Interview with Christina Domecq: Seriously connected

With a total of £100 million of VC investment, Christina Domecq is out to make her third company, Spinvox, a global technology business. We meet the ambitious 31-year-old.

In her free moments, Christina Domecq likes to paraglide and climb mountains, including Mount Blanc and Mount Kilimanjiro. There are other, larger mountains she wants to scale but she admits she hasn’t quite found the time.

It’s no wonder, really, as she is aiming to reach the giddy heights with voicemail-to-text specialist Spinvox, which recently received its third round of venture capital funding of £50 million, bringing the total amount of investor backing to £100 million.

‘If I catch a glimpse into the future, I can very quickly see us as being the worldwide leader in voice messaging and hosted voice messaging,’ says the 31-year-old.

Domecq was born in Spain – she is descended from the famous Domecq family of sherry makers – and went to study in the US at the age of 13. There is a gung-ho, can-do spirit about Spinvox which is almost excessively American – the sections of the office and boardrooms are named after mountains – but Domecq has a refreshingly sangfroid demeanour. Softly spoken, she shows no sign of cracking under the pressure to perform that such hefty VC investment brings with it, especially in today’s gloomy financial environment.

Strong support

In total, there are 25 investors, ranging from angels in the early days – the first £500,000 was the hardest to raise, she notes – to hedge fund player GLG Partners and Goldman Sachs. Impressively, Domecq and co-founder Daniel Doulton retain controlling stakes.

‘We’ve dealt with our investors the same way all along and that is to manage expectations,’ she says. ‘We communicate constantly with them and, to an extent, over communicate. Ostrich syndrome doesn’t happen here. You have to be as candid when things aren’t so good as when everything is going well.’

Since the company launched in 2003, two years were spent on R&D – Doulton is the engineering brains – and then a deal was struck with The Carphone Warehouse in 2005. ‘We started in the UK because there was a retail outlet. In the US, the market is owned by the [telecommunications] carriers and we didn’t want to go to them until we had proved the concept as we knew we would just be thrown out.’

That deal with Carphone Warehouse saw customer numbers for the Spinvox service rise to over 100,000. ‘We leaned directly through the consumer about how to sell, position and refine our service. Then we used what we had learnt to sell to carriers worldwide.’

Deals were struck with carriers in Spain and the US and the additional funding will be used to develop infrastructure in North and Latin America. Domecq expects customer numbers to rise from 1.5 million to six million by July.

While the first deal with a carrier was signed just under two years ago, the service didn’t go live until last June. In the past 18 months, the company has gone from 45 employees to over 370 and revenue has grown from under £1 million to £40 million.

Setting the pace

Domecq has been confronted with the classic challenges of an expanding concern, but it’s been compressed into an absurdly short space of time. ‘The hardest thing about growing a business at pace is the global aspect. When the rate of growth is so fast, you have to keep the communication alive so you’re all on the same page and everyone knows what you’re doing,’ she says.

Retaining the company culture is a point Domecq keeps coming back to. ‘I can’t spend enough time with everyone,’ she admits. ‘That’s the hardest part. Keeping everyone excited and motivated while working long hours is tough.’

A defining moment in the company’s evolution came 18 months ago when Domecq and Doulton realised that, if they were going to take their voice recognition service to the mass market, then they were in a race with companies of the ilk of Microsoft and NASDAQ-listed Nuance to recruit the best speech experts in the world.

‘We went to our board and we asked to execute a land-grab strategy,’ she says. ‘What we proposed violated all VC type models as they prescribe organic growth. The view is that if you prove you can do it once and do it well, then you receive additional funding.

‘From our point of view, we had the absolute firm belief that voicemail to text as a singular product was simple and clear enough a proposition for mass appeal, and that we had the ability both technically and operationally to deploy it globally. To achieve our ambition, we knew we had to execute a land-grab strategy.’

Or, more appropriately, a mind-grab. A headhunter was hired to go out and recruit an A-list of brilliant individuals. ‘We have people who have come from Accenture, Vodafone and T-Mobile. We have hired some of the biggest and brightest and best to sit around the entrepreneurs that we have in the business.’

Big ambitions

The PR and marketing surrounding Spinvox is slick and it’s clear the intention is to create a global brand. Domecq consistently references Google, satnav-maker TomTom, and Research in Motion, which makes the Blackberry. ‘When I think of successful businesses, that’s where I’m looking,’ she says. ‘Our technology is as cutting edge as Google’s is for online search. We’re into building a long term business and I mention those companies because they were built for longevity.’

Spinvox is Domecq’s third company. While completing a masters in finance at Notre Dame, she decided to start up an IT infrastructure business with friends. That business was sold at the height of the dotcom boom, leaving her free to launch an IT training company. Based in an office six blocks from the World Trade Centre, Domecq had 140 employees and sales of $14 million. Everything was going well until 9/11 happened.

Emotionally and commercially – revenue tailed off by 75 per cent – Domecq needed a change of scene. When the opportunity came to return to Spain as a consultant in the yacht brokering business, it was too good to refuse. It was while working there that the idea of voicemail to text struck her.

‘I had 14 voicemails on my phone and I was running from one meeting to the other. I was burning down the motorway to yet another meeting and one of the messages was to say that the location had changed.’

To Domecq, it seemed ridiculous that a voicemail couldn’t appear as a text on her phone. She told her friend Doulton and he agreed. For a regular, run of the mill person, that conversation would have been the end of it. Instead, Domecq and Doulton opted to launch a personal crusade that has seen investors shell out millions.

‘There is an absolute passion and conviction from myself and Daniel about what we’re doing. We had a clear and simple story to tell and I think that’s something entrepreneurs forget. They over complicate with business plans and growth models, when I think backers buy into and invest in people.

‘If your elevator pitch isn’t over in 30 seconds, then start again. We were able to do that well and everyone can relate to our proposition. The emotional engagement in the product is critical.’

As for setting up Spinvox in the UK, Domecq believes it’s a fertile atmosphere for a growing concern: ‘I’ve found it an empowering and amazing environment in which to build a business. From my perspective, nearly all of the investment has come from the UK and there’s been great support from the [telecoms] industry here.’

With a deal in Latin America to be announced shortly and the recent hiring of speech veteran Dr Tony Robinson to be director of the Spinvox Advanced Speech Group, the voice to text service is just the beginning. Domecq says that soon it’ll be possible to speak an email or text message, or talk co-ordinates through a satnav device. ‘That’s not far over the horizon,’ she says. ‘We’re seeing more product incarnations.’

Through the glass walls of the meeting room, the office is a flurry of activity. Domecq points out Robinson, who is in deep conversation with his new colleagues. The sense of purpose is tangible and she evidently feels she is part of a special business.

As things stand, the expected exit for investors is a main listing in the UK. But that’s some way off. ‘What we must do next is drive the success of our product into channels. We must remain absolutely focused so we can achieve what we intended to from day one.’

In many ways, Domecq still has a mountain to climb, but she is evidently determined to reach the summit.

Marc Barber

Raven Connelly

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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