Beer and Broadband (Episode 1)

Brian HollisterBeer and BroadbandLeave a Comment

[00:00:00] Brian Hollister: All right. Welcome, everyone. Welcome to the first and what I hope is to be many Beer and Broadband discussions. I think there’s plenty of broadband discussions and beers that happen, but we’re officially putting something together that we’d like to hopefully be a series. My name is Brian Hollister, and I’m the CEO of Bonfire Engineering and Construction. I’ll be your emcee for today’s discussion. I’ve been in telecom for over 20 years. Our business is focused on doing all the design from central office all through the outside plant, to the customer. We do full design and full construction of broadband networks.

I’m also a big fan of beer. I believe that collaboration and discussions are always better over a pint. As we mentioned in the invite, our goal is to educate, connect, inspire, and depending on how many beers we have, probably entertain. This is going to be a conversation, not a presentation, with fellow leaders across the industry. I’m very thankful for these gentlemen that have joined us today and are volunteering their time to talk about the issues that we’re all facing.

For those of you that are listening, if you have questions, please put them into the chat window. Nick Dinsmoor on our team here will be watching those and will make sure that we answer as many of those throughout today’s meeting.

So, let’s start off by doing some introductions. Let’s first make sure we all have a beer in hand. Is that checkmark? Beer? Beer. All right, good. All got beers. That’s great. We are focused on the most important priority. That’s good. Let me kick things off. I want to get started. Let’s start off with Brian, then Paul, Nathan, and Daniel. Each one of you do a brief introduction of yourself, the company you work for, a little bit of background, and that’d be great.

Brian Worthen: Absolutely. My name is Brian. I’m the CEO of Mammoth Networks and Visionary Broadband. This is a very interesting time for us right now because we’ve been developing broadband since 2000 and tackling that rural markets, such as Kremlin. The impetus for broadband in a COVID environment especially, which I think is a timely discussion we’re going to have today, you pair that with the elections and whatnot that’s going on, now students at home, and people working from home. It is pretty rewarding what we’re doing. I oversee that broadband development in a team that spans from Spokane, Washington to Billings, Montana, down to Albuquerque and Durango area. 

Brian Hollister: Great, thanks. Paul?

Paul Sulisz: Thank you. I’m Paul Sulisz. I’m the CEO of Biarri networks. Biarri was founded about 11 years ago, where our founders got together and tried to make some really cool tech and mathematics accessible to many people. They felt that optimization and automation shouldn’t be held tightly for a few people. It should be democratized.

So, over the last 11 years, we’ve worked across the world. Initially, we started out as a software company, then we had to pivot into services about five and a half years ago when we enter the US market. Since then, most of our work is focused on rural America, working with cooperatives, utilities, public and private power companies, those that will never build the fiber. We’ve also had enterprise software in other parts of the world. We’ve done projects in UK as well. We’ve seen some interesting things.

Our approach is unique because we try to use really good, interesting tech that really focuses on geospatial data. We have a digital network engineering approach, which allows us to go speed and scale. It’s been really interesting. We roughly, at any given stage, have between half a million and a million homes passed and flight. We try to do our bid as well, Brian, to your point. For us at Biarri, we feel quite compelled that we need to step up to the mark and try to make an impact. I’ve got kids at home that are trying to remote learn, and I know there’s others. Apparently, the latest stats is nine out of ten kids globally are home, which is a huge challenge not only for us parents but for the kids trying to learn. I think we all have a duty and obligation. That’s what’s keeping me up at night but also giving me some fire to crack on and try to do it a bit.

Brian Hollister: Great. Absolutely. Nathan Carbo?

Nathan Carbo: [00:05:00] Had to unmute myself there. Hey. My name is Nathan. I’m with System Services Broadband. We’re a MidSouth based OSC contract firm. We primarily deal with HFC and fiber, the home networks. We have the same customer base we’ve been working with for quite a long time. It’s pretty simple. That’s what we do. We’re just the contractor with the muscle.

Brian Hollister: Cool. Thanks, Nathan. All right. Mr. Danny Reed. You’re up next, sir.

Danny Reed: Thanks, Brian. I’m Danny Reed. I’m the owner of Splash Fiber. Splash stands for splice and lash. We do mostly aerial fiber construction, installation. We also splice, test, and do all sorts of different testing on fiber. My background has been mostly in fiber specifically. I started in industry after the army several years ago. I worked for JDSU for a while and learned the technology behind fiber, coax, and also twisted pair but mostly fiber. We deal a lot with fiber to home. We’ve been doing a lot of small cell lately, but mostly outside plant construction.

Brian Hollister: Great. Thanks, Danny. Thank you, everyone. All right, great. I think we have a great roundtable today, a lot of different perspectives all around the broadband industry. Let’s get things started off here. Clearly, main topic of conversation is not just our industry, but across all our businesses, how we’re running the business in today’s environment, keeping our people engaged, healthy, happy mentally, and also planning for post pandemic growth.

Let’s start off with people. When you think about it, everything we all do, except for Paul, has a lot of horsepower behind the scenes with the code that they’ve created but still has an amazing amount of people. We have a ton of people in this business. Let’s start off with really thinking about the people and the things that we’re trying to do to keep our teams focused on doing the best job they can in this crazy environment. Let’s start off with Brian. Mr. Worthen, I know you’ve been in the industry for a long time. How are your people handling this change, the new normal as we’re all starting to say? How are you helping them through it?

Brian Worthen: In our business, it’s easy to put things in perspective. We talk about this a lot here. We’re powering up 911 centers, we’re powering up hospitals, we’re the redundancy for a number of hospitals, school districts, counties, cities. So as a provider of those services, when I’m talking to my staff, it’s easy to say, “The community relies on you.” The interesting thing about the situation we’re in today is there’s also the aspect of keeping your employees healthy. We find ourselves actually empowering our employees and telling more stories about, “Hey, what you’re doing is helping planes land. The hospital in Wyoming treating the most COVID patients, we’re providing the internet there. It drives their home.” It’s that perspective that’s needed. There’s a dichotomy. There’s a group of admin folks that can work remote and work from home, and then there’s the field personnel, that’s what they do. There’s a lot of attention right now to grocery workers and people stocking shelves, and the appreciation to the trucking industry.

When this is all said and done, I think there’s going to be appreciation for what we’re doing, all of us on this call, because we’re working towards keeping people connected. We’re seeing gaps in student connectivity and home connectivity. Talking to our employees about that solution and them being a part of that is helping with that discussion.

On the flip side, we’re having to tell employees, “Make good decisions. Protect yourself.” Even the residential installs, we’re starting to install in the garage or other locations where there’s not as much customer interaction. I even said that it’s protecting our employees and their health, but there’s also an aspect of protecting our customers. It’s a storytelling process, and it’s an engagement process. We find a need to talk to our employees more during this time.

Brian Worthen: You’re on mute Brian.

Brian Hollister: [00:10:00] Gosh, dang it. Sorry, guys. We’re in the same boat. I feel like it’s constant engagement. There’s not ever enough. One of the things we’ve been starting to do a lot is daily huddles with each workgroup. A quick check in, how you doing, what’s going on, leveraging video conferencing as much as possible but we’re like you. We have some of our team that was able to work remotely very easily, engineering and back office. But of course, the folks that are on the front line, in the field every day were very different. We’ve had to do a lot of changes and think through a lot of those kinds of components.

Before I call the next person out, one quick thing. I’m curious. How many of you right now are doing this conference or this call, let’s not call it conference, with kids at home? Okay, let’s just say I got everyone. All right. I’m just curious because it’s the new norm. I think we were laughing right before we hit record as other folks came in. We all had a, “Please, kids.” I know it’s been okay to come in and break in on conference calls because they’ve love it. I’ve an eight and ten year old but had to really lay down the law like, “Please, give daddy one hour today.” We’re all living in this new norm.

Let’s move forward on. So Paul, let’s move to you. Your team is more office bound and spread out geographically. How has it been transitioning your team to 100% remote work environment? What types of tools are you guys using, challenges that you’ve encountered with moving your team suddenly to all remote situation?

Paul Sulisz: Sure. In some ways, I suppose we’re fortunate that we’re not on the frontlines. We do have a number of offices around the world where people typically come in and do their work. Most of the work we do is cloud-based systems. We use AWS heavily for most of our work. We use the Google Suite for docs and other current ways to collaborate on documentation. We use Slack. We use Flowdock. We have a lot of young, tech savvy people. They love their tools and their tech. We often try to bring in new things, see if they work for the broader team.

From that perspective, we felt we were appropriately ready to take on that challenge. The challenges were more around people that could no longer come into an office, feel and have that aspect of camaraderie, and the social aspect of being around their teammates, which a lot of them really enjoyed. We have daily rhythms where everyone does a dial-in in the morning to stand up. It’s 15 minutes. It’s pretty quick, just to get aligned and get on with the day. Some of us have been doing that remotely via Google Hangouts or Zoom.

There were a large concentrations of people in our Australian offices and the Philippines that would come in every day and love the social aspect of their job. There was a tough transition when we initially said, “If you can work for home, please work from home.” At the course of a couple of weeks, we needed to lock that down. As an executive team, we decided that we mandated working from home. We had instances where in certain areas of the Philippines, there wasn’t great internet. We managed to organize dongles to be sent out to those employees so they could work effectively.

Something that we wanted to stress with everyone from the get-go is we don’t expect everyone to feel like they’re 100% productive. They’re efficient. This is different. It’s okay. We expect the dips in productivity. It’s fine. Everyone’s in the same boat. Our customers get it. We kept stretching them pretty regularly.

As an executive team, we set up a daily COVID-19 call in the afternoons where we check in between us, and each of us, we’re checking in on other staff. We had phone tree set up by our staff. We had YouTube channels to show how people exercise. So, really going above and beyond the work in trying to keep things social, keeping an ear out and eye out for each other in terms of not only how we’re feeling about work, but how we’re feeling as people. [00:15:00] We said, “Look, we get it if you don’t want to have your video on because you haven’t showered yet, but we’d really rather see your face because we want to see your body language. Are you doing okay? What do you need from us? What else can we do?” That worked really well, and the team stepped up in a fantastic fashion globally. As I said, we try to keep check on each other from mental health. Everyone’s going through different things in a different way. As you pointed out, Brian, I’ve got three kids at home. Everyone’s got different reality of what they’re trying to fit in around work and things like that. We’ve tried to make that okay. Let’s just do what we can. We’ll be fine.

For the most part, we transitioned really well. I feel like it’s dragged on. This is week four or something. It’s starting to get a little bit old for some people. We’re just keeping a very close eye on that. More recently, the head of People and Culture brought in an initiative to offer Employee Assistance Programs globally, where people can speak to a counselor anonymously. It’s fully confidential. We’re setting that up now just as a secondary line if people want to go speak to someone. They may not want to talk to their direct manager, or they just want someone they can just spitball stuff with. That’s something we’re bringing online now. It felt like the right time, and we’re fortunate that we can crack on and do that. We’re fortunate that we could transition and keep productive, and not really slow down the rate of production of design work or engineering work for that side of the business. The other side of the business, that’s sites based. People can just log in via browser to self-serve, that sort of thing. Support there has been fine.

For us, the challenges have been more around just the health and well-being of our staff as people more so than the work. To Brian’s point, we’ve tried to also advocate, tell stories, and say, “Hey, you’re making an impact. This is important. There’s nine out of ten kids home at the moment globally. There’s kids in rural America that have no internet. People are driving to McDonald’s or outside school to try to do their homework. What else can we do? What are we not doing?” I’m trying to get that call to action through the entire organization.

As much as us, leaders, feel that burning, it’s important that everyone has that sense of responsibility and accountability to make that difference. It’s been an interesting time. In many ways, we’re being fortunate but there’s been some adjustments. As I said, the focus has really been on just health, well-being of the staff.

Brian Hollister: That’s great. Thank you, Paul. I feel the same. We’ve been very humbled by this whole thing because we’re an essential part of the broadband business, the whole industry. We were the same way. We said, “Okay, everyone. We understand you got people at home. Now, we’re in your environment. Your children, they need help.” I’ve an eight year old that barely could get on a computer that now knows more about Zoom than I know. It’s been amazing to see how resilient the kids are through this change, but we’ve been really, from our standpoint, making sure that we’re keeping communication open, touching people as much as we can virtually, making sure we’re hearing them out, and talking through. We’re doing the same thing, Paul, letting people know that everything’s different. We still need to get our work done but we also know you have a totally different thing to manage at home. If you’re on later in the evening or earlier, it’s all good.

For us, from a productivity standpoint, we haven’t skipped a beat. That’s been amazing but I personally do have a lot of concern to make sure, as you’ve pointed out, this fourth week now is starting to weigh on us, everybody. It’s like this is weirder and weirder. We really got to make sure we’re all looking out for each other. Thank you, Brian and Paul. Those are great comments.

All right. So, let’s move on to the next topic. But first and foremost, let’s do a check in how we all doing on our cervezas. I need to check. Are we doing okay? All right. Everyone’s good.

Brian Worthen: I made a mistake. I thought Nick wasn’t spelling correctly. I thought it’s beards and broadband. I had to push this baby out. I’ve got a Jones soda. That’s what I’ve got.

Brian Hollister: Touché, Mr. Worthen. [00:20:00] Touché. All right. Let’s move on.

The next one is rules of engagement. Obviously, they’ve changed for our people on job sites or dealing directly with customers, partners. Everything’s changed. I’d really like to talk about those rules of engagement and what you had to do to put together new rules, to focus on keeping your teams as safe as possible, and of course, your customers, as well as the partners you work with.

Let’s start this one off with Nathan. What are the situations that you’re running into, and how are you dealing with them?

Nathan Carbo: We’re dealing with a lot of the same things that Brian and Paul are, as far as just trying to keep our people safe, having the daily COVID calls, constant updates to our team, those engaging conversations with them about the importance of what we’re actually doing in the field. For our guys, we’ve tried to issue them new PPE with guidelines on how to use it, facemask, glove, hand sanitizer for the truck, sanitizing solution for the vehicles, the office when they’re there. We put in new guidelines to restrict access to our facility from everybody, including our customers. We’ve asked our customers to only respond to us remotely through phone calls or through zoom meetings as well.

When we’re out in the field and going into businesses, we find that most businesses around here in South Louisiana are closed, doors locked, everybody’s gone, everybody’s at home. We struggle to complete a lot of the projects that were being issued because of that. There’s some challenges in that but it’s just a constant education to the team, a constant conversation with them, and engaging the customer in that conversation as well, trying to keep the remote thing going, the social distancing. It’s working out. Everybody’s been very accommodating. We’ve all had to change the way we do things. It’s going.

Brian Hollister: You said something interesting. You guys are holding a daily call just around this topic. How does that work with the team? We’re all learning day by day. These situations, is that it?

Nathan Carbo: Yeah, and we cover the new laws and whatever has been talked about that day. Everything’s changing day to day, hour to hour. So every afternoon, we’re hosting a call. All of our leadership staff is on it. We’ve got multiple office locations around the US that we’re dealing with. Everybody’s on that call. We’re talking about every scenario that we’re dealing with, what has changed in the last 24 hours, and then how we’re proceeding with that. It’s been very fruitful. We get a lot of feedback from the guys. They don’t feel as worried in that

Brian Hollister: Having a constant communication.

Nathan Carbo: Absolutely. The more you know.

Brian Hollister: Exactly. We’re all dealing with it day by day. Thank you. That’s great. Danny, with you, has some of your safety or training protocols on site had to change at all during some of this change? 

Danny Reed: Yeah, a little bit. We’re pretty small. That’s been helpful. We can keep guys separated for the most part. Most of the crews act fairly independently. We don’t necessarily meet up every morning with large groups of people. That’s been helpful. The big thing is keeping guys out, to be quite honest with you on small crews, keep them out of gas stations, keep them out of places where they can congregate. So, we put more porta johns out on site where we’re working. That’s been honestly the biggest change, just to keep them out of those gas stations and stuff like that, getting them water out there in the morning, just have one person on the gas station stuff. That’s been the biggest change for us.

As far as our customers, I’m usually the one or the foreman. One person deals with our customers to limit the contact there. That’s been the biggest thing. Some customers are requiring of us that we wear face masks and stuff now too. We’ve had to purchase some of those things. To be honest, it’s hard to find them. Sometimes, you just have to go cut shirts off with sleeves or sleeve off the shirts and make a face mask for them to wear. It’s just been some small things like that. Luckily for us, we’re pretty decentralized. Our foremen are pretty autonomous generally. We’ve tried to keep continuing through this and trying to keep things as [00:25:00] normal as possible. I found that at many times, there are stressful situations to keep everything as normal as you can. That’s what we’ve been doing. Ignore them if we can’t. It’s hard to do it now.

Brian Worthen: I agree with that, if I may chime in. We’re finding a lot of our employee discussion in Slack is about non-COVID stuff. They’re making light of something they watch on TV, music they’re listening to, or how well they’re doing in a video game. The other thing that’s interesting is, when I’m hearing these stories, there’s also that employee that wants to participate. We’ve had a situation where a couple of installers have to be at home per our new policy. That policy is not easy to write because the government puts out rules, and then healthcare puts out rules.

So, we spent the first ten days reworking policy, coming up with our own. We decided we’re going to have somebody that’s been exposed, until a test comes back, off work for 14 days. Having a field personnel, a field worker stay at home when they’re used to being outside, used to working, and they want to have an impact in their community, that’s hard. They’re chomping at the bit to get back to work. That’s another challenge we’re facing, not only we’re trying to set up new policies. We set up that 14 day, and then literally that night, I saw something on Twitter where the medical professionals in Utah said it’s 72 hours. We just had to stick with our policy but the hard part about that is the employee that’s wanting to work.

We actually had a few managers of ours step up and donate PTO because these guys are going to burn through their PTO, and some of this wouldn’t be under the federal guidelines, the FFCRA that just came out. What we see is actually the employees banding together to some degree but they’re not talking about this. There is water cooler talk, and they want to work.

Brian Hollister: Yeah, we’re having the same thing. What’s really interesting about all of this is it’s very clear guidelines once you have symptoms, clearly quarantine. That’s very clear. But when you’ve been exposed, then how do you define that? I’m curious, Brian, what you guys may have done or anyone else when you have an employee that went to do an install at a house, and then after the install they tell you that they’ve been tested positive? I believe you’ve actually had that experience if I remember our conversation the other day. What do you deem is a prolonged exposure where they’re then at risk? I’m just curious to your thoughts because that seems to be a gray area.

Brian Worthen: We’ve had three employees that we’ve sent home under this policy. We’ve basically had them stay at home until a test result comes back of someone they’re exposed to. We’ve played it safe. It’s what we’ve done because we want our employees to be healthy, and we don’t want them bringing that to work. They’ve got to be totally symptom free. We’re letting them come back prior to the 14 days if a test result comes back negative. We’re being overly cautious right now, and we’re actually going over and above what medical professional says to do. Just this week, we’re hearing you can actually transmit it before you have symptoms.

I’m glad we set this policy early on, and I’m glad we stuck to it. Like I said, with people donating their PTO so that those at home can use it, it’s actually helping our employees feel more tight knit.

Paul Sulisz: If I can just add to that as well, from our experience, since we saw what’s happening, and we needed to fly people home, whether that was flying people that we had out here in the US back to Australia, or Americans that were in Australia back to the US, it was mandatory 14 day quarantine, irrespective of whether you had symptoms or not, the fact that you’re in planes or at airports. One of the first things we did four weeks ago was that we try to limit travel through the major hubs like LAX and things like that. We try to limit that. Either way, you’re 14 days at home quarantine.

Some instances meant that the people that they lived with had to move out. We’ve had that on a few occasions where family members or others, we’ve said, “Look, you might [00:30:00] as well go. Because you’re traveling together, go to this house. They will move to someone else’s house for 14 days.” And then, we had someone who had a relative coming home from Korea. She moved out of her own house and will live with the parents for 14 days, so her sister could be quarantined.

We’ve had people band together and look out for each other in different ways. In terms of trying to stay ahead of it, be proactive, that’s something that we did very early on. We don’t care. You’re traveling, you’re 14 days, go sit at home, get quarantined, and we’ll drop off care package. We’ll make sure you got stuff. Initially, it was, “Don’t come into the office.” As we mentioned, once we said I can mandatory work from home, it’s bled into that.

Brian Hollister: Absolutely. It’s just amazing, day by day, how the thing’s changing. I think our common theme around people is obviously keep the communication lines open. You can’t talk to your people enough. We all seem to be standing pretty strong on that.

I’m curious. We’ve talked about how we’re engaging with our customers, all of us, on site, this and that. How are you guys, if it’s come up or not, engaging with partners? Brian, you’re a service provider. You have a lot of partners from different manufacturers that sell technology solutions. How are you dealing with them right now? They want to come in and work with you on a new solution, lots of times there’s a proof of concept. Are you putting those kinds of things on hold right now? Have you guys worked around some scenarios to try to work through that?

Us personally, we have a scenario. We’re working with the municipality. They’ve got their offices shut down. We’re building a data center for them but now we can’t get access. They haven’t figured out through this situation what’s the right way to give us access, keep everyone safe. We’re starting to see a slowdown from that particular situation, just because they don’t have rules of engagement set that will make folks feel comfortable. I’m just curious with any one of the team, and maybe Brian you could start. Partners that come in to sell to you, how are you working with them?

Brian Worthen: We’re pretty used to being a test bench ourselves because we don’t have that many vendors venture as far north. Two things I would say about that is our workers have tripled. Our field work has actually tripled.

We’re actually training new employees in the field right now during all this. We have to respond because we have customers leaving the service, and then we have more customers signing up for the service because their DSL is not sufficient or something similar. They don’t have the upload to do video conferencing and VPN. There’s a challenge there. Our problem is we’re tripling in work orders, and we’re seeing the competitiveness of equipment in the marketplace being limited by capped purchasers, for instance. Right now, money is going out for a capped to reverse auction winners. Some of our vendors are actually having to build up their staff too.

One of the first things we did, week number one, we issued a quarter million dollars in POs just for extra gear, just to stock up on gear so we’re ready because we knew that this extra activity would hit. Two weeks after we bought that gear, now we’re seeing that work orders triple.

Brian Worthen: You’re on mute Brian.

Brian Hollister: Anyone else want to comment to that? Thank you for keeping me on point, Brian.

Paul Sulisz: Just a couple things from my perspective and the way we operate, if we’re launching on a new project with customers, we typically like to get face to face. The way we do this stuff, Brian, you’ve seen it’s very hard to explain over a video conference talk and demonstrate some of the ways, so we’d like to get face to face.

Historically, we’ve always had these establishment workshops. We fly people wherever they need to go to be with customers, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few weeks, depending on the size of the project and the complexity. We initially thought, “Okay, that’s on pause. We’re not going to do much of that.” To Brian’s point, we’ve had an influx of people [00:35:00] reaching out to us saying, “Hey, this is happening now. It’s not happening next year. It’s happening now. Can you please help?” We, internally, had to reimagine how we do that. It’s like, “Guess what. That’s not going to happen face to face anymore.” How do you build trust when you can’t physically be in the same room with someone? We share a meal with the organizations that we work with, a lunch, coffee, or something because you want to build rapport. You’re going to be around these people for a long time. That’s something that the team have worked hard to understand and how do we pivot the way we do that. It’s like, “Okay, you’re not going to be face to face for a while. How do you effectively build trust, build rapport, share a beer like this virtually, to get on with it?”

To extend to that, it’s similar with onboarding. We’re about to hit the trigger about six interns here in Denver. When it hit Willow King, we don’t have an office to house these interns and get them acclimated to where we operate. We had to put that on ice. It’s like, “Well, hang on. We typically do this as a cohort. Everyone does it together face to face.” That’s all being reimagined now. We’re having to do that virtually. Similarly, we have a need because everything’s expanding. The operations team are looking at bringing on project managers. Again, we used to do this face to face, now we can’t. We can’t expect them to move, to be at our office, because that’s not possible. How do they get up to speed remotely? That’s some of the stuff that we’ve seen from our perspective.

Brian Hollister: That’s great. Any other comments?

Nathan Carbo: I’ll answer Brian’s question here. It’s difficult. My phone rings pretty much all day, every day with our vendors that we’re dealing with on a regular basis, trying to figure out how to build those relationships with us, and who else they need to be reaching out to try to continue to build those relationships. We struggle to just purchase our everyday equipment or everyday tooling through the vendors because they struggle to get it. It’s hard to find new ones as well, because things are different. Things are very different.

Brian Hollister: So, Nathan, are you starting to see some challenges on the supply chain aspects of things?

Nathan Carbo: We are. We’re seeing a lot of lead times on testing gear. We just bought a couple OTDRs, and it took eight weeks. It’s typically two weeks to get them. Eight weeks is a long time.

Brian Hollister: Definitely. About as long as it takes to get toilet paper here.

Nathan Carbo: Yeah.

Brian Hollister: Okay. Great. That’s good stuff. All right. Check in. I’m out of beer. I’m going to have to pour another beer here. Cracking sound is going to be that famous sound everyone likes to hear.

All right. Let’s transition. I’m curious to just carry on to this topic right now. Paul, new sales calls. There’s an aspect I feel personally, and I guess some of you do too, where our current business with our current customers is still exceptionally strong. There’s always this aspect as a business leader of continuing to fill the funnel with new opportunities. How are you guys going about that, especially like in business relationships? Consumer might be a little bit different but they’re not business relationships. I’m curious what you guys are doing.

One thing I’ve personally done is I had a conversation like this, virtual, “Let’s have a beer” with maybe a customer I’m already comfortable with. I’ve also sent people food for lunches, where you do Grab Hub or Uber Eats. It’s like, “Hey, let’s do that lunch. Pick off this, I’m going to send you lunch. Let’s have that meeting.” We do our video, we still eat. It’s a little weird at first but once you have the video, you overcome it pretty quick.

I’m just curious if any of the team has thought of anything interesting, to try and think of that new initial engagement. I think it’s easy for us to keep the engagements going on with our existing base. You have these relationships, but what about that new engagement? I’m curious if anyone’s got anything [00:40:00] specific that might be worth sharing, that might be different to think about.

Paul Sulisz: Yeah. Happy to share if I can kick off. The reality for us has been that we typically do really good when we present, speak, or panels the trade shows. We had two coming up. We had broadband communities. We had Fiber Connect. Both where we had a panel discussion on a major project that highlighted the way we operate and the value we can bring.

Historically, we’ve done a lot of really good lead generation out of events and conferences, face to face, people come to the booth, he had played with the software, and see what you think. For us, being brutally honest with everyone, and we looked at it, “Hang on, that’s done. That’s not happening for six months.” Those leads that we’re expecting in the funnel are not going to be there through our standard segments or ways that we’re going to market, do sales, and lead gen. For us, something that we’ve had to think deeply about is, “Okay, how else can we keep filling the funnel?” Brian, to your point. That’s why, the marketing team and the sales team have been looking at things like this virtual meetings, virtual roundtables, other ways to engage with the community, and other people out there doing this sort of work that we all do, to see if that way we can share leads, share business, and things like that. As I said, for us, that’s been one of the greatest sources. It’s getting in front of people and saying, “This is what this family believe, and this is why what we’ve done so far we think is done.” That really worked. It’s been fascinating and challenging for us at the same time because that’s dried up at least for six months. We’re trying to figure that out.

Thankfully, we’ve had some of the existing channels doubling down on this stuff. We’re not short of work. There’s more coming in organically. But, it’s one of those things where we need to figure out what other ways we can tackle, what other mechanisms can be used to get traction outside of what we’re doing originally, and looking forward to serve as well. We’ve only been in the US for a couple of years. Even though I commuted for three and a half years, that doesn’t really count. We really rely on the face to face, getting out amongst other professionals to build those relationships. That’s been pretty tough in terms of standard ways of marketing that have worked for us before. We’re really having to think differently about that, looked at digital and other strains to promote what it is we do, and how we promote it.

Brian Hollister: You guys are focusing more digital, more networking.

Paul Sulisz: Yeah, I think we have to because as I was saying, we relied so heavily on conferences. They’re not happening until later this year. I’m sure we’re going to do fine out of those. But until then, what do we do? We can’t sit idle. It’s interesting.

Things like this, Brian, that you and your team have been nice enough to host, I think these are going to be key for just keeping connected with other industry leaders. Hopefully, there’s a momentum of conversation. For me, it’s more about being connected than trying to get sales coming in the pipe. It’s, “Hey, what other people doing? Let’s do this as a team.” As you know, we’re huge advocates of team sport. This should be done together, trying to solve these problems needs to be done as a team. Because of that, we need to stay connected with others to do that, to fulfill that mission.

Brian Hollister: Absolutely.

Brian Worthen: I’m concerned about the trade shows as well. That’s how we sell a lot of our stuff. We have a wholesale division called Mammoth Networks, and we have the Visionary Broadband division. We sell at trade shows for both those. What we find is it’s a longer sale, or it’s a relationship. We meet someone in person, face to face, taking the lunch seen the trade show, catch up with them, and that’s been our secret sauce as a competitive provider, meaning I’m not a phone company, I’m not a cable company. My strategy has always been show up their doorstep. [00:45:00] We’re discussing that internally because our strategic aspect has entirely flip flopped. We’re not going to have trade shows. We’re not able to go face to face.

The second part of that is there are certain personalities that only do well face to face. They have a tough time with translation over the phone, and they rely on body language and whatnot. I don’t think video conferencing prior to now has really been a means of communication for us especially from a sales standpoint, but with adaption during this virus pandemic, I could see it being more acceptable. It’s suddenly more acceptable to have a video conference in your home. We’re making another step, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for face to face.

Paul Sulisz: I’m sure you’re the same Brian, but I have customers, I’m sure we all have them, that face to face is the only way. It’s like you just schedule that call once a month or once a quarter, you get on a plane, and that’s just the way it is. That works, and that’s what works for them. I was fortunate enough to get to do that just before all the flying stopped. I did that. It’s like, “Okay, I think this is an opportunity to get that in because I know I need to get it in face to face.” I spent a few days. I hear you. It’s going to be interesting.

Brian Worthen: In the service provider world too, we have customers calling wanting to upgrade. I’m not concerned about new customers right now. I’m concerned about taking care of my existing customers because they are hospitals, they are counties, they are sheriff’s offices. So, we have work, we’re excited about that, and we’re happy to help, but we’re not focused on new business at all in our neck of the woods.

Danny Reed: I got to say, too. I think that this pandemic has pushed the digital marketing forward that has been holding back for a while, especially in this industry. I’ve had this on my mind a long time that social media marketing is going to take a more front role going forward, especially in a trade industry, like for us with splicing and aerial work. You don’t see a lot of that stuff on social media.

As the industry gets younger and stuff, that’s going to be more responsive. It’s where the attention is. If you have younger folks coming in the industry, their attention’s on social media. If you can leverage that to this pandemic, you’re going forward, you’re going to be in a good position. That’s something I’ve had, like I said, in my mind for a long time, something I wanted to do, put together more of a social media presence like on YouTube, some of those other platforms that I think will push forward. I don’t do a whole lot on LinkedIn, but I post once a while, comment, try to search certain things that I think are neat, some good articles. We’ve actually picked up some customers from that recently.

Those avenues of social media marketing, it’s where the attention is, especially when we’re stuck at home. That’s what they’re going to do. I think that’s going to be something that this pandemic pushes to the forefront as well.

Brian Hollister: Absolutely. I totally agree with you on that, Danny. I’m curious on the construction front, both for you, Danny and Nathan. What are you guys seeing in some of the areas you’re working? Are you having any challenges with any of the municipalities being able to give you permits because maybe the office is closed or they’re working remote and not used to that, subs that you guys work with and manage that maybe having some kind of challenge with one thing or another? Just curious to your thoughts there. What is already happening or maybe what might be keeping you up at night?

Nathan Carbo: I’ll jump in. We have had some issues with different municipalities actually asking us to not work in the areas because they don’t have the staff there if we do damage something to make the repairs. We’ve had a couple of municipalities tell us that if we did damage something, the repairs would be on us. So, we’ve had to make those decisions on whether or not we’re actually going to continue through with those projects, how we can do it safely, and not causing any damage at all, which is always the goal but some things are inevitable. Other than that, we haven’t seen any other issues, but we have had some areas where we’ve had to shut down operations completely because the locals don’t have the staff there to manage.

Danny Reed: [00:50:00] Brian, locate issues have been a big one for us, honestly, lately. When this pandemic started, 811 shut down operations completely for a few days and that backlog a lot of things. We’ve got a job up in Arvada right now that is on hold until we locate anchors. We got nine or ten anchors to place up there. We got a lot of responses back from some entities that they would not come locate their own utilities unless it was an emergency. That’s been the sticking point for us as opposed to the aerial side. The locates for the anchors, that’s been a hold up and pain.

Brian Hollister: Yeah and for us, too. A couple of municipalities have had some challenges with their shortage of workers, similar to what Nathan has said. We’re feeling that too. On one side of the coin, we’re feeling more work coming at us, but then there’s these dependencies that we rely on, that if we can’t get permits, locates, and things like that, the work won’t move forward. It’s really interesting. Personally keeping me up at night are some of those things. You can get a great job and can’t get permits. It’s been really interesting.

Each one of these municipalities, none of them have gone through this. They’re all like us on the fly, figuring out their protocols and how they’re going to deal with it. Each week, it’s changed, and we’re having the change with them. Any other comments to that that anyone might want to add in? We’re actually about nine minutes away from wrapping things up for first Beer and Broadband. 

What would be something that you feel like is keeping you up at night? Something you’d like to share with the team that either you might not have the answer for right now, and if you do, that’s great. Something you’ve encountered, that you really want to share with the group that’s listening today, or something that’s not solved. Something to throw out there for us to talk about as a group, and not sure if we’ll solve it either, however, it might be something that’s important to us all. So, go around the room again. Something that’s keeping you up at night that either you’ve dealt with already, figured out maybe a workable solution that you might want to share, or something you’re concerned about. I personally have a long list of things in this new environment we’re living in, but I’d love to hear from some of the team on that. Who wants to start?

Brian Worthen: I can start. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the business strategy of this because you’ve got to protect your cash in this time. You’re going have customers pay late. You’re going to have bad debt, drop in revenue. That means you have a limit in your ability to do something with your cash. The decision that I’m thinking about each night and reading about, just article after article after article is the business strategy of when to jump in and how long to protect that cash. We find ourselves in a great position. We’ve grown on cash for all these years. We’re not really highly leveraged.

Everything I’m reading says, “Make sure you’re not leveraged in a time like this.” So, we’re in a fortunate position. Not everybody is. In some respects, I feel bad for that. There’s a lot of sentiment out there. I care about people being healthy, and I also care about my friends business. You’re seeing a lot of people post that on social media, but there’s also the aspect of, and this is what’s keeping me up at night, when to invest and when to be conservative with my cash flow.

Paul Sulisz: Just to jump in on that, for us here, we’ve always been bootstrapped as well. We can only grow as well as we can profit out of the work we do. Even though we’re in a fortunate position as a business, one of the things we did do, and was across the group was, “Is there any way that [00:55:00] we can save right now?” If we want to hang on to cash, what discretionary spend can we limit? We did a few things, work, talking with my CFO. One of the first things we did is reach out to everywhere where we were leasing an office and said, “Hey, we’re not coming in for three to six months, what can you do for us?” No harm, no foul type of thing. We’re very grateful for the fact that everywhere, they did something. We immediately had a cost saving in terms of premises.

So, across, three to four offices, we saved a good chunk of change, essentially like a decent FTE, which, for me, is an amazing saving because I’m trying to save jobs. That was one of the quick wins for us. Our business is relatively straightforward in terms of P&L, one of the biggest leasers that we have to play with is travel. That was a no brainer. Travel stopped. We’re already saving money because we’re not traveling as much as we used to.

Obviously, there’s downsides of that, as I said before, but that’s a big saving in terms of travel, not jumping on planes, international travel. The other part that we looked really deeply at was software. We spend a lot of money in terms of the software we use to enable our services and our SaaS product. We took stock, we did an audit of everything we use. Is it critical? Is it not? Where can we save? Similar to what we did with rent, we actually called up the vendors of our major providers, some of which we spend hundreds of thousands a month, and said, “Hey, can you cut us a deal? We’re going to use you, but times are interesting, and we were just trying to save money.” For the most part, everyone came to the party somehow and gave us a discount for three months. Most of the discounts we got for leasing or rent and for software for at least three months. We saved double digits in terms of costs just by those simple things.

We’re fortunate we haven’t had to let people go. We were in a great position. It’s strong, but we felt, to your point, how do we keep tight on the cash? That was some of the things that we did, just to share. We did that pretty quickly. There was an imperative from the board to get onto that. It wasn’t difficult. It was literally phoning up the people that we have these things with and say, “Hey, can you do anything?” It was great that people came to the party on that. It worked well for us.

Brian Hollister: Yeah. Paul, we’ve been doing the same type of thing. It’s been amazing talking to other business leaders that maybe owns your building, and everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all dealing with this, and everyone’s trying to figure out how do we help each other because they don’t want to lose a tenant that you might have a long term lease with or is using your software. Because the software, if you can’t get a discount, it might just cause you to try to look at something else as a pure cost saving initiative.

As we all know, it’s a lot easier to give someone a price break and keep them as a customer than clearly trying to reacquire them later after we’ve already lost them or they’ve lost us. I think you’re right. We’ve done the same thing, just going down our absolute, everything that we spend money on, and it’s a phone call, “Hey, guys. We’re all dealing with this. Trying to figure out how we can reduce our cash flow, work on some different terms. I’m just curious.” Even what I’ve done most of the time is ask them, “What have you guys done for others? I’m calling and I’m just trying to figure it out. We’re just trying to do the best we can to hold on to our cash through this time.” I think that is a huge aspect.

I’ve been very thankful for the extreme openness on the other side of the table. It is not a difficult thing to do at all, call and ask. Do it, like you said, immediately. We’re not sure how long this is going to go. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there. Cash is king.

Brian Worthen: I know we’re at almost that time. But the uncertainty you just talked about, that’s something that I’m thinking about too. What can we talk about? We can’t talk about sports. We can’t talk about what we’re doing this weekend. We can’t talk about what we ate out at [01:00:00] dinner last night. There’s a need to focus everyone on the positives. That comes back to the storytelling I talked about earlier, but it’s something I think about at night. What can we talk about tomorrow?

Brian Hollister: Absolutely. One thing for Bonfire is we’ve always tried to run a very transparent organization. We rely on all our business leaders to help make wise decisions at the company. I certainly do not want to make them all myself and will never scale if I have to make them all myself. So, it is really about putting a lot back out on the other leaders of the company, as well as individuals. We’ve had some of our best ideas come from individuals, not even a business leader within the group. I think having that open communication and putting the challenges that are out there right out to the team and asking them for help and ideas is probably one of the best things you can possibly do for your organization.

If you’ve done a good job in hiring, you should pat yourself on the back because you have an amazing team that can provide a lot of value outside of what they normally been doing. We’re all working through this together. We’ve had people step up to show us how to make do-it-yourself PPE. It’s not like we can all just put an order in and get a bunch of gloves and mask delivered. That’s not going to happen. So, what are you doing to work around it? We’ve asked our team, “What ideas?” People have come to the table with all kinds of amazing ideas.

It’s just like what Paul is saying, if you don’t ask for a discount on a service, you’re never going to get it. Do the same thing with your employees. Ask them for help, ask them to contribute especially the frontliners that are out there with the customers every single day, working with partners. Ask them what they think because they are thinking about it every day, just like we are as leaders. We’ve got to make sure we bridge that gap, keep things very open, and you get some of your best ideas from leveraging your team and keeping that open environment.

With that, I just want to bring this thing to a close. This has been awesome. I really appreciate all of you guys. That’s a great conversation today. This has been a great inaugural Beer and Broadband discussion. I hope to continue these. We’re going to make this recording available out there. We’ll share it. Again, really do appreciate all your time and participation. I know everyone’s extremely busy these days, which we’re all thankful for and very humbled. With that, I’ll close today’s session. Cheers.

Paul Sulisz: Thanks, everyone.

Brian Hollister: All right. We’re going to have a great day. We’ll see you all.

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