At a recent Founders, Leaders and Lawyers business event hosted by HHG Legal, I had the opportunity to catch up with Michael Malone, WA entrepreneurial legend and founder of iiNet.
If you are not familiar with the story, Michael was finishing his studies at UWA in 1993 and realised that the end of university, meant the end of his internet access. In the early 1990s, there were no Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Perth. To solve this problem, he found a way to connect to the internet from his parents’ Padbury garage. The only hiccup: it was going to cost him $25,000 to get a link to the US. To make this affordable for a new graduate, he needed to find 200 friends and acquaintances to share this cost (and internet access) with. Michael recruited a partner, Michael O’Reilly, who had the technical know-how to support the startup, and persuaded ‘the bank of mum and dad’ to front half the startup costs. With that, iiNet was born.
iiNet was the first organisation to offer dial-up internet access to the public, for a flat rate of $25 per month. Eventually, there were more than 350 Telstra phone lines going into the Malone’s garage, together with 350 modems connecting customers to the web, before the company moved to a CBD office in 1995. The growth journey of iiNet was extraordinary, acquiring small businesses along the way, well before Telstra, Optus or even Microsoft thought that the general public would want access to the Internet.
What made iiNet unique, was while it was led by technical experts, the leaders of the company soon realised that people skills and a customer focus would be a key point of difference for them. From 1995, they focussed on recruiting staff from backgrounds like tourism and hospitality, with good communication skills and the ability to learn the technical aspects of the job. iiNet were early adopters of Net Promotor Score: a metric that measures the loyalty of customers to a company. While many other early ISPs were focused on sales volumes, iiNet concentrated on delivering optimal customer experience to generate loyalty and create raving fans. A great model for any business.
Several years ago, Michael shared with me that the SBDC played a part in iiNet’s early journey, by providing him with business information and guidance that was invaluable to an innovator with no business experience or training.
Just like iiNet, 30 years on, we are still here and still focused on our customers — small businesses that are striving to build their own success stories, whether or not they are aiming to become a multi-billion-dollar organisation.
Starting any business requires sacrifices and the courage to take risks, being dedicated, resilient and not expecting overnight success. Building a successful business also takes the right support and advice at different times, and I’m very glad that the SBDC was there at the stage in iiNet’s journey where we could help steer them on the right path.
So, whether you're starting a business from your garage or launching a new venture in a competitive market, remember that every business starts out small. The key lessons I think Michael (and many other successful entrepreneurs) have to share with us are:
- Don't be discouraged by the challenges you will inevitably face when starting your own business,
- Be open to learning, adapting and asking for assistance along the way, and
- Never forget that your customer is part of your story – without customers, no business is viable.
And if you are eager to build a WA success story like iiNet’s, be patient and remember: from little things, big things grow.