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Business idea: Liv4now.com

21 and 22. Serena Doshi, 26 and Ewan MacLeod, 22

Co-founders, liv4now.com. £8 million each.

When I meet Serena Doshi at her office she is immediately explaining that she has just flown in from a meeting in Canada, and apologising for wearing glasses not contact lenses, and introducing me to her partner Ewan MacLeod, and debating which hotel bar we should go to for a drink. Doshi has the slightly breathless enthusiasm of the suddenly successful. With MacLeod, she started her dot.com Liv4Now in November. By Christmas the pair were being written up as the latest virtual millionaires. Three months on, it is all beginning to seem old hat. ‘Still,’ says MacLeod, ‘three months is a very long time in internet years.’

Doshi, who projects an evangelical self-confidence, is fond of suggesting that a successful internet startup needs only three things ‘a suit, an idea and a geek’. In the case of Liv4now.com, she happily takes on the first role – a 26-year-old chartered accountant with investment banking experience – while MacLeod, 22, performs the latter – he was working for AOL and Virgin.net while still at school. In person, the stereotypes blur a little; she is an unstructured suit, he an unusually personable geek.

Their idea – now worth upwards of £20 million – came as a result of a chance meeting. One day in August 1998 Doshi’s computer printer broke down, and a friend suggested that MacLeod would be a good person to fix it. They got talking, and decided that the problem with the internet was that there was not enough on it for people like them: ‘people who like to hang out, socialise and network… You could go online and buy a book but there was nowhere just to chill out with friends.’ Though not exactly a eureka moment, they went away and thought some more. MacLeod, who grew up mostly in Essex but has not lost his reserved Scots accent, had some experience in virtual chilling: he had set up an online ‘community’ for students when the first internet possibilities opened up seven years ago.

‘I can remember people saying “this Netscape thing is never going to take off,”‘ he says now, having the last laugh. ‘It was a totally text-based community, the kind of thing I would show my mum, and she’d say: “Yes dear, I’m sure it’s very interesting.”‘ Doshi, meanwhile, had been working on a big internet sell-off for her bank, Schroders, in the US. ‘It was,’ she says, ‘just before the hype started in this country,’ but in the US it was clear she had seen what looked seductively like the future.

In the 18 months since, the pair have sketched out a classic late-Nineties trajectory of wealth creation: they put together a demo website; raised some venture capital (the valuation we have placed on the business is based on both the market value analysts are now placing on sites like this one which attract high-spending people with disposable income and the discussions with venture capitalists looking to invest in the company); and thought of a name, which was also a kind of mission statement. ‘Liv4now,’ says Doshi, bright-eyed, ‘is an attitude that will never die.’ Then, in case I’d missed her point: ‘You know, carpe diem. Liv4now is very much how to make your lifestyle the best it possibly can be.’

These people are, they say, defined not by demographics but by a state of mind. There are, explains Doshi, ‘a whole group of words that attach themselves to our users – hedonistic, aspirational, ambitious, wired, net-savvy.’ And there are 40,000 of these dynamic individuals signing up to seize the day every month. Listening to Doshi and MacLeod talking about ‘revenue streams’ and ‘sustainable business models’ and ‘scalability’ you find yourself wondering what exactly it is that is making them all their (virtual) money. In fact it is, it seems, easier to say what Liv4Now is not than what it is: it’s not a portal (‘Yahoo!, for example,’ Doshi explains patiently, ‘is a portal’); it’s not a magazine or a newspaper (‘we don’t tell our subscribers what to think’); it’s not a dating agency or a vanity publisher – though it has elements of all of these things. It’s rather, Doshi and MacLeod repeat, using the Blairites’ favourite word like a mantra, a ‘community’ of hedonists (the kind of new-style hedonists, presumably, such as these two founder members who sip Diet Coke and work online hours).

In their short time as e-pioneers, Doshi and MacLeod seem to have quickly acquired some of the paranoia of more conventional business people. Though they stress that their company is ‘a lifestyle thing’, they are oddly reluctant to reveal details of their own lives, to the extent that we have a couple of comical exchanges. When I ask, for example, what schools they went to, Doshi reacts as if I’d asked her to share her innermost secrets. ‘Does it matter? Should it matter?’ she demands.

Not really, I suggest, except that it’s interesting, given the meritocratic potential of the net, that the people making money seem to be mostly from traditional moneyed backgrounds.

‘I don’t think it’s relevant at all in this sphere,’ Doshi argues. ‘I think you can typify a lot of people who have seen there’s a gold rush here and thought “let’s get in on this”. But we started this way back in 1998…’

So you went to a comprehensive school then? ‘I don’t think it’s relevant at all to what we’re doing.’ So, public school?

‘I’ve read those articles as well. But I think there are all sorts of people working in this business – people in garages – and it’s entirely irrelevant where you went to school.’

Later, when I suggest that I imagine that the community is good for singles, a kind of Club 18-30 without wet T-shirt competitions, Doshi gets more exasperated. ‘It’s not about dating,’ she insists. ‘It’s about interacting. On other sites I think there could be a lot of that [dating] going on, but we have “moderated chat”, live people in there hosting certain debates, which adds a safety aspect, as opposed to some other sites in which you can say just anything.’ So how much of this policing is required? ‘We don’t really think of it as policing, it’s moderation.’

The current message boards discuss everything from the Lawrence inquiry to share tips; there are word association games played over a number of days, presumably by Liv4Now members who don’t get out much (‘mango… banana… strawberry… lychee…’ and so on) and hot topics, such as ‘masturbation: how many times a day is normal?’

Doshi and MacLeod are, of course, resolutely living for now, but they have big plans for the future: Liv4Now, the wireless community, ‘so you’ll be able to access the community via your mobile phone’; a community consultancy, advising companies how to become interactive; and ‘spin-offs such as Liv4Football’.

‘I may have these noughts attached to my name in the papers,’ says MacLeod smiling, ‘but I only have £4.50 in my pocket’ – a point he proves when we scrabble to get the collective funds together to pay for our round of Diet Cokes.

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January 10, 2009 - Posted by | Business, Entrepreneur, Million dollars Idea, Uncategorized

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