It began for me in April 2012, sitting in front of my PC utterly frustrated at my slow internet service, and further infuriated by the lack of support from my ISP at the time. I was, back then, working in the financial markets while balancing operating two other companies at the same time. I required constant streams of data without interruption, and due to the remote nature of my companies, I relied heavily on internet connectivity to ensure their success. The reality, however, was in stark contrast to my expectations, and a thought struck me: “how hard can it be to provide decent internet in South Africa and a high quality of support?” Spoiler alert: very, as it turns out.
One of my companies was an entrepreneurial incubator, so as a pet-project I began drafting what would become the 1st iteration of the Crystal Web business plan. By June 2012 I was happy with my projections, strategy, and overall plans. I knew the input cost numbers we required, and I was happy with the size investment it would require. “This is easy” I thought to myself. I’ve done this all before and the numbers make sense. It was at this point that my pet-project started to become more of an obsession. It started to become a reality. It started to become the reason I woke up each day and the last thing on my mind before passing out at 3am each morning. Reality, however, had different plans.
My dream business model was quickly scuttled by the true costs involved in providing my version of a “dream internet connection.” My utopian ideology of the industry combined with my lack of ISP experience at the time was shunted to the forefront, and I came to the realisation that if my pet project were to ever see the light of day, I needed to learn fast. I needed to go to networking school to better understand the underlying infrastructure. I needed to spend time in a real ISP environment, across all spectrums: from the guy answering the support calls, to the managers implementing the directors’ strategies, to the shareholders who put their money behind the board of directors’ visions. What is it that they were doing right? Where could they improve? What made them successful? Why have so many ISPs failed? Do these people even know the answers to these questions? And do I even have the time to thoroughly interrogate these questions?
The short answer was no, I simply didn’t have the time and I needed to make the call on whether this was a pet-project as I was calling it, or a real business opportunity that required my attention and focus. Perhaps market research could help me decide? So I hit the malls with my pens and board. I became that annoying guy who you accidentally make eye-contact with and immediately start looking for an exit strategy. I couldn’t outsource this, of course. I needed to engage in a manner that allowed me to see and feel the human response, and doing so proved invaluable. A unified message emerged: one of anger and frustration. Exactly as I had felt the very moment I decided to embark on this process. In entrepreneurial terms, this equates to opportunity. An opportunity to solve the pain-points people almost universally experienced. This is exactly how my plan was positioned, due its own history, and it meant the business could position itself into a gap in the market; we could carve our place as it already existed. The naysayers told me on countless occasions that the market was limited and saturated. That it would never work. That there is no space for a new entrant in the ISP industry. And that we’d have to operate in the niche areas to find our value proposition. They never rationalised nor justified this position. They simply said it. They were wrong.
I sold off my second business and didn’t accept new clients in my remaining incubator. I used the spare time to focus on developing my perfect ISP. By now it was mid-2013. Pricing was changing; there were reductions in input costs due to legislation; and the emergence of AI, augmented reality, IoT, FTTx, hotspots, and connected gadgets everywhere you look meant that the future of a successful entrant into the ISP and networking space would have a fairly secured longevity. I needed to act fast to ensure that the brand’s success coincided with the emergence of these technologies from a tangible product perspective. I needed help, and it was time to call in some favours. I needed someone who shared my passion for this ISP. I needed someone with extensive telecoms experience who could augment my still-developing skill-sets in this regard. I needed someone with a background in telecoms and regulatory law, to ensure that we could make a tangible difference to the eco-system. I needed someone who shared the end user’s frustration when it came to quality of experience, as well as a lack of telecoms industry development. I needed Paul Hjul.