize. He did this, sold the bike, and cancelled the subscriptions.

His name wasn't always Stanford; he anglicised it from Spiegel. In doing so he took the opportunity to retake his driving test because his old licence had points on it.

These stories reflect a combination of his always looking for an angle and being smart – very smart in both an insightful and street-smart way. Sometimes he thought so quickly he was hard to follow, which was risky because he didn't suffer fools: gladly or in any other kind of way. A keen chess player, he had a gift for languages. More than a gift, he saw the joy in comparing the etymology of one language with that of another.

This author first met Stanford in 1980 when he was my first boss out of school. I worked at his bespoke software developer business called ImPETus, writing business systems in BASIC and 6502 assembler on Commodore. We became friends and remained so after I left.

Demon Internet

When millionaires say that they have started with nothing, there is usually a little shading of the story. Unusually for Stanford that wasn't the case with Demon. When, in 1992, he started what was to become the introduction to the internet for much of the UK, Stanford was bankrupt.

But he crowdfunded the project. In these days of Kickstarter and Indiegogo that's not so unusual, but this was before widespread internet adoption. Crowdfunding has existed for hundreds of years, but Cliff was one of the first to take it online. Using an internet chatroom system called CIX, he created a group called tenner-a-month. CIX users had modems and were online, but access to the internet was only for universities, military establishments, and the biggest corporates.

Stanford reasoned that if he could get 200 people to pay him £10 a month he could buy the £10,000, 64kbps leased line, some modems and some servers, and set up what was later to be known as an Internet Service Provider.

He asked people on CIX to send him a cheque for £120, saying that if he gathered enough, he would launch the service. When he had 130 cheques, he reasoned that if he launched, he could pick up the missing 70. Which he did. And then a few more.

When, in 1997, he sold Demon Internet to Scottish Telecom for £66m, he had 230,000 subscribers.

What made Demon a success was not just the problem-solving and technology – of which there was a huge amount – it was the timing. Stanford launched Demon just as the world was starting to want internet access. The same proved not to be true of his later investments.

Stanford set up Redbus Investments because he "needed a vehicle" to fund new projects. Redbus Films envisaged a time when rather than watch movies in the cinema they might do so from home, downloading them from the internet. It made some original films.

In March 1999, Stanford told advertising newspaper Campaign: "The local video store is destined to become a dinosaur as customers gain access to the vast library of films over the internet.

"The success of Demon Internet has its foundation in enabling the delivery of the internet to the masses, efficiently and cost-effectively. We intend to follow the same philosophy for the delivery of home entertainment."

But it proved to be too early at a time of dial-up and limited broadband. Netflix launched streaming in 2007 and today has 221 million subscribers.

Stanford was no stranger to controversy. He was banned from Claridge's Hotel after appearing on the front page of The News of The World when two dancers told the racy story of a night in the hotel to the paper.

On Redbus Interhouse, Stanford went into partnership with co-founder John Porter, the son of Tesco heiress Dame Shirley Porter who had fallen from grace over the homes-for-votes scandal under which the Porters paid a £12.3m settlement [PDF]. During a boardroom battle with John Porter, Stanford was alleged to have accessed emails between the Porters.

Stanford was convicted of breaking the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act after being charged with computer crime offences by officers of the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit. Stanford strenuously denied any improper behaviour at the time and questioned whether any offence had been committed by anyone, saying: "The email redirect was put in place by an employee of Redbus Interhouse acting of their own volition."

While Stanford claimed a public interest defence, he was fined £20,000 and given a six-month suspended sentence.

It is thanks to Stanford that so much of the UK got online early. He sold connectivity through dial-up modems when no one else thought consumers would be interested. Many of those who worked at Demon Internet have gone on to be very senior in telcos, infrastructure, and web giants today.

If what you achieve is about what you leave behind, Stanford was much more than just an entrepreneur.

Stanford died on 24 February at his home in Estonia. He is survived by his partner Sylvia, his son Tony, and his sister Roz. ®

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