30% Growth in One Year!
Alexandra Sukhomlinova Cockar, Gillette News Record
Not every business can boast 30 percent growth in a year. But there is one in Gillette that can.
Founded by three local men in a basement, Visionary Communications didn’t let an opportunity go by when it was started in 1994 to provide Internet service to people in the area who at the time had to pay for long-distance connection to providers in Cheyenne, Casper or South Dakota.
Since then, Visionary has grown to become the largest and most geographically diverse Internet service provider in the region, providing more than 20,000 customers with Internet access via dialup, wireless, DSL, T1 and fiber.
Through a series of acquisitions and mergers with Wyoming providers (including Nonesuch, Coffey.com and Wavecom.net), Visionary broadened its services and began expansion into new markets.
With the purchase of Global Advancement Technologies (GAT) in 2001, Visionary began serving southern Montana. With purchases of Interquest, Wyoming Internet, Air Wave Technologies and Cowboystate.net, the company extended service to more than 90 communities via more than 30 fiber hubs in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
The expansion potentially meant an increase in workers. But Gillette doesn’t have a well-represented telecommunication workforce group to hire from, so Visionary found itself competing for employees with Campbell County Memorial Hospital, the city of Gillette, Campbell County and the local mines.
The company decided to do only wholesale business outside of Wyoming because it doesn’t require as much stuff as retail, said CEO Brian Worthen.
Shortly after the company opened an office in Billings, Mont., and Denver in the early 2000s, it started getting a lot of requests from businesses in the Pacific Northwest, so it opened a location in Seattle that now employs three people.
Overall, the company employs 21 people with about half of those in Gillette. Three people were added in the last couple of months in response to a 6 percent growth just from last month.
One important reason Visionary has been so successful is that it fills a specific need within the telecommunication community. If a provider has a fiber on one end of the circuit in Montana and another provider might have another piece of fiber in Washington, it will be Visionary that will complete the circuit between the two locations.
“We bought circuits and resold them but we make sure it goes through our own equipment so we can troubleshoot them, and we know what the problem is before we actually have to call the underlying fiber provider,” Worthen said.
Another factor that contributed to Visionary’s success is the nature of American business itself — consolidation. Telecommunication companies aren’t immune to it.
Just recently, two of the providers Visionary has worked with have been bought by larger telecommunications companies. But when these companies are bought or consolidated, they leave a lot of scraps on the edge of the table for smaller companies like Visionary.
“What happens is they consolidate and combine their labor forces and a lot of their employees who are very knowledgeable get released, or they get tired and they leave,” Worthen said. “So there’s just a lot of opportunity right now for a company like ourselves to be a niche provider and build these networks because the larger companies say it’s just too much work for them.”
If a larger company has a client that will bring them $50,000 and another client that will bring $3,000 per month in revenue, a large Internet provider won’t even bother setting up the service with the small revenue client because it won’t be worth all the paperwork and the legal hastle.
In that case, the larger provider will refer its customers to Visionary, which will finish the sale and connect the customer to the provider.
Visionary now works with about a dozen companies that refer their clients to Visionary. Sometimes, they refer their customers to Visionary because the clients can’t get any service in their area.
“We are competing locally with people like Optimum and Centurylink, but on a national scale there are few companies that do what we do. But we are actually pretty specialized. We focused on the niche that nobody else is touching on.”
Earlier this month, Visionary completed expansion of broadband that increases its network five-fold to serve clients in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. With that, the company can expect another 30 percent growth in the next 12 months, Worthen said.
He is an advocate for expansion of broadband in Wyoming. It has become another utility without which doing business has become almost impossible.
“Many a time we’ll get a call and a customer says, ‘I have the ability to build a building in one of these three places. Which has the best broadband?’ You didn’t see that five years ago, or even three years ago,” Worthen said. “People are recognizing that broadband is just as important as water, sewer and electrical. That’s all there is to it.”
He believes the company is in the best position to encourage and participate in the growing broadband in the state.
But what if the company becomes so big that it will start leaving scraps for others?
Not accepting outside investments and growing on cash are the things that keep the company focused on not growing too much. Visionary executives are carefully watching for that, Worthen said. There are some things at stake that aren’t worth becoming too large of a company.
“I don’t know if I want to be big and faceless,” Worthen said. “We like interacting with our customers. We talk to customers every day. The people we sell wholesale to are mainly the people who have our same skill-set or similar, so it’s a really interesting environment where we might sell them a service. But during the course of the conversation they might give us a tip on something they’ve done in the past.
“It’s like everybody is pulling a chair up to the table and saying, ‘Hey, this is our best practice,’ and we enjoy those discussions,” Worthen said. “I think if we grow a little bit too big, we won’t be able to have those discussions with our customers.”
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