Matthew Hare, CEO and founder of Gigaclear

Megabuyte, 2015. 

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 11.07.07The Megabuyte Interview: Matthew Hare, CEO and founder of Gigaclear

Matthew Hare doesn’t actually know exactly how many Gigaclear high-speed fibre broadband networks are live this crisp November day, but it’s no wonder: the number changes so quickly. “We put five networks live last week, so it’s going at fair clip!” In the week following our meeting, another two will go live: one in Croughton, and another in Aynho, the self-styled “apricot village at the boundaries of beautiful Oxfordshire and historic Northamptonshire”.

Village life is at the heart of Gigaclear’s mission to bring speedy, future-proof fibre internet to people and businesses in rural areas. The Gigaclear network in Stanton Harcourt, where Hare lives with his family and two flatcoat retrievers, has been serving the 1100 people who live there since last year. While spending most of his time at the company headquarters in Abingdon, the CEO and founder is in London today, where we’ve met in the lively lobby of the Hoxton Hotel in Holborn. Hare is cheery but on point in a dark suit and open-collared pink shirt, as he explains how rural broadband isn’t just a public service: “Oh it does make good money!”

Gigaclear internet actually costs about the same as you pay in a high-density area like London, but, adds Hare: “It’s an infrastructure investment. What we pitch to our investors is that we build our business one building block at a time. Each build can make money from the get-go, because we pre-sell the network to our customers. We go where there’s actual demand for better broadband.” That means Gigaclear tends to pop up where there are businesses, and a high number of information workers who place the highest value on great internet.

Internet to the people
Gigaclear will pre-sell 20-40% of the network before starting the work, meaning there’s usually significant buzz in the run-up to a project. I ask Hare just how typical is the case study on the company website, where one Andrew of Farmoor admits to having been “somewhat aggressive” at Gigaclear’s town meeting. “Oh yes, we have people who get incredibly passionate about what we’re doing.” Mostly this is in favour of the project, adds Hare, but sometimes people don’t like to wait: the construction takes six to nine months, and sometimes there are delays. Like last week in Cambridgeshire, when it rained heavily and the work had to be suspended for the day, causing frustration among customers – they were only five days out! One of them emailed Hare personally, pleading him to sort it out, but rain is beyond the CEO’s purview, alas. “People feel they own the project,” says Hare, who finds the work rewarding: “There’s massive pent-up demand for better internet.”

More than once, Hare comes back to the fact that he thinks BT’s decision to stick to copper internet, as opposed to fibre, is misguided. But he’s not against government broadband subsidies; 95% of Gigaclear’s networks have been built without any subsidies until now, but next year that number will be more like 65%. That means going to areas they wouldn’t otherwise go, and connecting more homes around the periphery. As a former villager myself I appreciate this, I say, but if people choose to live in the woods, can they reasonably expect to get on the network without paying extra? Hare nods; this isn’t his first time hearing this. This is a government policy question though, he says, but put briefly, getting everyone online reduces the cost of governance. “Our customers use the internet on average ten times more than the average UK internet user. They don’t have ten times as many hours in the day! But they’re finding ever more things to use the internet for.” Because the internet becoming a utility, isn’t it? Hare points out that 100 years ago there were debates about whether it was worth the cost to get everyone on the electricity grid – that seems obvious now.

New technology frontiers
Hare (53) grew up in Hampshire and studied economics at Bristol, where in his last year he was recruited by the precursor to Vodafone. “In 1984 though, it was called Racal-Millicom Operating UK Limited. We launched the first mobile service in the UK in 1985, so it was a pretty cool time to be in mobile.” They weren’t really mobile phones, though: “They were car phones. It looked like a big handbag.” Did he have one? “I had one as a sales trainee! Then when I moved into marketing, I had one in the car. But they weren’t really personal devices like what we have now.”

Another experience of early technology came in 1996, when Hare founded the Community Internet Group after seven years with Kinnevik, the Swedish conglomerate. “I wanted to start my own business, and the internet seemed like a neat idea – a really important change.” But to call it a buzz would be pushing it: “It was really, really early days. Modems cost £130. People didn’t know what to do with the internet. They didn’t use email. It was just the beginning of the commercialisation of the internet.” Was it hard work, developing this technology whose promises took their sweet time to deliver? “Building any business is hard,” says Hare, diplomatically. “You need to find something people are willing to pay for, especially in a new market. It’s not obvious where the money’s going to be, but you still need to be convinced, optimistic, dedicated and ruthless.”

You might think establishing Gigaclear in 2010 would be different, as the internet was a certainly a proven technology by then. But maybe not: “Well, how many other people are investing in rural fibre broadband in the UK?” Hare laughs. “Starting anything that other people aren’t doing is always challenging. There was demand for the internet, but what I’d underestimated was how raising money for an infrastructure business is very different than raising money for a software or services business. Fundamentally, you need a different type of investor.” Hare put his own money into Gigaclear first, and the company is now established enough to attract infrastructure investors, who often prefer backing bigger projects.

Funding the new railways
The funding process hasn’t always been smooth, though. In 2012, Gigaclear had to stop digging because the cash had run out, and it took three months to raise the funds to start up again. “The lesson from that experience is that I need to have more money in the back than I ever thought I needed to have! I have to make sure that even a few weeks’ delay in fundraising doesn’t cause any problems.” Gigaclear has a lot of money in the bank right now, says Hare, but this is capital-intensive work: come February next year, the company will be be putting £2 million worth of infrastructure into the ground every single week.

So far, Gigaclear has raised £48.6 million in equity, and more will be needed over the next five years; Hare is noncommittal as to whether this will come from private or public sources. The company started the IPO process earlier this year, but decided to stop due to the change in market sentiment when Russia invaded Ukraine. This affected everyone, says Hare, “but frankly, the net result was that our proposition wasn’t strong enough. And I wasn’t going to go raise money at a low price, so we went back to [private] investors.”

The job of running Gigaclear today, with nearly 100 people onboard, is different to what it was with six people just 18 months ago. “Then, I did everything: answering phones, doing sales calls, negotiating with contractors. … We still have challenges, but they’re different. My job then was doing and managing, while my job now is managing, setting the tone, and making sure we have the right people in the right place doing the right things. … If you’re going to stay the leader as the company grows, you need to change.”

There’s nothing to suggest Hare enjoys this phase any less than the previous ones: “I love the company. I think the idea is great. What we’re doing is a fabulous thing. … There are 1.5 million properties and businesses that fit our market profile today, but as the demand for internet grows, [this number will rise],” says Hare. As the internet increasingly becomes a vital part of daily life, people want a service that doesn’t depend on how far away you live from the switchbox: “People want reliability – that’s what our market research says – it’s not just about speed,” asserts Hare. “Fundamentally, I believe having fibre everywhere will make as much difference to this country as the railways.”

Bob Falconer, CEO of Gamma Communications

Megabuyte, 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.05.32The Megabuyte Interview: Bob Falconer
Now that the IPO is over and done with, Bob Falconer is keen to get back to the business of running Gamma Communications. “It’s been quite a good experience so far,” the CEO says about the transition to life as a public company. “But to be frank, after an IPO you come back into the business and realise you must have been out of it for the best part of six months. You think you’ll have a rest, but it’s actually the opposite: I haven’t done this! I haven’t done that! There’s a huge period of catch-up.”

We’re in Gamma’s London offices in the City on a cold winter morning, in sparkling white surroundings in an eye-catching Grade II-listed building. The CEO is cheerful and casual in a striped shirt and no tie, surrounded by papers strewn across the table. This meeting room is called ‘Heron Tower’, which indeed caused some confusion when Gamma first moved in, Falconer laughs: the real Heron Tower is close by so you have to be specific about which one you mean. The CEO spends most of his time at the company headquarters though, in Newbury: “There’s another little telecoms company in Newbury you may have heard of? It’s the second telecoms company there, alongside Gamma.” He laughs: Vodafone is a big presence in the Berkshire market town. On that note, Gamma’s well-received IPO has done a lot for the company’s name-recognition factor: “I don’t have to explain who is Gamma, which I had to do often in the early days!” October’s IPO, which raised no new money, ensures more freedom of choice: “It helped enhance our brand in the marketplace, and ultimately that was the primary reason for doing it.”

Leading a new industry
Gamma’s industry-leading levels of organic growth has proven a popular addition to the AIM market. As the telecoms services specialist competes against much larger players, there’s a couple of reasons for its success, says Falconer, who’s been in charge of Gamma for ten years: “Where we can compete is by being quicker to market with interesting and innovative services that operate well.” Right now the hottest acronyms are SIP trunks (voice over data circuits) and cloud PBX (hosted voice), brought to the business masses via 650 channel partners providing the boots on the ground.

The strategy is straightforward: continue to grow the company as quickly as possible, especially with the new generation products where there’s lots of opportunity to grab market share. Then, create more integrated products: “Most companies want to increasingly buy their comms from one supplier, so to provide a complete set of communication services to a business is an objective.” Of the 550 people at Gamma, over 100 work in development, making it an R&D-intensive operation.

But Gamma wasn’t always a bet on next generation communications: “The business started in 2001 by buying distressed assets from the dotcom crash, and we were a late entrant in a declining marketplace.” Gamma did okay selling traditional cogs wholesale for a few years: “But growing inside a declining envelope is not the best business strategy. Eventually it’s going to catch up with you.” A decision was made to invest £10m, a lot of money for the company at the time, on what was then called next generation networks. “We calculated, or gambled, that we could do this quicker, faster and better than BT could. Not because we had more resources, but because we had a pretty clean set of assets and weren’t burdened with legacy. That gamble moved us from being a late entrant to a sunset industry to being in a leading position in the new industry.”

The disruptor
Today, Gamma prides itself on being the disruptor, “looking to displace the old with something a bit more exciting, and hopefully more helpful to businesses”. Not to mention that selling software has a higher margin than commoditised services: “Telecoms can be described as a utility, but in reality it’s a high tech, rapidly changing industry. People tend to think of telecoms as potentially being dull, but I think it’s one of the most…” He starts again: “I’ve spent my career in a tremendously exciting industry, and it’s only dull when you can’t think beyond the obvious.”

Falconer grew up in Edinburgh, Leith to be exact – “Leithers are always distinctive” – in a working class family. “I left school at 16. I thought I’d failed my O-grades. I hadn’t, as it turned out, but I thought I had so I got a job.” Falconer became an apprentice at the Post Office (now BT), where he earned a grant to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. “I gained a tremendous amount of practical experience in those four years. Got myself into trouble once or twice” – Falconer was the burglar alarm expert for the Post Office in south-east Scotland for a while, and every Saturday night an alarm would go off all the way out in Broxburn. Fed up with having to go and reset it, young Bob figured out a way to stop the problem from recurring. “I won the Postal Service Innovation Prize for that, as the problem was happening all over the country. But I was shunned by my colleagues because the fix was well-known, and everybody loved it because it got them overtime! I’d ruined the whole damn thing by being a smart little arse of a 19-year-old.”

Headroom culture
This problem-solving attitude set the tone for Falconer’s work history, though. He spent 12 years at BT Research Labs in Martlesham, “where I met my wife”. At that time, research labs where dominated by “pointy heads”: “The company had a problem in that it did research but didn’t do manufacturing. It was a complete disconnect: how then do you turn this research into something practical?” This feeling eventually triggered a career change in 1987, when he became global telecoms manager at ICI: “That had great appeal because you could run your own show.” Falconer learned a lot about management from John Harvey-Jones, the famous industrialist: “I learned about the importance of product quality and staff communication, about taking very complex issues and turning them into relatively simple messages.” He remembers Harvey-Jones having a knack for translating business messages into language that could penetrate an organisation of 100,000 people: “Everybody was talking technical jargon, and he just cut it right down: ‘The centre provides a record player, and the businesses choose the music.’ What he was really saying was, you run the infrastructure, they choose the software, and they run it on your infrastructure. People got that.”

After ICI came Racal Electronics, where Falconer biggest challenge was overseeing the integration of British Rail’s telecoms division. Then the founders of Gamma asked him to run the company. “What gives me the greatest satisfaction is being able to do it properly, do it well, and run a good service. Getting good feedback from customers is great. I have a folder of commendations and complaints in my inbox, and the ratio is about 20-1 of positives to negatives.”

Then there’s the fact that staff at Gamma are happy to work there, and Falconer has the charts to prove it: satisfaction is high across the company. “We hire good people; we trust them, we delegate to them, and they seldom let us down. We like to create an environment where it’s hard work, absolutely, but it’s challenging, it’s interesting and there’s a lot of scope for development and growth.” Falconer thinks office politics are damaging and Gamma stamps down hard if it emerges; the same goes for disruptive members of staff: “Experience [shows] that bad apples in a business really do pollute very widely.” There’s also no “them and us” structure at Gamma: “People attend on the basis of their contribution, not their hierarchical position, so it’s quite egalitarian in that sense. We give people a lot of headroom.”

Family and cycling
It’s clear that the happiness of Gamma’s employees are central to Falconer’s motivations, as he talks at length about the company’s culture for nurturing talent. “I’m not particularly driven by simply making money. It’s about pleasure, really: running a business well, having that recognised by 550 people who for the most part think this is not a bad place to work. That’s quite a nice thing to do,” says Falconer. “And to be frank, if you can poke a stick in the eye of some of the big boys that dominate the market, that’s quite fun as well!”

Falconer (63) lives in Winchester with his wife Sue. There are four kids – all girls: “My eldest has a learning disability, she is semi-independent. My second is a lawyer in the City, she’s doing well. Number three has got the grandchild, a one-year old, she’s working part-time. The youngest is in 6th form college. It’s a well spread out family. Fantastic fun.” Falconer likes to keep active and is a keen cyclist: “I did a charity run to Monaco just before the IPO. It was about 900 miles over about the same number of days, from Winchester to Monte Carlo. That’s a bit of cycling. And over the Alps! But we raised £50,000.” There were about 50 cyclists, with Falconer and the rest of “Dad’s Army” tagging on the back: “Sometimes we overtook the young guys when they got lost. We were a bit more careful about navigating – we couldn’t afford to go wrong!”

While he admits the tinkering is part of the appeal of cycling, Falconer still only has “a couple of mountain bikes and a road bike”, that is all: “Oh and I have an old bike from 1960-odd.” That is from Falconer’s first career: climbing the fence of the local rubbish tip to look for old bicycle parts, turning them into new bikes and selling them for pocket money. “That’s recycling, isn’t it! It was illegal then, the police used to come after you. I still use that old bike to go to the train station, because it would never get nicked.”

Chris Humphrey, CEO of Anite

Megabuyte, 2014. Original article

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 13.27.19The Megabuyte Interview: Chris Humphrey, CEO of Anite
There’s no mobile phone reception outside the building where I’m meeting Chris Humphrey, at least on my network. This is frustrating on Great Portland Street, but maybe it shouldn’t be: London is full of reception deadzones, courtesy of all that steel and concrete in an ever-changing cityscape. This is the sort of situation that creates business for Anite, the wireless testing specialist, as people are increasingly intolerant of interference when it comes to their favourite gadget.

“Customer experience is moving higher and higher on the list of management priority,” says Humphrey. The CEO is in a sharp suit with a poppy on the lapel, tortoiseshell glasses and iPhone on the table; we have reception now, as we’re a few floors up. Humphrey is a good sport when it comes to my joking complaints about poor signal and what he’s doing to fix it, but as he’s quick to point out: the big picture is above his paygrade. What Anite is doing, however, is concentrating on creating equipment for leading networks and handset manufacturers to test new products: “We’re expanding in what is a tiny little niche really, one which most people on the street wouldn’t realise exists! But it’s an exciting niche. It has good barriers to entry; in the handset business you have to have been here from the start to be a player.”

The Wild West opportunity
Today, Anite is sitting pretty as one of a small handful of top tier contenders in the wireless testing area, enjoying some impressive growth drivers: everybody has a mobile phone and will soon want a better one, and one that delivers internet at the speed of light, please. As CEO of Anite since 2008, Humphrey has been hard at work transforming the Slough group from a small conglomerate to a wireless pureplay, a task which was finally completed with May’s sale of the travel unit. “That was the worst kept secret for years, but we had to wait until we turned it around,” says Humphrey. But he’ll admit it’s nice to be able move on on to the next chapter of the Anite story: “Oh absolutely!”

Part of the cash from the sale has gone to buy Xceed, whose wireless network data analytics fits nicely into Anite’s network testing business. Networks is the smaller of Anite’s two halves, the bigger being the handset testing unit in Hampshire. “The operators are chasing their tails trying to find new technological ways to speed up and increase the capacity of the network to transmit data. We have constant change. People think its only a change from 3G to 4G, but within that there’s lots of change within the technology that creates a lot of work for our customers, and for us.”

Now, Humphrey does an admirable job at explaining how it works, but frankly, this stuff is madly complicated with lots of acronyms and metaphors. “It’s data that’s caused this huge pressure on the network, plus scarcity of spectrum. We’ve basically reached the natural physical limit, so they’re trying to pack more and more into those bands of spectrum, packaging the data in a more clever way.” This, in a nutshell, is what 4G means: creating more capacity by pushing denser data packets down a “fixed diameter pipe” at higher speeds. As manufacturers scramble solve the problems encountered out in this technology Wild West, Anite’s Xceed acquisition could be part of the solution: “I’m really quite excited about Xceed. We have a leading product here, it’s in the right spot because as LTE starts rolling out, the providers will need analytics to figure out what’s going on in their networks.”

A change industry
An accountant by profession, Humphrey first arrived at Anite in 2003 as CFO, before taking the reins as CEO in December 2008. “I arrived as CFO just after the dotcom boom, and I had three CEOs in a relatively short space of time. There were challenges with what happened at the time of the dotcom boom: we were spread very thinly, and some of the acquisitions had a few challenges,” says Humphrey, choosing his words carefully. The decision was made to focus the group on the wireless section, as this seemed to have solid growth potential, but this meant a great deal of “fixing” over the years:

“We’ve probably sold about 14-15 entities over the past ten years, and made about five acquisitions in wireless. I came from engineering and didn’t have an awful lot of understanding of software when I first arrived, but actually I think that was an advantage as you can ask the obvious questions.” Vital to the process is having experienced people around, who you trust to make decisions: “Over the past two years we have really leveraged on that expertise, identifying where the growth is coming from and being able to then sell that technology to an increasing number of customers. It’s been about organising the salesforce and being open to new products, because the technology is moving very fast,” says Humphrey. “You have to have a philosophy of management that’s open to new ideas, and accommodate change very quickly. You cannot be a stick in the mud in this industry!”

Sometimes this means taking a shot on which way the technology will go, as was the case in the early days of 4G: “At the time it was like Betamax and VHS,” says Humphrey, listing the contenders: UMB, WiMAX, and LTE. “It narrowed down to LTE, but in the meantime we had to invest in two of the three as we didn’t know where it was going. The industry has since become more collaborative, as it’s such expensive R&D. […] But you have to be willing to try things, and then also be willing to cut it when something is not going to win.”

The opportunity stage
Ten years in, Humphrey has weathered plenty of change at Anite. “When I arrived we had all these challenges and I had to learn on the job, but a lot of management is common sense. I enjoyed the phase of fixing things,” says Humphrey, pointing out how you can’t get a good price for a unit that’s heading nowhere. Another strategic challenge was the decision to bring the company’s hardware in-house, in order to better control their own destiny. “I’ve previously developed an engineering business, grew it and sold it,” says Humphrey. “I’m now in a third stage of my career, which is exciting: building this up, taking advantage of the opportunities, and seeing what we can make of it.”

The wireless testing business is not without its stresses and strains: Humphrey points out more than once that it’s lumpy, as short lead times on big orders can mean poor visibility. But the CEO enjoys what he does, describing the intricacies of the industry with enthusiasm: “I’m not an engineer, but to understand how this thing moves forward – the speed and the global nature of it – and the customers, the competitors, the additional technologies that can pop up from all sorts of places. It keeps you on your toes!”

Humphrey (57) lives on the outskirts of Bath with his wife and their black Labrador. Three children around university age ensure their father is up to date on the latest apps: “Yes, I’m on Snapchat!” As his wife is Italian, they spend a fair amount of time in Italy, but any suggestion of potential retirement in Tuscany is met with laughter: “Oh if I lived in Italy full time … It’s too nice, the food’s too good, the people too friendly, it’s too relaxing. And I enjoy business!”

Humphrey may take the occasional digital holiday, but that seems to be less a consequence of a need to unwind, and more about the quality of the network signal. “Having spent a lot of time reforming this business, it’s an exciting time. It’s not a blank canvas, but there are a few opportunities about. You can’t overstate those and you mustn’t make promises, but strategically it’s a very good place to be. It’s an exciting place to be.”

Andrew Lindsay, CEO of Telecom Plus

Megabuyte, November 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.21.47The Megabuyte Interview: Andrew Lindsay
The sign to the Utility Warehouse, the trading name of Telecom Plus, points to a functional building between Matalan and McDonalds. This is Colindale, a non-descript area at the far reaches of the Northern Line, with a view of Alexandra Palace as the only sign we’re still in the capital. Telecom Plus is a proud North London kid from Hendon, and Andrew Lindsay, a son of Scotland, will soon move the staff of 800-and-growing to a bigger and better building up the road. After all, running a large call centre operation in London means access to a great talent pool, as customer service is the beginning and end of the Telecom Plus story.

“We have as a mantra: treat every customer as if they were your own mum,” says Lindsay. “Our business is to be the nation’s most trusted utility supplier.” Right now, that means over 547k customers taking an average of 3.6 services out of the core offerings – gas, electricity, mobile, broadband and landline – with solid organic growth across the board. “It’s intensely personal business. Every single one of our customers come through a personal recommendation,” says Lindsay. So it follows that you wouldn’t recommend something dodgy to your mum or dad, nor would you let them down on a service call: “When we deliver good customer service we get recommendations, and we grow.”

A personal approach
The strictly-business roundtable in the conference room where we’re sitting is offset by Lindsay’s rolled-up sleeves, plus a generous sprinkling of the company logo: a purple piggy bank with a phone cord tail. But the folksy feel goes beyond design to be part of the company’s reason for success, as is clear from Lindsay more than once bringing up the distributor network, his “Purple Army”.

“The route to market is low-cost and proactive. Our distributors actually go out and find customers who want to switch, or who haven’t thought about switching,” says Lindsay. “The multi-utility proposition wouldn’t work on a billboard, as you need somebody who can explain it to you in detail. Through this informal recommendation channel you can get the complex message across.” Not to mention how the multi-utility approach is efficient from a company overhead perspective, as one call centre supports five revenue stream. This enables the company to offer competitive deals – not that the savings aspect is really what’s driving Telecom Plus’s growth: “Good customer services is by far the easiest way to differentiate yourself from the competition. People won’t remark on £4 savings but they will remark on good customer service.”

Lindsay is committed to growing the company, and to do so organically: “We see a very clear path to the FTSE100, and we’re going to do it through solid double digit compound growth.” While that probably rules out major M&A, Lindsay is open to adding to the company’s offerings: “We have very strong brand advocacy from our customers. They view us as a safe house for their utilities, because they don’t have to keep changing them because they know they’re always going to get a good deal from us. Why wouldn’t you also logically extend that to other boring but essential household expenses like insurance? […] We think we can bring our brand of ethical pricing policies into the insurance market. We may not make the same returns that some of the insurance players make, but we don’t need to – this is the point.”

Lindsay uses the word “ethical” more than once, and when asked he will certainly describe Telecom Plus as a “highly ethical” company. This does however seem to be more a side-effect of the general principle of how you wouldn’t sell a lemon to your family: “You don’t go and sign your mother up to a one-year loss leading tariff which is then auto-renewed onto a super premium tariff.” With energy prices in focus following Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, aimed at providing “simpler, clearer and fairer” prices, this attitude arguably makes Telecom Plus look like a fresh breath of air to a jaded public: “Our view is that we’re at the vanguard of [the trend towards fairer customer treatment]. The customer who comes to us and gets treated well has lifetime value. This is much, much greater than a short-term disgruntled customer, even if you’re making a healthy margin out of them.”

A lightbulb moment
Lindsay’s had an unusual route to the top seat of Telecom Plus, especially considering he’s 37 years old and has been the CEO for seven years. After Eton and Oxford he spent two and a half years in M&A at Goldman Sachs, before an urge to “taste the real world” prompted a move to Ryness, a small London chain of light bulb retailers. “There was a Ryness just outside the Goldman Sachs offices on Fleet Street. I was laughed out off the offices as I said I was going to join that cruddy little shop down there!” But Lindsay found the prospect appealing, as the founders had just exited to private equity. He oversaw Ryness’s growth from 10 to 15 shops, before he was approached by Telecom Plus in 2007.

“Ryness was a £10m business with 100 staff. Very, very hands-on operations. I learned an unbelievable amount about real people and real business – from the strategy of running a company, to stopping people from pinching cash from the till. You see the whole canvas, and that was a fantastic foundation period layered on top of the academic finances of Goldman Sachs.” Lindsay describes himself as an “intensely practical person”, but still, the move to Ryness was a move to a different life:

“Suddenly I was up on ladders hanging displays, counting stuff on shelves, and learning about the difference between incandescents and compact fluorescents. You get into a whole micro world of detail and you become a bit boring, talking to people at dinner parties about lightbulbs!” He laughs, but Ryness was a priceless learning experience: “I learned about bookkeeping, marketing, IT systems, HR, how to hire and fire people, how to negotiate a contract for supply. […] But the real thing I learned about was people, and that is ultimately about leadership.”

While Lindsay knew he wanted to run a business ever since leaving school, walking out of Goldman Sachs in the 2003 boon times must have been a shaky decision. “I started at Ryness on less than my assistant was being paid when I left Goldman, and it didn’t get much better. You have to somehow justify to yourself that you’ve made the right decision, and I was determined to make it work. It wasn’t a huge success story, but I feel very proud of what we did there.”

Real world approach
The Ryness experience also provided some vital insights into creating a sense of team among staff who were often motivated by different things. “I used to row,” says Lindsay, so modestly: he has an Olympic gold for rowing coxed eights in Sydney. “When I was rowing there was no question about team work. You just got in the boat because you wanted to be there, and you wanted to get to the end as fast as you could, with your teammates.”

But being surrounded by “exceptional bright, talented and driven people who you could rely on to be on your team” is not always how the real world works. While a fellow rower who was letting the team down by not eating his greens could be talked around, because there was a common goal, Ryness staff who were half an hour late every day required a different approach. “That was undoubtedly the biggest eye opener of coming out of this quite institutionalised bubble of a team work at school, university, professional sports, Goldman Sachs. I hadn’t really hit the real world until I left Goldman Sachs.”

Creating an atmosphere of a common goal continues to a key focus for Lindsay at Telecom Plus, as he talks about the 800+ staff who rely on the company, and what it means for the brand distributors to be part of something: “Recognition’s a massive part of being a distributor, to be a part of a community that values you.” A similar motivation drives the CEO as well: “Technology doesn’t rock my boat, to be honest. I’m not interested in billing systems. I’m interested in creating something. We’re creating something through thousands of partners, which enables them to be an entrepreneur. […] That’s highly motivating and hugely rewarding.”

New pinnacles
Lindsay lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and their four boys, the eldest being six years old. “Yes, it’s children and work, basically!” He laughs. He likes to ski and still has his bagpipes: “Scotland is my passion.” He’s very grateful the referendum went the way it did. “I miss Scotland. I’d like to spend lot more time there, in the wilderness.” While his Olympics team still meet up regularly, they do this in the pub now: “I haven’t rowed since Sydney.” Instead, Lindsay prefers to focus on new goals: “Because life’s too short. I did nine years of rowing and I got to the pinnacle, and … onto the next thing.”

Lindsay’s approach hasn’t changed all that much, though: “My philosophy is to find things you’re good at, or you think you can be good at, and then spend time on that.” He laughs. “I suppose I’m a competitive bugger!” At Telecom Plus, this means keeping an eye on the prize: growing from 2% to 10% market share, from 500k customers to 1m, then 2m, and from the FTSE250 to the FTSE100. Lindsay has no plans to leave the company anytime soon, in fact he’s more excited about the prospect of Telecom Plus now than ever: “I think I would struggle to find a corporate environment I felt had the fundamentals and opportunity of this business. […] If you’re going to work for a large corporate, this is best large corporate you could work for, in my opinion.”

Mark Howling, CEO of Pulsant

Megabuyte, 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 14.19.15Mark Howling, CEO of Pulsant
Mark Howling arrives at the Institute of Directors in trot, umbrella in one hand and phone in the other. He’s already emailed his apologies from the road, knowing well in advance he was going to be late: there was the traffic jam from Nottingham, where he lives, coming into Reading, the site of Pulsant’s head offices. Then the train into London got delayed. And this rain! But the Pall Mall lounge is warm and we have a seat by the window, the day is young and coffee is on its way.

Our meeting takes place ahead of June’s announcement that Pulsant has changed private equity hands: Oak Hill Capital Partners bought the group from Bridgepoint Development Capital for an undisclosed sum, rumoured to be around £200m. All the parties have stressed how this won’t change Pulsant’s strategy much; Oak Hill was chosen for its knowledge of the market, and will be an active partner as Pulsant enters “the next phase of long-term growth”.

The acquisition path
Chances are this will mean another acquisition for Pulsant, as right now, all the elements owned by the data centre and hosting group are integrated. “It’s turned out almost exactly as we wanted it. Probably better than any strategy I’ve worked with. We’re quite disciplined about what we bought and why we bought it,” says the CEO. Pulsant is the result of four companies brought together by Bridgepoint, starting with Lumison in 2010 (when Howling joined), adding Blue Square Data and DediPower in 2011, and ScoLocate in 2012.

Once every 12-18 months sounds about right as an acquisition pace, says Howling, who’s got his eye on a couple of options: “I’d be disappointed if we didn’t make another acquisition by the end of this year.” At the moment, Pulsant has ten data centres, deriving 60% of its revenues from colocation, 30% from hosting and Cloud, and 10% from managed networks. Asked what a new acquisition may look like, Howling suggests they may be interested in adding new capability: “Managed security, managed back-up, secure Cloud back-up. Managed mobile devices is a big area.” But he’s not ruling out scale or new geographies (even Europe), as the latter is important especially for colocation services.

From colocation to Cloud
The rush of the morning trek has dissipated now, and the CEO is relaxed and chatty, so I decide to risk the flip question: Why colocation? Instead of renting space for your own servers, wouldn’t it be easier either to keep everything in-house, or outsource the whole lot? Howling laughs, before acknowledging that companies are indeed increasingly moving to managed hosting or Cloud storage. Colocation, he explains, is often an option for businesses who want to store kit which still has a few years of life left in it. “Also, it could be they have some mission-critical software and don’t want to risk somebody else looking after it, but they’re not big enough to to build their own data centre. Or increasingly they’d need two data centres; you often want to split between two for resilience. In the mid-market, which is where we tend to work, that’s particularly the case.”

The current weighting of colocation in the Pulsant business is partially because of the acquisitions, but Howling also believes it differentiates Pulsant among hosting peers. A customer may start with colocation services, but may move to Cloud later without changing provider: “Whatever service they take to start with, they know they can always change the service they take from us if their needs change, because we have all three elements. We’ve had a lot of examples of that in the last year. … Going forward, we are seeing the Cloud area, or Infrastructure-as-a-Service, growing much faster than colo.”

Speaking of customers, Pulsant’s rolodex also includes the Queen; the Royal Warrant of Appointment is printed on the CEO’s business card. “Ah yes, we host the royal family’s websites!” There are rules to getting the badge, Howling explains, including a certain value and duration of the service, and it’s only awarded if the users, in this case the royal household, are happy with the product. Not that the royal family is more important than any other customer of course, but certainly: “It’s quite nice to have that!”

From big to small
Before joining Pulsant, Howling (52) has had a career of two halves. First came a decade of working for large corporations, after a civil engineering degree: “I started in the Mars group on a management trainee course. Then I went to what was Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), where I was a management consultant. That was a deliberate career choice, to get accelerated experience with lots of different companies. Then I went to a large telecoms company, before I joined a PLC, Compel, which was really good training in setting objectives, understanding finance, … marketing, sales and managing people. That was great experience in that respect.”

Things had run pretty smoothly for Howling until this point, he readily admits. That soon changed when he found himself running Compel’s computer reselling unit when the dot.com crash happened. “Our sales started to drop off. We’re working really hard, day and night. That year was the hardest time in my whole career. We didn’t hit the budget, and we had to make a profits warning. Ultimately, I had to leave as a result of that. That was the first time in my career that something’s gone so wrong. Whether it was my fault or not, it doesn’t matter when you’re in a PLC. If you don’t deliver the results the City expects, somebody has to take the blame, and it was right that I did.”

After this, Howling decided to make the move over to smaller businesses. “I’d been thinking that I’d like to try and do a management buy-in at some point, where I’ve got a stake in the company. I was at an age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never do it. I was also at an age where I felt I had enough experience and confidence to give it a go.” This was in 2001. “At the time, what happened was horrible. In hindsight, it was one of the best experiences I ever had. When you’re running a business with a tiny margin, which reselling computers has, and your sales are shrinking, it makes you realise how careful you have to be about spending money. Certainly about making investments you’re not certain about. Things don’t always go like you expect.”

An entrepreneurial streak
Today, Howling maintains that sense of caution, keeping a keen eye on things as they develop; perfection is a rare thing. He has a personal stake in Pulsant, about 7-8%, but this is his own money he’s put in, he stresses, not shares he’s been given. And yes, it would be painful to lose that money: “It does make you behave like this is your business. This is your own money you’re spending.”

Howling also believes his background in the corporate world has helped him be “a reasonably good manager” of people and businesses: ”I guess I’d call myself a professional manager that’s also got an entrepreneurial streak, rather than an out-and-out entrepreneur or corporate manager.” He often works with people from his previous ventures, including his Chairman at Compel. “But I wanted to work in a smaller business, one that’s that’s faster growing, more dynamic. I don’t normally dress like this,” he says; the CEO is a dark blue suit, cufflinks and a subtly patterned tie today, due to meet shareholders later. “I usually wear jeans and a shirt like most of our customers and employees. … We can communicate with [our backers] in a way they understand, but at the same time can get on with things very fast within the business.”

Financial performance is one motivating force for Howling, insofar that it’s an external measure of success. “But the day-to-day driver is building a business that we’re proud of. … We want to build a business with a really good reputation for being a professional, premium business. We try to manage people professionally and with integrity, and build a business with that reputation; we want to be proud of who we work for.”

The variety factor
Pulsant is the best job he’s ever had, says Howling, who likes variety and admits to boring easily. More than once during our chat he’s been the one asking questions, keen to hear other perspectives. He is married and has two children in their late teens, who are now deciding what to do with their lives:

“That generation, I think, are much more open-minded. They might set up their own business, go into charity, or work abroad for a few years. … In my day, if you didn’t get a job or start your own business, it was quite hard to get a job two years later if you hadn’t started on that treadmill. Now you can do something else for a few years, and then come back to do a regular job if you want. That’s exciting.”

Howling loves sports and plays football regularly; he’s moved over to what they call the ‘veterans’ team but it’s still 11-a-side, mind. He was in a punk band in his late teens and they even did a few John Peel sessions, but ultimately decided to go for a career less likely to necessitate dumpster-diving, he laughs. “I play guitar, piano, and sing a bit still. There’s never enough time to do everything. … I’ve had this job for three and a half years now and things change so much. We were a small company when we first started. We bought three other companies. We’ve grown. We’ve changed. We’ll do more of that. It keeps it interesting.”

Matthew Riley – founder and CEO of Daisy Group

Megabuyte, 2014. Original article (£).

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 09.59.57The Megabuyte Interview: Matthew Riley
Is Matthew Riley a telecoms veteran in the making, or is he already made? Daisy Group may only have been at it for 13 years, but it’s certainly a happening sort of company. The provider of integrated voice and data services to UK businesses has been making its presence felt, eagerly consolidating the sector with no plans to slow down anytime soon. The brazen goal is to become the natural alternative to BT, and the CEO and founder already has a Lifetime Achievement Award under his belt. But how old is he?

Matthew Riley, it turns out, has just celebrated his 40th birthday. “I was grateful and humbled by that award, absolutely. But I have to reiterate: there’s a hell of a lot more to come!” He’s laughing, tastefully modest about it, but the CEO will be the first to say that he’s running a very ambitious company. Daisy now has a 6% market share, with about £100m in the M&A wallet to carry on shopping. The plan is to double the market share in the next five years and become a billion pound company. So what do customers want from a would-be telecoms giant?

The simplicity factor
“I spend a lot of time out with customers, and the main thing they always say they want is simplicity. They want a really simple solution that helps their business run more efficiently. They don’t really care about the technology, they just want to know it’s going to work and it’s going to work for a long time,” says Riley. Dealing with just one supplier is another part of this puzzle, meaning a single bill and a single provider relationship instead of getting line rental, internet and mobiles from three different places. “We have focused on this since the start.”

Founded in 2001, Daisy has grown up with the internet and its disruption of the telecoms market. Is the industry different now, or do people need the same things as always?

“I think businesses still want to run their businesses. Say you have six-seven car showrooms around the UK, your job in life is to sell cars and services and that hasn’t changed. What we do is try and help them do this in an efficient manner,” says Riley. The methods have changed, though; these are exciting times to be in unified communications and IT services. “There’s so much innovation. Rather than seeing it as a bad thing, you have to embrace it. That’s how you help your customers take advantage of it.”

WiFi is the key interest area for customers right now, says Riley, and this may well be the focus for Daisy’s next acquisition too. “More and more of our customers want to be wireless in their offices. They also want to offer that service out to their customers, so when a customer comes into a shop they can get onto the Wifi.” Last year, Daisy did a big project with Waterstones, putting in the technology for browsing customers to buy ebooks then and there, instead of going home and giving their money to Amazon. “We are really starting to see business models change in the UK, to take advantage of technology. Our role is to make sure we are on the forefront of this: be a partner who can offer the full technology solution, and make the customer experience a good one.”

The entrepreneur spark
Daisy’s first deal took place came about five years into the company’s development, and since then it’s been a rapid fire: four acquisitions last year, and two, four and eight in the years preceding. This is a lot to absorb into the company, but if anything, Riley actually wishes he’d started doing deals sooner. “I’d always had a real reluctance to borrow any money from a bank. I’ve always been a believer in saving up instead. But I should probably have grasped the nettle and borrowed a bit sooner, so we could have grown more aggressively in the early days.”

A risky early move that worked out well for Daisy, however, was the trialling of ISDN30 on a wholesale basis for BT. “We were a really small company at that stage, only about 14 people” Daisy has almost 1600 employees now. “The trial took a lot of time and we weren’t really getting any benefits from BT to be the trialist. Still, it was the right thing to do, because it gave us a headstart against the competition on how to transfer these services. We also got a good relationship with BT.” Today, Daisy is one of the UK’s biggest providers of ISDN30 services.

An early mentor for the company was Sir Philip Green, a match made possible when Riley won the Entrepreneur Challenge. Green remains a friend, and Riley is now paying this good fortune forward as an enterprise fellow for the Prince’s Trust. How much is it possible to teach someone to have good instincts for business?

“You can teach someone how a business operates, but whether you can teach someone how to be an entrepreneur I’m not so sure. … I think you can help someone once they’ve decided to go down that route. The Prince’s Trust has a phenomenal success rate in making young people’s businesses successful,” says Riley. We get to talking about how people who brag about their achievements are often less successful than those who are modest, but then again, Riley finds the enthusiasms of American colleagues infectious: “I gravitate to people who are like that – that attitude of ‘Let’s go out there and do something!’ Rather than mumbling about what’s wrong, let’s try and fix it.”

The problem, he thinks, is that Britain has a tendency to scoff at people who try and fail: “It’s easy to have a go at someone when you’ve never tried yourself, because you don’t understand what it means. Setting up a business from scratch is very, very difficult. It takes a painstaking amount of time, a huge percentage of your life, especially if you want to make it a big success.” Riley is warming to his topic now. “If anyone in my team want to go and set up a business I will help them wherever I can, and never try and stand in their way. It may work or it may not, but I think I should give them the benefit of the experience that I have, and help them in any way that I can. Just like someone like a Philip Green helped with me.” On a related note, Daisy is also offering an increasing number of apprenticeships for young people, a model Riley would like to see more of in the UK.

A British empire
Because in spite of Riley’s sometime-enthusiasm for American business attitudes, the heart of Daisy is purely British. Most of all it belongs to Lancashire: Riley grew up in Burnley, and the company’s headquarters are in nearby Nelson. “It’s really important to put our call centre and the vast majority of our staff in an area of deprivation, which is what Nelson and Burnley is. Very high unemployment, lots of ethnic tension. We made a conscious decision to employ as many local people as possible.”

One of the more charming perks of working at Daisy is getting the day off on your birthday, as well as your wedding day. Riley describes himself as a family man, raising three teenagers with his wife: “When I’m not working I’m always with the kids. We go and watch football or rugby, or we’re out doing some sport.” The family just got back from skiing in Val d’Isère, while in the summer it’s mountain biking, water skiing and wakeboarding: “We’re a sporty family.” It’s too soon to tell if any of the kids are budding business people, he thinks, but in any case there will be no pressure from dad: “I don’t really care what they do. I just want them to be happy.”

Riley’s own happy place seems to be right where he is: “There’s something in me that wants to build a billion pound turnover company. I’d like to be part of something with that size and scale – and put my name to it.” The ambition for Daisy has grown with the company; this is the fourth company Riley has founded, and the original plan was to sell after five years. “But then we hit such a great growth rate that it would be crazy to sell it. … Even if we were to sell tomorrow I would never go and retire. I can’t ever see myself retiring actually.” He chuckles. “I’ll be one of those guys at 80, still pottering around. Chairman of the board!”

In the meantime Riley is building his empire, which means creating “mini entrepreneurs” to run the various Daisy business units. “I think that is our key to being successful [as the company grows from medium to large]: people have complete ownership of what they are doing, and really feel their part of Daisy is them. They pass that on to the staff, and you see that running through culturally. … I like people to get on with things. Even if they make a few mistakes – as long as you’re making the right decisions the vast majority of the time, your company will grow and move forward.” He laughs: “There’s nothing worse than working in a business that won’t make a bloody decision!”

Charles Nasser, founder and CEO of Claranet

Megabuyte, February 2014. Original article (£).

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 18.13.32The Megabuyte Interview: Charles Nasser
“I was in the south of France. I know exactly where I was, I was sitting on a bench with my girlfriend. I was peeling a tangerine.” Charles Nasser is telling the story of how he came up with the idea for Claranet, the business he founded when he was 26. This is how the CEO, now 44, tells all his stories: with lots of details and tangents, like he’s reliving rather than remembering. On the bench that day, Nasser had been bemoaning life as a consultant, keen to do something else. “So my girlfriend said, ‘Well you are good with technology and you can run your own business. What’s the most happening thing in technology right now?’ This was 1st January 1996 and the answer was the internet. So a resolution was set: by the end of the month, Nasser would create a business related to the internet. “It didn’t know quite what, but that 30 second conversation changed my life.”

It really was that simple, Nasser insists, but of course there’s nothing simple about building an internet business that not only survived the dot-com boom, but even thrived through it. Managed services provider Claranet is expected to pull in £124m in revenues this year, offering hosting, networks and communications services to European companies. Nasser and I have met in Claranet’s central London offices, where the CEO serves tea in company logo mugs. He’s tie-less in a plain white shirt and black trousers, with a watch fitting for a global circumnavigation; I wouldn’t be surprised if that was on Nasser’s list for the new year, now with the North Pole already checked off.

Relationships at the centre
The thing that strikes you first about Nasser is just how soft-spoken he is, to the point where you may even think he’s shy. But once he gets talking a different picture emerges: this guy’s just really smart. Some very innovative solutions to Claranet’s early obstacles is proof of this, but he’s also the kind of person who’ll write analytics software for the markets, not because he cares about finance but because “I was interested in chaos theory and neural networks, and I thought financial markets were the best place to analyse it”.

But back to Claranet. 2012 saw the arrival of cloud provider Star, small cell specialist Ubiquisys, and French hosting company Typhon; while the acquisition spree paused in 2013, this year they will probably add “a whole bunch” more. This is part of the long-term strategy, Nasser asserts: “Growing organically is going to be slow, and as there’s value in being larger in our business, acquisitions are a natural way of doing it. It’s an absolute cornerstone of the strategy, because the things we do are increasingly mission critical for our customers. … They want us to demonstrate a track record and that we will be around for a while.”

The desire to build a business with enduring client relationships has always been a core motivation for Nasser. When asked about his plans for Claranet, he skips past the stated ambition for creating a strong European hosting player and goes straight to the connections: “This was as much a personal goal as a business goal: to have something where a relationship matters and creates value.” Claranet was a consumer company at first, before moving on to businesses and then towards hosting.

But the customer has always been leading the way for the company’s direction, Nasser asserts. This is also the reason the dot-com boom, which came only a few years after the start, was “a non-event”. “We just saw our business doing this,” says Nasser, indicating a rising curve, “throughout the whole period. There was no before and after for us. … If you look at internet use, which is fundamentally what our business is built on, it kept growing throughout. We didn’t have [major] financial shareholders, so although expectations might have gone up and down, the fundamentals of the business didn’t. We just kept growing.”

The pre-pay adventure
He calls it “a lucky escape”, the fact that he was turned down by the venture capitalists back in 1997. “I was just too early. Six months later they would have all given me offers.” Back then, Nasser was looking for £1m for 25% of the business, but no one thought Claranet could compete with the major telecom players. So why didn’t he go back?

The short answer is that Nasser didn’t need to: “We racked our brains and invented something which became very common: pre-paid internet access.” Nasser gives me the long answer too, starting with how cheap long-distance calls were commonplace but no one had thought of using the same method to access the internet. “So I literally downloaded off the Oftel [now Ofcom] website, and I read the entire regulations to understand how cheap phone calls work.” He explains it: the pricing, the access agreements, who bills for what. “So I went to these guys and said, ‘I want to use your interconnect, but I want to put a modem on the end of it in.’ They all looked at me funny. Nobody had ever asked them that question.” BT wouldn’t even meet him, Nasser recalls, but soon it was done: Claranet started offering internet access for half the price of a local call. Customers pre-paid in £20 chunks, and this is how, in six months, Nasser raised £2m. He laughs: “Don’t need a bank!”

Nasser has stuck to the decision not to take money from private equity backers ever since, despite numerous offers. “That was a huge lesson for me: only take the money if you really need it, and make sure you explore not just financial but also commercial alternatives. It gave us a huge amount of freedom. If I had financial investors and said, ‘I want to go to France but it might take me five years to start making money,’ they wouldn’t let me do it.” Nasser won’t say exactly how much of the company he owns, but it’s a “vast majority”. But with the ongoing acquisition spree, will this have to change?

The short answer is no, because debt still provides all the funding Claranet needs. “Today we have people willing to lend us money, and we are on our fourth round of three-year facilities. Every time we borrow, we repay, we refinance, we borrow, we repay, we refinance.” Nasser keeps the financial leverage “quite low”, in recognition of his modest risk tolerance as the majority owner: “I want to be able to sleep at night. … We are taking some risk in acquiring companies, but we want that risk to remain in line with our customers’ expectations.” While Nasser says Claranet makes enough money now do do whatever it wants, he may well consider a float someday: “But I think we are too small for that yet.”

Professional loves
It’s very personal to Nasser, what happens with Claranet. He says this several times, describing how he’s always curious to learn, and how a fundamental value for the company is continued improvement: “You must always be humble and think there’s more to it, that we can do better. That makes life more interesting as well.”

Looking back at Nasser’s route to Claranet, exploration certainly seems to be a guiding principle. Nasser studied electrical engineering at Imperial College, before getting a diploma in accounting and finance. Then he started a PhD, but stopped when his supervisor left. This was when Nasser fell into consulting “by accident”, but his heart wasn’t in it. “When I quit my PhD I was completely disheartened. … I was working on hobby projects: designing computers, architecture, inventing chips, stuff in my bedroom that I found exciting but most people find very boring.” During this time he also did a finance degree at the London Business School, in the evenings. He’s still in touch with many of his professors there, returning sometimes to give lectures.

It all sounds a bit random, I say, meaning this in the best way; exploring options will often lead to unexpected good results. “Well it’s very personal for me,” says Nasser, pausing for a moment. “But let me make it clear: technology is something I will always love.” He describes how he, at 13, would programme computers with zeroes and ones, teaching himself just for fun. “At Imperial College I saw a different dimension, it went from being fun to being seriously complicated on an intellectual level. I found it extremely fulfilling mentally. … There’s still a part of me who finds that very exciting: the pleasure you get from something cerebral, from solving real life problems using your brain. What I do now is fulfilling in different ways, but [technology] is still my first professional love.”

About the discovery
This is also why Nasser didn’t follow the rest of his classmates into finance: that thrill of discovery and solving a problem that’s eluded you. “Maybe it’s like when explorers discover something nobody else has seen before. I think that excitement is what’s stuck me to technology until now.” Building a company could be another form of exploration, I suggest. “Yes. I like the unknown, I like the fact that you’re not following a trodden path. It makes life interesting. I really, really mean this: I still wake up every day excited to do what I do. I’m extremely fortunate.”

Speaking of exploration, Nasser has now visited about 94 countries, plus the North Pole. “Oh that was great!” He laughs. “Like a lot of the big decisions in my life it happened by accident. Circumstances happen.” Nasser tells me the story of how he ended up going, in detail of course, and how his travel mates included the first woman from Kazakhstan to climb Everest, and her brother: “The hardest man I’ve seen in my life. It was minus 40C and he would walk with all his layers open, his chest bare. I felt like the dreary guy in the team.” I try to object, as this is a story about the Arctic after all, but Nasser won’t hear it. “It was fantastic, I loved every minute of it. … I would be looking out the tent every morning and smiling from ear to ear, thinking how lucky I am to be doing this. It’s harsh, but it’s incredible.”

Next up for Nasser and his passport is Bolivia, but the travel schedule has slowed somewhat: he’s raising two children, aged three and five. “When they’re old enough we’ll strap backpacks on them!” I have no doubt. Expecting to hear one last detailed story, I ask my last question: Who is Clara? The girlfriend, the mother, or the cat? Nasser laughs, as there is no Clara. And for once it’s a short story: he needed a name for his new company, and one day he walked into his building: Clarabel House. “I looked at it and thought, ‘one day the business will be big enough to take up a whole building’. Maybe Clarabel Internet? But it’s a mouthful, so I shortened it to Claranet. That’s it, a very boring story.”