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Lunch with Unlimited: The serious Seeby Woodhouse

posted Dec 21, 2008, 7:33 PM by Seeby W
Fiona Rotherham talks to Seeby Woodhouse, the 28-year-old founder of Orcon, the country’s fourth largest internet service provider, about entrepreneurship and ambition. Sourced from Unlimited

By Fiona Rotherham, Auckland  Unlimited Magazine / Issue 68 / Tuesday, 1 February, 2005

Where did the name Seeby come from?

Both my parents were librarians and my father was into Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce which has a lot of made-up words. So Seeby is made-up. I’ve searched on the internet but there isn’t another Seeby in the world as far as I can tell.

You began your business in 1997 with $100, your parents’ computer and working out of your bedroom. Have you ever borrowed money?
I asked the bank once if I could have an overdraft and they said ‘No, because you don’t have a house or other security’, so I thought I’ll never bother borrowing again. We own the building that our data centre is in and all our equipment. Because of my risk adverse stance, we were able to ride out the free internet era, unlike some people who got pretty burned by it.

When did you know Orcon was a goer?
The first three years are real blood, sweat and tears. I worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day. It was real hell and you didn’t know if you were going to survive or not. It took maybe five years before we got everything sorted.

Did participating in the Young Enterprise Scheme at school make you entrepreneurial?
My interest in business actually came from the 1987 sharemarket crash. I remember my father breaking open my piggybank in about August 1987 to put more money into shares and then a month later losing everything. Those corporate names — Chase, Ariadne and Rainbow Corporation — all stuck in my mind. For years I kept the prospectuses because they were so glossy and interesting. I didn’t understand the numbers — I thought: ‘One day I’ll be like these guys and understand what’s going on.’

How ambitious are you?
I admire people like Larry Ellison but I don’t have the same aggression. My personal hero for a long time has been Virgin’s Richard Branson because I think business has to be something you enjoy.

What hours do you work?
These days I’m trying to stick more to a 40-hour week, so I can go to the gym and do all those normal things. But when we get busy 70- to 80-hour weeks are not unheard of.

What’s so good about running your own company?
Whenever I’ve worked for other people, I’ve always had ideas about how things could be done better but no one has ever listened to me. I can’t stand inefficiency so running my own company allows my to fix the things I see need to be fixed.

Your business model has changed — now half your revenue is from wholesaling to other ISPs and you’ve also been gobbling some up.
There used to be around 160 ISPs and there are 70 now. It was 90 last year and of those 20 acquisitions around a third of have been bought by us. We’re going to become more of a retail organisation this year.

You’ve won a lot of awards lately, including Ernst & Young’s young entrepreneur of the year.
I’m a person who likes to measure things and I’m competitive. I like to win, so I entered a whole lot of awards, and much to our surprise ended up winning a whole lot of them.

What are your other interests?
I’ve always had an interest in motor sports. We’re sponsoring a V8 touring car. Hopefully in six months’ time I’ll be racing in one of the endurance races.
I’ve got a couple of hundred books on business. I’ve always been a bit insecure about my skills, so a couple of years ago I bought all of the first year law books in the Auckland University bookstore and went through them all in a week.

What are your expansion plans?
World dominance (deadpan).

Well, 2005 goals then?
We’d like to double in size again. I’d like to sit back a little bit more from the day-to-day operations. We’re already nationwide in Australia but we haven’t been piling on customers over there. I’d like to see a stronger trans-Tasman brand. And also in 2005 we’d like to be one of the companies that trips off the tongue when people think of an ISP.

Aren’t you getting married soon?
I am engaged but the wedding is a little while off yet. That’s one of the reasons I want to get a general manager in so I can go on a three-month round-the-world honeymoon without worrying too much.