Deloitte Fast 50 winner focus: Orcon founder Seeby Woodhouse talks about getting a second crack at the ISP market

As a teenager, Seeby Woodhouse quit an engineering degree and founded internet service provider Orcon. He sold it in 2007, netting almost $20 million, and founded his second ISP, Voyager Internet, in 2011. This month Voyager picked up the 2014 Deloitte Fast 50 supreme winner award, after notching up growth of almost 1400%.

The stakes are getting higher with the Deloitte Fast 50 awards. Criteria for entry include a 201% baseline – and the top five companies all surpassed the 1000% revenue growth mark. So winning is no mean feat for Voyager Internet, which achieved a 1391% growth rate.

An annual index, the event is the benchmark for high growth business in New Zealand, evaluating businesses across a range of sectors on annual growth over a three-year period.

Voyager Internet has grown from a company selling $400,000-worth mostly of domain names per year, to a $10 million B2B-focussed ISP over the period measured by Deloitte, says Orcon founder and current Voyager CEO Seeby Woodhouse.

As well as being number one in New Zealand, Voyager has been ranked 23rd in the Asia-Pacific Technology Fast 500, with 51other New Zealand companies on the list.

When Woodhouse first began Voyager in 2011 after the restraint of trade clause with Orcon lifted, the focus was on providing a series of domain name to companies.

It succeeded in cornering about 20% of the New Zealand market, but the revenue from offering domain names were paltry: only about $20 per year from each customer. It was time for a change of strategy.

Currently, 80% of Voyager Internet’s business is in the B2B sector – companies, Government, and smaller ISP market. It also provides software products. In August of this year, PCMag tested New Zealand’s fastest ISPs, and Voyager came in second behind Snap.

Voyager CEO Seeby Woodhouse

“The driver of our growth has been us slowly moving sections of our customer base up the value chain,” Woodhouse says. “[We take] a customer that’s been spending $20 a year on domain names and try to get them spending a few hundred a month on broadband, complete telecommunication services.

“But at the same time, we save them money.”

While it’s the same industry and inherently similar to Woodhouse’s most successful venture, Orcon Ltd, it’s also vastly different, he says.

“They’re almost entirely different companies. My background in technology is helpful, but in the four years I was out of the industry, the industry really changed a lot,” he says.

“The numbers and the technology were all different. It’s kind of the same but there’s a lot of new stuff to learn at the same time.

The rise of Orcon

When Woodhouse first started Orcon in 1994, only 5% of New Zealanders had internet, and the majority were on dial-up. Broadband wasn’t talked about, and fibre was just a dream. Woodhouse says he began at age 18 with $100, no computers – just a dream that he wanted an internet company.

The company focused on the no-frills end of the market, targeting the more technically skilled and “nerdy” crowd, with pricing at half of their cheapest competitor. By the early-to-mid 2000s, Orcon became a major player in the consumer ISP market; the message spread via positive word-of-mouth and a reputation for supplying quality broadband to internet power-users.

“What drove Orcon’s growth was the fact that everyone in New Zealand was getting on the internet,” he says. “As long as you had a good brand, a good reputation, people would sign up.

“Obviously, once internet reaches close to 100% penetration, then that kind of business growth slows dramatically. So basically once the growth at Orcon stopped … I felt that was the time to sell.”

By the time he sold Orcon to Kordia in 2007 for $24.3 million, the company had 120 staff and he had two personal assistants. Woodhouse had personally made nearly $20 million, while his business partner pocketed the rest. But a restraint-of-trade forced him out of the ICT game for the next three years.

According to a 2012 Herald article, Woodhouse’s life basically floundered until the restraint came to an end in 2011, and he jumped almost immediately back in to the ICT market.

Back and better than before

Woodhouse says that it’s been hard to get back into it – not because of the advances in technology, but more the fact he's older now.

“When I sold Orcon, I was 29, young, a heap of energy,” he says. “As you get older, your energy levels sort of fade a little bit, so working 12 hours everyday gets harder.”

And it was even more difficult starting from ground-zero again, having once commanded a fully fleshed-out company, he says.

“Even if you’ve got money behind you, you still have to build up the company from day one. Doing basic sales, going and visiting the bank. That sort of really small, like setting a PO box, all the basic stuff that’s getting it off the ground, it’s quite hard.

“It felt like a backwards step.”

But winning the Deloitte Fast 50 is definitely the pinnacle for both Woodhouse and the company. He says 85% to 90% of businesses fail in the first three years, so not only surviving to this point and starting to turn a profit, but also winning such an award has been well beyond the expectations of the company. It’s good to feel like a real company again, he says.

Orcon was recently sold to the CallPlus group by Kordia, and is now considered by the industry as the number three player in the market, with the next biggest a long ways off, according to Woodhouse. While it means Voyager is now competing with his former business, Woodhouse believes Voyager will always be serving a different set of clientele.

“I think we’re always going to occupy a corporate niche, private networks and national back calls, that kind of stuff. I don’t see us as a huge consumer brand.”

As for the future?

“I didn’t get to $100 million turnover with Orcon. I’d really like to get to $100 million turnover with Voyager, so I think I’ll keep on running it and trying to get it to that sort of size, and see where we go from there.”