Alastair Crawford, founder of 192.com
Fulham-based directory enquiries company 192.com launched 15 years ago. Rupert Basham talks with the founder, Alastair Crawford, about acquisitions, undercutting BT and shaking up the industry.
BACK in 1997, a young Fulham resident began to wage war on telecommunications giant British Telecom (BT).
Frustrated with the company’s monopoly on directory enquiries, Alastair Crawford, then 28, became the first challenger to its crown, launching 192.com as a realistic and alternative way for businesses to gain access to the electoral roll.
Realising the limitations of the phone book and the unlimited potential of the internet, he set himself the goal of creating an online directory service that would offer the user a greater depth and breadth of data alongside powerful search capabilities.
However, to do this, he first had to get his hands on the electoral roll and reproduce and distribute it for far less than his competitors.
“BT had a monopoly,” said Mr Crawford, “so at the beginning our mission was to produce an alternative to the phone book.
“At the time BT were publishing a CD-ROM and charging £3,000 for a copy of the phone book on CD. You had to return the CD at the end of each quarter and pay that again to be able to get the next one.
“The electoral roll, which is a public document, was being sold to big businesses for thousands and thousands of pounds and it didn’t seem like an even playing field.
“I just felt that when the data was becoming more and more important for businesses and people, we needed to create a product that allowed everybody to have access to the same data.
“We created this range of CDs which had the electoral roll on and they came out for less than £20.
“It meant that anyone who needed access to this directory could get it – it was something of a revolution."
Contacting every council in the country, Mr Crawford bought the electoral roll in paper form and then sent it to China where typists copied it out. It was a four-month process.
Released in June 1997, the UK Info-Disk proved to be a roaring success, going on to sell two million copies.
Each subsequent disk had from 45 to 60 million business and residential records consisting of the edited electoral roll, the national directory enquiries database, and a business directory.
However the entrepreneur was fully aware that CD-ROMs would soon become obsolete and began plugging 192.com on updated versions of the disk.
Quickly the site began catering to more and more unique users, which ranged from businesses trying to attract clients to people trying to track down old friends. He said: “The great thing about the internet is there’s no limit to the amount of storage you can have. When we developed 192.com we knew that’s where the world was heading.
“At the time people had dial-up so it was easier for them to go to the phone book to find a number or phone an operator. Now that broadband speeds are so fast, people will go online, especially as they don’t need to install anything. The website now generates 10 million unique users monthly.”
Mr Crawford’s move to take on BT led to the eventual deregulation of the directory enquiries industry in 2003 and the emergence of competitors such as the men from 118 118.
As the company was expanding, Mr Crawford and his burgeoning staff
out-grew their modest office in Sulivan Road, Fulham and relocated to the company’s current headquarters in luxurious Imperial Wharf.
It was during this time that they started to branch out into software development, launching 192business, developing verification software which helped organisations identify online customers in order to minimise fraud and risk.
This arm of the business has proved to be so successful that in March, global information services company Experian acquired it for an undisclosed figure, although at the stage of sale it had an annual turnover of around £7.2million.
Before he revolutionised the industry, Mr Crawford, 43, worked on a government-funded programme in Malta developing technology which would allow computers to read telephone information.
When he returned to Fulham he invested his savings, roughly in the tens of thousands, into his fledgling directory. It was a move that paid off as in the last financial year, as 192.com reported earnings of £5.5m.
He said: “We didn’t know how the market would take it, we didn’t know how BT would react to having a competitor, so we didn't really have any expectations during the first year.
“The internet was exploding and our business was unprecedented so we were quite cautious and conservative about market fluctuation. We didn't want to build a traditional business. We didn't take on any outside investment until 2000 and then as the business was growing we took on £4m in 2004.
“In 2010 we had enough profit to buy out our investors, but by then the company had two divisions; business and consumer, so we split it.”
Now that the business division has been sold, Mr Crawford and his staff of 40 are focusing on streamlining the website and improving users’ experience of the business directory.
With one business sold and the profitability of the other constantly increasing, has he ever thought about selling 192.com?
“I have had offers, but always turned them down. Now we’re focused on building a premium service and increasing membership. But never say never.”