The Australian Industry Standard
Startups set the scene for the new millennium By Louise Weihart
07 January, 2000A number of enterprising companies have chosen to welcome the new millennium with Internet startups, further evidence, if any is needed, that the Internet is set to continue to dominate the way business is done and the way people interact in the new century.
Research firm IDC puts Internet user numbers in the Asia Pacific region (excluding Japan) at 13 million and expects this to jump to 95 million by 2004. Latest statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABA) indicate that Internet use and purchases are continuing to grow. Nearly 23 percent of Australian households (1.6 million) now have home Internet access, compared with 18 percent a year ago. In the 12 months to August 1999, nearly 5.6 million adults (41 percent of Australia's adult population) accessed the Internet compared to 4.2 million in the 12 months to August 1998.
Industry analysts agree there's no going back, with the true impact yet to be felt, and the face of business and life to be changed forever.
"In Australia, Internet companies are thriving and multiplying, and the Internet is set to play an ever-increasing role in people's everyday lives," says Rob Charlton, general manager of e-BILL, the recently launched end-to-end electronic billing and payment system, believed to be Australia's first. "One example of this growing impact is the emergence of Internet billing, the sort of facility expected to transform the way regular payments are managed and processed. While payment options for bills have improved significantly in recent years, with many financial institutions now offering bill payment via a web site, these services still require customers to refer to a paper-based bill before completing the transaction.
"We believe that payment of these bills needs to be made even easier and more convenient, and that's why e-BILL offers customers a single point where they can receive and pay multiple bills over the Internet," continues Charlton. "In Australia, there are estimated to be about 2,500 large-scale regular billers. As well as telecommunications carriers, utilities and credit providers, there are local councils, various state and federal government bodies and other commercial entities. Almost all of this billing activity is outsourced to billing service providers (BSPs). e-BILL has been established specifically to deal with all BSPs so it can consolidate a customer's Internet billing needs on a single web site."
While Australia already has some media monitoring and press release distribution sites, not least of all OzEmail's Press Release Centre, it now also has its first virtual public relations service site in the guise of www.pr-ontheweb.com.au, a new online press release writing, editing and distribution service.
"The Internet was a key factor influencing business at the end of the 20th century and is set to continue to dominate the way business is done in the future," says PR – On The Web senior consultant Paul Thomson. "While most corporates have already embraced the Internet, we believe the next major impact will be for the small and medium-sized business sector. Because the market is becoming so much more competitive, it is these players that will increasingly need a competitive edge. The Internet will enable them not only to offer their clients better service, but will also provide an additional communications avenue."
For Thomson, public relations via the Internet means the cutting of infrastructure costs and, for the first time, making public relations available to everyone. "Public relations is seen as a necessity in today's competitive business environment, but is not easily affordable for many businesses," he says. "Reaching the target market can, however, mean the difference between a good and bad year. An online public relations service provides everyone who has something important to say with the means to inform the media and, in turn, inform their community."
Solid business models in the United States are also set to make an impact locally, according to Evelyn Moolenburgh, joint chief executive officer of yourorganiser.com.au, yet another enterprising startup that is breaking new ground locally. "The online interactive diary and address book, offering e-mail reminders, task lists and event listings, joins a growing international online calendar market predicted by IDC to reach 60 million users worldwide by 2002," says Moolenburgh.
"It's widely accepted that Australian Internet endeavours still lag their United States counterparts by some 12 months. Toy retailing, led by eToys, for example, has been big in the United States for some time, while Australia's first serious players only entered the market last November." But, just as there was a plethora of local retail startups before Christmas, arguably Australia's first real online Christmas, Moolenburgh expects many more startups to make it to market this year.
"The concept for yourorganiser.com.au," she says, "was born locally to tap a gap in the market here. But, when we started doing our research, we knew that we were definitely on the right track, if the American scenario was anything to go by." The company already has global aspirations for its diary site, appropriately launched on 1 January, and expects to launch yourorganiser.co.uk in April this year.
Meanwhile, two enterprising work-at-home mothers have created Australia's first hub site specifically for parents and families. Dubbed Box Planet, the site provides articles, information, news and community to the Australian audience, and is set to become "a major player in the online market", according to joint founder Vanessa Skipworth. "We have a site for Australian families and parents the likes of which has not yet been seen online," she says. "With a strong sense of community, we aim to provide content that informs, inspires and entertains parents as well as provides guides and ideas on family-friendly places to go."
In similar community vein, and also showing signs of growing customisation, is the Oz Alumni web site, a service designed specifically for Australian alumni to list their contact details online and be searched 'by organisation'.