Own network allows better delivery of services
Inside Track: Liam O'Kelly, founder and managing director of AirSpeed Telecom
How did you get your start?
I come from a broadcasting background where I was building television facilities outside Ireland. Around 2002, I noticed a prevalence of radio technology and wireless technology used to deliver internet and data-type services, and I felt there was an opportunity to provide data lease lines to businesses in Ireland in competition with Eircom.
That led to our first deployment of wireless-based solutions to customers in the Dublin area in 2003, and we’ve grown steadily since then.
What is the most unusual thing about your business?
We operate an autonomous network and we’re different because other people buy circuits or something from Eircom; we operate entirely our own network. We don’t outsource anything and hold all the skillsets internally, which allows us to deliver a high quality service.
My engineering experience said to me that there were a lot of potential problems when you deploy technology solutions, because problems can arise when you’re not directly in control of all the elements.
By building a network that’s entirely your own, you can manage that network because if something breaks or goes wrong you’re not reliant on someone else to fix it.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
I made most of my mistakes by the time I got into AirSpeed! But a regret is not having embraced the opportunity that was in front of us, for not having moved faster and quicker. We have always been quite conservative and cautious in terms of rolling out our network and ensuring that everything has been delivered to very high standard.
In terms of our finances, we haven’t borrowed too heavily and are quite financially strong, but we haven’t leveraged our position as much as we could have done.
What has been your major success to date?
We have been recognised in awards like the Deloitte Fast 50, and we were also probably the first to deploy end-to-end VoIP effectively. We have also managed to grow significantly through the worst years that the country has had financially. It’s a recognition that AirSpeed offers something that’s of a very high quality and represents good value for money.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
I admire someone for what they do, and that could be some of our engineers, people how have been with us for years. I don’t really have to look outside my own organisation.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
“Separate your labour and ability to earn a living.” If you’re involved in a business day to day, be it building a house or baking bread, you will have great difficulty in growing that.
But once you can establish what you’re doing, as someone who’s leading that business you need to be able to step back from it. You have to continue to provide the leadership and the tools necessary to allow that growth to happen.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge?
We offer strong service-level agreements to our business customers, a lot of whom are mission critical-type customers. Maintaining that service while achieving growth of the order of 40 per cent, which we’ll achieve this year, is a challenge. But our churn is negligible, at less than 0.5 per cent.
Do you think the banks are open for business at the moment?
We constantly use bank funding in order to support the capital requirements of the business, because we need new equipment all the time.
We have had good support from our banks, but I would say that we’re somewhat unusual in that we’re lucky to be on the receiving end of banks’ facilities.
I do see every day that funding is not generally available to SMEs, and that you need a pretty strong [business] model to acquire it.
What’s the end goal for AirSpeed?
The focus on anyone’s mind in the tech business is when to sell the business. There’s nothing wrong in running a business and treating it for what it is. But to us, it’s worth a lot more than what it’s worth on paper, and the reason for that is that we’re only beginning. There are a lot of things we can execute and a lot of value we can bring to the business.
In conversation with Fiona Reddan