An electrical engineer by training, IEEE Member Eileen Healy always has had a knack for solving problems. So when she saw gaps that needed to be filled in the telecom industry, she started a company to address them. In fact, she founded a pair of ventures to meet the growing needs of the mobile phone market.
In the mid-1990s, Healy was working at an AT&T affiliate, developing a strategy for launching a mobile network. “There were gaping holes in the telecom industry’s knowledge of how to quickly build a mobile network and to scale engineering and operations processes,” she says. When she could not find anyone to help with those needs, she decided to create the go-to company.
“I went to my CEO at the time and said, ‘If I start a business to help with these problems, would you hire me?’” Soon after, in 1995, she launched Healy and Co., in San Francisco, to help telecom companies with engineering tasks related to building and migrating traffic on mobile networks. And, indeed, her former CEO did eventually give her a contract.
In 15 years, the company delivered engineering service solutions for more than 90 different regional and national mobile networks including AT&T and T-Mobile. Annual revenue for Healy’s company has ranged from US $3 million to $8 million. And in 2000 she patented an algorithm to forecast geographic traffic and market sizes for the telecom industry—which led her to found TeleCompetition, an early data analytics company, also in San Francisco.
DEFINING A NEED
Healy didn’t have much entrepreneurial experience before launching her first company. She learned quickly by necessity as the business rapidly grew. She says she believes her relatively high tolerance for risk and her willingness to fail were what gave her the confidence to push ahead.
She also understood one cannot run a business alone. “Bring in the smartest people you can find,” she recommends, “preferably smarter than you.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean hiring them. Healy set up a volunteer advisory board made up of telecom and other business leaders to help guide her through the process of running the company.
One of the biggest gambles of setting out on your own is the financial risk, Healy notes. But as a self-proclaimed workaholic, she launched her company while also keeping her day job, quitting that a year later when the new enterprise had grown.
Many first-time entrepreneurs have a hard time growing their businesses because they don’t believe anyone can do the job as well as they can, she says, adding, “They try to do everything.” Healy knew she could not. Building a stellar management team is crucial, she says. An early hire was a chief financial officer who, besides managing the finances, was also responsible for the pricing strategy and protecting the company and shareholders.
Healy also sought out legal counsel and built strong relationships with banks. She advises entrepreneurs to keep anyone with a stake in the company informed, of the good and the bad. “Never surprise your banker or your investors,” she says.
Her two ventures have had as many as 100 employees at any given time, but she says it doesn’t matter how many employees you have. What’s important is demonstrating the leadership to make the staff feel empowered and part of the team.
Because Healy and Co. has remained relatively small, it is agile, which can be a real competitive edge. When AT&T hired the company to replace outdated equipment with more energy-efficient systems, for example, or T-Mobile needed help with a merger without disrupting service to customers, Healy and Co. was able to help much faster than its larger competitors.
Healy says she considers herself a bootstrap entrepreneur because she didn’t seek out investors. Instead, she worked the first year to support the business at research firm Gartner, which is where she came up with the idea for her second startup, TeleCompetition. After successfully using the platform to correctly forecast global adoption of mobility services such as infotainment and machine-to-machine communications, she sold the intellectual property from TeleCompetition in 2008 for an undisclosed amount.
“Entrepreneurs have to be good at transitioning and knowing when to sell a company as well as when to start one,” she says. For now, Healy and Co. still operates as a consulting business, providing guidance for mobility networks, as she looks for her next venture.
Healy continues to be involved in next-generation networks and studying how the information and communication technology (ICT) ecosystem will be affected by software-defined networks as we move into 5G (fifth-generation) networks. SDNs are networks of equipment that decouple hardware from software, which is executed in the cloud or in clusters of distributed IT servers.
This development is expected to have far-reaching impacts by digitizing and automating processes, optimizing resource usage, and creating new forms of cooperation and competition in the marketplace. SDNs are being implemented for applications such as autonomous cars and the Internet of Things. Healy is the co-chair of the IEEE SDN initiative, which is leading an effort to radically change the radio access networks that deliver mobile phone service.
She is also involved in green ICT practices to reduce energy costs. Those have included migrating network traffic to newer equipment—a challenging task in operational public networks. She says she also envisions simple low-tech solutions to make the industry more eco-friendly, including using heavy plastic sheets to capture heat in data centers instead of unnecessarily cooling the air.
The ideal foundation for any successful startup, she says, is to find “white space,” an unfilled market where there is no competition and where someone is willing to pay for a product or service. If you can fulfill a real need before anyone else, you’ll have the advantage and can minimize your risk. At that point, she advises entrepreneurs, “go for it!”
This article is part of a startup series introduced this year featuring IEEE members who have launched their own ventures.
This article is part of our March 2016 special report on green ICT.
This article appears in the March 2016 print issue as “A Telecom Entrepreneur.”