IT would be fair to say that not many people follow through on their childhood career choice. It would also be fair to say that Noor Mohd Helmi Nong Hadzmi is not like most people.
“It was my childhood ambition to be an engineer and a business owner. That inspired me to pursue engineering and entrepreneurship, and to start my own telecommunications company,” he says.
As founder and chief executive officer of IX Telecom Sdn Bhd, Helmi is also the epitome of success. The engineer who started his first company in his bedroom has grown IX Telecom to epic proportions.
Today, IX Telecom is essentially a behind-the-scenes hero to globally renowned telecommunications providers and partners. The company provides global connectivity services such as Internet access, broadband and IP-VPN (Internet Protocol-Virtual Private Network) across more than 200 countries. IX Telecom also helps many of its clients set up business and technical operations when they set up operations in a new country.
Helmi, who pursued an education in telecommunications engineering, started his entrepreneurial journey back in 1999. That was the year he set up a dotcom with his university roommate Mohd Amzari Tajudeen, IX Telecom cofounder and chief financial officer.
While his dotcom did not catch on, it proved beneficial for Helmi, as upon graduation in 2002 he was one of the first engineers to be offered a job at a new telecommunications startup.
“I learned how to establish a telecommunications company from the ground up. It gave me a solid foundation,” says Helmi.
EMBRACING THE CHALLENGE
After two years with the telecommunications startup, Helmi moved on to a new low-cost airline startup.
“This new startup asked me to head its network team, and I decided to take up the challenge,” he recalls.
“My responsibility was to take this company online. I was also tasked to design, operate, and manage the growth of the airline’s global network infrastructure from the five aircraft it had at the time to almost 100 when I left in 2008,” he says.
That low-cost airline is now a globally-recognised name: AirAsia.
“I was 25 when I was heading the network and communications department in AirAsia,” says Helmi. “It was a great learning experience for me.”
Helmi’s early achievements only served to inspire him to reach higher and build his own successful business. The ambitious engineer left AirAsia after four years to found IX Telecom.
“We started IX Telecom with only RM30,000 (only about US$7,500 at current rates!) and we had a hard time securing our first client,” he says. “We had to go out of Malaysia to get clients. It was while we were in Singapore and Hong Kong that we managed to seal the deal on our first few projects,” he says.
In fact, it was only a year after operating out of Malaysia that IX Telecom managed to penetrate its home market and sign on Malaysian clients.
“It was frustrating, not being able to provide services of any kind to Malaysian businesses in the first year. But as I learned, flexibility is important, and in our case, we had to venture out of our home country to establish ourselves and find success,” he adds.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE
“You could say my journey has been a steep learning curve. I did not have any formal education in business, finance, sales or marketing,” says Helmi. “I am an engineer, and all the management people in IX Telecom are engineers by profession,” he adds.
Fortunately, the Coach and Grow Programme (CGP) shed light on tricky business terrain.
“Before the CGP, we ran our company by leveraging on our logical and analytical thinking. We did not know how to raise funds or even understand what a venture capital was!” he admits. “Without the CGP, we would not have been as successful as we are now, and we would not have learned how to run a business. The programme changed the way we think, the way we look at ourselves, and the way we look at the future,” he adds.
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Although IX Telecom may be riding the wave of success, Helmi says the company continues to face numerous challenges.
“It has not been easy for us to find funds and to get good people on our team – people who can add value to IX Telecom. We had to change our mindset in order to see the bigger picture, and from there we were able to tap into funding sources and get the right people to join us. In order for a company to find success, it must not run out of money. It is important to ensure the cash flow is always positive,” he notes.
Fortunately, finding success was something the IX Telecom team managed to do, and the results are better than they could have ever imagined.
IX Telecom’s eventual success went beyond everybody’s expectations – even Helmi’s.
“When we were trying to establish ourselves and we were looking for clients, most of them happened to be global telecommunications service providers and large multinational corporations,” he says. “From our first year of operations, IX Telecom has been a profitable entity with significant growth, and we managed to secure healthy contracts,” he adds.
IX Telecom’s list of clients reads like a ‘who’s who’ of global telecommunications service providers. The company currently serves giants like PCCW, the largest telecommunications company in Hong Kong, top providers in the United States like Sprint and Level 3, as well as Expereo and Brodynt in Europe. It also enjoys strong partnerships with other global providers like British Telecom and Orange.
Besides the telecommunications industry, the company’s services and expertise includes the airline network.
“We are currently serving the world’s best low-cost airlines like AirAsia and Malindo,” says Helmi with pride.
IX Telecom has earned global recognition for its services. It was awarded the prestigious Alliance Gold Partner status by British Telecom in 2012, and was chosen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as one of the high-impact companies in the world’s emerging market under the MIT Sloan Global Entrepreneurship Lab programme.
These achievements are impressive, but Helmi isn’t about to rest on his laurels.
“If Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles; if Facebook, the most popular media company, creates no content; and if Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate – then my vision is for IX Telecom to be the largest global connectivity provider that owns no telecommunication infrastructure,” he says.