The ultimate connection: Hyperoptic’s Dana Tobak on recalcitrant councils and politics in taxis

Harriet Green
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Tobak has worked hard to build relationships with developers, and the firm is now seeing that pay off
The thing some have been slow to come to terms with is that BT is not the only solution," says Dana Tobak, when I ask her what the UK is doing wrong when it comes to internet provision. Tobak co-founded fibre-based internet service provider Hyperoptic in 2011. She and business partner Boris Ivanovic, who she has known since her MIT days, had already sold their previous broadband company Be to O2. The UK, with its big entrenched providers and high density residential areas, was ripe for the picking. "Boris's company before Be - Bostream - was operating in Sweden, and he launched 26 megabits per second (mbps) there. The mindset was 'can't we have 100mbps like they do in Korea?' But in the UK: '24mbps? Why do we need internet that fast?'"
Turning Brits on to faster connections - and, indeed, connecting them to faster internet - has been a challenge. First, "it's taken a long time to educate people that the cabling they have in their building isn't enough. It's not that surprising: BT was the solution when you were talking about doing ADSL [asymmetric digital subscriber line], but if we really want to see proper speeds, proper advances, it's not going to be over those same copper wires." Second, "unfortunate" free deals like TalkTalk's have meant a strange relationship with internet: "you'll pay for coffee, entertainment, heating... but not for broadband?"


Tobak and Ivanovic have been frustrated by the contrast between "MPs shouting about the need for faster broadband and the very slow pace of councils to appreciate what we do, and actually install into council housing. Government has said 'we want this everywhere,' we've said we're willing to invest in the council portfolio and upgrade that broadband - and yet that hasn't happened. As an entrepreneur, the idea of a conversation taking years is somewhat silly."
But mindsets are changing. "What we've seen recently is, 'oh you could actually be part of the solution, rather than just a small, niche player that has nothing to do with the governmental aims of having everyone connected.' That makes a big difference."
Now, Hyperoptic is working with over 60 developers nationwide. "If you take a boat along the Thames, you'd be hard-pressed to find a building that either doesn't have our service live or isn't on the schedule to be installed." And the firm is now benefitting from a keeping up with the Joneses phenomenon: building managers get in touch because they realise their neighbours have Hyperoptic's service. "Council houses are the final bastion for us, and progress is coming on. Staff numbers are increasing - we're expanding and training our installation team. And we're now getting about a 95 per cent customer satisfaction rate."


Tobak started her working life in consultancy - she worked for Oracle years before we'd heard of it. "My dad was an early computer professor, so computers felt like home to me very early on in my life and theirs." She studied economics at MIT, but thinks her entrepreneurial skills came from elsewhere:
"the truth is that you can't really understand economics until you're at least 35 years old. The key thing for entrepreneurs is to look at ambiguity and feel passionately about setting it straight. They're people who can see their way through a muddle... I think I have that, and it was really honed by my time as a consultant."
After Oracle, Tobak moved to the UK to work at digital firm Sapient, now owned by Publicis, in a consultancy role. "One of the reasons I joined is that I wanted to live in the UK and they were planning to open an office here." We might be slightly slow off the mark when it comes the internet, but not when it comes to politics. "The politics in the States is absolutely ridiculous. I really appreciate that the debate here is about real, complicated issues. People appreciate that healthcare, schooling, welfare need to be discussed. In the US, it's 'did you mention God enough in your speech? Abortion, guns.' The far left has got way too much power and it's unreasonable. In the UK, when you get into a taxi, for example, you have an educated discussion about a topic. People take the time to understand."


Time and understanding have been vital for Tobak and Ivanovic. "When we started, we thought we were setting up a tech company. I wouldn't have believed you if you'd said it'd be a property company - which is what we've now got."
Working across residential and commercial, relations with residents, managers and developers are everything. A new build is an easier job in many ways, for instance - you install as you go - but getting the service right has been hard for Hyperoptic. "When we first did some of our new builds, we didn't always appreciate how much they could change along the way, and that meant far more work and cost than we'd anticipated." The business has to be flexible - a miffed site manager on a first project with a developer, and the implications can be severe. Even if requests are excessive, for Hyperoptic, it's better to just do it for a quiet life.
But a quiet life doesn't last for long in this industry. I ask Tobak about the BT Openreach decision to upgrade cabinets (that you see dotted along streets) rather than individual homes. "It'll provide an okay solution for now, but it'll only get us so far. If we decide that everyone is just going to have fixed fibre, then we need to decide who's going to pay for it, and in what timeframe. The good news is that there are companies like ours that can come up with ways of servicing a segment of the market in an efficient way."
Of course, Tobak is always going to be on the side of innovation. Talking about her young daughters, she says: "what excites me most is that I know they'll have jobs that we can't even imagine. Who'd have thought that people would be employed today solely to work on social media? It's great."


Company name: Hyperoptic
Founded: 2011
Number of staff: 224
Job title: Managing director
Age: 46
Born: New York
Lives: London
Studied: Economics, MIT; International Relations, Tufts University
Drinking: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pinot Noir, etc
Eating: Sushi, Tandoori lamb chops
Reading: Harvard Business Review; David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
Favourite Business Book: Built to Last, by Jim Collins
Talents: Logical thinking, demystifying ambiguity, cake decorating
Heroes: Jon Stewart, for keeping us honest. The character of Jed Bartlet from The West Wing for the combination of intelligence, morality and humanity
First ambition: To be a doctor
Motto: "If it were easy, everyone would do it"
Most likely to say: Let's take a step back and break down the problem
Least likely to say: Give up
Awards: Hyperoptic has been recently recognised for Best Consumer Fixed Broadband at the 2015 Internet Service Providers' Association Awards, and has held its Best Superfast Broadband award for the last three years in a row. It was also awarded Most Innovative Provider 2013 by Broadband Genie, and Best Urban Network Enterprise at the NextGen 12 Challenge Awards