Zayo Group – One of Boulder’s Amazing Startup Stories

I’m intensely proud of both the amazing startup community in Boulder as well as the many significant companies that have been – and are being – created in the little town of 100,000 people I call home. I regularly talk about the ones we’ve invested in through Foundry Group, but this only covers a part of the awesomeness that is going on here as Foundry Group has a very tight thematic focus.

As Boulder continues to gain visibility as a great place to create companies, I’ve decided to highlight some of the entrepreneurs – and their companies – who have contributed to Boulder in significant ways.

Dan Caruso, the co-founder/CEO of Zayo Group, is one of them. I first met Dan around a decade ago when Howard Diamond, another incredible contributor to the Boulder startup community, introduced us. Howard was at Level 3 at the time – they had acquired his previous company Corporate Software (which I was an investor in) – and he knew Dan through that experience. Over the last decade, I’ve gotten to know Dan, watched as he’s built an incredible $6 billion market cap company headquartered in Boulder, while contributing relentlessly to the Boulder startup community.

I asked Dan to write a guest post talking about Zayo’s story. It’s great – and follows. Dan – we are lucky to have you – and Zayo – in Boulder.

“Fiber in Downtown Boulder?” was the title of an email sent to me by Brad, after he had heard from one of his CEOs that Zayo is constructing fiber in Boulder. “If true, how can I help?”, he continued.

Years ago, when I first met Brad, I didn’t “get” him. I had recently left Level 3 Communications. I was one of the day one execs of LVLT, as well as an early member of the management team of MFS Communications. It is understandable that I considered myself to an accomplished entrepreneurial-minded executive. Yet I felt so disconnected to Brad and the culture around him. It took me several more years to understand Brad, and during this time I developed a deep appreciation of his passion for entrepreneurism. I was drawn to his unique ability to promote ideas, create awareness, and fuel momentum. I sought to mimic his propensity to leverage social media.

“How can Brad help?”, I pondered.

“Help me create more awareness about the contributions that Zayo is making toward the Front Range entrepreneurial community.

Brad, entrepreneurial as ever, delegated the task back to me. “How about you write a post for my blog?”

Sensing an opportunity, I responded “How about I write two?” This is the first. The next one will describe our extensive fiber build across the front range.

I will provide a quick synopsis for those who prefer a two-paragraph summary. In late 2006, Zayo was a pure start-up headquartered behind Nick and Willy’s on 8th and Pearl. Today, Zayo has eclipsed $1.1Bin revenue and $600M in EBITDA, leading to an estimated Enterprise Value in the vicinity of $6B. We have 3 offices in Colorado, with our headquarters on the 2nd floor of 29th Street mall. In addition to directly employing 250 people across the Front Range, we indirectly employ many more related to our multi-million dollar fiber build across the front range. Dozens of recent graduates of Colorado’s university system are Zayo-ites.

Boulder is an incredible entrepreneurial community, and I enjoy being immersed in it. I am excited to see this innovative energy spreading across the front range, through Startup Colorado and other initiatives. I am proud that Zayo is a vibrant example of our community’s robust start up ecosystem.

For those who prefer a slightly longer version, here is the Zayo Story in a nut shell.

In June of 2006, we sold what remained of ICG Communications to Level 3. The ICG team went to Level 3 as part of the transaction. I didn’t.

Two years prior, ICG was a public company preparing for its second bankruptcy. My group was the only that offered an alternative to Chapter 7/11. We paid them $8.7M and took them private. By the time we sold to Level 3, our total proceeds to equity owners and management were $225M. For those without a calculator nearby, that’s a 25X return in 2 years.

Nonetheless, I was out of a job.

Though ICG was headquartered in south Denver, we opened up a small satellite office on 8th and Pearl — right behind Nick and Willy’s. In the sale to LVLT, we kept a portion of this office. One by one, many of my colleagues extracted themselves from Level 3 and pondered “what now”. By late 2006, we formed Communications Infrastructure Investments. Today, CII d/b/a Zayo Group.

Our investment thesis was simple. Bandwidth was busting — and this would continue beyond our children’s lifetimes. Fiber was the workhorse of the Internet — and nothing would alter its importance for as far as the eye could see. Most importantly, drinking too much tequila leads to a hangover that makes it hard to look at — let alone taste — tequila again.

Point 3 requires more of an explanation. The late 1990s saw a fiber tequila party that started out wild — investors poured money into start-ups and fiber networks were constructed throughout the land. Way too much fiber tequila was gulped, and the ensuing telecom meltdown caused a hangover of epic proportion. As we hit the early 2000s, investors and strategics felt their stomach’s gargle at the sight of a fiber-labeled tequila bottle. You know that feeling?

Our ICG experience gave us different perspectives. First, many fiber networks had consolidated into a handful of platform. The balance between supply and demand of bandwidth was rapidly improving.

Second, we saw an opportunity to be a consolidator of the remaining fiber properties. We called these fiber orphans — companies whose roots dated to the telecom boom but which had not yet been consolidated into a nationwide platform. These companies somehow navigated their way through the meltdown. By 2007, they were doing quite well. However, the tequila hangover persisted and few investors or strategics were paying attention to them.

Third, we developed a thesis around “Bandwidth Infrastructure”, a term we coined. We did not desire to be a traditional telecom company. Instead, we sought to provide raw fiber, wavelengths, ethernet, IP, and technical space to those entities that needed a whole lot of bandwidth. Circa 2007, this was considered a ridiculous approach. Even today, we are sometimes poked by rivals for our infrastructure approach.

Between 2007 and 2013, we acquired 25 companies. We now have over 80,000 route miles of fiber, mostly in the U.S. and London. Our fiber is connected to nearly every significant colocation, hosting, and carrier hotel facility. Our biggest customers are the wireless carriers and big content/Internet companies. We raised $2.7B of debt and $870M in equity in three rounds. Our initial investors have not sold, though they are enjoying a 4 – 5X mark. Our equity IRR has averaged around 50% since inception.

Zayo is in this for the long term… the very long term. My aspiration is to be at the helm of Zayo for a few more decades. Zayo will be to bandwidth what Amazon is to the cloud and what Equinix is to colo. Zayo will foster the development of additional start-ups, either within Zayo or as spawning-offs. The bandwidth supplied by Zayo will positively effect the lives and livelihood of countless people throughout the world. As Zayo continues its quest, it will bolster Boulder and the Front Range’s reputation as a top tier centers for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

  • roberthagens

    LVLT done right! (And making money!!!)

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Indeed!

    • http://www.zayo.com Dan Caruso

      Rob, thanks but stop causing trouble. :)

  • http://www.converser.io/ Barry Nolan

    I met Dan a few years back. His team had basically reversed engineered salesforce.com into a quasi ERP that allowed you manage new customers to billing through salesforce, slashing bundles of cost and complexity.

    He ‘lent’ us his team for a two-day insight into this and their business processes. It was incredibly generous and open from him.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      That sounds like Dan!

    • http://www.zayo.com Dan Caruso

      Thanks Barry for the kind words. Did you have any luck with your salesforce implementation?

      • http://www.converser.io/ Barry Nolan

        We did indeed, and it’s a continuing Journey. Well done on Zayo and in particular the Abovenet transaction. Not sure how Brady felt about that though! #Londonheatsup

  • http://www.zayo.com Dan Caruso

    Thanks Brad for getting the word out about Zayo. The front range is home to a majority of the fiber networks that were built during the 1990’s boom. Level 3, Zayo, and TW Telecom consolidated much of the industry and are the top 3 fiber based competitors to ATT, Verizon, Centurylink and the CATV providers. The front range also has many colocation/hosting companies, such as Viawest, Coresite, and Hosting.com. Students, Entrepreneurs, Venture Capitalists and Private Equity Guys — I think you will find a lot of spawn offs from this concentration of bandwidth infrastructure providers.

  • Kyle Lefkoff

    Truly one of Boulder’s greatest serial entrepreneurs. Thanks for sharing Dan’s story, Brad – it’s a really good one.

  • kermit64113

    A late comment to a great post. Dan, I remember you and Gillis (Cashman) and John (Siegel) sitting in my office in 2006/ 2007 (not sure which year it was) and thinking “These guys are going to need a lot of money.” What I did not realize at the time was the equal portion of focus and determination it was going to require. I think Zayo has developed a similar model for infrastructure integration that Cisco developed for software/ equipment integration. It seems like it should be so easy, but fiber/ construction methods differ widely.

    Thanks for driving change. The wireless industry would not have realized the full potential of LTE as quickly without Zayo’s fiber deployments.