The CEO of Voyager is taking the company on a second journey as it consolidates and takes advantage of industry changes. Rob O’Neill reports on how Voyager is winning customers as they upgrade to fibre
This year is going to be a very big one for ISP Voyager, says founder and CEO Seeby Woodhouse.
Voyager, which has transformed from a business-focused ISP into a much broader company through a series of acquisitions, is poised to finally unite all its parts, first through its billing systems and then through branding.
Then Woodhouse and his team will focus on growth. They aim to triple the size of the business from just under $30 million in turnover now.
It’s all about the roll-up, he says.
Woodhouse made his first fortune from selling Orcon, the ISP he founded back in 1994, to state-owned broadcasting communications specialist Kordia. He sold it for $24.3 million, in 2007. His share of the sale was 80 percent.
That sale still seems to be on his mind though, both as a benchmark and a regret.
“I think in some ways I sold Orcon too soon,” he says. “I sold it once I got to $24 million turnover and I was kind of disappointed because it got to $150 million in the years afterwards.
“I felt that I sort of missed out on a bit of a hockey stick. So, as a personal goal, I want to get to $100 million in sales. I'm just excited about that journey.”
Orcon was the product of up to 40 acquisitions of small, unprofitable dial-up ISPs.
“I grew the company over its last five years from 3000 or 4000 connections to 60,000 when I sold it,” he says. “With Voyager, I've done a similar thing, where I rolled up 10 or
15 little companies, put them all together and have, hopefully, created something that's a lot bigger than the sum of its parts.”
If the name Voyager rings a bell, then you’ve probably got grey hair and quite a good memory. Woodhouse went to work for a company of the same name in the early 1990s, to learn how an ISP worked and then launch one of his own.
That early Voyager was bought first by Australia’s OzEmail, then by US giant MCI WorldCom subsidiary UUNet. However, when MCI found itself filing for bankruptcy, in 2002, it closed the New Zealand business abruptly, advising its customers to go to Xtra.
Woodhouse later bought the Voyager domain and phone numbers, when their registration expired, and put them in storage, along with a few hundred other domains he’d accumulated, only bringing them out when his Orcon non-compete agreement ended and he was ready for his next venture.
Rolling up unprofitable ISPs works because the customer base is all that’s needed – the costs, mainly of premises and staff, can be cut away.
“We don't need 10 CFOs and, you know, 10 different branch offices and 10 different billing systems,” Woodhouse says.
All of a sudden, a customer base that was making little if any money, and was worth very little, becomes valuable.
Both Orcon and Voyager were launched to take advantage of major one-off industry changes. Orcon took advantage of the arrival of the internet as a consumer service; Voyager has taken advantage of the consumer shift to fibre and the business shift to the cloud.
“The change from DSL [Digital Subscriber
Line] to fibre is the last technology change that most consumers in New Zealand will ever see,” Woodhouse says. “But if you're having to pull out your modem and put in fibre then obviously you’ll look around.
“So, part of the reason I started Voyager was to try and get a percentage of the customers in this final change-over from DSL to fibre.”
He also set about building a hosting business, investing in virtual private server technology from VMware, and in domain hosting and cloud services.
“Voyager started as a business-focused hosting company and then expanded into access; business access and then, eventually, residential access,” he explains.
Two of the company’s most recent acquisitions could be transformative. The buy-out of New Zealand’s first ISP, Actrix, has given Voyager scale – one percent residential market share, in fact. While the acquisition of cloud PBX developer Conversant has delivered intellectual property.
“We don't have any licensing fees, unlike an Avaya phone system or something, so we can actually provide a very nice, full-featured corporate phone system at a low cost and, therefore, make enough money to provide a good service at a good price.”
That’s one major goal for the year: to move into cloud PBX and telephony, and help businesses migrate away from legacy phone systems into applications such as next generation video-conferencing.
Voyager also has a baked-in path to market for this and other services through its domain hosting brands, which already serve 30,000 – or one in five small and medium-sized New Zealand businesses, Woodhouse says.
“We don't have any licensing fees, unlike an Avaya phone system, so we can actually provide a very nice, full-featured corporate phone system at a low cost”
“We're actually a lot bigger in that space, and we're quite unusual in that we do everything from the domain name to email, to the website to content management, to broadband to phone services to the PBX. So, we've got a lot of products.”
Retiring Voyager’s multiple legacy brands is another goal for 2018, but first the billing system needs to be sorted.
“We’ve finally got a billing system that can handle everything we're doing and we're moving everyone on to it,” he says. “It's been a plan that's three or four years overdue and a lot harder than we thought, but there will be a lot of synergy once that's actually done.”
Once the integration is complete, Woodhouse thinks his team can raise the company’s profile dramatically and double the size of the business quickly. That’s not to say its growth has been tardy: over one two-year period Voyager grew from around half a million in billings to $14 million. Last year, Woodhouse says, the company grew by another 50 percent.
Woodhouse’s personal approach to business has changed dramatically. He teleconferences and only comes into the office personally about once a month. From being a self-described workaholic, he now spends much of his time at his house in Los Angeles or travelling and taking photographs. He has visited 30 countries in the last two years.
“I think I have a fantastic team at Voyager [and] a really good general manager who is amazing,” he says. “I probably only did about 10 or 20 days’ work all last year.”
Meanwhile, the Orcon sale is still there in the back of his mind.
“Voyager is now bigger than Orcon was when I sold it,” he says. “So that's a real milestone for me.”