Recent winner of Ersnt & Young's 2010 Young Entrepreneur Of The Year, Vocus Communications chief executive, James Spenceley, has accomplished a fair amount in the past 15 years, from starting his own service provider to sparking industry-wide discussion on the National Broadband Network (NBN) through the Alliance for Affordable Broadband. As Spenceley recovers from the recent AusNOG conference, he speaks to Computerworld Australia about how he got started and the importance of passion in the industry.
Can you provide a brief history of your career in IT?
I started consulting in the mid-90s repairing Macintosh computers for graphic design companies, and that was really my first cut in IT. I installed AppleTalk networks and then Ethernet networks for them and hooking them up with an early sort of device called a “router” typically through OzEmail.
I realised I was on-site every hour for every dollar I earned and I couldn’t scale, I couldn’t get back to the office and I couldn’t grow the business. I kept connecting customers to OzEmail, they were getting $800 a month and had never even met the customer so I thought this ISP thing is great, I gotta get into this.
Basically I just learnt Linux and built a Red Hat server with a 8-port serial card, bought a bunch of modems and built what became my ISP. I went to all my graphic design and printing house customers, and gave them modem connections for $599 per month. It was called i-net, ironically, and the least successful one.
In those days it was all 28.8 kilobits per second (Kbps), 36Kbps modems then 56Kbps came along and my version of accounting was a shoebox and my bank account was pretty much the company bank account. Of course i had to go borrow money to buy a 56Kbps modem server rather than individual modems and they just looked at me and laughed. That was when I realised I couldn’t really scale the business process to be able to borrow money at that stage, so I sold that business to another ISP, Dot Communications, who I worked for for a number of years.
After that I went to Comindico, a $350 million start up to build the national IP and voice network interconnecting all 56 Telstra interconnecting points for voice. We were the first independent company to purchase capacity from the Southern Cross Cable Network.
I designed the network for the wholesale products and that was from very early on in 2000 to 2005 when the company went into receivership and I left very shortly after that. That network was bought by Soul which was then bought by TPG.
I took a year and a half off and started Vocus in 2007
What made you want to get into IT in the first place?
It was all a bit by accident. In those days people didn’t actually say ‘hey i want to get into IT’.
I was good with Macintosh computers so it was a much better option for me to repair people’s computers than go drive a plumbing truck which is what I was doing before that. I always loved the internet and computers and the idea of working in what i thought was my hobby was just too good to be true