Interview with Nancy Phillips
An economics major, Nancy Phillips saw teleconferencing as a great field of opportunity - a great field for entrepreneurs.
Larry Nelson: This is Larry Nelson, with w3w3.com. We connect people and organizations to unique and valuable resources. And we are lucky today to be continuing this series, sponsored by NCWIT. In fact, it's really promoted by NCWIT. And that's the National Center for Women and Information Technology. And we have the CEO and founder here with us. Lucy Sanders, welcome to the show.
Lucy Sanders: Hi, Larry. I'm glad to be here. And this is an amazing series. We love this series. And we're very fortunate to have another great interview.
Larry: That's a fact. Lucy, I see you corralled one of your board members. Who did you bring with you?
Lucy: Well, we have Lee Kennedy here today, who is the co‑founder of Tricalyx. And also, as you mentioned, she's a director of NCWIT. Welcome, Lee.
Lee Kennedy: Hi, Lucy. Thanks for having me.
Larry: All right. So let's get right into it. Lucy, why don't you introduce your guest?
Lucy: Well, today, we're very fortunate to have Nancy Phillips here, who is the co‑founder, director, and COO of ViaWest. Welcome.
Nancy Phillips: Thank you.
Lucy: We're very happy to have you here. You provide some awesome services and infrastructure here, regionally, in the west, and why don't you give us a bit of information about that?
Nancy: Sure. Thanks. Very nice to be here. And welcome to one of our facilities.
ViaWest is kind of known as a super‑regional now. We started the company in 1999. And we are basically offering IT infrastructure and managed‑hosting services, primarily to the small, mid‑size enterprise base. I have to say, that's a wonderful group of customers to serve. They have been a group that has allowed us to grow very effectively over the last several years, whereas you might have heard in our industry, there's been a real downturn, certainly in the early 2000s.
ViaWest is currently primarily in three states, here headquartered in Colorado, Utah, and Oregon, and we have a small office in Las Vegas, Nevada, as well. Today, we service companies that range from the frontier lines to some hometown favorites, like the Broncos - wide and varied applications, but certainly in a very fast‑growing industry today, both on more the IT infrastructure side, but today we see tremendous growth in the managed‑services area.
And so we're very pleased to be one of the survivors in the industry and growing at a tremendous rate today, and looking at expansion beyond the current regions that we represent. So it's been an exciting year for us, and looking forward to some exciting new opportunities in 2008.
Larry: Nancy, I just have to bring in one thing here. You pointed out about being a survivor, but you really helped a number of other high‑tech organizations survive through the tough times during the downturn of the early 2000s. And I want to thank you for that, because we deal with a lot of those people today.
Nancy: Yeah. I mean, I think we believe strongly in the community of technologists, and we really want to take a look at all cases, including, we run an incubator program today. We think it's a very innovative program that allows for early‑stage companies to come into a more mature infrastructure and allow them to, we hope, grow more effectively. And so programs like that, along with being able to provide a very broad suite of services to our existing base, I think, have been very opportunistic.
Lucy: Well, in reading about your company, it very strongly came across, your emphasis on great customer service.
Lucy: I'm sure that that helped you get through that downtime, just excellent customer service and attention to the community.
Nancy: Yeah. It really is kind of the backbone of the company. Everybody always wants to talk about the technology, and certainly the sexiness of some of those pieces...
Lucy: Well, they are pretty cool.
They are kind of cool. The reality is they just need to continue to operate at a very high level. But I think, really, it's the combination of technology and people that have made the difference. And I think that's really a testament, that the people that we have been fortunate enough to attract come with a wonderful focus and attention to detail in terms of how we service the customer.
We look at it in terms of developing very long‑term relationships, not, "Gee, let's go sign a one‑year contract and hope things work out." We look at forging very long‑term relationships with our customers and aiding them through all stages of their business, whether it's moving along at a very positive rate, or, at times, they may be struggling and need some help in handling those type of issues.
So we are very embedded in the community, love the markets that we serve, and have a tremendous customer base that have served us well over the last several years.
Lucy: And we were just talking about customer service and technology. This kind of gets us into our first question around technology and how you first got into technology. And there's a follow‑up question, which I'll just tell you now, which is: what technologies do you see today that you think are particularly relevant, especially to your customers?
Nancy: How did I get into technology? You're asking me to really search the cobwebs here to remember that.
But honestly, I just really felt like there was an opportunity, when I was starting out, to get into technology and telecommunications. I just thought that that was an area that was growing, and one that I felt strongly that I could hopefully play a role in.
You're talking to an economics major, and so how I made the leap is kind of an interesting one. But I just really felt like it was an area that would allow growth and certainly one that could spawn a lot of entrepreneurial organizations. And so I think I just sort of came to terms with "I want to be in this field, " and I was very fortunate to find an organization in my early stages of development that allowed me to kind of combine my entrepreneurial spirit along with being in technology.
It's interesting. I've always been involved in service‑based industries ‑ so, whether it was in a technology area, it's really the basis of it has always been service and a monthly, recurring strategy.
And I lived through the era where the Internet was considered a fad. In my view, it just seemed like the next opportunity to apply good, strong service. And so, in the early '90s, we heard an awful lot about how this was all going to fade away. And to be honest with you, we lived through the real boom periods of early acceptance.
I remember, back when I was with Rocky Mountain Internet, the phones would ring off the hook. I'm not even sure we were in the yellow pages at that point, but the phones would ring off the hook with people trying to get access to the Internet. That was a lot of fun.
Nancy: And so, what I've seen over the last several years is sort of the ups and downs as this medium has really matured. It's kind of laughable to think that people thought the Internet wasn't enduring. And, in my view, when we started this particular business, it was kind of laughable, when we clearly went through some downturns in terms of IT infrastructure, because it was considered something that wasn't going to succeed.
An awful lot of companies didn't. But I think we really believed in the plan, we really believed in the opportunity, and we saw the need in the market. We just needed to sort of ride through what was a difficult phase. And so, from my perspective, looking globally, what's really kind of interesting about technology is it just kind of goes through transitionary maturity phases that are interesting.
And what I've seen is, today, there isn't a business or a consumer that isn't touched by technology and the Internet medium and so some of the things that we're doing today to support small, mid‑size businesses are really a very strong focus in the managed‑services area. It's not good enough to just simply provide infrastructure for companies.
They really are looking for additional professional services, both in terms of managing their systems and their network components, to storage and backup, all the way into some of the newer technologies like virtualization, which is really just a big word for ease of operation and speed to delivery.
Clearly, that's an area that we are transitioning into and adapting, so that we can service our customers at a higher level, provide them additional redundancy, at an affordable price.
So I think those fields and those areas are fascinating and ones that we see ability to deploy more quickly and to provide for higher levels of redundancy in companies' applications. We think that's some of the most exciting things that are going on today.
Lucy: And redundancy is important.
Nancy: It is.
Lucy: I forgot to mention, in my last role as CIO of Webroot, we worked with ViaWest. You were our main data center. And redundancy was just the most important thing in my job.
Nancy: It is. It really is taking a lot of the technology and just trying to make sense of it. And I think we do a good job of that. We sit at the table with our customers and prospects and say, "Where do you want to go? And let's try and road‑map this together and find ways that, today may be applicable. And with our knowledge of what's on the horizon, from a technology perspective, I think we can help with that planning as well."
Lucy: Great. I wanted to go back to what you said earlier about your entrepreneurial spirit. What interests you about being an entrepreneur? What is it that you love?
Nancy: My husband would say it's because I'm a control freak.
Lucy: That's a nice, honest answer.
Nancy: I know. It's a very honest answer.
I think, early on, I just really wanted to control my own destiny, and I felt like being an entrepreneur was the best way to do that. I think that that was really always my driving motivation. I had a lot of confidence early on. I don't know whether it was well‑placed, but I had a lot of confidence that I could, with the right drive, do just about anything.
I've certainly learned a lot of things along the way that would say confidence is great, but I think that there are a lot of other factors. I mean, certainly, a combination of very hard work and a little bit of luck here and there, a lot of perseverance.
And growing companies, I think the key is really surrounding yourself with phenomenal people. It brings energy. It certainly brings a lot of skill to the table. But it's so much easier doing it together than it is doing it on your own. So I've been really fortunate to always have great people around, been able to attract them and keep them. So we've been really fortunate in that factor.
I think entrepreneurship, for me, is just kind of a way of life now. I don't think I know any different.
Larry: That's a fact.
I know, over the years, since we've known you‑‑and I must say, one of the disclaimers, as Lucy does, both Webroot and ViaWest are also sponsors of ours, so we do know a little bit more than normal, I guess. But one of the things I noticed is that you have helped so many people along in their career path, maybe whether or not there was any "official mentoring." You've meant a lot to a lot of other people. Let's flip the tables on that. Who, in your life, would be somebody that you'd mark down as a great mentor to you?
Nancy: That's a great question. I'd have to say my family, in many ways. My father and mother, early on, were very instrumental in telling me that I really had a lot of choices, that I could really kind of forge my own direction. They didn't try and push me one direction or another; they really allowed me a lot of latitude and creativity in terms of what I wanted to do.
Early on, when I left University, I traveled the world for two years. It would probably be one of the things I would advise anybody to do, because it really helped me, as a person, understand what it meant to survive, and to live and adapt in a lot of different places. And so, that was really key to me.
I think my parents really allowed me a lot of latitude to do things like that. I really look at them as mentors that were key in really formulating my next steps.
Since then, I think I've used sort of a best practice approach. Which is along the way, both from my customer relationships to various business people that I've met along the way, I think I've tried to pick the best pieces of those relationships to formulate, hopefully, better practices for myself.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't certainly mention my long‑standing business partner, Roy Dimoff, who I hate to say how many years we've known each other and been in business. But I think it is rare today to find someone who you can actually have a very longstanding business relationship.
It's one of the hardest things I hear entrepreneurs talk about, is finding a good balance in a partnership. One where you know what you know and you know what you don't know. You once again try to surround yourself with people that can help bring balance to that. And so I think Roy, I think, is very loyal and very predictable. I think he has been a very kind and generous individual. And I think someone that I've learned an awful lot of over the years. So, I think that he has been sort of a key influence in my life.
Lucy: Well, we just did some panel a couple weeks ago at a conference in Orlando on entrepreneurship. Picking that partner, or having that right partner, came up over and over again. These were young women in computing and in IT that were thinking about starting companies, and they were quite concerned with how you find the right people to go into business with.
Nancy: We're kind of an anomaly, I think. I don't think you find too many business partnerships that have lasted as long. I'm not sure what the secret is, other than a lot of thick skin and a good sense of humor and very similar values. I think those are kind of critical areas.
Lucy: That's a really important thing. We want to switch gears a little bit now, into the toughest time you've had in your career. What was the toughest thing you've ever had to do?
Nancy: I think there have been various stages in the company's growth that I think are really difficult. I think it's been very difficult some days to get the right balance in my life, between starting a company and raising a family. I think that's an ongoing struggle.
If I were to reflect over the last eight years, we started the company in '99, I would say that is a very difficult period in our industry. Between 2000 and 2003, we kind of liken it to the nuclear winter.
Nancy: It was really difficult. I think we've learned a tremendous amount and I think we're a much stronger company, and stronger individuals for surviving it. But I think during those times, it was difficult to persevere.
We had more customers going out of business than coming in. And it was out of your control. It wasn't anything in terms of your execution or the services you were offering. It was really completely out of your control. And so, I think that was a tough time. But I think any entrepreneur or business leader will tell you that the tough times are the ones that really kind of strengthen your metal.
I actually kind of look at it as potentially more character building than I needed, but really a great opportunity to learn a lot of things.
Lucy: It looks better looking back.
Nancy: Yes, it does. In the rearview mirror is a much better perspective. It's nice to be here now, but that we're past all those times. And clearly our business plan did make sense. Clearly our instincts about the industry potential have come to fruition. There were a lot of naysayers during that time. But we persevered. I liken it actually to the best of times and the worst of times.
Lucy: It's really good advice, because being an entrepreneur is not easy. And if you can't survive the tough times, chances are, you're not going to make it.
Larry: That's right.
Lucy: And speaking of advice, we have a lot of young people that are listening to our podcasts, and we'd love for you to give them just some of your advice. If they're wanting to be an entrepreneur, what would you tell them?
Nancy: I'd kind of go back to what I think I mentioned earlier. If you're coming fresh out of school and wanting to leap right into your first business ‑ and I would encourage my daughter to do this at some point ‑ I think it's a great idea to go take some time off and see the world and really get an experience that you haven't had.
Most of your formative years are in an institutional education system. And I think that's great, but I think sort of bringing a practical balance, I think, ultimately, will give you a different perspective when you go to actually engage in a business and start it. And I think that's one piece of advice I would give.
The other is I think there's an awful lot of people along the way that are going to try and deter you from your convictions. And I've been in business for too many years, and even in some of my more recent ventures, we've had venture capitalists say, "Boy, what a great management team. We'd love to back this. But gee, we'd really like you to kind of run this type of business versus that." And so, all along the way, people are going to try and divert you, and for you to really be passionate and to really stay focused on what you believe you can execute on, I think, is a very key thing.
Once again, I think the other is sort of really have a good sense of humor, balanced with the seriousness of what you're doing. But it's kind of a work hard, play hard. Don't lose sight. If you've really kind of buried yourself in your business and you've forgotten the rest of your life, that's probably not a very good balance and one that you're not going to succeed in, business or personally.
So I think those things are areas that I think young people should really think about, because time does go very quickly.
Lee: Yes it does. Way too quickly.
Lucy: And you've mentioned balance in your life a couple times. How do you find this balance between personal life...?
Nancy: Today's not a good day to ask me about that...as I was late in getting home for trick‑or‑treat night with my daughter.
But one thing we did, when we started the business: Roy and I sat down and said, because we knew we were going to do a regional company, that we weren't going to either build or buy anything that was more than a two to two‑and‑a‑half hour flight away. And the reasons for that were to always be in the regions working with the people, but we wanted to be able to get home and spend time with our families. So I think that's been a very important thing in the formulation of the company and one, as an entrepreneur, you get to decide how you want to start it.
Balance is a tough thing. I struggle with it constantly. And I think your family brings you back in line. And I am a big family person. I mean, we spend time. Being a Canadian, we spend time up in Canada every year, undisturbed two weeks that we spend together with family. We ski and scuba dive and do a lot of sports together. We're big on that, as a family.
So you do your best. I guess that's all you can. And if you're worrying about it, it means that it's top of mind, and you're always thinking about how to continue to keep balance. So I've got to make up for last night. I've got to think about that.
Larry: I have a feeling you will. I think only a Canadian can go scuba diving and skiing on the same day.
Nancy: Yeah, exactly.
Lucy: One of things I noticed, from looking at your website, too, is that the company tries hard to put balance into the way you run the company for your people ‑ a large number of awards for "best place to work" or "family‑friendly." And maybe you can say a word or two about those policies too, because that would probably interest some of our listeners as well.
Nancy: It's a good point. We really are family business. I mean we really know the people. I don't think I'll be here if I can't remember or know who all the employees in this company are. It's important that we have that connection and we know what's going on in their lives. We understand the ups and downs. So we are a community here, really. It's important to keep the community healthy.
As a new company, each year we've tried to do a lot of activities towards improving the benefits program, 401(k) matching, and activities that are typical of smaller companies. It's important that we're investing.
And the other is that our employees are shareholders in the company. So that they really have an opportunity as the company continues to grow. But some of the more innovative things we've done is give them an allowance towards any type of education or any type of sports‑type activities. We've had people take motorcycle lessons, guitar lessons, to taking more formal training in different activities. We provide that allowance for them to use at a flexible level.
I think it's all about being creative and intuitive about what is important to your employees, because they really are the heartbeat of the organization. It's key to be in synch with them.
Larry: That's super. One of the things, of course, you got your degree in economics and then you took two years in real world economics. Another thing I can associate with, my wife and I, Pat, we've been business partners for 38 years now.
Nancy: There you go.
Larry: So that's a long...
Larry: Thank you. I know you have done so many different things. You've been in business for quite some time, and you're still a young person. How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to be thought of?
Nancy: Well, thank you for saying I'm a young person, Larry, first and foremost. That's a good question and I don't think about it too much, to be honest with you. But I think probably, that I've lived up to what I said I was going to do. I think my word is very important. So I am always struck by fair and balanced, in terms of our approach, whether it be employees or customers.
I think I really strive to be very fair and open to making sure that we're doing the right thing. Not because it's a policy or it's this, but that we're interpreting that we're doing the right things for people. I hope I lead by that example and provide that type of motivation for my people as well.
I hope I am recognized as a good mother and wife someday. That I actually brought somebody up who, in whatever they end up doing, is a good person.
I think those are key things for me, in terms of looking at what I want to be remembered for. I hope someday, people look back at ViaWest and say, "Boy, what a great company". It really is an example for other companies to follow, in terms of not only execution, but really being a good partner with their customers.
I am really proud of what we have created. I really want to see it live up to its true potential.
Larry: Lucy, is this another NCWIT hero?
Lucy: I would say so. I think it's just really energizing to hear. And you can feel the tie that goes through your personal values, and those of your co‑founder, into the way you treat the employees and how they like to work here, and into the customer service that is so important, and then into the community as well. It's really a nice little ecosystem. It feels really wonderful.
So we're really happy you took your time today, even though you're out of balance with Halloween or Trick‑or‑Treat, that you took the time today to sit down with us. We really appreciate it.
We would like to remind listeners where they can find this podcast. They are housed at www.NCWIT.org and w3w3.com. So pass this along to a friend. And Nancy, thanks again. ViaWest is a lucky place to have you here.
Nancy: Well, thank you very much.
Larry: Thank you.
Nancy: We appreciate it.
Lucy: Thank you.