SMART COMPANY: Inside the brain of a tech tribe

Walking out of the lift at Orcon, you suddenly enter the human brain – winding white spongy tunnels. I’m heading to meet CEO Scott Bartlett, man who’s so obsessed with the brain and what it can do that Orcon’s workspaces are reached by giant inflatable corridors that replicate our complex neural pathways.
How can you not think creatively when you walk to your desk every morning through pathway that gets your synapses firing? “You might have guessed that we do things little differently,” says Bartlett as he settles in lounge chair in his airy Northcote office. The offices reflect the culture. “Our culture puts value in lateral thinking and intellectual capability. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to walk around inside the human brain?’”
Orcon is New Zealand’s fourth largest telco, after Telecom, Vodafone and TelstraClear, although Bartlett concedes there’s quite gap between them and the big three. Still, not too shabby for company that started out of Seeby Woodhouse’s bedroom 12 years ago and was sold three and half years ago for $24 million. That’s when Bartlett was given the top job, and he fully expects to lead the company to the $100 million revenue mark next year.
“We’ve really just been the ‘contender’ brand, but the brand that can seriously challenge the leaders. We’ve been bringing really good internet to Kiwis and that way we’ve been able to carve out name for the brand.”
There are two reasons this contender’s punched above its weight, says Bartlett: really outstanding service (“because telcos generally suck at that!”) and providing competition to the big guys. Orcon has an alternative way of doing things. “Doing things differently is essential for survival. You have to do something that will make people sit up and take notice.”
For Orcon that’s been with products, approach and marketing – oh and the “Orcon tribe”. “If everyone walked out today I wouldn’t have business. You have to get the tribe working as team,” he says. tribe – that’s how everyone at Orcon sees themselves. Bartlett is the chief in the middle and everyone else is the tribe gathered around the camp fire in circle, rather than the traditional office pyramid culture. There’s still pyramid, says Bartlett, but it’s at the centre of the camp fire.
“This creates sense of equality that removes fear,” he says. “You can’t have an effective culture if it’s governed by fear. And no fear means people are happy to talk about their ideas. After all, I don’t know all the answers – no one does – but there are 250 people sharing ideas.”
But, as Bartlett points out, Telecom has 7000 people – in fact by his calculations, more general managers than Orcon has staff. “So we asked, ‘how do we create depth?’ We have tribe mentality. We are smaller, but we can do things better and smarter. We can’t outspend them, we can’t outshout them, we can’t out-technology them for long. What’s left? We can out-think them and we can out-manoeuvre them. If we have happy and successful tribe that is motivated, it will just happen.” He calls the process ‘culturing’ which, yes, has become verb.
Bartlett says the company has been averaging 55 percent growth per annum – it slipped to 47 percent last year during the recession, still an impressive performance in business environment in which many companies were going backwards. “If we see just two to three percent growth per month, we’re not very happy, we need to see more.”
International termination services have become huge part of the company’s financial growth, but even locally Orcon’s growing like weed – quick glance into the sales pools shows calls coming in at rate of 400 new customers day, everyone from ‘heartland’ Fonterra farmers to ‘stylish singles’ and ‘family units’, all categories that get their own targeted products and marketing.
Just 30, Bartlett says he’s pretty much only ever run companies in his working life. Fresh from university, he thought the internet might be big some day so he got job working for little hosting company of five guys, sold it to Quik Internet, then on-sold that to iiNet in Australia. From there, at 26, he was hired to run Orcon when Seeby Woodhouse went into semi-retirement at 30. “I sold the business for him to Kordia, who were silly enough to rehire me as chief, job I’ve done for three and half years.”
Not so silly. “I hope I’m learning all the time. The chief part of my job is to do lot of listening. If I stop doing that, I get out of touch. CEOs get bad at that.” Plus, he says one of his tribe will remind him if he slips; part of the joy of climate where fear isn’t allowed to flourish.
“I’m not finished my mission here. Our single organising idea is ‘think ultimate’. I don’t want to be the best telco – that’s low bar. I want fans, not customers, until I build fan club. The end of my journey is when I have fans. Then I’ll take my skills to my next challenge.”
In the meantime, what about mobile? Yes, confirms Bartlett, you will see Orcon in the mobile space – and this year. Why this year and not before? “If you can’t do anything special and different, you will get anaemic margins. It’s difficult to innovate when you’re putting lipstick on the dog. But we’ve found some really good lipstick. It’s not about doing me-too’s. The mobile space is exciting.”
Finally, I get to walk around the rest of Orcon, through the brainwaves that keep the business dynamic and focused. I find one floor branded with two of the firm’s values, Trusted and Premium, little more conventional. But the floor Optimistic and Alternative is heralded by velvet love seat and purple walls.
I wonder if Bartlett’s home is similarly radical. Not so. He and partner Adrian have just bought home in an up-and-coming Auckland suburb and their first job is to lose the orange feature walls.
“I believe you’ve got to have sense of accomplishment in your work life and feel you’re included in positive culture. Plus, you’re got to be enthralled and happy in your personal life.”
So, will he too retire at 30? “No! As of this month I have an enormous mortgage.”

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