Saturday, August 20, 2005

25 Years Online in the Netherlands: A Compact History in 25 Instalments

Instalment 20: Worldonline
Just as McDonalds needs a competitor Burger King, so Planet Internet needed a competitor: Worldonline (WOL). In 1995 Nina Brink wrote a business plan for the new internet service. With her relations in the financial and computer worlds she started to take action. Towards the end of 1995 she hastely set up a meeting to please Jim Clark, founder of the browser company Netscape, who was visiting the Netherlands to inspect his new yacht, and get the exclusive rights to the Netscape browser; the then minister of Transport and Communications, Mrs Jorritsma, opened the meeting. Early on she was able to interest the publisher Audax and broadcaster TROS as partners. In the Netherlands WOL started to look for a telecom network and found the Dutch railway company NS willing to offer its network in lieu for shares; the NS network had been the conduit for NLnet so far. In 1996 WOL selected Internet Explorer from Microsoft as browser as Planet Internet had chosen for Netscape.

Logo of Worldonline

By May 1997 Worldonline claimed 50.000 private subscribers and 1500 business clients. And the company did not limit itself to the Netherlands. In a short time it started to roll out a network of services in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Spain and Denmark. It started also acquisitions in order to speed up the total amount of users. Beginning 1998 WOL acquired The Internet Plaza with 30.000 subscribers and grew to 140.000 subscribers. The ambitions increased and WOL wanted to have 1 million subscribers by 1999 and 8 million subscribers by 2002. “Worldonline is well positioned to take advantage of the fast internet developments in Europe: from a simple means of communication to a solid information-, entertainment- and commercial medium”, said Nina Brink CEO Worldonline International towards the end of 1998. But for the ambition to conquer the European market, money had to be collected by an IPO. A great campaign was prepared. The Swiss Sandoz foundation and the Dutch Reggeborgh were invited as a major shareholders. And the subscribers, even those subscribing to the free service, would get priority in the distribution of shares.

On Friday March 17, 2000 WOL was noted on the Stock exchange and listed for 43 euro. Worldonline picked up 1,8 billion euro. On the first day the quote went above 50 euro, but the next day the quote dropped and kept dropping. When the press reported that Nina Brink had sold shares before the IPO for 6 euro, many private investors felt fooled. It was the beginning of the end for Worldonline. On April 13, 2000 Nina Brink was dismissed as CEO and Worldonline was sold for a fraction (5,5 billion euro in shares) of the estimated value (18 billion euro) to the Italian ISP Tiscali. The Headquarters of WOL in Rotterdam were closed soon after the acquisition. The former financial manager of WOL, Mr Ruud Huisman, presently is the CEO of Tiscali.

The Worldonline case drew a lot of social comment. Copyright 2000: Bert Driessen

The failed IPO of Worldonline was not only a mishap due to the action of Nina Brink, but also a disaster due to the over-optimism about the new economy.

(Worldonline has been documented extensively in the Dutch language in NRC newspaper and Zeeburg Nieuws.)

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