Entrepreneurs Beat Establishment
WASHINGTON - It was like the Lollapalooza of the
telecom industry. Nearly 1,200 people - wannabe entrepreneurs, telco groupies, a
sprinkling of lawyers, accountants, venture capitalists, consultants, corporate veterans,
and the big guys: a "Stars of Telecom" panel made up of those who had made it to
the top - crowded a hotel ballroom here to rail against the establishment.
The brainchild of the Netpreneur Program, the gathering
was designed to draw in new telecom entrepreneurs with the success stories of their
predecessors, but the evening had more the feel of an adult alternative rock fest. The
battle against the status quo and the search for the next great hit were central themes
woven through the speeches of upstart telco tycoons rallying the next generation of
entrepreneurs to action.
Software multimillionaire and former Legent Corp. CEO Mario Morino backs Reston,
Virginia-based Netpreneur with the goal of fostering regional entrepreneurial activity in
the Internet, telecommunications, and content development.
"You'd be hard pressed to find any region in the world that has information
technology, communications and content to the degree that exists here," Morino said
in an interview. The greater Washington area has 430 communication technology companies,
which employ about 86,000 people and do some US$26 billion in annual sales, his
"The Valley owns the middle space - IT - but the Valley does not own the
communications and content," said Morino. "So, when you look at convergence,
it's a very interesting play."
Reading a string of wire headlines about telecom IPOs, takeovers, private placements,
and debt offerings, Morino made his point to Tuesday night's conference attendees: the
telecom industry is at ground zero. Then, that premise was driven home by a panel of
wealthy industry captains who had made it in mobile telecom, satellites, the long-distance
business, and venture investing in the region.
Morgan O'Brien, founder of digital wireless company Nextel Communications Inc., John
Puente, former CEO of satellite communications company Orion Network Systems Inc., Brian
Thompson, CEO of fast-growing long-distance company LCI International Inc., David Thompson
of satellite company Orbital Sciences Corp., and Mark Warner, a telecom veteran who heads
Columbia Capital Corp. aren't exactly household names.
But to the telecommunications industry types around Washington, these were the rebels
who had taken advantage of market deregulation or pushed for it themselves to build their
"We're blessed in the telecom business by facing a monopoly that's being broken
up," said LCI's Thompson. He also noted that no one would have been there if it
wasn't for one man - the late Bill McGowan of MCI Communications Corp., who with $20,000,
a dream, and drive decided to take on giant AT&T and ended up creating a new industry.
The recognition that MCI - which was built with McGowan's direction to do everything
just the opposite of how AT&T did it - was now the subject of the biggest bidding war
in history, and that the $20,000 had grown to billions in the course of three decades, was
O'Brien, a formerly frustrated Federal Communications Commission and telecom industry
lawyer, said he started Nextel with less than $100,000 after pitching the idea to Warner
in a lunch meeting. It's now a multibillion-dollar public company.
He offered what might be called O'Brien's entrepreneurial commandments: "Success
is not an entitlement." "You have to be grown up." "You have to be an
optimist." "You have to accept that things are uncertain." "Expect
terrible things to happen." "Never give up, never give up."
Warner described how, fresh out of Harvard Law School, he invested his life savings of
$5,000 in a company and helped it go broke in six weeks. His next venture, in real estate,
was also a failure. It wasn't until he considered the "radical" idea of car
phones - his law school buddies thought he was crazy; no one would want a phone in their
car, they said - that he went on to make his fortune. He's now a telecom investor and
aspiring politico who lost the Virginia election for US senate last year. "To succeed
you have to be willing to fail - failure is part of the entire story," he said.
Thompson of Orbital, introduced as a "true rocket scientist," talked about
the long-term growth opportunities in global satellite telecom. When asked by one audience
member whether the rising number of satellites in orbit might crash into each other, he
chuckled and said there was still a lot of room to grow.
By the close of the evening, the Netpreneur Program message was clear - that the telco
industry could make successes out of yet another round of high-minded people. As ex-Orion
Network Systems CEO Puente said, "There is no barrier too high for a good idea."