My Lunch with Andy Ory: Acme Packet CEO Talks Startup Lessons, Growing Pains, and Building the Next Great Boston Company

6/29/11Follow @gthuang

It’s not every day I get to dine with the CEO of a public company worth $5 billion. Last month I sat down with Andy Ory, founder and chief exec at Bedford, MA-based Acme Packet (NASDAQ: APKT), for an in-depth chat about his company’s strategy and outlook in the area of networking technology.

The setting was The Friendly Toast in Cambridge, MA. Ory has a soft spot in his heart for the Kendall Square area—back in the late ‘80s, he worked at Boston Technology, the voice-mail pioneer whose office was next to where Friendly Toast sits today. (If you ever get a chance, ask him about the story of using the local pay phone for product testing.)

Over a BLT and huevos rancheros (if I recall correctly), we talked about everything from Ory’s startup lessons to big-company concerns and business regulations, from Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype to how Acme Packet is like Cisco back in 1993. (Ory is speaking tonight at a Boston-area event with Founder Collective’s Eric Paley; he will talk about Acme Packet’s story and his broader experiences in building companies.)

Ory is a leading light in the tech entrepreneurship scene. Before founding Acme Packet in 2000, he cut his teeth at Boston Technology and then founded Priority Call Management, which sold to LHS Group for over $160 million in 1999. Over the past decade, he and his team have built Acme Packet into a leader in session border control—technology that helps telecom network operators and big companies manage voice-over-IP (VoIP) and other communications and services over the Internet in an efficient and secure manner.

Yet things have not always been rosy for Acme Packet, which went public in 2006 and now has roughly 700 employees (about 450 in Bedford). The company’s stock fell below $4 in late 2008, before rebounding and rising strongly in the past year and a half, to around $70 in recent months. I wanted to hear about that dramatic comeback too.

Ory didn’t disappoint as either a lunch companion or an interview subject. It helps that he is a charmer and a natural-born storyteller. Consider how he explains where Acme Packet sits today:

“Imagine you were visiting a company back in 1993 called Cisco Network Systems. ‘What do you guys do?’ We make a router. You might say, ‘what’s a router?’ It’s a piece of hardware and software. The reason is enterprises are converting their infrastructure to IP [Internet protocol] because of e-mail. If enterprise A wants to send e-mail to enterprise B, they need a router between them. Well, you might say, ‘what percentage of enterprises are going to do e-mail?’ And they’d say, every single one on the planet. ‘And how many e-mail messages fill up a router?’ To figure out how many routers you’re going to sell. What was really interesting is, when you connect all these networks together, a network effect ensues. Of course I couldn’t say to you, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, Napster—I wish I could have,” Ory says.

“Now let’s fast forward 18 years and you’re visiting my company,” he says. “We make a session border controller. Enterprises and service providers are converting their service infrastructure to IP so they can do voice over IP. When they want to make a VoIP call from one enterprise to another, they need a session border controller to connect those two enterprises. So you’d say, ‘what percentage of enterprises and service providers are going to do VoIP?’ And of course my answer is, every single one. … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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