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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 4 years ago

Dial it up

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Fast-growing Lightspeed Voice hopes to convince more businesses to ditch old-school phone service plans.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

When it comes to growth, Lightspeed Voice is living up to its name. “In 2012, we went from about 50 customers to just exploding almost overnight,” says company founder and technical director Brad Fuller.

Today, the North Port-based provider of voice over internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service has more than 5,000 customers in every state but Alaska. It's grown 491% over the past three years and earned the 811th spot on the 2016 Inc. 5000 list, which ranks the fastest-growing private companies in America.

“We're looking to maintain and increase that growth,” says Fuller. The company wants to add to its staff of 25 and hopes to hit 10,000 customers in the near future.

While it's expanding rapidly now, the firm actually got off to a shaky start. Fuller founded an IT services company in Gainesville in 2004. In 2009, it brought on a customer who need VoIP service. Fuller resold another service for a few months, then decided he could do it on his own.

“So we leased some data-center space, bought some servers, developed some software — and had a terrible product,” he admits. “We made a lot of mistakes, and we learned a lot.”

One thing he learned: the importance of reliable data centers with plenty of backup options. The first center he used had just one internet service provider. So when that went down, everyone went down. Today, the company uses facilities across the country, with its two main centers in Atlanta and Seattle. Those facilities have some 14 redundant tier-one internet service providers, so if one goes down there are other options.

Providing consistent service is important to the company, which makes client satisfaction a priority. “Lightspeed Voice is a business based on the customer experience, so we're dedicated to customer service,” says Fuller. “We haven't forgotten who pays our bills and who writes our paychecks.” An independent third-party survey of customers conducted earlier this year indicates the firm is succeeding. It earned an overall score of 9.1 out of 10.

About 80% to 90% of its clients are insurance agents, a sector the company gained a foothold in when it integrated with a customer relationship management software for insurance agents in 2012. Other customers are firms working in the health care, legal and biotech fields. Clients range from mom-and-pop businesses with two-phone systems to Fortune 500 companies with 20,000-phone systems.

Fuller has found that he still has to educate some people about VoIP, which uses an internet connection to make and receive phone calls rather than traditional, copper-based telephone lines. “We do find ourselves explaining it,” he says. “But once you explain it you can see the light turn on.”

Benefits include a lack of equipment to maintain, a decrease or elimination of downtime during utility outages, and the ability to combine multiple numbers and locations into a single system. But even with all the positives, some folks still need convincing.

“Our biggest challenge is differentiating ourselves,” says Marcus Hayes, Lightspeed Voice's operations manager. “It's become such a battle with everyone looking at the bottom dollar. People are forgetting what it takes to run their business and how important the tools they're using are. That differentiation between us and our competition has been the biggest challenge, to get people to take a look at value versus the bottom line.”

Venice-native Fuller moved the company to North Port to be closer to family. While Lightspeed Voice has put together a team of talented people, finding the right staff isn't always easy. Potential candidates in the area tend to focus their job search on places like Sarasota, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg. “Nobody's looking at North Port for high-skill jobs,” says Hayes.

The firm has put postings on places like college job boards but has had the most luck with Indeed.com and Craigslist. “We've got people who are willing and able to see a longer-term vision,” says Fuller. “They see how they can fit into that puzzle and grow as the company grows.”

The firm's PrismPBX state-of-the-art telephone system can be tailored to a client's need, and Lightspeed Voice is working to enhance features that deal with mobile users and text messaging. “We're dedicated to making sure our clients are utilizing the tool set we provide in the most efficient manner possible,” says Fuller. “Telecommunications is probably the crux of almost any business.”

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