Podcast transcript: The teenager who started a networking firm

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Podcast transcript: The teenager who started a networking firm

This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode ‘Why digital accessibility is good for business’. To listen to the full episode, click here.

Adam Shepherd

Hi, I'm Adam Shepherd.

Jane McCallion

And I'm Jane McCallion.

Adam

And you're listening to the IT Pro Podcast.

Jane

We're often joined by tech executives and engineers. But our guest this week is a little different. For starters, he's the youngest person we've ever had on the show. And after the pandemic led to his planned apprenticeship falling through, he decided to start his own networking business.

Adam

Starting a new career is always challenging. And when you're also building a company from the ground up, it's even more of an undertaking. Joining us to talk about why he chose to launch his own company, and the challenges of founding a startup during COVID, is Sam O'Rourke, founder of East Networks. Sam, thanks for joining us.

Sam O'Rourke

Hi, guys. Happy to be here. Yeah, I started East Networks when I was kicked off my apprenticeship, basically!

Jane

So yeah, if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. Yeah, I've mentioned that you're the youngest. But if you would care to disclose your age, your company role, how you came to set up East Networks.

Sam

So I was 17 when I started the company, I'm 18 now. I started East Networks, because of a problem we had actually. So we live in the middle of a field, we're quite fortunate to be able to live in a nice area. But living in a nice area doesn't always mean good internet. So my dad was exploring options with getting internet into the house. And 4G internet is one of those ones that it's just good in rural areas, because 4G coverage tends to cover a lot more spaces than like fibre and fixed line broadband, stuff like that. So we were installing it for our neighbours and friends and just thought, Well, how many people can need this? Surely, it's quite a lot. So I thought, well, I'll start a business because I've always wanted to do that. And it just went from there really, just to help people in rural areas get faster broadband.

Adam

So Sam, tell us a little bit about what inspired you to start your own company; talk us through your kind of apprenticeships journey.

Sam

So I started college, and after about two weeks, I decided it wasn't for me, because school really wasn't for me either. I just found sitting down in a class environment wasn't for me. So I decided the apprenticeship was the smarter option. And I was training to be a network engineer anyway. So that's what I was going to go in to to be. So I was studying for a Cisco qualification. But because of COVID, and the apprenticeship company, not really being that great with people, they kicked me out of the apprenticeship before I'd even had the chance to sit my exams. And I basically just thought, Well, why would I work for someone else again, when I can just work for myself, and that'll never happen again. So I did, I started East Networks.

Jane

That's quite inspired for a teenager. I don't mean to be kind of like condescending or anything. But at the age of sort of 17, 18 - and I'm sure that most of our listeners, and indeed your peers, are the same - the last thing upon being kicked out of anything that I think is, like d'you know what? I'm just gonna do it myself.

Sam

Yeah, yeah. I don't think you get many people my age doing it. Most people my age work in Morrisons.

Adam

So tell us a bit more about what East Networks does as a business.

Sam

So East Networks just improves residential homes at the moment, just residential homes' broadband, whether that's Wi-Fi coverage in your house, or just broadband speed in general. So it just helps people who are working from home to stay connected, that sort of thing, it's keeping you connected.

Jane

Yeah. And do you just focus on rural areas? Or are you also looking at urban areas? Because obviously, this was inspired by a rural connectivity issue, which everyone knows is an issue close to my heart.

Sam

Yeah. So I mean, it's generally wherever the fixed line broadband is not as good as the 4G signal. The fixed line broadband isn't there - because in some places, like, for example, where we live, I think our guaranteed speed is about three meg, and we actually get about one meg and the upload speed isn't even a meg. So it's basically useless for a house of five people. So it's anywhere really that the fixed line broadband is not an option. And that there's a good 4G or 5G signal even that we can attach ourselves to and give you fast broadband.

Jane

Obviously, COVID is what paid to your apprenticeship but with lots of people working from home, including in rural areas or areas with low connectivity. Has that proved a bit of a boost to your business at all, and do you think that's going to carry on as you go on?

Sam

Unfortunately, I think I missed the boat for that. Because I started East Networks more towards the tail end of the whole lockdown thing, where people started to begin, like getting back into offices and working, like, not from home. So unfortunately, that is a boat that I missed. But I think if I'd started East Networks right at the start of COVID, I would have had a massive spike, because everyone's in a big panic of working from home, and they can't get Wi-Fi to their office, cause all their kids are at home as well. And, and, and, and a number of reasons. I just think I just missed that little boat really, yeah.

Adam

So in terms of the the process of setting the company up, were there any unexpected challenges that you had to overcome?

Sam

Oh, lots. Lots. I didn't understand any of it. When I started it, I just thought, right, that'll be a good idea, and I'll learn on the way. There was a number of things, which was like, I've got to pay for that, and that, and that, oh, I have to do that, oh, I have to do this, otherwise I go to prison. So...

Adam

What were some of the most unexpected things that you had to deal with in terms of the kind of 'official' side of setting up a company?

Sam

Like, registering the company as an official company and dealing with like, tax and all of those things. I found that freakishly confusing. Hmm. Because I didn't understand that. Because obviously, I've never had to do that before, because I was like, 17 at the time. So just straight in the deep end of that kind of stuff.

Adam

Yeah. And it's the kind of thing I would imagine that, you know, education doesn't really give you much preparation for the process of starting a company in terms of the kind of bureaucracy and the red tape that you have to go through in terms of, you know, I, I wouldn't know the first thing about starting a company, you know, who do you even need to talk to, you know, what government departments do you need to talk to, in order to set up a new company? I mean, I imagine Companies House probably figures into it at some point. And you probably have to talk to Revenue and Customs at some point. But, you know, in terms of the specifics, I could not tell you with a gun to my head.

Sam

Yeah. Well, I mean, I just called Boris. So you do it all through gov.uk and various websites like that, as it turns out, but no, school does not teach you how to do that. I mean, I can make a bird box, but it doesn't really help in this.

Jane

It does strike me as one of those things that, you know, people are encouraged to become entrepreneurs. But you know, especially in the kind of tech space, but there is more to it than just having a great idea, as you've kind of pointed to that there is the big back office admin-y stuff, the boring stuff that you have to go through as an individual, when you're first setting up a company.

Sam

Yeah, nobody looks like Tony Stark, trust me.

Adam

So how long did it take you to get the company officially set up?

Sam

I'd probably say the best part of six months. Because it was, well, it wasn't a straightforward process. I wasn't just aiming to start it. It was sort of an idea that I talked to my dad about. And we both decided, yeah, that's quite a good idea. And then we both worked on it together. I'm fortunate my dad's works in IT all of his life. So there's a lot of things that he can do that I had no idea how to do before.

Adam

So your dad, for context, and for anyone listening, is Peter O'Rourke, who is the former director of IT for the University of Suffolk, and is also a longtime member of the IT Pro Panel.

Sam

Yes, I believe so. Yeah.

Adam

So how much startup capital did you need? Because obviously, that's another kind of major consideration that most people starting a company from scratch have to make, you know, how much do they have to set aside for things like operating expenses? How much do they need to even get the company afloat in the first place?

Sam

Well, with our business, there's not actually that much stuff you need to buy. There's, I mean, there's obviously costs, like website costs, and buying domains and things like that, but we've probably spent maybe £500 to a grand on equipment, in terms of our test equipment. But if we go into a customer house, we buy what they need, we don't buy it in advance, because there's no need to because we'll go to a customer. We'll go there on say Friday. And I say look, we'll come back next Friday free of charge, and we can then order your stuff and it just means that we don't have loads of stock just sitting there that's not earning us any money.

Adam

Yeah. And I suppose there's, there's no such thing as one size fits all, particularly in networking

Sam

No. Not at all.

Adam

It's something I've come to, yeah, something I've come to realise,

Sam

Especially in the kind of houses that we would work in generally, like we were at a house a couple months ago and it took nine [TP-Link] Decos, and nornally houses take three. So it was a big old, extended - it was it was a church originally. So it's a big old house.

Adam

Oh wow.

Sam

So yeah, the Decos had their work cut out - it still doesn't work properly!

Adam

No. Well, that's, I would imagine, a particular problem in rural areas where you've got a lot of old properties, you know, you've got big thick walls, often, you know, like original, stonework walls, and Wi-Fi signal just does not like going through that at all; it's one of the main reasons that mesh networking is so useful in those kinds of properties. But even then, it's not, you know, it's not foolproof.

Sam

Yeah, no, it doesn't always work. And so we have to sort of make it up as we go along.

Adam

So speaking of making it up as you go along. How has the business kind of evolved over the time you've been, you've been running it? How have you managed things like customer growth.

Sam

So if I'm gonna be completely honest with you, the customer growth is nowhere near what I wanted it to be, because as I said, I missed that boat at the start of COVID. And even though I think many others think that it's a very good idea, the problem is, it's a new thing. And it's really difficult to sell something that people don't understand to people, and they look at it and go, that's gonna cost me 700-800 quid, and they go oh, I don't wanna spend that. Because I think most people complain about their internet, but don't actually want to fix it.

Adam

Yep.

Sam

So it's very difficult to grow a customer base. And that's why I'd like to move into commercial properties. Because those kinds of contracts are much easier to get and will allow, allow us to do a lot more work. I'm waiting on 5G to roll out a bit more. Because that would help.

Jane

So is moving into commercial properties, and ultimately, 5G largely where you think your business is going in the future? Or have you got any other expansion ideas?

Sam

Yes, so I think that mainly commercial property. So our office spaces where BT and Openreach don't want to run fibre in, but they've installed 5G everywhere, as we all know, 5G is incredibly quick. So installing a few 5G antennas would easily do a whole office, because of the speeds you'd get. And if we can install those antennas, do all the server equipment and run all of the Wi-Fi equipment out, that's where I want to be - those commercial properties. Because the problem with residential properties is that you're getting one customer that's a fairly small job - with a commercial property, you'll get one customer with a huge job, because you've got so much more to do.

Adam

So, Sam, you've had to partner with network operators in order to service your residential customers, right? Talk us through the process of working with mobile networks in order to offer these 4G services to your customers. I understand there was a bit of hoop jumping through and whatnot that you needed to do in order to work with the network operators themselves. Right?

Sam

Yes, so basically, we're partners with EE and a company called Data Select; EE being the supplier of the SIMs and Data Select being the supplier of the equipment. So we buy our routers, cables, anything you can, anything really through Data Select. And obviously as a business, we get like VAT and things off like that. And EE provides the the SIMs, which we can then put in those routers and instals in customer houses. So the relationship developed with EE because that's who we found was the best and strongest signal over the whole of the UK for all of our testing. So we partnered with them, we partnered with a guy called Simon for EE, who then helped us get these SIMs. So we can install those in customer houses and then Simon pointed us in the direction of Data Select who can supply us with the routers and antennas and all of that stuff. And we buy that as we as we need it not in bulk, if that makes sense.

Adam

So, I find this quite interesting cause the the contracts themselves that customers take out for these kind of 4G you know, backup services are with the networks themselves rather than yourself. Right?

Sam

Yeah, so we sign the people up, we can, it can be electronic or it can be a piece of paper. I prefer electronic because it's quicker. We can get a sim installed in just under an hour. That's about how long it takes to activate. So that will then go through EE. So that would be an EE contract. So it means that East Networks doesn't have to deal with the customer when the EE products go wrong because our products, we don't make any products, we just supply other people's products. So I've sort of structured it in a way that once we've been to the customer's house, we take that monthly revenue. But because we're taking a smaller cut, than obviously EE and Data Select, we don't have to deal with, like the complaints and like network dropping out and things like that.

Adam

So effectively, it sounds like you're operating as kind of almost a consumer managed service provider in a way.

Sam

Pretty much. Yeah, that's, that's pretty much what it is, the whole point is to get it as cheap as possible for the customer, upfront. And then where we make our money is in the contract. Because it means that the least amount effect on the customer because, as I mentioned previously, it's a new market. So it's very difficult to get people to spend lots of money. So when you spread the money over like an 18 month contract, it doesn't seem like much money at all. And, and the customer gets better broadband. And we take a small little cut, which is great.

Adam

Yeah, I think it's a very interesting business model, particularly as we look at how the mobile networks themselves are starting to operate. I mean, if this is kind of ringing any bells for any BT customers, BT has recently launched its own kind of unbreakable broadband offering, which is kind of slightly similar in that it's kind of wired broadband backed up with a kind of 4G failover. So it's it's an area that is kind of a business model, rather, that is getting a lot of attention and a lot of kind of investment. So it's it's interesting to see that you're kind of almost ahead of the curve on this one.

Sam

Yes, so But the problem with us is that we we're not the backup, we are the main so...

Jane

it's alright. BT sound like they're tempting fate by calling it unbreakable anyway.

Sam

Yeah, they must have some kind of small text under the adverts.

Adam

Yeah. Anyone that's worked in networking knows there really is no such thing as an unbreakable network. So we've mentioned 5G a bit already. But as somebody who's kind of just setting up a company in this space, what is the, the practical state of 5G connectivity in the UK at the moment, do you think?

Sam

So, I mean, I don't think it'll ever really come to areas like where I live, because especially when they're Greenbelt, you cannot install antennas every five metres. I mean, it's not five metres. I'm exaggerating slightly. But because 5G is effectively a mesh network, all of the antennas have to be incredibly close to each other, it will only work in highly populated areas. So that's why for commercial use, it's much better. Because you can get lots of 5G users in a small space, which means lots of revenue from a small space. Yeah, I don't think 5G will ever get to rural areas, to be honest.

Adam

Which is interesting, because I mean, Jane, regular listeners will know that this is one of your particular hobby horses.

Jane

I'm very on this hobby horse.

Adam

But 5G is something that has been, you know, repeatedly touted, both by the government and by network operators themselves, as something that can help solve the rural broadband and the rural connectivity issue.

Jane

I can feel my blood pressure rising already because - right. It was largely the same for 4G. But part of the problem that all mobile signal seems to have in rural areas - because I'm from the southwest, originally, as when I get overexcited people can probably hear - is like the buildings, it's the geography it's, yes, planning issues as well. That said, some of the most remote areas that I know both in the UK and abroad suddenly have 4G and so they've gone from like zero connectivity to faster than I sometimes get living in a city now. So I'm sceptical yet hopeful at the same time that maybe something can be done. And I know some 4G towers, including the one closest to me are being upgraded with 5G as well. So that's my feelings on the matter.

Sam

Thinking about it, it would cost a lot of money. But you could have 5g repeaters on lampposts or on power lines.

Jane

That's a solution I have heard, yeah.

Sam

Yeah, so if you put that through a village, I suppose that might actually give 5G to the village and then it would allow us to install 5G to everyone, we just need a partner like BT who can say oh, East Networks can do that. Brilliant.

Adam

So let's talk briefly about apprenticeships, because I want to, I want to touch on that. Because while starting your own company is a, a very unusual response. I think apprenticeships are also similarly overlooked by a lot of young people as a kind of viable way to get into careers in in tech in particular. What do you what do you think about apprenticeships? I mean, obviously, that was your original plan. But would you recommend that as a strategy for other young people who are looking to get into the industry?

Sam

Of course I would. I think college is really not the way to learn about things, I think you should; you're better off in a workplace actually doing the jobs that you will be doing, rather than learning about it off the screen. Because there's no replacement for actually doing something. Because there was, there's so many things that they teach in college, which are irrelevant in working in an office, where you have to deal with people who don't understand how to connect their laptop to Wi-Fi, or people who can't run a printer. College does not teach you about people. It teaches you about, like, objects, and nothing is the same, is the problem. So an apprenticeship, I think, not only in the IT sector, I think generally overall is a much better option. And as you said, I think they're overlooked quite heavily because people look at them think oh, that the qualification's not as high at the end. But you're getting that work experience, and you're getting paid while you're learning. I just think it's a much better idea, even though I was a bit screwed over by mine.

Jane

So Sam, what advice would you give to young people who find themselves in a similar situation to you?

Sam

Well, I think, if you can, and especially if you still live with your parents like I do, just give it a go. That's all you can do. You've not got to pay the rent, you've not got to pay for that many things. Just give it a go. I mean, there's no harm in trying. If it doesn't work. Well, at least you tried. Most people wouldn't try, so...

Adam

And it's not everyone who can say they've started their own company, even if that company didn't end up ultimately succeeding.

Sam

Exactly. So yeah, I think as long as you try that's all that matters. Do your best and yeah, that's what my dad's always said, as long as you do your best, it doesn't matter.

Adam

Well, on that rather cheery and uplifting note, that is all we've got time for this week. Thank you once again to East Networks founder Sam O'Rourke for joining us.

Sam

Thank you. It was lovely being on.

Jane

You can find links to all of the topics we've spoken about today in the show notes and even more on our website www.itpro.co.uk.

Adam

You can also follow us on Twitter at @ITpro as well as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.

Jane

Don't forget to subscribe to the IT Pro Podcast wherever you find podcasts to never miss an episode. And if you're enjoying the show, leave us a rating and a review. We'll be back next week with more analysis from the world of it. But until then, goodbye.

Adam

Bye.

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