Internet Magazine 44
1 November 1999
Author: Steve Hill
Eva Pascoe, co-founder of Cyberia and MD of Zoom.co.uk
She co-founded the first Internet cafe in the UK in 1994, sorted out an e-commerce strategy for fashion giant, Arcadia, and is now in charge of a huge online shopping portal. Steve Hill talks to self-confessed geek and cyber feminist, Eva Pascoe.
If you were asked to produce a list of successful Internet entrepreneurs, American, male thirty-something - the likes of Jerry Yang (Yahoo!), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Michael Dell (Dell) -- would feature heavily. Eva Pascoe is neither male (shock) nor American (she was born in Poland and went to university in the UK). But she can move and shake with the best of them. Like Yang and Bezos, Pascoe got into computing in her teenage years -she was given her first computer at 15.
"It was a Commodore. My only regret is that I couldn't teach my sister to use it," she says. "Most 15 year olds don't want to learn about DOS." In those days she was just messing about in her bedroom. But several people of her generation had misspent their youth playing with computers and went on to create search directories or online book stores and become multimillionaires.
She talks fondly about those early years, when FTP was something you used to download files, Telnet was something you logged onto, and 9.6 kbps modem was considered fast.
Pascoe is also proud to admit that she's a geek. She talks about getting "very excited" when Mosaic arrived in 1994. Mosaic was the first widely-distributed graphical browser and is regarded as the software that introduced the Web to a wider general audience. "You need an IQ to be a geek," says Pascoe. "You have to read books."
Like many of her counterparts, she says most of her work is done with the honourable intention of wanting to benefit the online community at large. She describes this online community as being pro free enterprise, entrepreneurial and into music. For Pascoe, making money has never been a high priority. Wealth seems to have come almost as an accidental by-product of the work she did for the online community.
Pascoe co-founded Cyberia in September 1994 with Gene McPherson (or Gene Teare as she was then). The idea was to set up a training centre to encourage women to use computers and the Internet. The fact that it was mainly men that came through the door, when Cyberia first opened, was a significant blow.
Gene McPherson, who now works for RealNames in California, says: "It was about making technology accessible. At that time, you were only interested in technology if you were a techie. People wanted to ride on the wave, and Cyberia gave them an opportunity to get in the door, see it for themselves and become a part of it."She continues: "Eva thinks conceptually and is always motivated by what's new and what's interesting from a human point of view. She has a great public relations brain, and so many opportunities come together through her work."
Despite fierce competition from newer Net cafes in London, such as the supermarket-sized EasyEverything, Cyberia is still very much in business today, at 39 Whitfield Street, near Oxford Street.
In February 1997, Pascoe joined Arcadia, the UK's second largest clothing retailer, whose brands include Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Principles, Top Shop and Top Man. In June 1999, she launched an online shopping portal for Zoom.co.uk. It's expected to reach sales of more than [pounds]1 million by the end of this financial year. Despite its corporate purpose, Pascoe says the Zoom portal also exists to serve the same online community. She's even invited rival companies to sell their goods from the Zoom site. Why? Because choice is what the online community wants, and that's what it shall have.
What made you leave Cyberia?
I'm still a non-executive chairwoman at Cyberia, but I stopped being a director in February 1997, after being there for three years. Cyberia is a great company, but is essentially a 'bricks and mortar' operation. My background is in cognitive psychology, specialising in interactive design, and I really wanted to do more designing of interfaces.
What's the aim of Zoom.co.uk?
Zoom was launched by Arcadia in June. The concept came from a need to expand our existing e-commerce sites, which included separate sites for brands such as Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins and Racing Green. We already had a database of 120,000 customers and we knew quite a bit about them. For instance, we knew that customers of Racing Green liked cigars and would buy them online.
How did you develop the brand?
It's really difficult to register a good domain name these days. We couldn't use Arcadia because it's just a corporate title that means nothing to the public. We spent night after night looking for the best name and eventually came up with Zoom. It's young and suggests a new lease of life.
Who's your target audience?
Our database ranges from 12 year olds who buy stuff from the Top Shop site to 65 year olds who buy Racing Green clothes. Trying to find a domain name that appealed to all groups was tricky. We hope Zoom is funky enough to appeal to young people, but not off-putting to the older age group.
How did you develop the site?
We employed The Fourth Room to develop the brand. They spent 12 weeks on the job, which is really quick. We had a brand that reflected what the Internet is today, with future growth potential. We then made partnerships with the likes of HMV, Car-phone Warehouse and Interflora.
You're also running a free ISP service for your users.
Running an ISP, and giving out free email addresses, acts as a great way to communicate with the customers on our database. Around 70 per cent of registered Zoom ISP users are men. It seems they're the ones who control the PC at home. The majority of people who shop at our site are women.
Doesn't Zoom exist only to promote Arcadia Web sites?
No. The only way to survive on the Internet is to serve the online community. We discovered that our customers wanted non-Arcadia brands, such as Jigsaw and Red or Dead. If they want it, that's what we'll give them. It's no big deal to us because we get commission from the sales wherever they occur.
How secure is the site?
People are reluctant to use credit cards online. Zoom supports credit cards, but we don't rate their long-term security. If you try and tell a credit card company that someone's nicked your credit card details online, it just says, 'Oh, we told you so'. This attitude is ridiculous.
How does the Zoom card work?
With our card you can only shop at a limited number of retailers. If someone steals your Zoom card number, we'll know by the end of the day. We get daily reports sent to us about how the cards are being used online and we'll tell the customer if anything happens.
Do you think credit card fraud is rising on the Internet?
I know for a fact it's on the rise in the UK -- the credit card companies are keeping quiet about it. There's no way you can have a system that's 100 per cent secure. The hackers are always ahead of us. Most Web site security people go home at five o'clock -- hackers work through the night.
What do you think the solution is?
I'm working with Easynet on a payment settlement system so if things get wobbly with Visa or Mastercard, I'll have a plan B.
Clothes don't seem to be the easiest type of product to sell online...
You're right. Three quarters of what we sell online are non-fashion brands. They're loose fit and casual. Top Man and Top Shop can be tricky because they're fashion-led. They also change every six weeks, which isn't enough time for me to get my act together and get them online.
Are there any ways to make selling online easier?
We're looking into 3D rendering of products.
Won't it always be easier to go to high street shops?
I like stores and I like to browse. But I work a lot at weekends and I'm lucky if I can take a whole day out to shop in a month. If you have two kids, a job and a husband that doesn't have a clue, what do you do? Working women are changing online retail.
Have you bought anything online?
I bought the blouse and jacket I'm wearing. I bought my Quicksilver bag from a French Web site. It took two weeks to turn up, but what do I care -- I can't get it in London.
Does Zoom deliver quickly?
In an ideal world, I'd like orders to be dispatched within 24 hours, but we strive for 48 hours. I'm so jealous of Amazon's delivery times, but fashion is slightly different to books.
Where did the idea of creating an Internet cafe in the UK come from?
I founded Cyberia with Gene McPherson, who later went to work for RealNames in California. In 1994 we were both cyber feminists -- Gene is still one today. We knew the Internet would be important, but we knew women would get left behind. We set about creating a training centre for women. But only men came through the door. We had to become pragmatic or go out of business.
Why were only men interested?
At the time, I thought all the men that were into the Net would have a computer at home. Demon had been running for a year and a half before we came along. Gene almost left the company straight away. She said: "I don't want a cafe full of men!".
What kit did you have at Cyberia?
To begin with, we only had three 9.6 kbps poxy modems. We just offered email, Telnet and FTP, because that's all we used. Eventually, we got Mosaic as our browser.
What did customers use the Net for?
The crowd split into two factions -- the geeks, like me and Gene, who just loved the fact that you could click on a link and go somewhere. The geeks really appreciated progress, like when Java came along. Then there was the other group, who only wanted to know when there was something useful they could do on the Net.
I think the geek community is dying out. Being a geek requires an IQ, you need to read books.
You famously told the Daily Telegraph that all women wanted to do online was chat and date...
Women always wanted to do something useful with the technology and they always wanted to chat and date. Women were saying, 'There are men out there? With jobs? And they're single? Cool!" For men, there was always lots of sex on the Net. I was shocked when Yahoo! began listing sex sites. It legitimised it for the first time.
You also started a magazine...
Internet Magazine was around in those days, but it was quite technical. We wanted a magazine to reflect the community side of the Net, and that was pro-free market, entrepreneurial and into music. It lasted for 12 issues.
Why was Cyberia so successful?
I never thought the business would last more than a year. I figured that when people got into the Internet they'd buy their own computers. Five years on, we have eight stores and the number of people coming through the door keeps on growing. People use cybercafes because computers aren't cheap, they want to pick up email, and we can offer a faster connection to the Net.
What about the launch of the EasyEverything Net cafe in London?
Stelious [founder of EasyJet and of EasyEverything] wanted me to go into business with him, but I didn't see how our brands could work together. He has a strong brand and likes to have it on everything. He told me that charging [pounds]5 an hour for Net access was too much. We started out at [pounds]3 an hour, but had to increase it to cover costs. I admit that the [pounds]2 an hour price point is good.
Is it easy to set up a cybercafe?
You can get long leases, so you can start it on around [pounds] 60,000 to [pounds]80,000, which is a cheaper than most types of business. But maintaining the lines and the PCs can be expensive.
How important is food and drink?
When I first came to London, there weren't really any cafe that sold coffee, and I hated pubs. Gene was brought up in Paris, so she knew what a good cafe was. We were leading a revolution in coffee and Internet access.
Would you use one of the new Internet kiosks?
I'd have to be desperate to want to use one. I like to sit down when I'm writing email. They're probably good for something, but I'm not sure what.
Did your degree help you?
Absolutely. I studied cognitive psychology, specialising in interactive design, at Birbeck College. It was one of the first degrees that focused on design for non-computer literate users.
What makes a good e-commerce site?
I wish I knew! People want to find things fast. At Zoom we have something called Fashion Bot, which lets you find bargains quickly. But it puts pressure on pricing, and in the clothing business you can't really sell on that.
What do you think of the standard of Web site design?
There aren't many people who know what they're doing on the design front. Most e-commerce sites look the same. You have to be sensitive to what the customer says. With Zoom, we're still at a template stage, but that won't last long. We're learning from our demographics.
What's going to be more important for e-commerce -- connection speed or flat-fee local calls?
ADSL is the Holy Grail for us. With goods like ours, we want to give customers detail and give it to them fast.
What's the future -- interactive TV or the Internet on mobile phones?
I can see a useful convergence between PCs and mobile phones. I'm not convinced by interactive TV services because people don't seem to want to them. I can't get my head around BSkyB at all. Open [the interactive TV service on satellite] is proprietary, and based on the 'walled-garden' theory - it's a nightmare! They're also competing against Bill Gates, and I'm not going to get involved with any company that does that.
Studied for a degree in cognitive psychology at Birbeck College, University of London. Majored in interactive design.
Opened Cyberia, the UK's first Internet care, in September 1994. Based in London's Whitfield Street, she co-founded it with Gene McPherson (formally Gene Teare).
Leaves in February 1997 to join Arcadia.
Zoom.co.uk goes live in June 1999
She is also a visiting lecturer in hypermedia at Westminster University. Her work on the Internet has won her awards from The Sunday Times and British Telecom. She also writes a weekly column for The Independent Network IT supplement.