Leadership in telecom: How Boingo’s Hagan navigated a business model pivot

This is part of an occasional series from Fierce looking at leadership and management strategies in the telecom market.

David Hagan obtained his MBA from Baker University and his BS from the University of Kansas. For the past 25 years, he has held senior management positions at various internet and telecom companies, including FirstSource Corp., Ticketmaster and Sprint Canada. He joined Boingo in 2001 as president and became the company’s CEO in 2004.

Around 2010 though, Hagan had to move Boingo away from its longtime business of selling Wi-Fi access to consumers, as travelers increasingly expected Wi-Fi to be free. As a result, Hagan’s Boingo began pursuing a “venue acquisition” strategy by acquiring the long-term wireless rights at large-scale venues such as airports, stadiums, universities and military bases, and building distributed antenna systems (DAS), Wi-Fi and small cells at those venues. The company today makes money on those connections through carrier fees, wholesale products, advertising and more.

On pivoting the business model of a public company:

It was a crazy time of turmoil … I tried to do two things. One, focus on those changes we needed to make, but also try to lead very positively. I said, ‘We’re going through a tough time, we’ve got a lot of changes in the business, but we’re going to make it through and it’s going to be great.’ So instead of focusing on the negative, and why this is happening to us, I would focus on the positives and the forward direction we’ve got to go.”

“So, we’re in a very different situation now … Now, for me, it’s less about being in the weeds and trying to make those decisions and push and cajole the organization into new areas. I can now pull back more and think strategically about the business, and let the team run because the strategy is more set in place.”

On ways to move a company in new directions:

“I think it’s twofold. One is, you have to set out the strategic vision. We’ve got the skill set, the consumer marketing skills, and we’re going to find a market where we can apply those. So focusing on the strategic opportunity.”

“And also making sure that we had the right people in the right place to execute against that. Frankly, it was just more hands on. I had to spend more time making those kinds of decisions, making sure that we had the right set of facts. I find decision-making a lot easier if we have one set of facts. When you have really disparate perspectives on things, within the business and frankly within life, it’s often because people will have different sets of facts. So I really try to make sure that we make fact-based decision making, that we have one set of facts. Once we have that then I think it’s pretty easy to make decisions about how to move forward.”

“So, during that time, there was just a lot of assessment, a lot of fact finding, a lot of making sure that we understood what was going on in our business and how to chart that path forward.”

On how to predict where the industry is headed:

“I do a ton of reading. So I definitely believe in the Warren Buffett perspective, where you spend a lot of your work time reading, and I do that. I focus on any kind of trend information I can find, and in the internet age it’s so much easier to do that than it used to be.”

“And then, No. 2, we as a company participate in several industry organizations, the Wireless Broadband Alliance, the MulteFire Alliance. So that gives us a perspective in the ecosystem of what people are talking about. And we need talk to carriers obviously as carriers are big partners … And we talk to the OEMs and try to understand what the OEMs are trying to sell to the carriers, and what new technologies are coming.”

“So it’s a combination of reading, participating in industry associations and boards, and then ultimately reading the tea leaves and making strategic calls.”