Ellie Hagopian, Chief Executive Officer at Skyrove, based in Cape Town, speaks to HumanIPO about her position, passion for South Africa and her industry strategies.
How did it happen that you came involved with Skyrove?
The Silicon Cape launch was in 2008. I was living in Boston at the time. Around that time, I was researching South Africa for my MBA and I had a Skype call with Justin Stanford. I moved to Cape Town in May 2009. Around October 2009 I met Henk at a 27dinner. He and I stayed in touch. In June 2012 Henk approached me about the CEO position. In July I interviewed with one of the 4Di Capital partners in Rondebosch, and then with Michael Leeman in Los Angeles.
How did it come about that you were appointed as CEO straight away?
It is unusual to be a CEO and not a founder. However, the interviews had a skill-set lookout and they wanted someone who was capable of taking ownership, with the right outlook and attitude, to be customer focused and who can add to value creation.
To be honest I was not really passionate about Wi-Fi at the beginning. It was all very ironic.
I was attracted more to the offer to be responsible for the product management and also contact with the consumers. At the end it was not as difficult as I thought, although progress was rather a challenge at the beginning.
I have always been more of a nerd than I would like to admit, being interested in the working of technical things.
Customer management approach requires a lot of understanding, whereas when you are a project manager for small projects you have a strong say.
Can you share a bit more about the Skyrove market?
Skyrove has a very broad customer range. Wi-Fi hotspots are growing significantly and the solutions Wi-Fi offers are interesting. It’s like solving a puzzle to me.
The idea came to democratise Internet access. About seven years ago it was way too expensive for most of the population to afford. Now there are many more possibilities, hotspot business solutions, pay as you go etc. as opposed to only fixed line contracts.
Our biggest customers are student residences and coffee shops.
It is challenging as it is more than just a hotspot. As computer use increased, the margins dropped and we looked with a fresh eye, without being constrained by the box. We also established partnerships and agreements.
How has the process of stepping into the role been?
Michael Leeman, investor and advisor at Skyrove, was there to support me throughout the learning process. Even now he remains my strategic sound board and I can go to him with any questions or negotiate about my ideas. The best is to just have connections, to bring the stuff to the table.
How do you see your role as CEO in South Africa?
As a first time CEO it is not always about what to do but rather making sure that what you do is the right thing as a leader.
At the beginning I felt quite sensitive about being the new kid on the block, being at the top, but not necessarily knowing the best. In the third month I felt like I was on track on how things needed to change until I could finally see in month four how things should be done for good and so I could enter the internal system as an opportunity and challenge.
What is your take on staff management?
My work with the staff is especially important to me. We are a tech company with technical staff and they are not stupid. Not only are they smart but they have ideas.
I make sure that everyone has a voice to express their ideas. A cross functional approach to staff training ensures that all of them know how to do product management. There are a lot more of aspects to it, one must keep in touch with the customer.
How do you keep in touch with your consumers, having such a busy and full schedule?
Actually, 75 percent of my time I spend being in touch with the customers. Monday is my office day, people know that when they want to see me, I am in the office then. It follows after my planning day on Sunday.
What would you regard as challenges in the market in South Africa?
The difficulty of recruiting staff is quite an issue.
How has being a female influenced your experience in the male dominated tech industry?
As an American female I found my position helped me rather than suffering under any gender-biased prejudice. In fact it is rather the opposite.
When I was attending a big conference overseas and I knew no one, I found it easier to connect with people. There were almost only men and so I could get into conversations easier and introduce myself because I was so different from the others there.