My business life: David Russell, Host Ireland

Business broadband operator Host Ireland has been disrupting the telecoms market from day one. Here, CEO David Russell gets to the heart of his journey in business.

What journey did you take to arrive at where you are?

I grew up in Warrenpoint, a small town on the coast of South County Down. It’s only when you look back that you realise how idyllic it was, growing up beside the sea, going to school at the foot of the Mournes.

After my A-levels, I studied law at Queen’s University Belfast before heading to Oxford to complete my legal studies.

“Most of the great companies we know today grew out of that one great idea someone had one day and they started small”

After five years of study, however, I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a career in law, and my first proper job was with Fluent Technologies, an IT company based in Belfast via an Invest NI Graduate Programme.

After 12 months with Fluent, I co-founded a drinks and grocery distribution company with my father.

That company is still thriving 11 years later, but starting a business in a highly competitive environment, and in a recession, taught me a lot about sales, resilience and scaling a business.

After seven years, I realised I needed some ‘big company’ experience and took up a position with Dixons Carphone, working around the merger of the two businesses. Just shy of two years later, I joined Host Ireland and became chief executive in 2018.

Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?

Host Ireland was established in 1998, initially as a hosting business, before subsequently entering the broadband market.

When Host Ireland started, it answered the problem of being able to provide connectivity to parts of Dublin other providers couldn’t reach. It was also the only provider at the time offering symmetrical speeds.

From the outset, the company has been a disruptor, and this continues to the present day. 

“Our plan is to continue doing what we’re doing, offering up to 10Gbps of symmetrical connectivity to the business market in the Leinster region”

Host Ireland Business Broadband is leading the business connectivity market, delivering speeds of up to 10Gbps, costs 30 to 40 per cent lower than our competitors, and a unique next-day install.

We are disrupting the business connectivity market and leading the charge on price, service, and support

How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?

The business has grown organically since its launch in 1998, reinvested continually in its own growth and network.

Our plan is to continue doing what we’re doing, offering up to 10Gbps of symmetrical connectivity to the business market in the Leinster region.

“Without a doubt, however, my best mentor and biggest inspiration has been my dad”

We’re focused on continuing to lead the market on price and service. Currently, we provide an industry-leading service in the Dublin market, but we’re not unaware of the potential opportunities outside the Leinster region

What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?

I have always wanted to help drive improvement and that really manifests itself in how I approach business. 

I don’t believe in the status quo and always believe things can be done better, from launching a challenger drinks brands to continuing to improve the connectivity landscape of Dublin.

I have been fortunate to have had many mentors along my journey so far. My chosen sport was rowing and that really gave me my first taste of great leadership. 

We had many great coaches who, through their own personal experience — both ex-military and business — demonstrated the importance of team cohesion and how to achieve it.

Throughout all my roles and the companies I have been able to work with, some great people have inspired me, including Keith Turkington of Fluent Technology and Mark Banchansky, my boss at Dixons Carphone. Without a doubt, however, my best mentor and biggest inspiration has been my dad.

What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?

I have found the most challenging aspect of starting and growing a business initially is always bringing people with you. 

When I started the distribution company with my dad, it was a saturated market, and many thought we couldn’t do it. 

That was difficult, because, as a small business, we relied on partners — from brand owners to our customers. We were a new player in an old sector. 

We broke through by demonstrating our hard work, tenacity, and belief in what we were doing. Eventually, people saw what we were trying to achieve and jumped on board. We had a solid belief in our vision.

Right now at Host Ireland Business Broadband, our biggest challenge around growth is recruitment. 

We want to attract quality people to join and that’s currently a problem. I know, however, that it’s not a unique problem. Every business, regardless of size, is experiencing challenges recruiting people.

How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?

We kept doing what we were doing. It’s not lost on me that, as a critical infrastructure business, we were more fortunate than other sectors, such as retail or hospitality, as we were needed throughout the pandemic.

When it was clear things were going to be different, we were able to quickly mobilise our team to work remotely. We implemented our business continuity planning to ensure our customers were never affected.

“The people who really inspire me are the small business owners who, based on a good idea, put everything on the line to start something new”

I learnt many valuable lessons, but the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of having a good team around you. 

Host Ireland Business Broadband has the most amazing, committed team. This has allowed us to continue to grow as a business and support our customers to the same unique industry standard regardless of the challenges the pandemic is throwing up.

How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?

We have always embraced digital transformation and that has helped us to deliver industry-leading customer service. 

From what we were seeing when engaging with our customers, the speed at which companies were adopting and adapting to digital transformation was gaining momentum pre-pandemic. Now, with the pandemic, this trend has been massively accelerated. 

Companies of all sizes — from sole traders and SMEs right up to the biggest players — are finding new and creative ways to improve their business through digital transformation.

As a connectivity provider, digital transformation has made us even more important. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation, but you can’t do anything with these new technologies unless you have a robust broadband connection. 

This trend isn’t changing, and we’re excited to see how we can continue to support businesses and their digital transformation in the year ahead.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I tend not to look back and I am always optimistic for the future. Even if I could, I don’t honestly believe I would do anything differently.

Who inspires you in business?

Naturally, there are the business leaders who inspire us all —Bob Iger (executive chairman, and former CEO of The Walt Disney Company), the Collison brothers (Stripe cofounders), Sara Blakely (Spanx founder) and Satya Nadella (executive chair and CEO of Microsoft).

The people who really inspire me, however, are the small business owners who, based on a good idea, put everything on the line to start something new.

If we didn’t have these people taking risks, picking themselves up after rejection and going to war each day, then we wouldn’t have the big names like Bob Iger, Sara Blakely or Satya Nadella, who inspire us in a different way. 

Most of the great companies we know today grew out of that one great idea someone had one day and they started small. 

What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?

At Host Ireland, we try to encourage continuous learning. We want our people to keep challenging themselves and the business. 

We operate a strict no blame culture. We have all made mistakes in our careers and we encourage our new hires to take the learnings from these mistakes.

We create a warm and open culture — an environment in which our new hires can feel comfortable to develop and be themselves. 

Our hierarchy is flat, and we give everyone autonomy in their job. Everyone has the shared belief that our customer is the most important thing we have. Absorb everything, take every opportunity.

What business books do you read or would recommend?

I know it’s been said many times, but Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog is an amazing book and I’ve actually bought the book myself for multiple people. 

Thomas Erikson’s Surrounded by Idiots was recommended to me, and I’ve found it an amazing tool to help profile everyone and anyone you work with. 

“We’re a small Irish business. Therefore, we can’t take any customer or connection for granted. We have to deliver every time”

The author points out that we’re all different and, instead of trying to change people, we should work with them and their differences. The book gives you tools and tricks to get the most out of relationships.

I also tend to read any economics book I can get my hands on. Recently, I finished The Levelling by Michael O’Sullivan and The Economics of Belonging by Martin Sandu. 

Both were written pre-pandemic and presented how their authors perceived the economy would go. I wonder now how their updated editions will read?

What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?

I am a gadget nerd. Whenever a new gadget, productivity tool or piece of tech comes on the market, I buy it. I’m also an Apple fan and watch the company’s events and announcements religiously.

I always keep track of advances in connectivity. We have the well-known advances in 5G and Starlink, but I’m really excited about ongoing advances in fixed wireless connectivity. 

We’re not going to see a one-size-fits-all approach to connectivity in the future. We’ll have a mix of solutions. 

From what we’re already seeing in fixed wireless and the bandwidths that can be achieved, the incredibly low latency and speed of deployment, I think it is going to be an important and significant player in the future connectivity landscape.

What are your houghts on the broadband market in Ireland. Will the National Broadband Plan deliver on its targets and is the market competitive enough?

The rollout of a fixed wired/fibre solution of any nature was always going to be a challenge in the Irish market, just from a geographical perspective.

The desire from Government and the team in National Broadband Ireland to make it work is giving the whole project momentum, but completing the roll-out in a timely and cost-effective fashion will be difficult without the addition of a wireless option. 

The world is moving to wireless, and our connectivity landscape must do the same. The connectivity market is competitive and there are many providers offering different options. 

Many of the residential offerings are more than fit-for-purpose. When it comes to business, however, it is so important that you get what is right for your business. Never question the need for a robust broadband connection.

Tell me about Host Ireland’s business model in this regard and the difference it is making in the telecoms market in Ireland?

Our model is simple: deliver strong customer service at a fair price. We have always led the market on price. We have also led the market on customer service.

We’re a small Irish business. Therefore, we can’t take any customer or connection for granted. We have to deliver every time.

We have a product offering for every kind of business, of every size. We offer a solution to every problem — from providing SMEs with reliable connectivity they can trust, to connecting the largest and best-known companies in the world.

The best service at a fair price is the model that has allowed us to become the market leader in business connectivity in the Dublin market.

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.