Ray Anderson: My risky computer venture paid off

Ray Anderson made his fortune designing and selling user interfaces for computers. His big break came in the 1980s when IBM decided to use his software.

Ray Anderson's first computer business "didn't make a lot of money", but it must have done something right. When he "shut shop" in the mid-1980s, Steve Jobs decided to buy his software. "He had just been fired from Apple and was trying to put a new computer together." Anderson had set up Torch Computers in the early 1980s after graduating from Cambridge University. The firm designed graphical user interfaces (GUIs), which let users see images rather than text on their screens, for early-generation PCs.

After selling up to Jobs, Anderson spotted an opportunity in business machines. "Lots of firms were going digital and installing work stations for the first time I knew that demand was going to grow." Computer-makers were each developing their own GUIs. But for the large corporations ordering workstations, this was a problem. "Each GUI needed specific code and programs. That made it difficult for companies to use different manufacturers' machines interchangeably." Clients could, of course, buy all of their equipment from one provider, but "they did not want to be beholden to any one supplier".

So Anderson set about developing a GUI that could work with any machine. In 1988 he and an ex-colleague drew up a business plan. But his partner pulled out, opting "to work for a large, safe corporation instead of taking his chances with a small start-up". Undeterred, Anderson continued alone. He sold a 20% stake in the new business, IXI, to an investor and hired some developers. Being based in Cambridge, he had a steady supply of skilled workers. "In 1979 more computers were shipped from Cambridge than the rest of the world put together."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

After two years the software was ready. IXI's first client was US bank Wells Fargo. "A lot of the exchanges were digitalising and financial firms were leading demand for workstations." In 1989, IXI had a breakthrough when IBM decided to use its interface. Sales soared past the million mark. Even so, persuading other manufacturers to use the technology "wasn't easy". Many "had developed their own GUIs, which, obviously, they wanted to be used". But the IXI software's merits and the insistence of hardware users that machines be compatible meant that by 1993, IXI had 70% of the work-station market.

But "getting the remaining 30% of the market would have required heavy reinvestment. I felt ready to move on." Anderson sold his stake to a US technology firm and spent time as an "angel investor" backing several small start-ups. In 1999 the dawn of mobile internet encouraged him to launch another firm, Bango, which developed software to allow websites to take payments from mobile internet users.

At first they faced opposition from mobile operators "who wanted to control their customers' internet use". But eventually they were able to get their hands on the billing information and act as the middleman between internet users, mobile operators and online vendors. The rise of the smartphone has increased the numbers of people who shop online and pay to download 'apps'. As a result, Bango posted its first profit in 2010 and is now branching out into new areas, such as mobile internet market research.

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.