Saturday 20 January 2018

Brave young man takes on Goliaths of telecoms

Innovate or die, says entrepreneur Alan Foy as he brings his unique business service and future plans on to the world telecoms stage

SELF STARTERS: Sean Gallagher and CEO of Blueface Alan Foy.
SELF STARTERS: Sean Gallagher and CEO of Blueface Alan Foy.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

ONE of the most inspiring stories of the Bible must surely be that of the young David, who, against the odds, took on and defeated the might of Goliath.

It's a simple story. But it's a story that serves as a timeless reminder of how courage and conviction can empower us to take on opponents that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves, and win.

In the world of business, it's widely accepted that it takes great courage to become an entrepreneur. However, it takes even greater courage when you decide to start a business in a sector dominated by a number of large incumbents with very deep pockets.

But that is exactly what Alan Foy, CEO of Blueface, and his colleagues did when they decided to enter the hugely competitive telecommunications market.

The company provides landline and mobile services to business and home office customers within the Irish market as well as internationally.

It employs approximately 50 staff and is headquartered in the IFSC in Dublin, as well as having offices in the UK and Italy.

"Our landline phone service operates over the business's broadband connection, while mobile services are provided thanks to our virtual mobile operator relationship on the Three network.

"Our platform is powered by what is known as IP or Internet Protocol Technology," Alan explains. "Blueface converts traditional landline voice services into digital signals which are sent, at high speed, over the broadband connection.

"This allows us to be low-cost, delivering more savings than any other provider in the market," he adds.

It's a compelling proposition and one which has helped some businesses save up to 40 per cent and 45 per cent per month on their telephone costs.

While Alan is shy about sharing the company's turnover, he is happy to confirm that revenues have increased 25 per cent, year on year, since 2010.

While relatively small compared to their larger competitors, Blueface has become somewhat of a disrupter in the sector. Its technology is literally changing how businesses manage their communication strategies.

"Unlike other telecom operators, we don't charge line rental fees nor do we require customers to spend money on expensive equipment," Alan explains.

"Our 'follow me' functionality enables customers to be contacted on their business phone number which can follow them to their mobile or another landline, even while they are away on business or working remotely. That's part of the magic about the whole system," he adds.

During the last heavy snow, a customer and owner of a small business contacted Alan to explain that she was unable to make the journey from her home in Wicklow, to her city-centre office.

Instead of having to close the business, however, the customer could immediately log in online to redirect her office landline calls to her own mobile, and to those of the other staff who couldn't make it into work either. As a result, both she and her staff were able to continue their business, uninterrupted, although no one was actually in the office.

Alan grew up in Glasnevin in Dublin and later studied business at Trinity College. Reluctantly, he admits to having won business student of the year.

There is natural humility about Alan, but he seems to have found a comfortable balance between that humility and the ambitious entrepreneurial spirit that clearly drives him.

His career as an entrepreneur started during his time in college when he set up his first business organising airport services, transport, and accommodation for VIPs who were visiting Ireland.

After college, he worked in wealth management with NCB, where he learnt two great lessons; that building a strong team is the key to the success of any business and that you really only have a business if it is not dependant on you solely to run it.

"Both these lessons shaped my thinking about how I have organised or run business ever since," he tells me.

In 2008, he realised that he wanted to be an entrepreneur again. He then took the courageous step to leave NCB and set up a new company called Venture Wave.

This new business was an investment vehicle that he used to assess potential opportunities worth investing in, while at the same time keeping his eyes open for a business opportunity that would entice him to get involved in on a full-time basis.

His plans received a great boost when Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness family, agreed to become a co-investor in his new business.

Having assessed many proposals from companies seeking investment, the pair settled on Blueface as the one that ticked all their boxes.

It was in the technology sector, was innovative and had huge potential to scale both in Ireland and beyond.

The company had been set up, originally, in 2004 by two technology engineers.

"Between 2004 and 2009, the company did what many start-ups do; it focused on developing the features and functionality of the service but didn't manage to truly capitalise on the sales and business development aspect," admits Alan.

Towards the end of 2009, Alan joined the company as its CEO and over the following year, he conducted a management buy-in whereby he and Venture Wave became the largest shareholders in the company.

He quickly realised that if he wanted to compete with the bigger firms in the industry, then he needed to achieve significant growth and to drive revenue. It soon became clear that the most sustainable way to increase revenues was through acquiring more business customers. "It was a total pivot for the business," Alan tells me.

But it worked and today 90 per cent of the company's revenue comes from its business customers, who include sole traders, small- and medium-sized businesses, multinationals, banks, insurance companies and colleges.

For clients such as banks and other institutions, whose calls are recorded for quality and other purposes, these can now be easily and securely stored in the Cloud, on large remote data servers.

He works hard on driving customer service in the business and is pleased that 85 per cent of all new business comes from referrals from existing customers.

Importantly, too, the company has managed to crack the age-old challenge for many businesses of developing a business model that provides recurring revenue.

Rather than starting from scratch each year with an empty sales book, his focus is on servicing, retaining and growing a quality customer base that yields consistent monthly income.

Has it been hard competing with the big telco providers?

"Yes, it has," he admits honestly. "We have to constantly compete with their massive marketing budgets. To do that we draw on our unique strengths such as the fact that we are smaller, and therefore, much more nimble and flexible in how we respond to customers and to the needs of the market," he explains.

"While we focus on offering the lowest prices in the sector, we also harness the strength of our technology to offer distinct advantages and functionality to our customers.

"We really want to continue to implement strategies that are designed to disrupt the marketplace," he tells me.

"In today's competitive and fast moving business environment, you have to innovate or die," he insists.

What are his plans for the future?

"I want to build an Irish company that can scale internationally," he tells me excitedly.

"Up to now, we have been anxious to fine-tune the model here in Ireland, tie down the pricing and continue to improve the functionality of the service," he says.

The company has already begun its expansion plans. In mid-2012, it entered the UK and Northern Ireland markets and has experienced steady growth there. Only months later, it bought a company in Italy and rebadged it as Blueface Italy.

It is planning to move into the mobile payment market, where it will provide small- and medium-sized companies with the capability to take credit card payments via their Blueface mobile.

Alan Foy could have stayed within the relative security of the corporate world, but instead, he bravely heeded the call to the entrepreneurial world.

He chose the telecommunications space where, although dominated by much larger players, he saw opportunities to be disruptive by offering increased functionality combined with lower prices.

Just like in the story of David and Goliath, he has shown that one should not be discouraged simply by the fact that your opponents or competitors may be larger or better resourced.

What counts most is having the courage, and the conviction not to be afraid to take on the challenge in the first place.

Irish Independent

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