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Stars of Telecom
Region’s Telecom Stars Shine Bright
Record Crowd Hears Predictions for an Explosion of Growth, Success

(Washington, DC. Oct. 22, 1997) — Some 1,000 netpreneurs came together last night to identify the enormous opportunities the telecom revolution has brought to Greater Washington and to gain insight into how to succeed from five local entrepreneurs who have captured a large piece of this growing global market.

"This is a unique time, a unique industry and a unique marketplace." noted Brian Thompson, Chairman & CEO of LCI International, who built that once-small company into a $1 billion+ enterprise. "The people on this panel are witness," he added, "in telecommunications, as a result of change and the willingness to grab the brass ring when it comes by, you too can be very successful."

He and the other speakers agreed that Greater Washington has the most important ingredients for leadership and success: talented people, ideas and a critical mass of resources that few other regions can boast.

An Evening With The Stars of Telecom was produced by the Morino Institute as part of the Potomac KnowledgeWay Netpreneur Program, and was part of efforts to encourage and support Greater Washington’s netpreneurial community. Netpreneurs are the people starting and growing the businesses that are defining cyberspace— in telecommunications, computing and information content development.

Morgan O’Brien, Executive VP of Nextel Communications, Inc.; John Puente, Chairman & CEO of Orion Network Systems; Brian Thompson, Chairman & CEO of LCI International; David Thompson, President & CEO of Orbital Sciences; and Mark Warner, Managing Director of Columbia Capital Corporation — all representatives of Greater Washington’s thriving telecom industry—supplied a mixture of strategy, humor, war stories, aphorisms and encouragement in summing up their hugely successful ventures.

A Hotbed Of Communications Opportunities

Greater Washington has long been a hotbed of the telecommunications industry, thanks to the presence of the FCC and other regulatory agencies, but telecom deregulation and a convergence of technologies are bringing a new sense of opportunity. There are now more than 400 communications technology firms in the region. It has become the center of the satellite and Internet communications industries and the trend is getting stronger. "There are tremendous opportunities, especially around niche players," said Warner.

What makes Greater Washington unique, according to Mario Morino, Chairman of the Morino Institute and a successful software entrepreneur in his own right, is its strengths in the "book end" sectors. "What we are seeing today is a convergence, where the lines that divide communications, computing and content are blurring, even being wiped away. This region has the potential to truly lead the next century’s digital economy because we have dominance and growing presence in communications and information content—the book ends—with a strong representation in computing as well."

"Greater Washington is where everything is converging," says Morino, "and it’s opening opportunities that may very well dwarf those of the PC revolution."

Words of Wisdom... And Encouragement

A key message from the assembled telecom stars was the importance of team building.

"Investing in people is just as important as investing in ideas," said Warner, who made his fortune in the cellular industry.

David Thompson agreed, "An A management team with a B idea is better than a B team with an A idea."

Brian Thompson was even more blunt, "Pay more attention than you think you ought to hiring and firing."

The telecom gurus also spoke of risk and reward and the willingness to accept a high level of uncertainty. O’Brien, a former telecommunications lawyer, started Nextel with slightly less than $100,000 from his own pocket and that of Mark Warner. Today, the mobile wireless company has 5,000 employees, 1.3 million customers and a market capitalization of $8 billion. Getting there wasn’t easy.

"Failure in business is so much easier than success. Expect terrible things to happen and keep moving," advised O’Brien, who added on a personal note: "Be lucky enough to have a spouse who doesn’t care if you fail."

John Puente clearly put thoughts of failure aside when he joined Orion in 1987 when the company had one employee, $750,000 in debt and a license application before the Federal Communication Commission for the first private satellite. Up to that time, the civilian satellite industry was held in tight control by the international cartel, Intelsat. Puente fought the monopoly, convinced federal regulators to open up competition and raised $720 million to fund the company.

"You can never give up. Become creative and you can win," Puente said. "There is no barrier too high for a good idea."

LCI’s Brian Thompson told the crowd he didn’t consider himself an entrepreneur in the pure sense, "I didn’t have the courage to be an entrepreneur, but I did take bombs apart for the Navy."

Thompson learned guerrilla telecom tactics at the feet of MCI co-founder William McGowan. After an eight-year stint with MCI, Thompson agreed to take the helm at the fledgling long-distance carrier LCI, against his better instincts. LCI was sinking fast under huge debt, but Thompson managed to raise $38 million and reengineer the company to profitability.

Orbital’s David Thompson had some simple advice about finding capital, "Raising money is hard. Do it as infrequently as you can. When you get the money, do the right things with it." The space delivery and satellite communications company spends 60 percent of its operating budget on its people.

"Attract superb people, wind them up and turn them loose," Thompson said.

Warner labeled himself a "former political wanabe," referring lightheartedly to his recent bid for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. But the former lawyer and lifelong political junky emphasized a willingness to accept failure as a prerequisite for entrepreneurial success. Warner’s first two business ventures crashed and burned, but he struck pay dirt in the early 1980s when he convinced a venture capital angel to give him $1 million to start a cellular telephone business. Warner didn’t look back and built an empire primarily though providing ancillary services, such as billing, to the new industry.

"There are tremendous opportunities around the niche markets," Warner said.

A lengthy question and answer session revolved around education, access to venture capital, telecom opportunities and how to grow a business and yet remain lean and entrepreneurial.

Though not discussed directly, the importance of the Internet underpinned the evening. For example, Orion carries only corporate data and no voice. "By the year 2000, more than 50 percent of the traffic on telephone networks will be data traffic, said Puente.

Lee Taylor, a consultant from Reston, VA., found the event "very worthwhile" and was impressed with the flexibility needed for success. "Whatever twist the industry takes, there is still opportunity," he said.

Sean Thompson, a senior account executive with Koast Communications Corp. in Rockville, was charged up, "I liked their ideas— Don’t be afraid to try."

The event was sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP; EXODUS Communications, Inc.; Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., Inc.; Morino Institute; Orion Network Systems; and Ryan•McGinn, Inc.

Through events like An Evening With The Stars, online forums, and other efforts, The Netpreneur Program works to weave the "social fabric" that supports cutting-edge entrepreneurs who are building network-based products and services. Such efforts help connect, inform and promote netpreneurs and their stakeholders.

Nextel’s O’Brien summed up the audience’s enthusiasm and the vibrancy of the region’s growing entrepreneurial base, "Keep moving. Most times when we look back we see that the decision—right or wrong—wasn’t as important as the fact that we kept moving."

An Evening With the Stars of Telecom

Copyright 1997, Morino Institute. All rights reserved.

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