Idea pushes all the right buttons


In high-tech Cambridge it is a low-tech company that is currently pulling in the punters.

Freefone is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that nobody else thought of, except, of course, the Americans.

Ben Clarke, a 33-year-old entrepreneur whose business is booming, freely admits: 'I pinched the concept from the U.S.'

Freefone is a simple plastic display board you might see at a railway station, in a hospital, at an airport or in the job centre.

It carries an assortment of advertisements from banks, restaurants, taxi services, anything you can think of, with a push button beside each ad and a telephone handset for members of the public to pick up and get straight through to whichever service they want.

Ben, who used to sell advertising space in Dover Docks, promoting restaurants on the other side of the Channel, decided to set up on his own in 1995.

He chose Cambridge, partly because there was plenty of office space available then and because his father, Geoffrey, a sculptor and Royal Academician, lives at Bury St Edmunds.

'I borrowed funds from family and friends, about 15,000 and set up in Signet Court when most of the other units were empty.

'The business started to generate income quite quickly and it has grown at around 50 per cent each year. Our first site was a small hotel in Essex with 26 bedrooms but it turned out to be a good test site for our prototype plastic unit.'

Freefone installs the advertising units and phone lines wherever there is a suitable site and has more than 1,000 dotted around the UK, plus three in Germany on MoD sites.

Ireland will be the next location, then the plan is to spread elsewhere in Europe.

Advertisers use the service to provide on site information in places like airports and stations, hospitals and college campuses but many are keen to promote their services in shopping centres and leisure venues. Freefone has 4,000 advertisers on its books.

The company has a turnover approaching 1 million, with 37 staff and growing. It has just taken another unit in Signet Court and Ben expects sales to reach around 5 million in the next three years.

He is also looking at the possibility of introducing web-enabled terminals so users can get further information.

Business Link, he says, has been a tremendous help: 'We've been more or less joined at the hip for the past 18 months. I couldn't recommend them more highly. They come and nag me once a month to make sure I am thinking strategically, and we are going for Investors in People.'

As far as Ben knows, Freefone has no direct competition in the UK: 'I love this job and there is no end in sight. There are so many thousands of places where you could successfully operate a Freefone system.'