As IBM’s Phil Cameron started describing the 24th inductee to the ARN Hall of Fame at this year’s ICT Industry Awards, it took Infront Systems owner and director, Allan King, several moments to realise that the story being told was his own.
As the first few references were made, he remained unaware. He did not expect to be in the mix, let alone a member of this exclusive group of ICT industry leaders. King is a self-proclaimed back room engineer.
“I was listening to the beginning, and then one of the guys who works for me asked, ‘Is that you, Allan?’ and I said No’,” King said.
“Then he apologised because the next line was about sport, and he didn’t know about my sporting background – but that’s when I actually realised it was me.
“I was shocked, humbled, and a bit embarrassed; I had nothing but dread in mind.”
Shocked because he struggled, and continues to struggle, to envision his name on the list. Humbled because he considers peer voting to be the greatest compliment. Embarrassed because he believes the calibre of existing inductees surpasses his own.
Speaking with him a month later, he is still visibly taken aback and processing his induction.
“WINNING IS FUN”
King entered the world of IT in college, where it became the course he enjoyed most. Laughingly, he said it was probably the only class in which he graded well due to his overly-ambitious calendar outside education.
During high school, rowing took over much of King’s day-to-day life. Not long after committing to the sport, he was hand-picked by the Australian Institute of Sport to form part of an elite squad which was put through the ringer over a three-year period.
“It was a big part of my life. But when you’re in the water for 40 hours per week and with gym sessions on top, schooling is tough. During the back half of year 12, my schooling suffered because I was normally asleep in classes if I wasn’t eating,” he said.
Rowing was just one in a long line of sporting pursuits. At the age of four, King was enrolled in a local soccer team, and subsequently developed a timeless love for the round-ball game. At 10, he participated in a Johnny Warren soccer camp and walked away with a Liverpool FC jersey signed by club legend, Craig Johnston. The experience made him a lifetime fan of the team.
Athletics came into the mix from the age of six. It involved intensive training twice per day every day across numerous track and field disciplines.
Sport made King a competitive and team-oriented person, traits evidenced by his personal decisions and his approach to business. “I don’t think I’m ego-bound, but I’m absolutely competitive. I want our team [at Infront] to be the very best at what we do. Winning is fun.”
THE FIRST STEP
King stepped into an IT degree at the University of Canberra once secondary school ended. There he juggled education with a part-time gig at the Federal Treasury during first year, before going full-time at the end of second year.
“I was very fortunate to have entered IT in an era when IT skills were pretty scarce, and within public service, jobs were plentiful,” he said.
His first entrepreneurial experience came after university when the institute approached a few ex-students to build an Internet service provider for its unions.
“In the mid-1990s, we got onto the early bandwagon of spinning up a service provider before Microsoft even acknowledged it was a technology,” he said.
“It was very early days but it gave me a good grounding and understanding of disruptive technology and the way in which the market and businesses react to those changes, and what happens through mass consolidation.”
The job offered a series of lessons, the biggest of which proved to be commodity-based selling. King and his colleagues learned very quickly that scale mattered because for every $1 made, $0.76 would go to the telecommunications provider. It was an exhausting project, with the team forced to cater for customers who expect 24x7 availability.
“The economics of business was a big lesson. Maybe that’s why Infront is so heavily focused on the datacentre; we realised that we were insulated a little from that market and could apply ourselves to specialist areas of IT.”
But the Internet world was limiting, and while King recognised that his partners were creative applications developers, the annuity income model was difficult. He decided to leave and jumped into contracting which he openly admits he hated.
“At the time it was convenient. It was a means to an end. But because it was a contracted position, I was an isolated resource. But I’m very much a team person from my background. And as I was the only infrastructure guy working with all those businesses in the start-up from the ISP, they kept ringing me so I kept working nights and weekends in a classic start-up fashion.”
He was forced to make a decision: either say ‘no’, or take the opportunity to hire people and grow the business with a small foundation. He picked the latter, and in 1998 formed Infront (initially named Allied before a switch due to industry conflict).
“The goal was to build and belong to something. I enjoyed the culture of working with a small team. From a business perspective, we didn’t want to be the biggest, but the best at what we did. We have always had the vision to be a specialist.”
FUEL FOR THE FIRE
“We entered the market at a bit of an odd time,” King said.
“Federal Government just went to these outsourced clusters so there was a lot of disruption in the market as the big guns dominated by taking on big pieces of Government business.”
To secure its position as a serious contender, Infront led with support to back small businesses that did not have their own IT departments, and over time built an integration practice, and consequently won valuable clients.
“We were very small so we sat below that and had the cost models to be very competitive in the mid-market and lower end. We thrived in that systems integration space for several years and that was kind of how we projected; we are infrastructure people and built that business,” he said.
King is an engineer. When Infront started, he filled the architect and pre-sales roles. In the second year of operation, though, he was forced to shift to a sales position.
“It scared the hell out of me. If you were to ask customers, they would say I’m not the greatest sales person, but I do lead with passion. Being a techie in that role enabled me to sell the end state with clarity, but I’m not very good at listening very often. Selling is an art that I have never learned very well.”
King enjoyed doing it, but admits he struggled. The lack of self-promotion continues to linger within the ranks of Infront as the reseller remains focused on the back room.
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“Infront is very much an engineering company, not a very strong marketing company. We are guilty of not promoting ourselves. We’re the Porsche in the garage – we just don’t get driven with the top down very often.”
THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE
King’s career could have been completely different had he and his partners at the ISP taken a more adventurous step in 1996; it was a journey that could have made him and his friends extremely rich.
“One of my very good friends had the idea to go out in the early days, before Google and search engines, and register a number of domain names to sell later. So we went on a spree, and had 22 names on that list.”
Some of the nouns on the ‘virtual land grab’ list were ‘Drugs’, ‘Football’, ‘AFL’, ‘QANTAS’, ‘Sex’.
“Australia being Australia had rigorous rules around domain name registration. You had to be a business owner or the like, and it couldn’t be a word in the dictionary. The mistake we made was that we used the .com.au domain. In those days, the .com construct, and even thinking that you could register something overseas in the mid-1990s, was a laborious chore.”
King estimates the value of those 22 names amounted to $250 million at the time they were sold.
“We had an idea and, unfortunately, missed out on a huge pay day. We laugh about it now, but at the time we may have shed a tear.”