iiNet founder Michael Malone wins Entrepreneur of the Year
"We didn't actually fly anyone out, because I didn't think I would win!" Malone told SmartCompany this morning.
"We were up in a category against some mining giants and some prominent business minds. So we had a few people but apart from myself there weren't many others."
Other winners include Freelancer founder Matt Barrie, who took out the award for technology, and RedBalloon founder and SmartCompany blogger Naomi Simson, who won the industry category.
Malone's attitude as an underdog gels with iiNet's steady rise over the past decade. After starting up in 1993 as a garage operation that Malone used purely to keep his internet connection after graduating from university, iiNet listed in 1999 and is now among the top three internet providers in the country.
In the past five years, the company's growth has exploded. It now turns over $700 million with profit of $33 million – 10 times the cash it had in 2005. Under Malone's direction it has undergone a number of transformations.
"When we listed in 1999, we had consolidated the WA market, but the market had kind of saturated around 2001-02. At that point, the broadband revolution was happening and I saw the same thing happening again."
"I didn't want to have a situation where we cover Perth and nothing else. I wanted to expand to the east coast."
Moving from a garage to a state-wide operation and then a national one has been a long journey. The next focus is consumer electronics and a new research and development studio he calls iiNet Labs.
"I don't think it'll ever make us money. But it's something we like that's very interesting. We've got the BoB products that are doing well. We're walking into a next generation of integrated screens in different devices, it's very exciting."
The need to constantly change how the company works is at the heart of Malone's approach as an entrepreneur, Ernst & Young says, labelling him as a "leading challenger... with a reputation for innovation and exceptional consumer service".
The latter is so tightly integrated into the company's structure that some employees have their remuneration based on customer feedback.
"When you have a business, it can't just be about two or three clever things that you're doing. You need to constantly stimulate innovation."
"If a customer comes in and asks, "why aren't you doing this?" then you need to be able to have a situation where you can respond do that."
iiNet's prominence in the industry is twofold – it provides users cheaper access to higher download quotas, and is at the heart of a court case that could set a ruling for ISPs worldwide.
The case against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft has seen the company in Federal Court twice, and will bring it to the High Court next month. The importance of the case exceeds iiNet's reach, and could inform how other countries approach copyright infringements.
But it's also a testament to iiNet's growth, as according to a Wikileaks cable earlier this year, iiNet was targeted due to its size.
However, Malone insists the values of the company – and his approach as an entrepreneur – haven't changed.
"I don't think my thinking process has changed at all, although my tasks certainly have."
"I spend most of my life on planes explaining things to shareholders and staff. Telling them what the plan is, where we're going, and all these sorts of things."
Although Malone's role has adopted a more strategic responsibility, he admits the thrill of working in a start-up, with no money, and coding as an engineer, still calls to him.
"Writing a good piece of code is really like writing a poem. You get into that haze, writing all night without ever thinking about sleep."
"I miss that sort of stuff."
The full list of last night's winners:
- Emerging – Brian Siemsen, The Siemsen Group
- Industry – Naomi Simson, RedBalloon
- Services – David McMahon, McMahon Services
- Technology – Matt Burie, Freelancer.com
- Listed – Michael Malone, iiNet
- Social Entrepreneur – Melinda Cruz, Miracle Babies Foundation