The CEO of IT at sea firm Voyager IP Mark Elliott shares his life and his business lessons.
Mark Elliott has a business degree from Dublin City University and a track-record in building businesses. He has a particular interest in IT and has lectured on the subject at Technological University Dublin.
Voyager IP specialises in maritime satellite communication solutions and support for superyachts, cruise ships, commercial vessels and offshore gas and oil platforms. It services and support vessels all over the world, providing marine broadband with guaranteed bandwidth on the world’s best satellite networks.
“Apart from attention to detail, determination and opportunity, luck and timing have a significant impact on success or failure as the two famous generals Napoleon and Eisenhower would agree”
The team are experts in VSAT Antenna and satellite network operating technologies and they are constantly working to discover more about emerging technology in those areas.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
To quote the Beatles, it was a “long and winding road” but following the collapse of my father’s main business in the harsh 1980s, there was no money for college, but I wasn’t that pushed to go, so I went to work instead. When my father died suddenly in the early 1990s, I took over some overseas ventures he was trying to set up, but when I hit 28, the time had come for a reset.
I came back to Ireland and was accepted as a mature student for DCU’s degree in Business Studies where I focused on Information Technology and Human Resource Management. I paid my way through four years of college by driving 18 wheelers for a furniture removals company across the USA during the summer months.
After college, I worked in IT-related roles in advertising, but I always wanted to work for myself again. I co-founded and become managing director of 1network in 2002 and co-founded Voyager IP in 2013, becoming its managing director in 2014. 1Network is a complete IT solutions provider for mainly land-based clients while Voyager IP delivers IT and communications solutions for marine business. The businesses complement each other.
“When starting a business, many entrepreneurs overestimate its success, unable to see past the 18-month honeymoon period when friends, family and customers want you to succeed to the realities that kick in from year two”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
Our USP is our ability to manage every part of our customers’ connectivity journey from the moment they connect to the nearest access point on land or at sea. We have clients in advertising, distribution, legal, logistics, retail and engineering through to car ferry operations, research vessels, commercial marine and luxury superyachts.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
When I set up 1network with my business partner Barry Egan on a shoestring and an overdraft, our own reputation for going the extra mile brought our respective former employers on board as clients, who in turn recommended us to their clients, with many still with us to this day.
Having a business background gives me a greater appreciation of why top-notch connectivity is so important to our clients as customer satisfaction, employee productivity and overall efficiency are negatively impacted by unreliable Wi-Fi. We’re now the Irish agent for Ekahau, the global leader in wireless network solutions. We conduct site surveys to discover how your wireless technology is performing in your workplace, identifying dead spots and slow, unresponsive connections to deliver a solution that fits your office or onboard ship.
“Starting a company is like having a newborn, it will dictate when you eat, sleep and switch off for the foreseeable”
Our move into maritime comms and the setting up of Voyager IP in 2013 was down to luck and timing, but before I jumped in, I did my research and saw the opportunities for a new business model within the industry. It was initially funded through our own money and a grant from the LEO in Wicklow. We started out offering VSAT comms in a traditional and not especially customer friendly industry with rigid contracts and other restrictive practices. We engaged in several disruptive initiatives like flexible contracts with the opportunity to upscale your requirements at short notice without a massive financial penalty.
Now we deliver maritime satellite communication solutions for superyachts, cruise ships, commercial vessels and offshore gas and oil platforms. We service and support vessels all over the world, providing marine broadband with guaranteed bandwidth on the world’s best satellite networks.
Most companies in our space are either satellite providers or network managers at their core, but we have expertise in both as well as in cybersecurity, Ekahau smart Wi-Fi solutions, WAN and LAN management. Aside from a couple of big operators and one-man bands, there are almost no ‘middle ground’ flexible and agile multi-disciplinary companies like ours offering those blended services to mid-range superyachts (50 to 80m) and commercial marine operators. We’re aiming to grow our blended services business over the next two years to capitalise on that market gap.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
My ability to read the room and remove the complexity from complex problems are a vital part of my skillset. My business and IT background means I can relate to clients in the c-suite and in the tech dept.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
About 20 odd years ago I came on site early on a Monday morning and met the CEO in the kitchen where he was cleaning out a fridge of food that had spoiled over the Christmas period. I said to him “Why are you doing this when you have over a hundred people working for you who could do it for you?” and he responded quite simply “Because I can”.
This CEO has been a client since day one, has become a good friend and constantly pushes me to be better.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”….. (setting up your own business).
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Apart from attention to detail, determination and opportunity, luck and timing have a significant impact on success or failure as two famous generals Napoleon and Eisenhower would agree.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
When starting a business, many entrepreneurs overestimate its success, unable to see past the 18-month honeymoon period when friends, family and customers want you to succeed to the realities that kick in from year two.
The biggest misconception is the amount of time commitment that a new business needs. To a budding entrepreneur who thought that work ended on a Friday at 5pm and began again at 9am on Monday, I told him that starting a company is like having a newborn, it will dictate when you eat, sleep and switch off for the foreseeable.
“I typically tell our new recruits that if they do not value the work they do, nobody else will”
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
To be honest, we were never busier as we were providing technical support services to the Irish Navy in its testing and tracing operations. For land-based clients we assisted with relocating staff to their homes and in developing work from home protocols, processes, and procedures.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Having worked in the digital space for two decades, I think that digital transformation is at the core of our existence and will always play a significant part in any scaling journey. But we need to be mindful that the human connection is just as if not more valuable, it shouldn’t be left behind.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Apart from wanting to be Ireland’s answer to the legendary motorbike racer Barry Sheene when I was younger, I tend not to dwell too much on what I would have done differently at the outset of my career, every place I worked and every job I did gave me the benefit of huge life experience.
Who inspires you in business today?
Anybody who has the courage and conviction to start their own business.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I typically tell our new recruits that if they do not value the work they do, nobody else will.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I am not an avid reader, probably because of my dyslexia, which was only diagnosed as a mature student in college. But I would occasionally listen to business podcasts like Down to Business with Bobby Kerr on Newstalk and The Business on RTE Radio 1.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
We use Freshdesk, Freshsales, and Teams to keep me and my team on track.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
Facebook to keep up with friends and family and I enjoy being a member of Facebook groups with similar interests.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
That’s an interesting question, each generation has always believed themselves to be the most technologically advanced, in reality they are just another rung on the technology ladder. As a company who derives its revenue from supporting technology, I welcome its continued advancement.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
“Everything will work itself out.”