Net pioneer blasts off

A pioneer of the New Zealand internet industry is about to blast off in a new direction after running up against one of the harsh realities of the online world. Bruce Simpson is best known as the feisty figure behind the Aardvark daily news and commentary website.

A pioneer of the New Zealand internet industry is about to blast off in a new direction after running up against one of the harsh realities of the online world.

Bruce Simpson is best known as the feisty figure behind the Aardvark daily news and commentary website, whose style is to “poke the borax”. His pull-no-punches approach to web publishing provoked the occasional legal threat (one from Internet Name Group, the Melbourne-based outfit touting for domain registration business, which has resurfaced in the past few weeks). But Simpson says he has never been dragged into court.

Rather than be litigated out of cyberspace, he last week told his regular audience – which he puts at 5000 individuals – that he can no longer afford to run the site. It consumes two hours out of his day that he is not getting a return on, so, after about seven years of trying, his effort at making a living from the internet is coming to a close. (In fact, Simpson says after posting that message, reader response was such that he might keep a weekly version of the site alive.)

Aardvark has been his most enduring web venture, but not his only one. Simpson reckons he missed a genuine opportunity to get rich online through another daily news site he established, 7am.com. With 7am.com, he helped establish the phenomenon of “syndicating” web news. This involved creating a news service built on links to a whole range of content providers’ sites. Some of these – The Nando Times, for one -- saw it not as syndication but as stealing. Simpson says he came closer to being sued over this issue than over any alleged defamation. Others – the LA Times, for example, which he says was crying out for content to go with a surplus of ads – hailed him as breaking ground in the distribution of online content.

At 7am.com’s peak, Simpson says, it was valued at $US40 million, receiving a million hits a day. By that stage he had sold 66% of the company (coming away with a five-figure sum after the bills were paid), and was urging his co-owners to take the money and run. They didn’t and, in a post-dot-com world, he no longer places much value on his remaining 34% stake.

Even before launching Aardvark and 7am.com, Simpson was making a living from the web, by writing about it. He wrote – and IDG (Computerworld’s publisher) published – guides to getting business online. His message from the outset was that people should use the internet to augment existing business activities rather than launch new ones.

He warned against get-rich-quick schemes, saying if they sounded too good to be true they probably were. His own experience bears him out. While he has failed to become an online millionaire, he has had modest success using the internet to support his other money-making interest – building jet engines. Within a few months of posting details of his engines online, he says he has taken orders for 70 of them, worth about $30,000.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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