#Asia Lessons from my startup experience: Just because it is legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical


A former One.Tel senior employee offers startup experience from 20 years ago still resonates today


Almost 20 years ago, I had the unique opportunity to join One.Tel, Australia’s “challenger” telco launched during a period of telecom deregulation.

One.Tel had three core product offerings: fixed wire long distance, Internet service and mobile telephony. It was backed during its startup phase by Optus, FAI, Coldstream Capital and the Murdoch and Packer families. It exploded in growth after being listed on the ASX — and later imploded.

For a 20-year-old Executive, joining the company was a rare and unique opportunity to leverage my leadership foundations from the Australian military and lead a front-line operation through a period of rapid scale and IPO.

During my tenure, I was given the opportunities to make a contribution to One.Tel’s go-to-market strategies and their execution. I was charged to support in capital raising and to build a team that consistently delivered peak performances. I was also provided with an opportunity to learn early in life, with thanks to my mentor, the rules of ‘principles versus laws’.

When One.Tel floated on the Australian Stock Exchange at AUD2 (US$1.49) per share in November 1997, its initial market capitalization was AUD208 million (US$155 million).

On paper, FAI had turned a AUD950,000 (US$707,000) investment into $51 million (US$38 million); Packer had turned AUD250,000 (US$186,000) into AUD17 million (US$12.6 million) and Jodee and Brad had a combined stake worth well over AUD100 million (US$74 million).

Every one of us that had worked the hard yards had reaped the rewards. By the end of that year (December 1997), One.Tel was a major Telco with over 200,000 customers and 400 dealers across Australia.

In August 1998, I made the decision to resign, knowing that I would forfeit all of my now valuable stock in the company and the incredible career opportunity that I had been given — the shared leadership of a front line operation of 150 personnel.

You see, I had started my career with a desire to be a doctor working in the developing world.

I joined the military and ended up not walking for a time after an accident on exercise.  So while my career had taken a massive curveball post-Army, my fundamental purpose to ‘positively impact lives and make a difference’ had not.

With the support of my Career Coach ‘Morgan & Banks’ at the time, I had a new mission — to take a step back from the rollercoaster that I had been on and learn sound management practices. I wanted to be exposed to a corporate culture that always operated by the rules of the state — even if we were a disruptor — and to be exposed to decision making that always considered principles, not only rules.

Also Read: Amazon to enter Indonesian market, gets US$600M ready for its first year

I joined a new start-up disruptor in the digital insurance industry called DirecDial, the first e-commerce play for Allianz and downsized to lead a team of 10. I later relocated to my hometown to join Telstra, a company that is renown for its leadership, corporate governance, and technology.

Only two years later, in May 2001, One.Tel reached infamy when in the space of 2 weeks, the Founders were forced to resign, while having just been awarded multimillion dollar bonuses.

At the time, the company had no debt and AUD100 million (US$74.4 million) per month cash flows. Instead of helping to support the rights issue, Rodney Adler, a Non-Executive Director who had been progressively selling his stock since February, sold his final six million shares for AUD1.2 million (US$900,000), pushing the company into receivership.

One interesting and sad fact of the mess was the total legal and professional fees paid in the liquidation were over AUD150 million (US$112 million). The canceled rights issues — only AUD132 million (US$98 million) — would have been more than enough for the company to stay solvent at the time.

If Australia had Chapter 11 laws to protect directors (which are now coming 15 years later), the company would be here today.

One.Tel’s collapse in 2001 has been hailed by academics and pundits alike as a classic case of failed expectations, strategic mistakes, wrong pricing policy and unbridled growth.

But I will say six things about my journey:

Customer Centricity was its heart

It was a company that understood that its value was in enabling the ‘customer experience’. One.Tel’s products challenged the incumbents and, for a time, completely disrupted the monopolists with its breakthrough brand and identity; the Dude, a fresh, young spirit in communications with “youth prices”.

Culture matters

The Company cared about its people. Flat structured with everyone’s voice having value, the team invested heavily to create an environment that fostered challenging the status quo and employee engagement.

While massage days, paddle pop days, a work environment powered by feng shui, real light and fresh fruit and nuts for all staff made the long hours bearable, it was mostly our care for each other and our customers that made the difference.

Hire people whose purpose is to ‘make a difference’

My team was diverse in every way you can imagine – gender, religion, age, race, skills, and mindset. But the common glue that bound us together was care for our customers and together, we worked hard to make a difference.

People were typically only paid to work their 8-hour shift, but most people did 10. It was their pride in their work and their promise to their customer and each other, that inspired them to come in early and leave late.

Operate by principles not just laws

I still remember every word of Clause 4 in our Subscriber contract. It read, “One.Tel can vary charges at any time without prior notice to the subscriber”. While it may be legal, it certainly was not acceptable nor ethical and the company frequently chose to use it.

When its Founders paid themselves bonuses the public became outraged. In the context of its subsequent failure and the public losing their funds, this was not acceptable or defensible.

Governance is a license to operate

While there were many weaknesses highlighted in One.Tel’s corporate governance throughout its tenure,  hindsight would suggest that if our Non-Executive Directors had been recruited for their diversity and independence, any governance weaknesses may have been addressed early.

It was reported that the Board lacked diversity in skill set and that almost all of the One.Tel non-executive directors had substantial investments in the company.

Build for resilience and grit

It is great to have one system for a holistic 360-degree view of the customers, dealers, and operations, but it is only great if it is functional and working. Every time the system went down, our 24-hour sales and service operations would suddenly have no visibility of its customers or its operations, often for hours at a time.

It takes resilience and grit to get through an entire shift with intermittent system access and screaming customers.

There are many things that are said about One.Tel and what contributed to its demise. Many of which are not true or were said by Executives in an effort to protect their own personal reputations post-crash.

Also Read: Building culture at a small bootstrapped startup

Every startup has its weaknesses. Yes, when you are working on the leading edge quite often it is the ‘bleeding’ edge. And when you are pushing for tech innovation or disruption, regulations are often not yet there to lay things out in black and white – there is a lot of gray.

My own resignation letter and forfeiture of stock all the way back in August 1998 tells its own story. However, the lessons learned have been central to my own career journey and to recognizing my own purpose.

Make the difference

My Dad always said, “Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life”. Every venture I’m involved in today serves a common purpose — to make a difference. I find when this is aligned, I am energized and fueled by both passion and purpose.

Diversity and inclusion matters

Always find the opportunity to listen and to value each and every person’s voice – and to be inclusive, always. The most important voice in the room is almost always, not one’s own.

Inspire and support the potential in others

One.Tel’s Directors taught me to always take the time to recognize, inspire and support the potential of others.

I will always be grateful for the faith that One.Tel’s leaders placed in me to drive their critical front line operations, to support in the raising of capital and to manage our call center operation during a time of explosive growth and through an IPO.  They recognized my potential early and gave me every opportunity to sink or swim, to demonstrate grit and resilience, and to benefit from lessons learned.

It was one heck of a ride and it gave me the opportunity to build relationships with my colleagues that have lasted a lifetime.

But most of all, I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have shared their journey as entrepreneurs. The Directors reinforced that when you fail, and you will, you just have to brush yourself off, take the accountability, humility and the lessons learned, and throw yourself at the challenge again.

One.Tel may have had its weaknesses as a start up – what startup doesn’t?? But, it really had a strong heart, great people who really cared, and visionary, entrepreneurial leadership.

I also chose to take the road less traveled, and I believe it is many of these lessons, that have made all the difference.

As a serial en/intrepreneur, Leesa has worked for 20 years on the cutting edge of strategy, communications, technology, cybersecurity and risk consulting. She has advised more than 400+ multinationals and their start-ups in 19 sectors across Europe, Asia Pacific and the Americas and led companies with turnovers from $4M to $14B USD into new markets. She has shared the exhilaration of one IPO, numerous exits and the hard knocks of lessons learned.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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