Back in 1999 the internet was still in its infancy. It was not the essential tool for communication and media of all kinds that it is today and its potential was only slowly being realised.

But one of those who recognised what it might become was James West.

The 26-year-old was working in his Oxford flat on a web development firm called Instant Pages.

His work and ideas caught the eye of his uncle Mike Fischer, an entrepreneur who, along with Mike O’Regan, set up information technology firm Research Machines, now known as RM Education, based at Milton Park, which he built into a multi-million-pound global firm.

Mr Fischer recognised his nephew was very much a chip off the old block and backed his hunch with a £3.5m investment.

As a result, Mr West was able to set up Alamy, which allowed photographers to upload digital images to a website and sell them.

At the time such a business did not exist but it took off, thanks to the rapid development of both the Internet and digital photography.

Mr West, 40, said: “People thought we were nuts in the early days. But photographers were starting to play with digital cameras and every day we were building up business.”

By the end of 2000, Alamy had 100,000 images on its online library and made its first sale in April 2001.

“It took 18 months to sell our first picture and we were very nervous but from then it just grew. We broke even in the first five years.”

The company’s first market was a mixture of national newspapers and small design studios looking for captivating stock images. Then magazines and publishers came calling and the die was cast.

Today Alamy turns over £15.5m a year and 400,000 new pictures are uploaded every month. Competitors have sprung up but while the business has had to work harder, it has stayed ahead of the field. One of the reasons is strict quality control, with only 50 per cent of first-time submissions accepted.

Alamy has 160 staff worldwide, with 50 working at its Milton Park headquarters. It has offices in the US, Germany, Australia and India, with Mr West realising the best growth potential for the business lies abroad.

Like any entrepreneur, Mr West is always looking for the next big thing and now he believes he has found it.

Again, using the expertise of Mr Fischer, former RM chief executive Tim Pearson and Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent Drinks, he has set up Manything, also based at Milton Park, which has created an app to turn redundant smartphones into monitoring devices.

Mr West said: “We realised there were probably more “retired” smartphones than CCTV cameras in the world. The idea is to use a smartphone for home security or to monitor a small business or even a pet when you are away from home. For example, are your outbuildings safe when you are on holiday?”

The Manything website allows the user to view a live feed and also to see a graphic of reported activity.

The app is already proving popular, particularly in the US and there have been about 5,000 downloads of the app. While it is free initially, customers will be charged for storage and 24-hour access.

Mr West said: “At this stage it is very early days. We are developing it and talking to potential business partners – we think the market is massive.”

And, given his track record, who could argue with him?