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Bringing broadband to the masses.

Most people wouldn’t open a cybercafe and then think of turning the business into an ISP broadband service a few years later. But then, few people are like Mike Apgar, one of the founders of Seattle-based Speakeasy. He chats about how customer service, Xbox giveaways, and “borrowing” a few city uniforms got the ISP up and humming.

How did the company get started from a cybercafe?

In the early 90s, I decided that a casual cafe environment — combined with a high-speed Internet experience — was a perfect endeavor for me, my wife Gretchen, and my brother, Tyler. In 1994, we founded the Speakeasy Cafe and it quickly became Seattle’s de facto Internet gathering place. We were dispensing all types of related information, even building Web sites for local companies. I joke that many times, customers would order a double tall latte and then say, “Oh, by the way, can you build my company’s Web site?” A few years later, a devastating fire destroyed the cafe, and we decided to focus entirely on providing ISP broadband service.

What’s the story with wiring two offices clandestinely?

In 1997, Tyler and I needed to establish connectivity between two Speakeasy facilities on opposite sides of Seattle’s Bell Street. Through ingenuity, a bit of help from City of Seattle blueprints and some “borrowed” construction uniforms, we threaded cable through an unused pipe running under the busy thruway. The experience involved Tyler enduring the depths of the underground for most of the day while a few helpers and I guided the wires into the pipe, using everything from a remote-controlled toy car to multiple lengths of duct-taped PVC tubes. From these scrappy beginnings, we’ve become the nation’s largest independent provider of broadband services.

There are so many DSL providers; how does Speakeasy do things differently?

We have a fiercely loyal subscriber base, and we believe our customer service approach is revolutionary in the broadband industry. We have proactive rather than reactive customer care. Also, our services target discerning niche markets such as gaming, music and small business; groups traditionally ignored by the broadband industry.

What’s exceptional about your customer service?

Our customer care isn’t sequestered in some little-known room. It’s in the very center of our headquarters, so that the rest of the staff passes through the area daily. This way, everyone at Speakeasy is constantly reminded of, and focused on, the customer.

Your promotions are pretty funky, with iPod and Xbox giveaways; what made you choose these type of products as incentive items?

Customers come to us for innovation and quality — the same attributes that might attract users to an iPod, Xbox or PS2. We feel that these promotions bring Ôlike minds’ together and allow us to introduce new customers to our services and to products that are such a natural extension of using broadband.

What kind of trends are you seeing in broadband usage?

We’ve had tremendous interest in custom broadband packages — especially those customers interested in gaming, who were initially intrigued by the Xbox/PS2 promotion. There has been a marked increase in subscribers as a result of these targeted marketing efforts. In a recent survey, more than half of our subscribers indicated a significant interest in gaming and consider the facilitation of gaming services to be a major influence on their broadband provider choice. Interestingly, many of these same users cite working from home or superior technical support as other major influences, indicating a blended work/play lifestyle. Once customers become aware of Speakeasy, we believe that we deliver premium services to them better than any other provider.

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