Not everyone has the ability to launch an internet startup, let alone three. But Netregistry founder Larry Bloch has done just that.
Two guys in a living room with a computer is how Larry Bloch describes the beginnings of Netregistry in 1997, co-founded with his business partner Giles Donovan. Quite clearly, this is not where the duo remained. Now employing more than 100 staff, and with 500,000 customers, Netregistry has moved well beyond the realms of a startup – although this is not how Bloch wants to behave.
“It’s still a startup in many ways, it’s almost like a family business,” Bloch insists. “My chief operating officer has been with the company for 10-and-a-half years, my chief technical officer has been with us for 10-and-a-half years. Next in line in customer service has been with us for 10 years. So there are a lot of people that have been committed to this business for a long period of time. Almost all of management has been promoted up through the ranks.”
Capturing the entrepreneurial spirit
After studying computer sciences and mathematics at university in South Africa, Bloch backpacked around the world and found himself in London. “I was trying to figure out what to do next and a friend of mine from South Africa turned up and said: ‘Hey have you heard of the internet?’ And I said: ‘Is that a bar?’ He had this laptop and he opened it up and suddenly there were these pages of information from America and from South Africa; from all over the world. I thought it was incredible.”
Despite knowing little about the net, Bloch and his friends started a company and ended up hosting the first websites of both the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the London Stock Exchange. “I was wheeled in front of the group of managers at the London Stock Exchange to tell them about the internet and I had heard about it two weeks before that. I knew nothing. But you know, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. That’s really how it started. It was all very much being in the right place at the right time and being able to sound credible.”
This entrepreneurial spirit was already in Bloch’s blood, which led him to move on from this company, found another in France and then finally settle in Australia.
“I’m through and through an entrepreneur. I can’t follow anyone. I’ve got this crazy entrepreneurial energy,” Bloch admits. “It’s a good thing when you’re starting things and it’s bad thing in a big company; it’s disruptive. I wake up in the morning with a million ideas and try to get everybody to change what they’re doing to follow my latest crazy idea and of course other people don’t work that way.”
Serving your staff
Putting his staff first has been a motto for Bloch throughout the rise of the business.
“The people here are really important to me,” he admits. “I’m a person that thinks that loyalty in an organisation flows from the top down not from the bottom up. I see my role as being loyal to my staff. I expect my staff to see that I am loyal to them and I expect them to make up their own mind about what the right thing is for them to do in any particular situation. It’s been a successful model for us.”
With staff returning to the business after leaving, Bloch is clearly getting some of the staffing formula right, believing that honesty in the business is incredibly important.
“I don’t have the skills of being a senior corporate manager. It’s a very tightly organised business, but it’s not the sort of business where a manager will tell their superior what they want to hear. All my reports will tell me I’m an effing idiot when that’s what they think. The day they stop telling me that is the day I have no use for them.
“It’s an open, honest, direct, very hard nosed culture, where fools are not tolerated and playing political games doesn’t get you anywhere. Maybe it can’t stay like that forever. And maybe if we had more of those types of people in the business then maybe it would be bigger and stronger, I don’t know. But this is the business I run. And I’m happy with how it is.”
Moving on after mistakes
While Netregistry is currently sitting very comfortably (and seemingly dominating the market if the company’s current spate of internet and television advertising represents its success), it too suffered during the dot-com crash, and was forced to deal with some massive losses before coming back.
“Those early years were a wonderful time when the internet was young and everybody was fresh eyed and full of inspiration of what it will do. Then the money people came along and decided to give a whole lot of money to people who had very little idea of what they were doing. We were caught up in that as well. We were a profitable company at the time and these bankers came along and said: ‘No, you’ve got to be losing money. Making money is wrong.’ So we said: Ok, we can do that.
“And then the bubble burst. We went from 50 staff to about 15 overnight. We had about $2 million of debt, no profit, very little revenue, no hope. Insolvent, I think is probably the best word for it. Although, don’t tell that to the authorities. Basically, everybody around us, Giles and myself, said call in the administrators, shut it down. But I’m not somebody that doesn’t pay debts and so we decided to do whatever it took until we managed to pay off all that money.”
Despite being on the brink of closure, the company managed to continue and eventually turn itself around by 2003.
“We started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and then the company sort of found its feet again. Once we were profitable again and cleared all our debts, we went to the banks, borrowed quite a bit of money, and we bought one of our competitors. We then carried on that mergers and acquisitions growth strategy for some years.”
Now, Netregistry is moving on to bigger and better things, exploring the cloud space and looking into providing small businesses with help getting found on Google, building their websites, email marketing and shopping cart technology.
“The temptation is to always go up the value chain, but I like small businesses,” Bloch insists, saying that every one of his customers is just as important as the next. “People ask me all the time who’s your most important customer, and I don’t have one. Every single one of them is because they’re all only worth something between $20 and $300 a year to me and a $300 a year customer can’t be that important. But if they’re all like that, they can’t be unimportant.”
Knowing that, Bloch has narrowed down his business focus to one very clear motto:
“My passion is for serving lots and lots and lots of companies very well, very efficiently and very inexpensively. That’s my space.”