IT'S AFTERNOON in the offices of Outblaze - and appropriately everyone is on the verge of fainting from the heat. The 15-month-old company - valued at US$55 million (HK$426 million) after recent cash injections from two prominent Hong Kong companies, may be one of Asia's hottest Internet start-ups ... but it went without modern conveniences, such as blinds and sufficient air-conditioning, in the frenzy of its first, cash-strapped year. As staff seated at close-packed rows of desks stare at computer monitors, shafts of sunlight force their way through gaps between flattened cardboard boxes haphazardly duct-taped to the windows. Two tiny air-conditioners drone fruitlessly, unable to combat the heat generated by 26 people and stacks of computer equipment. There's no room to swoon, but if you're going out for air, tread carefully: tempers could fray if you disconnect a computer by tripping over the maze of wires taped to the carpet. You would think a company trying to impress investors would be eager to conceal such a chaotic working environment, but Outblaze staff seem to revel in the absence of office comforts. Such deprivation could be considered part of the romance of a start-up, and the bonhomie that comes with it means the office is more cozy than claustrophobic. The strangest thing is that the mess can be appealing to the guys in suits. Ibrahim El-Mouelhy, 26, a co-founder and Outblaze's chief editor and PR director, smiles and shrugs as he surveys the shambles. 'It's strange,' says El-Mouelhy, wearing a loose T-shirt and jeans, 'but VC [venture capital] people love this kind of stuff.' El-Mouelhy can laugh, because he's one of the lucky ones. Not long ago he and nine members of the marketing department escaped the maelstrom for the relative sanctuary of a room two floors higher up the dingy Wan Chai building where Outblaze has its offices. The air-conditioning works properly there, and El-Mouelhy even has his own cubicle. Not that they've shed all the trappings of the crazy early days: El-Mouelhy's telephone is not plugged into a jack near his desk, but an outlet two floors below, via a cord that snakes out of his window and down the side of the building. RING THE BELL outside the locked door of Outblaze's offices, and chances are it will be opened by Yat Siu, another 26-year-old co-founder. He is also the company's figurehead, having engineered its spectacular ascent, and personally is now worth an estimated US$26 million - although he points out that that is a value on paper which he couldn't easily turn to cash. The pace of development hasn't allowed Siu the luxury of living Silicon Valley-style; he modestly lists his leisure activities as spending time with his girlfriend (a former America Online employee) or friends, 'having dinners and that sort of thing'. Siu was called 'a whiz kid', 'a brilliant guy' and 'a millionaire several times over' in the whirl of media coverage which followed the news that Hong Kong construction group China Rich Holdings, and Richard Li Tzar-kai's Pacific Century Cyberworks, had taken stakes in Outblaze. Ghostly pale, a little skinny and in need of a haircut, Siu is energetic ... despite the bags under his eyes. His roles as chief technical officer, product developer, financial negotiator and media frontman leave him little time to talk. 'It's hard for me to pin down a particular job I do,' he says with a whimsical air of resignation. 'At the moment I do everything, but I can't keep doing that.' Unlike many Internet start-ups, Outblaze doesn't provide Website content, but the infrastructure that allows them to operate as portals to the Web. It's a vital area in which the company has little local competition. Outblaze provides the invisible but essential technology that enables a Web site to perform complex functions and offer customised services, such as email, message boards and discussion groups. The systems mean clients behind the Xinhua-affiliated China.com, and Newscorp companies Chinabyte.com and Star TV, as well as those operating Outblaze's 11,000 other partner Websites, can attract more regular visitors, sell advertising and establish user databases. Outblaze doesn't charge a fee upfront, but claims 50 per cent of advertising revenue attracted by its clients' sites. Siu busies himself at his computer as he confers with Yusuf Goolamabbas, 29, Outblaze's senior development manager, who has been with the company since the start. Goolamabbas has spent the day completing the intricate task of upgrading the firewall - the electronic security system which protects sites from hackers. They are frequently interrupted by Siu's telephone or questions from staff, but soft-spoken, articulate Siu maintains his calm no matter how many people butt in. Following its establishment in August last year, Outblaze lived from hand to mouth until May, when it secured backing in the form of a $4.5 million investment from China Rich Holdings. That was followed in August by a private, $7 million share subscription taken out by Pacific Century Cyberworks. The cautious climate surrounding the Internet sector in Asia meant companies had been hesitant to invest, or had demanded more concessions from Outblaze than Siu was willing to allow. Siu discussed Outblaze's cash problems with Kelly Cheng Kit-yin, a China Rich executive director and its chief financial officer, while working as a consultant to her. Siu then addressed the China Rich board, and a month later it decided to invest. Cheng now personally oversees Outblaze's finances; China Rich also provides secretarial and legal support for the fledgling company. While Siu and Goolamabbas hunch over Siu's monitor and talk in jargon with a programmer, Siu's American personal assistant, Susan Carrato, says, 'You've come on a crazy day.' Isn't every day crazy at Outblaze? 'Well, there is that,' she replies with a grin. Her phone rings, and after a hearty greeting she interrupts Siu by telling him to take the call, which is from his mother. With her immaculate clothes, blonde hair and large glasses, Carrato, 54, constitutes a striking presence in an office populated mostly by T-shirt- and jeans-clad graduates, many fresh from local computer-science degree courses. They are software engineers, designers and programmers. Some are developing new systems, some are monitoring the company's internal networks, and others are making backups of programmes and emails. Carrato has taken to calling Siu her 'adopted son', having worked with him at a local software company three years ago. When Siu asked for her help at Outblaze, Carrato quit her job at the United States Consulate to join him. 'It's a little crazy here, but it's enjoyable,' she says. 'I'm sort of the office Mom.' On cue, she plays the Mom part by rousing staff slumped in front of monitors to eat a birthday cake she's bought. FAR FROM BEING a conscious effort to tap into Asian cash, Siu says Outblaze only happened in Hong Kong 'because I was here'. Siu's father was born here and his mother grew up in Taiwan, but because both were deeply involved in music - his father was a violinist, his mother an opera director - they made Vienna their home. Siu was born and raised there, and was a prodigy himself: his ability on the piano, flute and cello won him a place in an elite music conservatory when he was 10. But he found performance less appealing than making his way in the business world and took a job composing music for computer games. He graduated from Boston University five years ago, having majored in computer science. An only child, he says his mother is happy with his career choice. He has no idea what his father thinks of him. With an ease suggesting an acceptance of his absence, Siu says his father left Vienna in about 1982. He last met him here, briefly, five or six years ago and has since lost track of him. Siu set up Hong Kong Online in 1996, a site like US-based Geocities, which allows access to smaller sites grouped according to subject. He renamed it Hong Kong Cybercity, then Freenation, but realised he had entered that arena too late to be a major force. He sold Freenation for a reported $5 million, but will neither confirm the price nor disclose the identity of the buyer. A free email service called Net Graffiti was next - which Siu incorporated into Outblaze. By the time he saw an opening in the market for Outblaze's services, he knew enough people for it to make sense to stay in Hong Kong. One of Outblaze's early distinguishing factors was the presence of Antony Ip, 21, another co-founder. Ip is the son of Peter Yip, chairman and chief executive of China.com, who has been described as one of the most influential figures in the Internet in China. Ip left Outblaze in February, during one of its most difficult periods, to work on his own Internet start-up, Myrice.com, which consists of 12 mainland Web sites he and his two partners have bought. (The site will not compete with Outblaze). Ip kept his one per cent stake in Outblaze (Siu's is 39 per cent), but dismayed Siu by leaving the company during its darkest days. '[Antony's departure] was amicable, but he hasn't really been missed,' Siu says. 'He decided to leave the company when it had no money, when it looked like it was heading towards the pits because there was no investor interest. I didn't draw a salary for several months and paid company expenses out of my own pocket. There was a sense of disappointment, but that ultimately hasn't stopped progress.' 'I'm too busy to miss Outblaze,' Ip says. 'I like doing the really early stages of a start-up, figuring out stuff early on. One of main reasons I left was that the opportunity for buying sites [in China] was too great. I think I've been proved right - there are far fewer sites available now.' Eight months after Ip's departure, the tough times are almost a distant memory. And while Siu welcomes the attention, he would prefer the media to move on from the get-rich-quick cliche and focus on what the company does. As Siu says this, a group across the room giggles about a story in Chinese magazine Easyfinder which perpetuates the cliche. It features a cheesy shot of a glum-looking Siu in a sports car surrounded by Outblaze staffers. Siu can't drive and doesn't own a car, but says the magazine wanted to convey a 'young and speedy' image. The picture is overshadowed by a larger shot of a seductively posed woman in a black bikini top. Hilarity accompanies the magazine's progress round the office, with the consensus being that far from avoiding such portrayals, the company should seek low-brow coverage more actively. Outblaze is aiming to make money by 2001; most start-ups hope to reap greater short-term rewards not by turning a profit, but by publicly selling shares in their fledgling organisations. The boom in Internet-related stocks in the US has meant Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) have been regularly oversubscribed, sending share prices rocketing thanks to hopes of bumper future earnings. After a successful IPO, founders of many Internet start-ups have become millionaires overnight. Siu says it is 'premature' to discuss the prospect of an Outblaze IPO, but raising money via an IPO in Hong Kong will become easier from mid-November, with the expected appearance of the Growth Enterprise Market (GEM), a second stock market board, similar to the Nasdaq board in the US, whose listings requirements are less strict than those of the main index. Investors noticed the potential of Asian Internet-related companies when two were listed on the Nasdaq this year. Singapore-based Pacific Internet raised $13.8 million in February, then Hong Kong-based China.com completed a spectacular IPO in July: 4.2 million shares, listed at $20 each, soared to $66 by the end of the first day. They are now hovering at about $60. A year after Siu found investor reticence made it almost impossible to secure funding for Outblaze, venture capitalists are scouring the region for potential Internet investments - and according to some commentators, finding very little. David Porter, managing editor of Asian Venture Capital Journal, says promising, hi-tech investments can be difficult to find - making Outblaze more of a lonely trailblazer than leader of a pack. 'In Asia there are at least half a dozen funds that have half a billion to a billion US dollars to spend, and they won't be fully invested this year or next,' says Porter. 'There's a lot of money around, but nobody knows if any of this stuff is worth investing in. I doubt there are a lot of great things to throw money at.' 'Quantity isn't the problem, quality is,' says Hanson Cheah, executive director of Hong Kong-based venture capital fund AsiaTech Ventures Ltd. Cheah suggests promising business models like Outblaze are the exception to a mediocre rule. 'It's a task to sift through all the proposals we get - a lot are straight copies from a US model. Some have weak management or no management team whatsoever,' he says. 'Some haven't done their homework and are shocked when I can name 20 competitors who are two years ahead of them. It's very unsophisticated.' Goldman Sachs Internet analyst Rajeev Gupta, however, is optimistic about the sector as a whole, pointing to projected online advertising spending figures. Advertising is the holy grail on which almost every Internet company - including Outblaze - is resting its future, and with good reason, Gupta says. He estimates online advertising spending in Asia (excluding Japan) will reach $1.5 billion by 2001. (Goldman Sachs' estimate for 1998 online spending was $10 million.) Future online advertising promises even greater riches, if predictions in the US market are accurate: Gupta says projections of spending there by 2002 range from $7 billion to $44 billion. Siu, meanwhile, says Outblaze is easily able to monitor its clients to ensure it receives its 50 per cent cut of advertising income. 'With online advertising we are extremely bullish,' Gupta says. 'I think there are multiple opportunities - I've seen companies across the region emerge faster than in the US. It's accelerated in the past six months - everyone has become more aggressive. There is no other market that offers the same kind of opportunities as Asia ... there are other people playing [Outblaze's] game, but Outblaze is still way ahead of the curve.' Outblaze is already making global moves: it opened a San Jose office in August, and Siu says he hopes to open other offices in Asia soon. The company's investor support and vital statistics - Outblaze now boasts 2.1 million users of its services - mean it has a big lead over other start-ups. 'There are so few tech companies here,' Siu says. 'Most of these things are content-based [such as China.com] but very few are tech-based or focused on building something you can take on a global scale. The way you survive is by doing something unique.' Outblaze will soon move to new offices in Central, where the air-conditioning and space requirements will be taken care of. That doesn't mean the workload will be reduced, but at least it will be tackled in more salubrious surroundings. Not that Outblaze treats its staff like slaves. El-Mouelhy says employees are not usually required to work weekends or late nights - although they are paid overtime if they do. 'Tired people make mistakes,' he says, 'and we're not the type of company that wants people to work 14 hours a day, six days a week.' He pauses to reconsider. 'Apart from Siu,' he says. 'He works all the time.'