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The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

Craig:

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch. Alongside my colleague Brad Hine, Product Director for Analytics Solutions at ETI Software, I’m Craig Corbin. Our guest today is Nathan Stooke, the Founder and CEO of WISPER ISP, a fixed wireless broadband service provider.  Nathan began his journey of connecting others while looking to help a friend who didn’t have Internet service at his business. Since then, has guided the growth of Wisper ISP, for the better part of two decades, providing broadband services to parts of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Craig:

He’s a former member of the U.S. National Swim Team and a founding member of the Dyslexic Advantage Board, which is an educational, scientific and charitable organization working to improve the lives of those with dyslexia. He also currently serves as chairman of the board for the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA).  St. Louis Business Monthly selected our guest to their Top 30 Under 30 and he was named as one of the Top 100 St. Louisans to Know by the St. Louis Small Business Monthly magazine.

Wisper CEO’s Passion for Providing Internet Connectivity

Craig:

When I was researching for our visit today, I was impressed to learn that while you were a full-time student at Southern Illinois and on the swim team, you actually started a computer repair company –  in college and in your spare time.

Nathan:

It was funny. I remember I charged $5 an hour to work on people’s computers and I couldn’t keep up with the demand. I didn’t have enough time. I remember talking to my dad telling him that, “Hey, I’m going to double my rate. I’m to go to $10 an hour.” My mom said, “You can’t do that. You can’t just double your rate.” I tried it anyway. I ended up charging $20 an hour. It was a big jump for a college student to pay that back in the late ’90s, but it worked out well. And that was before the Internet. So, you couldn’t go look up how to do things, you had to try things, and figure it out with trial and error. I just loved doing it. I loved helping people solve their technical problems when they couldn’t do it at all.

Craig:

It’s also impressive what you’ve done with Wisper ISP.  I love your slogan “Service is our passion, Internet is what we do”. How did that all come to be?

Nathan:

I had taken the company that I started in college and grown it over the time into an IT consultancy.  When I got out of college, I was really looking to solve some of the problems that people were having.  One of those problems was connection to the Internet. As an IT consultant, I heard and saw firsthand the problems people were having connecting to the Internet. Of course, in 2003, when we started, I was a little bit ahead of the game.  The Internet was important, but it wasn’t direly important at the time.

Nathan:

We started looking at what we could do to provide that connection, how we could bridge that gap. My driving force was my next-door neighbor. We could get cable and DSL at our house, but two miles down the road, we couldn’t get anything but a very expensive T1 or satellite Internet. At that time, satellite Internet had a dial-up upload component to it. I did six months of research and said, “I can do this with fixed wireless.” I convinced my wife it was a good idea to take out $36,000 across three of our credit cards because “Everybody needs Internet”.

Nathan:

She thought it was okay, we’ll do this. Well, the only thing we know for sure about our business plans is that they’re wrong. I took my first paycheck about three and a half years later because it always takes twice as much time or three times as much money or vice versa, but it was a real drive to solve that problem. I loved the feeling of coming in and providing service to someone that couldn’t get it from anybody else. That’s what’s driven us this whole journey of the last 16 years.

Early Prediction of OTT TV Broadband Services

Brad:

I heard that early on you had an inclination that pay TV would potentially go away. Tell us how you came to that realization.

Nathan:

I remember sitting with one of my friends and he had this new thing called a TiVo. This is a brand-new box and it was all about how you could get different TV shows. I remember telling him, “Well, I think pay TV is going to go away. And I think you’re going to be able to go straight to the channel, either Discovery or National Geographic or HBO and buy directly from them and not have a bundle pay subscription.” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’s coming.”

Nathan:

This was back in like 2004 or 2005 and then it didn’t materialize. I was doing research every year, to update my business plan and my research at the end of 2010 said that this trend was really going to be picking up. The pay subscription model that we know of is going to be done. I didn’t know when, but it was going to end. Then I saw a news clip that mentioned that they sold fewer TVs that quarter (I think it was the third or fourth) in 2010 than they did the quarter before.

Nathan:

I remember thinking at first that it wasn’t a big deal because I have ups and downs in my business as well. But that’s the first time in the history of TV sales they sold fewer TVs than they did the quarter before. That’s when it dawned on me that at that time, my four-year-old daughter preferred to watch her iPad or my iPad in her bedroom on a small screen, as opposed to a very large TV. So I went around preaching that pay TV, as we know it, is dead. That was back in 2010. Most people argued with me. Most people said I was wrong and that’s fine. I saw what I saw.

Nathan:

Then Reed Hastings, the Founder of Netflix, did a whole speech in 2015 about how pay TV, as we know it, is dead. The subscription model is dead. Everybody thinks it’s going to go Over The Top (OTT). He had a whole Wall Street Journal article written about him. I’m thinking to myself, wait a minute, I was five years ahead of you saying this. I guess he probably has a little more credibility behind him.

Brad:

I know that not only are you the first employee of Wisper ISP, you’re also officially the CEO, which I’ve heard in the WISP business means Chief Everything Officer. Would you agree?

Nathan:

Yes, absolutely [I wear] many, many, many hats.

 

WISP Startup to Widespread Broadband Service Provider

Brad:

Describe to our audience what it is that you did on a daily basis when you first started and how that’s transitioned to what you do today over the growth of Wisper ISP.

Nathan:

When you rewind the clock back to 2003, fixed wireless was really almost a hobby. You had to be very technical. We were building radios and I say we, I was building radios where I had to pick out the right pigtail and the right radio card and the right power supply and the right antenna. I would literally build them. (I never used a Pringles can, but I might’ve used a first aid box.) We had to build everything. You had to wear all the hats, you had to take support calls and you had to take sales calls as well.

Nathan:

A normal install would take me about an hour unless I got a lot of support calls while I was doing it.  Then I would literally be sitting on top of a person’s house, taking a support call and explaining “No, it’s mail.wisperhome.com” to help another customer. Or I would take a sales call. You have to do that as you start, because I didn’t have the dollars, the money to be able to hire a lot of people. I also didn’t have the work. There was a lot of work to be done, but it wasn’t something that I was big enough to be able to do.

Nathan:

I think one of my favorite stories from back then is we had our phone number on the back of our bucket truck. The bucket truck was my office. I drove that bucket truck around everywhere and there was an 800 number on it.  When you would call in, it got forwarded to my cell phone.  I would talk to somebody and they would say, “Oh hi, I’m driving behind one of your trucks right now.” And I would tell them, “Yeah, that’s me.” They’re saying, “No, no, no, no, no, I’m on the corner of this street and that street.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, that’s me.” They’re saying, “No, no, no, we’re pulling up to the stop sign.”

Nathan:

Then finally they would follow me all the way to my next job. I would get out of the truck still talking to them on the phone and then they would realize, “Oh, it is you that I’m talking to.” They just assumed that I was this much larger company than just me wearing all the hats that you had to be able to get the work done. It was a lot of physical work during the day, going to people’s houses, installing the service, climbing the towers, and anything else that needed to be done.

Nathan:

Then at night you would spend all the time doing the administrative work, doing the research, and learning from WISPA. It’s one of the organizations that we’re a member of, and it’s a really good one with a lot of information. You would learn about what to do and then you’d go out and do it again the next day.

Brad:

When you first started hiring employees, what types of jobs did you initially start to hire for and how did it grow from there?

Nathan:

The first job I technically hired for was a driver, because I was having a really hard time driving the bucket truck, answering phone calls, and staying on the road. I figured that wasn’t safe. So, I brought my dad out of retirement.  He would organize the van, he would drive me, and I would do tech support calls. He wouldn’t let me pay him at all. It was just good quality time that we got to spend together. He helped me get over that hump of knowing that I needed more employees, but I couldn’t afford to hire anyone. So, for about six months, he drove me around and helped me where he could.

Nathan:

After that, we were large enough to hire kind of some of our first employees and they were typically the installers. Those are the ones that would physically go out to the customer site and do the install. While I feel that that is a very, very important role, they represent Wisper, they represent who we are, it was also one of the first roles that I could hand off to someone else. It reduced my drive time and it gave me time to be able to do other tasks.

Nathan:

Every time I hired somebody, I would say, “Okay, I’m hiring you to do this role so I can have more time to do my work.” Then what I would find is that I would have more time to do even more work. Then I would have more people that could do more work and so on – I’d keep working just as much because it didn’t ever really save me time. It just allowed us to continue to grow larger and larger. It wasn’t until we got much larger that I was able to work only 60 hours a week instead of working 80-90 hours a week. We had grown large enough and had enough support staff to be able to provide that customer service that we always wanted to.

 

Cultivating a Customer First Broadband Service

Brad:

I’m sure the more employees you got, the more time you were able to spend on cultivating that customer first culture with all the new employees. Describe your vision now for Wisper, what you’re trying to build in your community and how you want to appear to your subscriber base.

Nathan:

That’s something that I didn’t realize early on that the culture was my responsibility. I was a head lifeguard and I treated my lifeguard role as if I owned the pool that I worked at and I was responsible for what was going on. That’s just the way I always thought. Looking back, I always thought of myself as an owner, whether I actually owned the company I worked for or not. So when I started hiring other people, I assumed they had the same outlook that I did.

Nathan:

It turns out they didn’t, and it turned out that I needed to spend a lot of time on that culture piece. What does that culture look like? What do I want the customer to feel? What do I want the employees to feel? I summed it all up with if I treat my employees really, really well, then in turn, they will treat the customers really, really well. Too many times, large companies miss that, where they mandate that you treat the customer well, and then they don’t treat the employees that well.

Nathan:

So, we try very, very hard here at Wisper. We now have over a hundred employees, after starting with one, we have a family feel and the culture is one of taking care of the customer. It doesn’t mean the customer is always right, but it means that we will treat the customer the way we would want to be treated. The way we do that, is to treat our employees the way we would want to be treated. So far that’s been very, very successful.  I don’t have to ask my employees to go the extra mile in fact, a lot of times I have to tell them, “Okay, you’ve done enough. There will be more work tomorrow. You need to go home; you need to stop working.” It’s all about the customer and proving to the customer that we love them, as opposed to them just being a number for us.

Wisper University – WISP Business Education & Technical Training

Brad:

Staying on that line of communication and educating your employees. I understand that you run Wisper University. Tell us a little bit about that?

Nathan:

I love training people. When we go out to hire somebody, we used to hire the first person that didn’t smell and then bring them in. We were horrible at hiring and then I was perplexed three months later when they didn’t work out.  Then I realized that it was because I just picked the first person that said they would work for me. Now we’re much more selective as to who we hire. The two big traits that we hire for are work ethic and attitude. I can’t change that very quickly in people. You’re not necessarily born with it. I think it’s a learned trait, but if you haven’t learned it by the time you come work for Wisper, it’s kind of hard to teach you work ethic and attitude.

Nathan:

But if you have a good work ethic and a good attitude, we can teach you to do anything. We can train you to do anything. So we have Wisper University kind of more out of necessity. We had it for ourselves. Every year I got asked by lots and lots of WISP owners, “Could you please teach my employees? Could you please train them?” I thought that nobody really wants to know how we do it, that this was just an internal program.  Then as more and more people asked, we said, “This is actually something super important. I want to raise up the industry and make us better.”

Nathan:

So we opened up our internal classes to anybody who wants to join. You don’t even have to be a WISP if you want to go through one of our business classes.  We do installer training. We do inventory control. We have some marketing classes as well. You can even spend a day with me, and we go over where they are in their business and what we’re doing. It’s something that’s been successful, and it’s really cool. Some of the people I’ve started to form a good relationship with, especially the ones that spend a day with me, and it’s neat to see them grow over time in their business and what they’re doing. And we learn a lot from it too. So it’s not just a one way street. We love learning from other people and how they’re doing neat little things that we can incorporate in what we’re doing.

Brad:

That is so important for building community, especially among all the WISPs in North America, sharing information back and forth, comparing and contrasting what you’re doing in certain geographic areas compared to others. What would you say in terms of trying to educate the customer/subscriber? How does Wisper University help your employees better service the customer?

Fixed Wireless Broadband is Not a Mobile Connection

Nathan:

We have a section where I talk about the RF [radio frequency] behind wireless and I go into a little bit more detail, on a non-engineering and nontechnical basis, of how wireless works. One of the big aha moments for people is when I say that we all know how well our cell phones don’t work, and they all laugh. (We all know our cell phones don’t work that well.)  Then I follow-up with “we’re wireless, but we’re not mobile.”  In order to have mobility, you immediately have to give up throughput and you give up reliability.

Nathan:

Most of our customers don’t even know about fixed wireless service, they just know it’s wireless.  When customers are concerned about the reliability of their “wireless” connection we can help explain to them that we’re not mobile. We install an antenna on the outside of your building or your house. That is a fixed connection that allows us to put in a larger antenna than the tiny little antenna you have in your cell phone. That also allows us to have a very reliable connection and actually a very fast connection as well. That’s one of the biggest things that helps everybody understand that we aren’t a mobile provider.

Nathan:

The other misconception we have a lot is people thinking that we’re a satellite service provide because it looks like a satellite dish, just like the one going from my TV. So, we explain that we’re not a satellite provider.  That satellite has to go all the way up out of outer space and back. And our service goes to a local tower, a terrestrial high point somewhere. When we explain those things to our employees, then that helps them non-technically explain it to someone who might be trying to figure out what the differences between a cable connection, a mobile connection, our service, and DSL. We’re able to explain that to them in layman’s terms. So they understand better what they’re actually getting from us and why ours is different than their other options.

Providing Customer Service with an Internet Connection

Craig:

How did the Wisper ISP grow to the point now where you’re serving portions of four different states?

Nathan:

It’s always been my dream. After I did about six months worth of research about 16 years ago, I realized this was a mom and pop industry and that there’s nothing wrong with that.   That’s what it was and that’s where we were.  But I wanted to create an industry. I wanted a lot of customers and I wanted a lot of employees. Every once in a while, I’ve questioned why I wanted a lot of both of those, but for the most part, I wanted a lot of both and I wanted to be able to affect people’s lives.

Nathan:

The way we’ve been able to grow is that we focus on customer service. Our industry sets the bar very, very low. We’re right up there with the IRS and the airlines as the companies that people hate to do business with. I think four or five of the top ISPs in the U.S. are in the bottom 10 of the companies that have the rankings. So, we’re looking to provide great customer service. It just comes in the form of an Internet connection.

Nathan:

So, most of our growth was organic. Up until a few years ago, we didn’t even have a marketing department. We couldn’t keep up with the demand because you would get our service and then you would tell your neighbor who would tell their neighbor, who would tell their neighbor. And it was just as fast as we could possibly grow and what we could do. Our limitation has always been just access to capital, which is a good problem. I am not complaining at all about that that’s one of our only constraints.

Nathan:

But really, it’s that love for the customer, so they don’t feel like a number, so they don’t feel like you don’t care.  We go above and beyond for the customer, but it isn’t like we have to do that every day. It’s whenever we deal with them – for example anytime we have a billing dispute, we credit the customer right away. Then if we find out that the customer was wrong or something wasn’t right, then we ask for that money back. But I’ve worked with so many large companies where it took me six months to try to get my money back when they double billed me. It was clear to me that they did it and just hoped that I would stop and get tired of calling in.

Broadband Service Area Growth but Staying Local

Nathan:

We’ve really grown because of that customer service. We’ve also grown opportunistically. We went into the four states where we provide service now because we saw a need in these different areas. We had an opportunity to either buy another WISP or to go start fresh in that state. As we grow, what I desperately do not want to have happen is to grow too large and too big to where we aren’t local. We are putting in a lot of safeguards to try to make it where our local employees/boots on the ground have a lot of autonomy and a lot of empowerment to make the right decision for the customer. I think that’s so vitally important as we grow large that you can’t forget the reason why we were so successful. It was because we were the local person, as opposed to being managed from a corporate headquarters, two states away.

Broadband Partnerships & Acquisitions

Brad:

You talked about growing through acquisitions. Partnerships and certainly acquisitions are a big part of any growth spurt of a WISP. Can you talk a little bit about some of the acquisitions within the last year or so?

Nathan:

This is where my dyslexia, I think, is a real benefit to me. I spent my entire student career figuring out how to get around the lack of the ability to read. I read at a sixth grade level and spell at a third. And if anybody doesn’t believe me, just wait until I send you an email. I promise I read it over, and I thought I got all the problems out of it, but your brain just read it really fast and it will put the right words in and the right spelling.

Nathan:

When I started doing acquisitions, it was because a lot of the people who were operating as a WISP were doing the same thing I was doing, they were solving a problem. One of them was a grocery store owner and they had a chain of grocery stores. They saw a need for dial-up, so they deployed dial up and then they got into wireless. One day they woke up and said, “Wait a minute, why are we even in the ISP business? We’re a grocery store chain owner.” We were able to come in and buy those customers for them, because my passion and what I do is provide Internet. We do that very, very well. That’s what we focus on. We’re not divided by doing other things or trying to do other things.

Nathan:

We have always looked at acquisitions as a plan B, organic growth as a plan A, but plan B is acquisitions. And the reason I say my dyslexia is a real benefit here is that I didn’t have any money to buy any of these WISPs. So, I would go into them and say, “Hey, I need you to finance the deal. I will pay you out over the next four years, or I’ll pay you out over the next two years. Here’s the price I can afford.” They call that seller finance in the financial industry. But I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I just knew that I had no money and if you want me to buy you, you have to do it this way.

Nathan:

I talked to so many WISP owners early on that were like, “Well, but how did you come up with that?” Again, I had no money. If I wanted to buy somebody, I had to have them finance it. And they would tell me that talked to a lot of banks and the banks just said no. I told them that thinking outside the box and coming up with a solution, this was a way for us to solve the problem.  We’ve done 33, 35 acquisitions since. Our smallest one was five customers. Our largest one was several thousand customers. I even had one ISP just give us his customers. He gave us $10,000 a month worth of customers because he was in a billing dispute with AT&T and if he walked away with nothing, then they wouldn’t come after him. That worked out really well in our favor.”

Nathan:

It’s because we were there thinking about how do we grow what we’re doing and that we’re very, very good at what we do. We’re not distracted by other things, and we are willing to think outside the box. I think it’s so important as an entrepreneur to be able to do that – just because other people aren’t doing it doesn’t mean you can’t figure out a way to get it done. That’s what we did with those acquisitions, especially early on.

Brad:

As you make acquisitions, you grow into different areas, and different types of industries. When we first spoke, you mentioned just a great story, that I would love for you to reiterate about a farmer that introduced himself to you and really didn’t know anything about technology.

Providing More Than Broadband Services – Connecting Families & Communities Together

Nathan:

This is a story that makes you feel like, I love coming to work and I’m doing really good work for the communities. We do a thing called a Tower Party, and that’s where we literally go set up a tent underneath one of our towers or in the town park. We give out free food and we talk with prospective customers, but mostly we talk with our existing customers. We might have anywhere, depending on the size of the town, 20 to 100 people there.

Nathan:

At one of our parties that we had early on, somebody came up to me and said, “Well, son, do you own the company?” And I said, “Well, yes. Yes, I do.” He goes, “Well, I don’t know nothing about technology but my son moved back to the family farm because your Internet was available. Now I get to see my grandkids every day. I get to see my son every day. And it’s absolutely amazing that you’re out here providing this service because I could be with my family.”

Nathan:

And wow, that was just so moving. It’s so awesome to know that that’s what we’re doing here. As ISPs and as WISPs, especially in the rural market, we’re allowing people to live where they want to live and still be connected to the rest of the world. It’d be one thing if that were the only story, but every time we have a Tower Party, I hear stories like this.  I remember I talked to one lady who she said, “I’m just so thankful that you provide service. It’s amazing service for us – my daughter works for a high tech company in Silicon Valley, but she lives here in town and she’s able to work remote because of your service out here.”

Nathan:

And again, wow, all those stories are just what makes it worth getting up every day. It’s worth coming out here and trying to do the best we can because you’re truly affecting people’s lives and their ability to live where they want to live and connect where they need to connect. It’s so awesome to know that that’s what we’re doing. And we can look back and say, this is what we did. This was my career. This was my business. We did this and look at all the people we were able to help.

Craig:

That is a great story.  A big part of what is going on with Wisper ISP is that the Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) awarded $220 million for your organization over the next 10 years. I would love to have you back on the Broadband Bunch to talk about that.

Nathan:

It’s an exciting time! We won all of that money that’s going to allow us to do what we’ve always done, but a lot faster. We’re excited about what it means for our company and what it means for the customers.  I’d love to come back on and talk about it.* It’s a great topic for where we’re going and what we’re trying to do.

*Listen here to the additional episode with Nathan where he discusses the CAF II award and WISPER ISP’s partnership with Microsoft Airband.

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