Dan Wagner: When I told my mum, she burst into tears

Broke and on the dole, 20-year-old Dan Wagner scratched his remaining pennies together to launch his multi-million-dollar marketing firm M.A.I.D.

When Dan Wagner first heard that "computers could talk to each other" he knew it was a big deal. It was 1984 and Wagner, 20 at the time, was just the "gofer" for an advertising agency. "British Telecom told us that they were interested in data communication. No one had a clue what it was so I was sent to investigate." What he discovered convinced him it was time to quit his job and set up a business.

"When I told my mum she burst into tears. Back then the idea that a 20-year-old with no qualifications or degree would start his own business was crazy." But Wagner had a plan. He hoped to convince business newspapers and market research groups to let him access their content. Then he would charge customers say a market research firm interested in a particular sector to search for and access the information. The whole thing would be made possible by nascent technology.

With no money ("I was on the dole and living in a bedsit on housing benefit") he began approaching publications. If they agreed to sign an exclusive agreement to provide him with their reports, he would give them a cut of the fee he charged users. One of the first to sign up was The Economist. "They saw it as a way to attract a new audience." He was soon able to convince other publications. With friends and family now happier to invest £3,000 in his new firm, M.A.I.D (Marketing Analysis and Information Database), he could afford office essentials, such as a computer.

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But his platform needed much more. "I found a company that would build it for me, but the cost was £60,000." Wagner talked them into starting the project anyway. "When invoices came I ignored them. Later, when they chased the money, I told them that there was a delay in the accounts department." The bluff worked and the system was built before Wagner paid a penny for it.

"Once it was built it was easy to get more money. An Oxford-based venture capitalist firm paid £100,000 for 10% of the company." But customers were harder to win over. "Most offices didn't have a computer so couldn't use the system." Worse, larger competitors moved in. "Reuters and the FT both began to offer similar products." The FT even began offering its service without a subscription charge. Wagner "didn't have the money" to compete, so he gambled and raised his subscription charge 50%. "People signed up almost immediately. They thought...my service must be better."

As sales crept up, Wagner invested in deals in America, where more offices had computers. And as computers became more widespread, sales rocketed. Technological developments also helped. Modem speeds increased, while a deal in 1994 with Adobe meant that he could send users graphs and pictures. By 1994, annual sales hit £11m and M.A.I.D listed on the London stock exchange. Deals with Microsoft and AOL followed and by 2000 sales reached £330m. Yet M.A.I.D was unloved by the market, with investors preferring internet start-ups, such as LastMinute.com. So in 2000 he decided to sell the firm to Reuters for $500m.

Now 49, the ever-bullish Wagner's latest project is mPowa, which turns a mobile phone into a card payments system. "It's a competitive marketplace...but our offering is different to anything else out there."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.