Innovator Interview: Simon Woodhead, CEO Simwood

Innovator Interview: Simon Woodhead, CEO Simwood. You can read the background to the interview and questions asked below the embedded video. Apologies for the length of this interview, time flew-by, it was great fun and insightful.

Simon’s created an impressive technology company against the ‘regulatory odds’ with Simwood. With a focus common to other TADSummit Innovator Interviews of using and owning technology to serve customers better than the incumbents.

His focus is business, yet his love is technology. Which led to the formation of eSMS Simwood back in the ’90s. I’d not appreciated it was acting as an A2P aggregator back in the mid ’90s, as well as doing email to SMS. Using mobile modem cards to send SMS, before telcos locked such services down.

A recurrent theme through the interview is control and ownership. Simwood owns and operates its network, so it can deliver on its SLAs. Simwood owns its technology, thanks in part to open source, enabling state of the art services at far lower cost than incumbent competitors. We used Simwood Meet at TADHack Global, the video conferencing service just worked across the global locations and the YouTube streaming was beautifully simple to enable.

We discussed the category Simwood fits into, as I struggle to find a simple yet adequate category. After the interview I consider Simwood is a telecom (or communications) technology company and a telco. Telcos are generally not technology companies, vendors provide their technology, there is no technology ownership. Rather they own a capital intensive asset of a national network, where they focus on optimization. Simwood owns a network, not just in the UK, they’re a CLEC in many states across the US. But critically they own their technology, its ownership and control across the stack made possible by open source and a love of technology. Hence their customers have unmatched SLAs, prices, and modern programmable services.

We cover many topics including number portability in the UK, their internal project BTZero, and Simon’s experiences from 15 years in Mountain Rescue that he applies to Simwood. A phrase he’s used at the SIMCON events is extreme ownership, which is demonstrated through how Simwood operates.

His aspiration for the SIMCON Awards is to become the telecom / communication industry equivalent of the Nobel prize or the Grammy Award is another example of extreme ownership. The industry lacks recognition of the people making a difference, they’re mostly paid-for marketing fluff. Creating the SIMCON Awards, is a way to fill that gap. Ownership!

Simwood began in 1996 as ‘eSMS’, the world’s first gateway between SMS and the Internet. It’s now a UK based wholesale provider of telecommunications. Simon has led Simwood for 24+ years. And the organization is as fresh and dynamic as an early-stage start-up.

eSMS would give people email addresses and deliver email to their phone using SMS, and they would reply using SMS. This was many years before Blackberries! By 2005 Simon exited that business and focused on the voice business with Simwood.

Through their wholly owned IP network and SS7 interconnects Simwood exposes the boring bits of telephony through SIP and an API. ITSP and carrier customers build solutions on top of their infrastructure. I attended their customer event in March 2020, SimCon3, there’s a lot of love in the room for Simwood, even as the COVID-19 lockdown approached.

Simwood’s vision is closely aligned to that of TADS, “We believe technology convergence can change the world for the better and we exist to enable that change. From developer-friendly APIs and human-friendly interfaces, to our unconventional approach to fraud protection, we empower customers and champion a fair and transparent marketplace.” One of Simon’s unofficial roles is keeping OFCOM and BT honest, see ‘fair and transparent marketplace’ above 😉 The term I use is the democratization of telecoms.

Operating a traditional IP network they offer the usual ISP services, however, 90% of the traffic on the Simwood network is voice making the network quite unique. They have blanket coverage of the UK, growing internationally, and offer instant choice and configuration of numbers (DDI, NGN etc.) through their API.

They also offer high quality wholesale SIP termination with three service levels to suit differing requirements. Their API enables real-time monitoring and control to reduce the cost of fraud to customers. Finally, owning SS7 interconnects means they can host number ranges for ITSPs and smaller telcos exposing all the benefits of their TDM to VoIP stack to them on their own OFCOM assignments.

Amongst many other things, Simon was part of Mountain Rescue for 15 years, this significantly shaped his view of the world.

If you have questions for Simon please let us know. Here are some:

  • Why did you start your career as an Excel Monkey in financial services?
  • You were years ahead of Blackberry and ‘WAP is crap’ email apps. Who were your customers for eSMS? What did you learn through eSMS that you then applied in Simwood?
  • What do you consider to be LINX’s (London Internet Exchange) major contributions to telecoms? What’s your opinion on the future on Internet Exchanges?
  • I sometimes struggle to explain Simwood to people. You’re more than a wholesale telecom provider. I sometimes use the terms: next generation telecom provider or alt-telco. You own infrastructure around the world, and unlike many traditional telcos own the service technology thanks to open source. How do you define your category so people understand the depth and breadth of Simwood? What’s your vision for Simwood?
  • How is BTZero going (an internal Simwood project)? Do you think you’re creating a model for other alternative telecom providers to follow in removing the incumbent?
  • One of the many things I learned at SimCon is the state of Number Porting in the UK, and abroad. It makes the US look well-regulated, well on number porting. I consider the problems you’ve described a serious impediment to both your business and business customers’ telecom experiences, regardless of carrier. Imagine Boris puts you in charge of making UK Telecoms work for everyone, not just BT. What would you recommend?
  • Thank you for the SimCon award this year. I’ve made a point of putting it on my personal website, email footer, and on TADHack to promote the award and build value for next year’s winners. The awards are sorely needed given every other telecom award out there is paid for and back-slapping between telcos and their strategic suppliers. What’s your vision of what the SimCon awards can become?
  • You were part of Mountain Rescue for 15 years, what are some of the more important learnings you’ve applied to Simwood.

2 thoughts on “Innovator Interview: Simon Woodhead, CEO Simwood”

  1. Thanks Simon for a great interview. We were running out of time towards the end of the interview to expand on your Mountain Rescue experiences. The mental cleansing from doing something completely different, yet highly impactful, can not be understated. What we didn’t touch upon are your leadership lessons from Mountain Rescue, and I was wondering if you could expand on that? I know its a little open-ended as a question, but have a go, thanks.

    1. Thanks a lot Alan, I enjoyed it.

      As to MR, I mentioned how as a voluntary organisation we had huge diversity of people, from CEOs to decorators, coming together to a common aim. It taught me that people are fundamentally good, but simply may have different priorities and values; and generally day-to-day priorities and values don’t matter on a mountain in the dark. So we had a kind of brotherhood that ex-forces people will talk about, borne out of some pretty extreme physical and emotional situations, shared.

      But leadership… Some of the best leaders I know are not academically smart, in fact some are thick as mince :) They’re not the fastest or fittest; I certainly wasn’t. They’re not the best technically either. What they were was able to see clearly, focus, and communicate. They broke seemingly complex un-winnable situations into easily communicable taskings. In short, they could prioritise and execute and iterate through that for as long as it took.

      As a voluntary body (and charity) we were also forced to innovate in our processes and often on the hill with the equipment we had available, but the way we enabled that through decentralised command – who called the shots for an incident would seamlessly evolve through its lifecycle – and detachment of on scene commanders and party leaders to enable them to lead is something I still strive to emulate in Simwood today. It was so darn powerful.

      Another one was the position of the leader. Some worked best at the front, yet the best leader I ever met clearly led from the back. The lesson for me was that it depends on the situation. Sometimes you can only lead by showing and being out in front. Other times a clear head directing people who are better than you is called for. Sometimes it is a bit of both.

      Any maybe that is the single biggest lesson: there’s no text-book, everything depends on the situation. Amazing people who are trained in what they do and led well, will always knock it out the park.

      I could talk about this for days as you might gather!

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