No one can ever say that Essex boy Cliff Stanford hasn't been prepared to take a risk.
That particular trait may have proved troublesome as he pleads guilty to unlawfully intercepting emails belonging to John Porter, son of disgraced former politician Dame Shirley of Westminster 'homes for votes' fame. But it's also given the divorced father of one a unique career that brought the Internet to UK homes and made him a multimillionaire with a taste for unconventional investment.
Although most famous for setting up Demon Internet, the first ISP in Europe, in 1992 and netting £30m after selling it on to Scottish Telecom (later re-branded Thus) only six years later, Clifford Martin Stanford's beginnings were inauspicious.
He was born on 12 October 1954 in Southend-on-Sea, but his civil servant father left home when Stanford was just 11, leaving his mother to support him and his sister. He quit the local grammar school at 16 to become an accountant, a logical step given the book-keeping experience he'd gained from an early age looking after the family finances.
By 25, Stanford was showing more entrepreneurial flair than a career in accountancy normally implies. In 1979, he quit his tax-related job to set up his own software company, ImPETus, which developed applications for Commodore PET machines. As the technology changed, he moved on to establish Demon Systems, which sold modems and network equipment.
Like many early adopters of online technology in the UK, Stanford joined Cix, the country's first commercial online conferencing system. In 1991, he started a conference there called Tenner A Month, to see whether enough people were interested in contributing the eponymous sum to pay for shared access to the Internet. At the time, going online was mainly the preserve of academia and big business, with leased line connections costing upwards of £20,000 per year — the idea was radical.
Cix was a good place to recruit solvent enthusiasts, and by June 1992 about 200 people had signed up to the fledging Demon Internet service. Stanford provided the capital to get it going even though the initial subscriber base only provided half the revenue necessary to make a profit.
The offering was based around a single Apricot 486 machine with eight modems connected to an Internet feed from Pipex, with a local access network based around putting PCs in volunteers' homes. By the time it was sold to Scottish Telecom in 1998 for £66m, the organisation had grown to 172,000, a hundred times Cix' subscriber base.
That sale was one of the first of the Internet boom of the late 1990s, and made Stanford an early dot-com millionaire. The company valuation was controversial due to its losses of £3 million a year on revenues of £18 million, but over the next couple of years it became seen as a relatively mild example of the Internet's peculiar financial effects.
Stanford kept his interest in Internet access by setting up an investment vehicle, the Redbus Group, which in turn invested in hosting company Redbus Interhouse. He also became involved in films, the music business, glassmaking and a wide range of other investment opportunities unconnected with Internet technology. A £150,000 Rolls Royce Silver Spur, a Piper Saratoga bi-plane, a private jet and a house in Spain were also involved.
He most recently told the court that his assets now totalled some £300,000.
Examples of start-ups that the company propagated were a landmine clearing organisation (Redbus Landmines Disposal Systems) and a company selling platformed boats for divers (Redbus Workboats).
But it was during his Redbus era that Stanford's trouble seemed to start. Very soon after starting the company...
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