Seeby Woodhouse: the rise and fall and rise of an entrepreneur

Seeby Woodhouse: "Money isn't necessarily tied to happiness. In fact, it might be inversely correlated because you might not know who your friends are"

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"I started Orcon at 19 and I sold it at 29, and the whole time I ran Orcon it was in a non-profit situation because I was going for growth and capital gain," says entrepreneur Seeby Woodhouse, recalling his early years.

"I was living on Weetbix and baked beans and living in a tiny little two-bedroom house and then all of a sudden I had $20 million in the bank or more.

"And I thought, I'm set for life. I never need to work again. I didn't want to be one of these people like Warren Buffet who works every single day from dawn to dusk and then dies with $80 billion in the bank.

"I thought I want to make a lot of money young, then enjoy my life and have real balance. Things like Ferraris and holidays are so much more enjoyable when you're mobile and energetic."

This was in 2007.

Woodhouse recalls at the time that some economists said "we had cracked the code and would have stable markets forever."

He bought a $10m "party" house on a North Shore clifftop, which would gain fame as the set for New Zealand's Next Top Model (Woodhouse continued to live there during filming).

He also bought a beach house and a bar.

"Then I had a couple of settlements that I had to make but, because of course when you have money, people start coming after you for historical things," he adds.

"I ended up spending $18m on property in three weeks, so I had $21m in the bank [his share of the Orcon sale] and then all of a sudden I had not that much left — but I wasn't too fussed.

Of course, the laws of economics had not been suspended and, just three weeks later, the global financial crisis hit.

"So that got a bit tough. All of a sudden I didn't have much cash. So I ended up losing $4m or $5m, taking a hit [on the sale] of some of the properties and keeping the big house."

He says he learned that "Being good in business at one thing doesn't mean that you have any life experience to know what to do in another. So I got a bit of a spanking. I grew up a bit and realised that $20m doesn't actually go that far."

 

Above: Todd Scott interviews Seeby Woodhouse. Highlights include an intriguing behind-the-scenes view of how he built Orcon from nothing, after dropping out of university (5.00);  his librarian parents losing almost everything in the 87 crash (7.00), what sparked his decision to get back into the ISP game, and building Voyager (11.50); the collapse of his marriage (17.30), money buying misery (19.00)

Woodhouse put his dwindled funds into commercial property in Auckland's Newmarket, buying three office buildings at what turned out to be the low point of the downturn in 2009 and 2010.

One of the buildings, bought for $4.5m, now has a valuation of $10-11m, he says.

And after sitting out his three-year non-compete with Kordia, he also got back into the ISP game, starting a new provider called Voyager, this time focused on the business market.

Through a series of acquisitions, Voyager expanded into website and domain name (website address) hosting and, most recently, cloud telephony (today, the company is profitable on $30m annual revenue).

But although his business life was back on track, Woodhouse's personal life went off the rails.

After spending his twenties working 16-hour days, he let his hair down during his early 30s. Followers of his prolific Instagram account will know there was a lot of travel to destinations ranging from the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert to the Playboy Mansion.

At his 35th birthday, 200 bottles of Veuve were consumed. A building skip had to be hired to crane them away.

But then an extended hangover began. His marriage to Geraldine Burnett (12 years his junior) fell apart not long after their $600,000 wedding in Queenstown, featuring $100,000 worth of flowers. ("She's a beautiful person. It was my fault," he says).

In 2016, he posted a photo (below) from Auckland Hospital, saying he had had heart damage and that one side of his face was paralysed. He also totally lost hearing in one ear, and most of his hearing in the other (an affliction he still bears today). His self-diagnosis: "Too much partying."

He dropped his booze-fueled lifestyle in favour of the odd glass of red wine.

He did keep up the constant travel but it became more focused. He spent a year following Tony Robbins around the globe, attending seminar after seminar by the motivational speaker (who would later become something of a #metoo casualty).

He also spent a lot of time in India, where he met the California-raised Guru Singh, who introduced him to spirituality and mindfulness.

Woodhouse tweets these days often have themes of finding inner happiness, and how personal growth cannot come from material things (although he declined an invitation to relieve himself of the burden of his wealth by transferring it to this journalist's bank account).

"Money isn't necessarily tied to happiness. In fact, it might be inversely correlated because you might not know who your friends are," he says.

"Happiness comes from within. Most people try to find something outside of themselves to make them happy [but] if you're not happy on the inside it doesn't matter.

"That's why you can have billionaires who are completely miserable and their families hate them and they have this awful life, and you can have homeless people who are happy."

The Orcon founder's recent pursuits also include taking over naming rights for New Zealand's largest media awards.

Read more about that pet project, and his sharp critique of the NZ Herald and Stuff (ironically both major winners in the inaugural Voyager Media Awards last night) here.

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