(Editor’s Note): After an impressive year, Iridium was encouraged to submit for the annual Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® Awards. Iridium CEO Matt Desch took home the honor in the telecom category, thanking the Iridium team and many partners for their contributions toward the company’s growth and success. The awards are given to entrepreneurs who demonstrate excellence and extraordinary success in such areas as innovation, financial performance and personal commitment to their businesses and communities.
We asked Matt for his insights into growing and sustaining a successful business. Here’s what he has to say:
Adapt and grow or become extinct. It’s a fundamental business truth that separates long-term, sustainable companies from “one hit wonders” that are initially successful, but don’t survive major market shifts. The truth of the matter is that sustaining and growing a business is tough for any company. But what if we forced ourselves to look at our assets and our unique strengths? What would we find and how might we connect the dots? And can we see all the dots?
The Iridium network is capable of something no other telecom company does – providing communications to 100 percent of the Earth’s surface. That has always been our biggest strength – our “unique selling proposition.”
But having a unique selling proposition, unfortunately, does not ensure a future. We took a long hard look at the business and discovered that we needed to take our innovation to the next level. To accomplish this, we completely changed our business model and began to rely on our strong ecosystem of partners and their expertise in various industries to grow our reach into different markets and industries. The old Iridium tried to do it all. The new Iridium knew it needed to extend its reach, but not on its own.
While Iridium was known primarily for satellite phone services, we connected with new partners to form opportunities in expanding markets. For example, by focusing on our ability to transmit data – anywhere on the globe, two-way, and in real-time – and at a lower cost than comparable services, we made data communications our fastest-growing business. Our original data device was the size of a brick. Today, it’s closer to the size of a matchbook.
Because our network uniquely covers the skies where cell phones don’t work, we created aviation industry partnerships to introduce Iridium to the airplane cockpit and cabin. We not only found opportunities for pilots to communicate more efficiently and fly shorter routes, but basic data services for the “always on” business traveler who wanted the ability to easily send and receive e-mail via their Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones in flight.
In the maritime sector, we developed a completely new product offering of multiple voice and data lines for crew calling and e-mail for the commercial shipping sector that carries a significantly lower price than the only existing competitor.
In the midst of all the market opportunities presented to us over the years, we also had to manage the most important component of our move to the next level – replacing our entire satellite network which, mind you, is the largest commercial satellite constellation in existence. And in 2010 – despite being in the throes of a major global recession – we were strong enough to secure the financing for Iridium NEXT. At $3 billion, it is the most significant commercial space program underway today.
With our first new satellite launches scheduled for 2015, it’s now time for us to examine our strengths once again. And this time the dots lead us outside Iridium’s traditional world to the area of enabling entirely new space capabilities through our global meshed network. By offering opportunities for hosted payloads on the new satellites, we’re affording public sector organizations the ability to “hitch a ride into space” for a fee, versus spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build their own.
Perhaps the level after the “next level” is not foreseeable. But we do know that few of us can live without being connected wherever we are. Just as we moved away from the original Iridium business model with the help of partners, we expect that technology developers will now help us connect the dots we ourselves do not see, leading us to innovative new ways to sustain and grow our business.