Richard Tang: Zen and the art of internet maintenance

The world has come full circle for Richard Tang over the course of 25 years. The 54-year-old founder and executive chairman of Britain’s oldest internet service provider argues that two very different types of crisis have determined his company’s trajectory.

Zen Internet was founded in 1995 after Mr Tang and his brother came up with the idea over a few pints of beer in a pub in their home town of Rochdale, an old mill town a few miles north of Manchester, and gambled that internet access was destined for the mainstream. Having launched the business, Mr Tang lived in fear that a large group such as BT would spot an opportunity to dominate the nascent market for internet access and he was right.

Yet it was UK electronics retailer Dixons that pounced. It launched Freeserve in 1998 and scuppered the business model of dozens of internet pioneers by giving away their product for free. “It was my worst nightmare come true,” recalls Mr Tang.

Yet Zen turned heel on the consumer market to focus on a small group of business customers who needed more than just a basic free dial-up connection. The switch paid off as Zen recorded its best year to date, and its first ever profit, having found its niche.

“With threat comes opportunity,” says Mr Tang, citing Confucius, as he reflects on the three main crisis points — the Freeserve launch, the financial crisis and this year’s coronavirus lockdown — that have proved broadband is a resilient business.

Zen has expanded its network over the past year to reach 80 per cent of the country’s population and Mr Tang also brought in a new management team to expand the longstanding niche broadband player into a true challenger brand.

A quarter of a century after it