18 DECEMBER 2002
Matthew Vella speaks to Claudine Cassar, whose brainchild is Alert Communications - the largest and fastest-growing web application company in Malta
A social conscience is not every entrepreneurs favourite brand of heartburn. But Claudine is a new breed. There is no fast-talking, business argot and matching suits to impress the punter that has just walked in. Certainly, she presides over the most successful of web application companies in Malta. But this has not stopped her from putting in her utmost to help others. But that comes later.
Claudine is director of Alert Communications, and Alert is her brainchild, alongside with its other subsidiaries, Intervoyager Limited and Securicash. It is the islands largest multimedia and web applications development house, certainly one of the most successful operations in the island's history of knowledge-based entities.
Its larger than life portfolio includes gov.mt in its ranks and other, large commercial entities including Bank of Valletta, the Corinthia Group of Companies, Malta International Airport, Malta Development Corporation, Malta Maritime Authority, IPSE, Simonds Farsons Cisk and the Tumas Group of Companies.
To date, the companys revenues have made it also one of the fastest-growing companies, with its four-year growth having recorded multiplying revenues at breakneck speeds. At 28, Claudine stands proudly over a successful digital solutions company she single-handedly constructed from a meagre capital of Lm250 at the age of 22.
Of course, Lm250 buys you a fax machine. But today, Alert employs over a dozen workers and has already burst into the foreign markets of North Africa and Italy. Its next step will be the UK.
"In the next 12 months at least, those are the plans. My role here is to conduct the general overseeing of the operation and market the company. So I think I would be taking up a position in the UK to market the company abroad. This will be a marketing office where the work will be actually done in Malta. Although our budgets for designing websites here have increased dramatically since when we first started, European budgets are much larger, ranking into the hundreds of thousands."
This is no wishful thinking. From her parents living room, fighting to get Alert on its feet, to the office block that today houses the company, Claudine has a lot to be proud of. She had been destined to take on the world of sciences and engineering until Young Enterprise came her way, and, though wary of clichés, the YE actually changed her life, and from then on went on to study Business and Computing in Malta and International Marketing in Glasgow.
"When I first started it was very hard. After having worked for a web developing company as a marketing manger, the Internet started creeping in and gaining more popularity. When Alert first started, I had no premises nor capital. Then we managed to win Corinthia after a couple of months. As a small company we could offer very competitive prices.
"At the age of 22 however, it was hard getting financial assistance from banks. Being a woman also did not help as much, especially within the IT world. Things today have changed considerably. Alerts success has become my guarantee. We dont have large, extensive marketing campaigns since our website offers all the information about the company, and in fact it was solely through our website that we managed to win foreign clients.
"If I had known how hard it was going to be when I first set up, I could have possibly not started Alert. However, Im happy I started out when I was young. It would have been harder if I had been older, having to think about getting married, or having a child", which in fact she is, six months into the process.
"Today, startups have a lot of help to get themselves moving and becoming main competitors in the field of web applications. Although we are by far the largest company in our field, there are also smaller companies which are offering competition. And in this field, it is cut-throat.
"Thanks to organisations such as IPSE and the Kordin Business Incubation Centre, many young entrepreneurs can finally find their way into managing their own company. Unfortunately, there seems to be little awareness of the services these agencies are offering."
Her hard work in getting such a small startup into business and attracting major clients just five years into the making, has been translated into her commitment towards helping young entrepreneurs set up their own internet-related operations.
"Last year, Alert Communications organised the Youth For Internet Awards. The aim was to provide young people with an incentive to come up with innovative ideas relating to the use of Internet in business and society. The scope of the competition was to encourage young people to look at the world around them with fresh eyes, and to identify ways with which we can improve things by using the Internet.
"As we thought, some of these ideas had commercial potential, and today one of the winning ideas is already being developed. The winner, Aldo Zammit Borda, conceived a portal for English Language Schools in Malta. Naturally, we allowed the ideators to keep the rights to their idea, and provided them with around Lm1,000 in cash prizes, as well as mobile phone and ADSL Internet connection, with their own web domain and site hosting.
"Thankfully, the idea has caught ground. My experience showed me how it is important to foster business interest amongst young people with new ideas. It is very important for young people to be able to start up their own business. Some people say that todays expenses for young people have become unsustainable, such as buying a car or spending a lot in the weekend. My career did not start off without having to do great sacrifices. That is the way it works."
Claudine shows me excerpts from her portfolio, websites created to aid social and charitable NGOs. The company has just developed an e-Card for the Richmond Foundation, featuring a Yuletide motif and a labyrinthine array of games and activities (www.alert.com.mt/christmas). Alert is hoping the e-Card will serve to collect more charity for the foundation.
However, it was her three months in Peru which were also fundamental in fuelling what seems to be the social arm in Alert Communications. Her husband Andrew, a doctor, and Claudine had decided last Summer to go to Peru with the Missionary Society of St Paul.
"I helped in the setting up of a computer lab, giving lessons to the people of the community we were living in, Arequipa, since I managed to collect enough money for five computers which I bought from here. Today, computer lessons are still being given to the villagers, in the hope that they will be able to find a job. The unemployment there is very severe. Men tend to be very alienated by the sheer poverty of it all, spending most of their time drinking. Sometimes this verges on violence, when they beat up their wives, which was quite commonplace when we were there. Hopefully, they may better their chances at finding a job."
Her commitments do not only extend into the social. Claudine is also the PRO for the Computer Society, and also one of the directors at the Malta Institute of Management.
Her other subsidiary, Intervoyager.com Ltd, a subsidiary of Alert Communications, was set up to promote Alert's services overseas. "Since then, we have opened a marketing office in Cairo and launched a portal for Egypt, www.egyptvoyager.com, which has become one of the most popular websites today with over 3000 visitors a day.
Her other subsidiary is Securicash, a company that provides credit card clearance.
Claudine has done good for herself. For the second year running, Alert managed to turn out as the overall giants at the Malta Web Awards. In 2002, Alert won five awards. The year before they bagged a total of seven awards.
"We won awards for the categories for community, voluntary and non-profit websites, for the Attard parish website (attardparish.org), the Made in Malta category for egyptvoyager.com, Best e-Commerce with sapienzas.com.mt, and Best Sports and Recreation with birkirkarafc.com.
"The year before we won Best Corporate Website, Best Travel and Tourism Website and Best Overall Website for Corinthia Hotels International, Best Online Shopping Website for Maltagifts and Best News Website for SearchMalta.
"We have an experienced team of analysts and programmers. Through the Alert Web Publisher and Alert Store Manager, we provide user-friendly software to allow owners to maintain their websites and online stores by simply logging onto their site and add, edit and delete any web site content."
The future looks good for Alert, which is set to become larger as it prepares for a new onslaught into the foreign market. The industry in Malta is becoming more saturated and Europe is the new frontier. Claudine says she is hopeful that the EU decision is taken as soon as possible, so investors and clients know where they stand. Many investment decisions have been set on hold due to the EU conundrum, she says, but this has not stopped Alert from advancing in their field.
"To think that when I first started I had little money and spent the first three years not paying myself a wage. Every single cent that was made from Alert was invested back into the company. Now that I am financially secure, I find myself having to take care of a very large payroll, now that we cater for over 250 clients. Naturally, today we have also big expenses and budgets involved in web designing.
"I arrived back from Naples just a couple of weeks ago where we have been handed the responsibility to design and provide business solutions for many of their projects. Alert's portfolio of foreign clients is now 50 per cent of the total.
"Today the business has grown to such an extent that we now own the vast majority of the market share and basically have to expand into foreign markets.
"In Malta we have very talented people who can make it anywhere. I had the chance of working for KPMG in London, but the big city did not turn out to be my kind of place. Following my Masters in Glasgow, I decided to come back. I guess that is the price one pays for having to forgo working in a foreign country to have the kind of life Malta can offer."