‘There’s no point providing telephony services that no one wants’

6 Feb 2018

Shena Brien, CEO of IP Telecom. Image: Andres Poveda

This week on Leaders’ Insights, IP Telecom’s Shena Brien outlines her career journey from engineer to business owner.

Shena Brien is the chief executive officer (CEO) of IP Telecom.

A former student of IT Carlow, Brien studied electronic engineering and has been working in the telecoms sector for nearly 30 years. She has worked as network operations manager at Magnet Networks and also founded telecoms company K2 Ireland in 2000.

In 2010, Brien went on to co-found IP Telecom, a provider of B2B voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services.

In March 2017, IP Telecom announced a three-year deal worth €1.5m to provide Radius Technologies with VoIP infrastructure.

Describe your role and what you do.

I’ve been the CEO of IP Telecom since 2016. I established the company in 2010 with some like-minded colleagues, and we provide VoIP services to enterprise and SME customers. Until my appointment as CEO, my primary responsibility within the company was with the customer operations side of the business, including implementation and support.

As CEO, my role has evolved to focus more on building our brand awareness, as well as working on product development and business direction. I’m still involved in the project management and customer support but my main focus is on business strategy and direction.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I’m an early riser and find I’m most organised the first hour after morning coffee. I spend that time working from home, catching up on quick replies to mails, reviewing any outstanding work and scheduling my day. By the time I get into the office, the team is arriving and I have a quick chat with customer service before spending the morning in meetings or working on ongoing projects.

My afternoons are spent on any operational escalations and I spend the last hour of the day reviewing activity with my colleagues to see if there is anything I need to be aware of.

On Friday mornings, I usually hold a ‘stand and chat’ meeting with the support team to get a feel for the week and answer any queries that the guys might have. This keeps all of us in the loop and it’s a good way to end the week.

I trained as an engineer and operations is in my blood, so my hardest job is being hands-off but still working closely with the team to enable them to look after the day-to-day running of the customer interactions, while I get on with growing the company. There are going to be conflicts and I must remind myself on numerous occasions that if I get the latter right, the former will come by default.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Services like Skype for Business and WebRTC could potentially be really big but, at the moment, those services do not offer business-class solutions, which is where we step in. We offer a range of soft telephony solutions to our business customers to deliver quality features across desktop, mobile and tablet in the exact same way that a traditional desk phone works.

I often think that service providers need to be more flexible to meet their customers’ needs – there’s no point providing services that no one wants. We’re always trying to evolve our products to ensure they’re in line with customer demand. 

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

As well as providing telephony services, we also have the added advantage of writing our own software in-house, meaning our team has the capacity to work with customers on bespoke integrations and deliver specific products suited to that client’s particular needs.

For example, we’ve had a number of customers looking to integrate their CRM and telephony software recently. To meet these demands, we’ve been developing a new plugin and are happy to announce this facility is now available for customers using the hugely popular Salesforce CRM.

Also, we have a number of high-level, security-conscious customers with extremely sensitive requirements. To satisfy their requirements, we’re launching an encrypted VoIP solution in the next few months, guaranteeing data is 100pc secure and protected.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I’ve worked in telecommunications for almost 30 years now and, having worked for several providers both here and in the UK, I’ve not always been impressed with what I’ve seen, in terms of the services or the products.

I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist and poor service has always frustrated me – why would anyone deliver a product that isn’t the best possible solution?

So, together with some like-minded people, we started IP Telecom and, eight years later, we now have thousands of business clients relying on our telecoms solutions. 

‘My biggest role model would have to be my mother, who set up her own business at the tender age of 55. She grew up during World War II and was exposed to many strong, capable women, carving out lives for themselves as the men were away fighting’

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Mistakes I’ve made have usually involved me trusting people who gave the appearance of knowing what they were talking about. I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to be confident in my own decisions so I learned the hard way that I needed to trust my gut more.

I feel education is key in helping to build confidence. I’m a huge proponent of education; finding a good mentor, networking with the correct business people and engaging in the best possible training. We’re delighted to be working with the iWish initiative this year, which inspires, encourages and motivates young female students to pursue careers in STEM.

How do you get the best out of your team?

When you’ve put your heart and soul into a company on start-up, you might feel that nobody else can do as good a job as you. It’s vital to find the people who are as passionate as you are. A big part of our success to date has been finding people who understand what we are trying to achieve and want to grow with us.

Our guys have a career with us, have ownership of their progression and know we will support them in whatever direction they are keen to grow with us. When you have an invested team, you have a great team.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

Things have changed a lot since my first job interview for an engineering role when the interviewer looked at my 5ft 2in height and said: “I’m not sure you are physically able for this role – you must carry a lot of heavy equipment.” I convinced him to give me the role and within six months, I was running the team! Less than four years later, I was headhunted for a role in the UK to set up a brand new network operations centre for a major network.

For me, as a woman, working firstly as an electronic engineer and then as a business owner, I must say I have been lucky. In Irish industry, although we’re often lacking in female senior engineers, there are women in managerial roles. In my experience, I’ve found that women have had to work significantly harder than men to be considered for senior roles. This is changing.

Science and engineering courses are generally aimed at boys and, although girls consistently outperform boys in maths and science subjects year on year, I don’t feel universities are doing enough to attract the girls onto their courses.

Networks of female mentors should be established for these girls and I think there’s an opportunity for women engineers/scientists to reach out to schools and universities, attending open days and encouraging young women to choose STEM.

I’ve also found there’s little support for women who want to take career breaks or raise families. Flexibility in companies would allow new mothers to stay connected with their roles while enjoying time with their family, would assist them when it’s time for them to return, and, indeed, would encourage them as a bridge from maternity leave to back to work.

IP Telecom is very proud of its diversity record to date. We have Irish, British, Croatian and Spanish employees – male and female – at all levels of seniority and technical ability.

Who is your role model and why?

During my career, I have been lucky enough to work for amazing people who have all had their place in shaping me into the person I am today. A couple would hold a special place in my heart for having confidence in my ability to deliver.

From a business perspective, I have always admired Feargal Quinn, who facilitated a company conference earlier in my career. His approach to putting his customers front and centre of all business decisions has resonated with me throughout my career.

However, my biggest role model would have to be my mother, who set up her own business at the tender age of 55. She grew up during World War II and spent a lot of time in the east end of London in her early adulthood so she was exposed to many strong, capable women, carving out lives for themselves as the men were away fighting. She was fiercely independent and finally realised that she wanted to run her own business, so went off and did it, when many people are winding down towards retirement. It is testament to her guidance, drive and determination that all but one of my siblings have their own businesses today.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Although I’m a prolific reader, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day or space in my brain to absorb ‘serious’ reading, so I tend to use my books as a way of switching off and relaxing. I’m particularly keen on crime novels – my husband would say I’m obsessed. It’s the logical thought process that attracts me, I suppose.

One book on my must-read list for 2018 is How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve often used quotes from the book at work; perhaps it’s time to read it cover to cover.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Number one on the list is my team, without whom the business would cease to exist. In particular, our customer support and training manager, Kelly Green, my right-hand woman, customer darling and chief party organiser.

IP Telecom have, of course, developed their own back office and CRM systems, which guides us daily on what’s happened and what must happen. We’d be lost without it.

On a personal note, coffee, my husband and walking my two dogs … in that order!

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