A pioneer of Dundee’s video games sector has big plans for an iconic social networking site
To those that have met or heard him speak and been struck by his boyish enthusiasm, it comes as no surprise to learn that 41-year-old Chris van der Kuyl wasn’t satisfied with one childhood dream; he had three.
At six foot six and with a basketball-playing father, the first was to compete at a senior level in America. But even with a scholarship in prospect, his height would still have placed him smaller than average for the sport. Another was to be a musician; his dad had toured supporting Scottish folk band the Humblebums and he would go on to play keyboards in the Dundee band Big Blue 72. Despite enjoying success at both, however, sport and music would lose out to his third passion – computers.
Again, paternal influence was at play; from the late seventies on, Tony van der Kuyl was a pioneer in using technology to deliver educational improvement for both pupils and teachers. Chris remembers when he was nine, his dad bringing home an Apple II (Steve Jobs’ and company co-founder Steve Wozniak’s breakthrough personal computer) and he became engrossed by games and programming. Around the same time, the influential BBC Micro was being introduced in British schools.
But for van der Kuyl the defining moment came in 1982 with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a computer that happened to be manufactured in Timex’s Dundee factory. “To everyone else it was £149,” said van der Kuyl, “to folk in Dundee it was a fiver and a packet of fags out the back door. Go to any house and there’d be a row of Sinclair Spectrums. Actually, you can draw a straight line from the success today of the city’s computer games industry to the fact that we all had access to them.” Parental influence, proximity to technological advance, serendipity; they can all be important factors in a person’s development. Van der Kuyl’s three passions would also provide him with crucial skills.
Basketball allowed him to appreciate the relationship between individual and team performance. As a teenager gigging with bands, whose older members would surreptitiously visit venues to ask for an advance on payment, he learned the importance of financial control. A Saturday job in a local computer shop brought him into contact with businesses wanting to harness the potential of software (one still uses a program he wrote nearly 30 years ago).
Van der Kuyl thought his career would combine two of his passions; music and computers, but after studying computer science at Edinburgh and Dundee universities he got an internship at the cash machine company NCR. He persuaded them to fund a trip to Silicon Valley as part of building a new database for the company. It was 1989, he was 19 and dozens of era-defining companies were being formed and products released. He returned determined to launch his own business and founded Van der Kuyl Interactive Systems – VIS – in 1992. It developed computer games, rode the wave created by the introduction of the Playstation in 1995 and with a series of hits was turning over £10m, with profits of nearly £4m, by 2003.
Then things went wrong. Although VIS was not a dotcom business, the bursting of the sector’s bubble at the turn of the millennium had made big investors nervous about technology companies. Needing capital to develop new games, VIS merged with an American publisher which subsequently faltered forcing it into administration. Van der Kuyl was encouraged by leading business figures in Scotland not to give up, but to think carefully about his next move. He came across a game that was still in its early stage of development and it became the foundation of 4J Studios (the fourth ‘j’ standing for joystick after Dundee’s three other ‘js’, jute, jam and journalism), today a small but successful video games business.
In 2007, van der Kuyl was contacted by merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart, who at the time jointly owned, with the publishers DC Thomson, the IT service provider Scotland Online. Grossart asked him to carry out a review of the company and, later, to implement his recommendations. The following year, with van der Kuyl as chief executive, it was renamed brightsolid and DC Thomson took 100 per cent ownership. It recently opened a second data centre in Dundee in partnership with IBM and an office, employing 100 people, in London. It has a presence in Ireland and Australia and America is on the agenda.
“We very much believe [that] Dundee … Scotland … is where we are HQd and there’s a much longer-burn project here to build and strengthen core skills and our core economic strengths, but you can’t be a credible global player without a foothold in your key markets,” said van der Kuyl.
It has two divisions; online technologies, providing hosting, internet access, applications and business services; and online publishing. The publishing division specialises in products “around people and places”. It manages ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk, a partnership between National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. In 2007, it acquired findmypast.com, an online family history site and the first website to put the complete birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales online. The same year it launched ancestorsonboard.com, the online passenger record which includes details of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, for The National Archives. It has a ten-year partnership with the British Library to digitize its newspaper collection spanning 300 years.
Last year, brightsolid bought Friends Reunited from ITV for £25m, which includes the original social network with 23m members, Genes Reunited, the UK’s largest family history website, with more than 11m members worldwide and 750m names listed, and an online dating service. Friends Reunited was a classic bedroom internet start-up, launched in 2000 by a husband and wife team curious about the fortunes of old school friends. By 2005, it had more than 15m members and was bought by ITV for £120m but lost ground to other social networking sites, particularly Facebook.
“It’s interesting because people have the perception that, like Myspace, it’s done; its goose is cooked. The business was ahead of its time and trading fantastically and there was a point where, arguably, it could have engineered its next phase of growth and challenged Facebook. But that ship sailed when they sold it to ITV which had a different agenda; how could it make it more synergistic with its television business, which implied that it wasn’t going to be a challenger for the top global social networking site.
“But with not a lot of fresh content and a rather staid user experience, it still has around two million monthly active users in the UK. And that’s the thing people miss when they talk about these big global numbers; look at Facebook in the UK and it’s around 30m unique users a month. That makes us around 10 per cent of the size of Facebook in the UK. Now, the thing to ask yourself is if you have got that audience, what do you do with it? Do you cut across Facebook strongly? I think the answer is probably no, not in their back yard, because there’s only going to be one winner.
“But if you say we are about people and places on the internet and what’s important to you on the internet; getting people into the frame of mind of keeping things and collecting things which is what family history is all about, we have pretty strong expertise in that – why not take the Friends Reunited audience into that area? It actually strengthens its core ‘nostalgia’ offering. We’ll be a higher value product; people will invest more time building and protecting their personal collections on Friends Reunited, Genes Reunited and so on. And we’ll be bringing something new to both.
“If you can offer an experience that is really intuitive and well-designed, will a certain audience become more engaged? I think they will. Of course, Facebook will continue as a hugely successful platform but I believe there is massive potential for easy to use, single-purpose social media experiences. So, early in the New Year, we’ll break cover on that.”