Monday, June 1, 2015
Catching Up With Dave Hagan, Boingo
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Los Angeles-based Boingo (www.boingo.com) is one of longest standing Internet companies. The company recently moved into brand new, 50,000 square foot headquarters in Westwood, so we thought it would be great to catch up with Boingo CEO, Dave Hagan, to learn a little bit more about the company's journey from startup to publicly traded company over the past 14 years. Dave told us more about where the company is nowadays--plus told us about a few lessons learned about the company's journey from startup aggregating Wi-Fi networks, to now actually owning and operating its own wireless network--both Wi-Fi and its own cellular, distributed antennas system networks.
What's Boingo's business look like nowadays?
Dave Hagan: Our business has evolved quite a bit since we last talked. We had launched in 2001 as a Wi-Fi service provider, putting software on customer's laptops, so that when they traveled from hotspot to hotspot, their laptop could automatically connect to the next hotspot. We still do that, and that's still an element of our business. But, we've really evolved into a wireless infrastructure company. We deploy both Wi-Fi and distributed antenna systems, which provide cellular provider and extension of the network in very large venues, where we get the wireless rights to that venue, to help provide cellular coverage where it is weakest. We build out that infrastructure and lease that to carriers, so they can put traffic on that infrastructure. We're completely invisible to that carrier's customers. They don't even know they are on Boingo. So, if you walk into O'Hare in New York, instead of having poor cellular service, you have good service, because that hanset is now connecting to our network instead of to a tower miles away. You are now connected into a microcell or small cell network within the airport. That's a big part of our business, even as Wi-Fi continues to be part of that mix. Wi-Fi is actually looking more and more like the distributed antenna systems business. You might have seen our announcement with Sprint, where Sprint customers with handsets and smart phones will automatically connect to the Boingo network. It's seamless to the customer, and the customer doesn't have to do anything to connect. Wi-Fi is now a lot more like cellular network technology, rather than a separate network. A convergence is happening, and it's thoroughly complementary rather than being competitive.
How did you end up going from software to distributed antenna systems?< Dave Hagan: We came into the distributed antenna systems business in 2006, through an acquisition. At that point in time, we were a virtual Wi-Fi network operator only. We didn't own or operate our own Wi-Fi network. We just aggregated the networks that were already available with our software application, and made it easy to move from one to another. The problem and challenge we found with that, in 2001 to 2004, was that with that original business, most of the biggest, Wi-Fi networks were being deployed by the telcos, and they only wanted to work with you if you had your own network to trade back. They didn't view that aggregated network that we built as something they wanted to trade. With no network assets to trade, we couldn't access their networks. Those were AT&T and other carriers around the globe. The other problem, was that no one went shopping for a Wi-Fi service plan. Unlike a cellular plan, where you might decide on what phone and carrier you wanted, no one did that with Wi-Fi. They'd just show up at a venue, boot up their laptop, connect, and see a landing page or browser, and figure out who the provider was at that point--and either sign up for an account or pay per transaction. We were struggling to figure out how to acquire customers cost effectively. We use lots of search engine marketing and old school direct marketing techniques, and it really didn't work out very cost effectively.
We realized, with those two issues, we had to get into the network business ourselves. Back in those days, airports were clearly the best place for aWi-FI networks. They were really a thriving, early market. We had partnered with Concourse Communications, and through that partnership we ended up acquiring them. It happened that as part of that acquisition, we bought a nice, distributed antenna systems business as well. We did not get into the distributed antenna systems business intentionally, but entered the market through Concourse. As we got into it, and within the last three years, as the DAS business has gotten really hot, that's become quite a bit more of our business.
So is that the biggest growth area for the company?>
Dave Hagan: We really have three strong growth engines. Distributed antenna systems is one, wholesale Wi-Fi or carrier Wi-Fi is second. The Sprint deal is an example of that. The last, is military bases. We've actually signed three global agreements, with the Air Force, Army, and Marines, to build Wi-Fi and high speed Internet and TV into the barracks of all of those three branches of the military. That's provided us with huge growth. We launched about 30 bases over the last eighteen months, and there are now over 130,000 beds covered, mostly to personnel and soldiers. We're about halfway through about 300,000 we have under contract.
It's interesting to see someone who was early at a startup still heading up the company when it's now been a public company this far along, how did you end up doing that?
Dave Hagan: When I came to Boingo, in 2001, they didn't even call it Wi-Fi, it was just 802.11. No one really knew that Wi-Fi was going to be the monitor. Our founder, Sky Dayton, is a true visionary, figuring out that unlicensed, 802.11 technology could really do what we thought it could do. It was really both a big technology and business opportunity. When I met Sky, and understood the strategy behind the business, it was really interesting. I was actually very close to accepting a position with one of the big wireless technology companies in Canada, as I'd been in Canada for five years, between 1994 and 1999. I came back to the states for Ticketmaster Citysearch, and I had actually been looking to go back to Canada as my son was at school at University. Plus, it was in the 2001 timeframe, just post the 1999/2000 crash, and bigger companies really appeared to be a safe haven. But, I was really turned on by the creative opportunity here. That's what got me here, and it's just been a fun, interesting ride since. We were able to navigate the evolving and changing market, and build a big business out of it. Sky left in 2004, and in the next year or so we build out the network business, started building and operating our own networks, and it's been an incredible journey since. I've enjoyed every step of it, and it's been fun since because it changes every day, all day. I've been here for fourteen years, and never been bored. I laugh when people ask me that, because there is just no way you can be bored in this business. It's just constantly changing. The deal with have with Spring is a great example of the next phase, as our networks are integrated with cellular networks. As long as we can continue to own and operate high quality ,strategic assets, we are able to create value.
Any lesson learned along the way?
Dave Hagan: You have to be careful not to be too dogmatic about strategy. We are constantly evolving our strategy, which we now are calling Boingo 3.0. We've been through businesses we thought would work, have hit bumps in the road, altered that strategy, and we continue to do that. That's why we have survived. Many of our contemporary companies who started back then didn't make it, or they sold pretty early on. Some couldn't get additional venture money, or just couldn't find their business. The fact that we've made it this long, is a testimony of our ability to adopt and adapt to the market as it has changed. We were here before there was a Silicon Beach!
(We last sat down for an interview with Dave back in 2004, when Boingo was just a young startup).