Me And My Partner

Lynn Forester, 46, consulted Michael Price, 43, of the US bankers Lazard Freres, before selling her telecoms business. Five years later she offered him 50 per cent of her internet venture, FirstMark Holdings. Since 1998 they've raised more than $1bn
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The Independent Online

Lynn Forester: Michael and I had an instant mutual respect when we met. Lazard Freres sold my Latin American telecommunications company for me, and through that I met Michael. He was an important mergers and acquisitions banker there, but he was also the person most interested in doing individual outside venture investments.

Lynn Forester: Michael and I had an instant mutual respect when we met. Lazard Freres sold my Latin American telecommunications company for me, and through that I met Michael. He was an important mergers and acquisitions banker there, but he was also the person most interested in doing individual outside venture investments.

Before FirstMark got off the ground, I went to him with another business idea I had, and in his usual fashion he said: "Well, get everybody together in a room and let's talk." We invested together, changed the company's strategy, and made 12 times our money within six months. Things seemed to go well when I did them with him, so a couple of years later I invited him to invest in FirstMark when I owned assets in the US. He said yes but put a deadline on the investment. I didn't meet his deadline. He did not make the investment.

A few weeks later I was offered about 100 times what I was going to sell it to Michael for. He called and congratulated me, offering to invest in my next company. I said: "Now I don't need the money, but I need a partner." It was a complete throwaway line. Michael asked: "Do you mean a partner with everything 50/50?" And that was it for both of us. Getting him was something out of my wildest dreams. He was one of the highest-paid bankers in the US, at the top of the most prestigious firm on Wall Street, whereas I was an entrepreneur with a few financially successful things behind me.

Our discussion took place in August 1997, and nine months later we started working together. I had already begun to establish FirstMark in Europe. My vision was that there was going to be this tremendous demand for broadband services, which combine video, high-speed data and voice.

The wireless local loop (WLL) operates at higher frequencies than mobile phone networks and provides greater bandwidth, so combined with fibre optics it can transmit via radio waves into homes and offices. It's a technology which allows newcomers to compete on an enormous scale. The important thing is its capacity, and that's all the customer cares about.

If Michael had been my partner in the US, we would be there still. In the States I had the vision before anybody else and had WLL licences for New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but other people applied for the rest of the country so I did not have a national footprint.

Some people are stunned that FirstMark is operating in Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Finland, Holland, Luxembourg and the UK, but what I learnt from the US was "don't think small". That's why having Michael as my partner was essential. He was the sine qua non to the large-scale roll-out in Europe.

What I found compelling about Michael was his intellect and his integrity. I learn things from him. Also I like his family: he has a really nice wife and his son is in school with my son, who's a bit younger.

A friend of mine is the founder of AOL, and when I first explained FirstMark to him, he said: "You need a tag line." I would call broadband the ultimate experience in the digital world - that ability to communicate around the world instantly, face-to-face, with full fidelity. Compared with the typical experience on the internet, it's like going 150mph instead of 1.5mph. It's really a graphic experience. It defies description because it requires experience. It's like, how do you describe love?

I found when we actually became partners that Michael has unbelievable energy. If I'm London, he will be on the phone with me at 10am when he's in New York, five hours behind. He has a commitment to excellence and he's thinking about strategy and technology all the time. But what has been the most important thing has been Michael's ability to identify and attract great, great management.

We decided at the start that we were going to fund this company ourselves until we were well into it. We were still small when our first investor came in, but we had a team of bright people and had already launched our WLL application in Germany. We were careful not to raise money too early. It sharpens your focus when it's your own money, but it sharpens your focus even more when it's someone else's.

When we raised $1bn in June, the thing that wasn't noticed was that we did it without the help of an investment bank. That tells you that we know how to do it. Basically Michael and I knew a lot of people and a lot of people have confidence in us. But, ultimately, it's a great company: nobody gives you $1bn just because they like you.

On a European basis, the most important thing for us is for governments to be pro-competition. The biggest impediment has been the lack of unbundling of the local loop. We cover 150 million people already and we are the largest licence holder in Europe, but we didn't get here a minute too early: we were right on time.Quality of service and time to market are the two things that will make us succeed.

Michael Price: When I first met Lynn I enjoyed talking to her. We were interested in the same things but from different angles: at the time, I was looking to invest in a next generation, networking product company, whereas she was looking at a DSL (digital subscriber line) content company. We decided to change the focus of the company to DSL. Fifteen months later we sold it for 10 times the value.

Before Lazard I worked at Morgan Stanley, and had spent my career investing in and advising technology companies. When you're working with leading-edge companies you start to develop your own sense of the way the market is going, and when you get with creative, smart people, you are just attracted by it.

One day in the mid-1990s I woke up and thought: "If you're so smart, why aren't you doing it for yourself?" At the time, I had just done the AT&T-McCaw merger and was going to go off and become Craig McCaw's right-hand person, and was thinking about quitting investment banking.

When Lynn asked me whether I wanted to be her partner, I don't think I processed the question at first. I'd always known I wanted to do something like this, but I'd also known I needed a partner. With Lynn, I knew the venture would be ours. I was financially secure, I was looking for a challenge and I wanted to create something.

Bridging the "last mile" by using WLL technology was a market space that nobody else occupied, and it was a big enough challenge. Broadband is where the virtual becomes real, and WLL is one of the many technologies we use to give the customer the best possible broadband experience.

At first, Lynn and I both fought to do the same things in the business, but we quickly realised our individual strengths. Lynn is a visionary, and she's good at relationships, particularly with partners. She has a very positive approach and she's excellent at setting high standards.

For me, the challenge of being in this business has not been in our partnership, it's been in making it happen. As a banker I had expense accounts; Lynn taught me what it meant to be an entrepreneur and now it's instinctual, but it took her a year to beat cost-consciousness into me.

Perhaps the best part of my partnership with Lynn is we challenge each other to be intellectually honest. It's unusual for us to be in town together, on the same side of the Atlantic. Our day runs from 8am to midnight and we usually get two working days out of every one. The great thing is as we trust each other, we don't duplicate each other.

My belief about broadband is: if you build it, people will come. Everybody wants broadband, it's just that today it's too expensive. What we are doing is democratising access to the information age by lowering the price of the service and providing more innovative parts to the service.

We believe we are rolling out broadband faster than any other company that has licences. We deployed a 4,000km fibre network in Germany in eight months, but we're not done yet. We launched WLL in 10 cities in Germany in 10 months. Not withstanding our achievements, we wouldn't say we have arrived.

We were ecstatic when we won the French nationwide WLL licence in July.It was a very competitive situation and an extraordinarily attractive market, but the very next minute, we were back to thinking how to build it quickly. I am someone who would always ask the question: "If you had a great sales day, why wasn't it better?"

People ask if we get tired, but if you're passionate about what you do it's not hard to do it every day. The high points so far have all been transit stops to our ultimate goal, which is a continually moving target. As happy as we are with the progress of the company, we are not yet declaring victory.

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