Mike Hughes meets Jeremy Chelot -  a business leader on  a lifelong mission to spread the word about high-quality broadband coverage


When The Northern Echo launched its Level Up campaign we knew that one of the key challenges was to present a united region to investors and Government.
We had to connect the disconnected and show how we were all part of the same place with our ideas, collaboration and shared benefits.
The thing about networks like that is that they don’t mean everyone has to be doing the same thing – they just mean we have to be able to work together for the greater good.
Jeremy Chelot understands that feeling about connection. It seems like he’s been a businessman since he was a kid, so he knows the power of collaboration, but as the CEO of YouFibre, he holds the power of connectivity above all else. When he joined our Level Up campaign recently he said: “The internet transforms lives, it’s a great leveller; if you haven’t got it or you’ve a poor connection you’re disadvantaged.”


That’s a 10,000Mbps message for the whole region from a man who started life in social housing in Paris and has never stopped working and pushing for success since. His ‘origins’ story is as fascinating as his YouFibre work and is a textbook example of following passions and taking every possible opportunity to expand your horizons.
He told BUSINESSiQ: “I grew up with a single mum, but that type of background, whether it's in the UK or France, is still a privileged upbringing so I still managed to go to school even if I was fed up pretty much every day.
“Since a very young age – about eight years old – I have loved computers and I’m 38 now so I fell in love with the power of programming but at eight, I couldn't afford one, so what I was doing all the time was reading books about them.
“And every Saturday I used to go to the equivalent of Maplins in France and I was just driving the people running the shop mad by playing with their computers or going to the places where they were selling books, and just reading book after book which I did for many years.”
“When I was 10 or 11, I turned around to my mum and the rest of my family and told them I never wanted them to buy me a gift ever again. I said ‘you're just going to give me cash because one day I want to buy a computer’.

The Northern Echo: Netomnia at workNetomnia at work
“And I also said I didn’t want to go to canteen anymore, I wanted the cash instead so I can buy my own lunch and save 70% of my money every day, so that by the time I was 14 or 15, I finally had enough to buy my first computer that I built myself.
“But that’s when problems began for my mum because I completely lost interest in school. When I was 12 or 13 it was cool, but as soon as I got a computer my grades started going down - but I was happy.”
The lack of a father figure and social housing could have been two very clear reasons why this young French boy would be lost to the world, but clearly Jeremy was made of different stuff, and his relationship with his mother is a powerful asset then and now.
Mum is over in England as we speak, getting to know her new granddaughter, and her love, ambition and support for her son have obviously rubbed off – in a very ‘Jeremy’ sort of way – as he tells me: “I want my four-month-old to speak at least three languages when she grows up – English, French and Python (the software coding language).” 
The pestering of the ‘Maplin’ staff and gift-buying strategies for the rest of the family might have marked him out as coquin - a bit of a gallic rascal to say the least. But it was the ambition running like a fibre through his early years that drove him on and let people see that this was more than child’s play – this was a young businessman in the making.
At the time he was soldering and clicking to build his computer the municipal councils were choosing areas to get groundbreaking 500kb connections and the precious gift of the fastest broadband around soon landed at his door.
“Everybody basically had 56 kilobits before then, but they were running around in my state with 500kb, so I could actually get an Internet connection that was ten times faster than what everybody else had.
“So I was the guy with the computer and the guy with the great Internet connection. Now I think the world started opening up to me and I had access to the World Wide Web which was just fantastic.”
When he was old enough to start working it was - of course – an internet café that appealed first. He was just doing general work around the place, but when the technician looking after all the café servers was leaving, Jeremy volunteered to do that job as well as his own for no extra pay.
The slightly wary café owner gave it some thought and then decided to give him a chance ‘who is this kid? Now he wants to run the servers as well as clearing the tables…?’
Jeremy says: “By then I was building up experience of running servers and computers and managed to find a job in a hospital, which was quite an experience as a 20-year-old because I was working as a technician fixing all the computers – but that included the one inside the operating theatre.

The Northern Echo: Jeremy Chelot of YouFibreJeremy Chelot of YouFibre
“Sometimes they go down and sometimes the surgeon will need a technician during the operation, so I got to experience a lot of things there that nobody else will ever experience – I saw open heart surgery and a lung breathing.
“But I also got to play with a robotic surgical system called Da Vinci that was initially designed for someone who might need surgery in a submarine or in a place where you can’t find a doctor. How do get a doctor remotely to operate on someone locally - that's what Da Vinci does and I got to experience that as well.
“All of this added to the sort of person I was becoming - I was fascinated and learning all the time.”
After the hospital this already colourful career really started to take shape when his mum insisted he went back to studying ‘or I would end up living under a bridge’. He completed a degree education, but even that was secondary to his experience of online learning, which had him hooked and confirmed his belief that the internet was a great teacher and leveller, not just a gaming and messaging phenomenon.
He tells me: “I can spend hours talking about philosophy, economy, politics, physics and so on because I study so much on the Internet. So I realised by the time I was 25 I was feeling constrained and after another job in a small construction company I wanted to explore the world
“Step one was that I needed to be able to speak English and I believed the best way to learn something is to be forced to learn something, so why not move to the UK and arrive in a place where technically, nobody speaks French.”
He adds with a laugh “I mean you all try but you're quite bad at it.”
So he moved here and after two or three months started to pick up the language and a year later was taking a Masters at Oxford Brookes University as a way of improving his understanding of the language. So much so that he earned Distinctions and was writing insightful dissertations.
He then moved to a role similar to an internship at Vodafone and then to O2 Telefonica where he worked on large-scale network architecture. He didn’t have any of the credentials they were looking for but says they gave him the job anyway because he was able to talk in detail about the role for two and half hours.
Still looking for the fulfilment and purpose he knew was deep inside him, he moved on again, to Ericsson and then the Three network.
“Three was interesting because I started in a team of about 30 people as the junior alongside lots of people with 10 to 15 years of experience in the company. So I think a year and a half later I was not happy with what I was paid because I was doing twice or three times the work of everyone else.
“So went to BT for less than six months before I was headhunted by Three - to come back and manage the team where I had been a junior, which led to a lot of clashes ‘two years ago we didn’t even know him and now he’s managing us? What the hell is going on here?’
“At the end of 2014, I knew I was bored and that we could do all those things differently, but I'm never going to change how it's being done by being within it, so I resigned, did consulting for a year and then went on to form the Community Fibre company.”
It’s an interesting thought that for some people, this CV might sound alarm bells – coffee shop, technician, construction, a string of employers and then he leaves to build his own network? But this is the value, as happened for Jeremy at O2 Telefonica, of looking behind qualifications and previous history to make sure you are not passing up a gem.
As I have done for many years in the media, you look at the CV to get the basics, but then you need the interviews, to meet, challenge and analyse the person. Thankfully, enough people did that with Jeremy to make YouFibre and Netomnia possible – or maybe it was always going to happen, no matter what anyone else thought.
“That long story of jobs and changes is what my life is, in that I end up in a situation that is not necessarily what I'm looking for or not. I never want to reach something specific, I just have incremental steps in my plan and had never been further than about three to six months at a time,” he says.
“But somehow those steps are relatively calculated to get to the end goal. I love chess – which I learned on the Internet, of course - so for me I look at life as a chessboard with various pieces to move.
“My drive and passion to want to deliver things means I go through walls – and it doesn't matter how thick the wall is, I will go for it and if I can't go through it, I’m finding a route around it.”
The work to form his own company started with rescuing the remnants of the struggling Community Fibre firm. By piecing it back together as he wanted he learned more about being at the top of the company tree – finance, business plans, staffing – while he was also on rooftops in the early hours of the morning repairing routers.
He still does some of the basic work himself and says:
“I can now go anywhere in Peterlee without GPS because I know it so well, and for someone who used to live in Paris and London being able to orientate myself in Peterlee without the GPS is quite a good thing.”
By then he had raised more than £100million to turn Community Fibre into a success story, but was still hungry for more, so sold it when his investors wanted to take it in another direction.
“I had done something that very few people have managed to do and very few people can claim that they have done in the UK, and more importantly I had learned so much because I made so many mistakes.
“Now I felt that I could redo everything but a lot faster and a lot better, a lot cheaper, and so the next step was to invest in the North East and start Netomnia and YouFibre.”
YouFibre is now an established ISP claiming the fastest and cheapest internet services in the UK. They have passed 3,000 customer connections in County Durham with a long list of orders for the coming months. The company provides internet speeds of up to 10,000Mbps (140x faster than the average home in the UK) using new full-fibre infrastructure built by sister company Netomnia where Jeremy is also CEO.
Netomnia is investing in and building high-quality gigabit networks for UK homes and businesses and. together with construction partners, is currently building in towns across North East, including Durham, Houghton le Spring, Peterlee, Spennymoor and Stockton. Next on the list will be Hartlepool, Darlington Newton Aycliffe and Bishop Auckland.
“This is where we were born, so it’s a very special place for us and I still think I have something to prove here,” he says.

The Northern Echo: Rewriting the rules....Rewriting the rules....
“I usually define it as unfinished business and that for me means I strongly believe that the main reason why I'm here is the Internet and the quality of the infrastructure and to level up the opportunities it brings.
“Because with the Internet it is completely irrelevant how big your bank account is if you get the same access to the same computer and the same connection to the same level of information. If you want to watch a movie on Netflix, it doesn’t matter if you've got plus £10million in your bank account or minus £100.
“I've always been passionate about solving that problem in a new way and maybe now for the likes of Openreach and Virgin Media it is too late because the cat is out of the bag and it’s not going to go back in.
“I’m now competing against those giants and I don't want people to ever be constrained by the quality of the infrastructure and I never want them to be constrained by a service which is not affordable.”
He adds mischievously: “I love knowing that they talk about me because I am on this mission.”
One practical advantage he has is that he ruled out copper as a carrier from the very beginning, opting for pure glass fibre. So YouFibre came in with the dazzling speeds at the same time as some of his rivals were making their transformation to fibre their big selling point for long-established operations. That all takes time and as any businessman knows, that leaves a gap for smaller and more agile competitors to move in and impress.
“Instead of using electrons, we can use photons because the properties of light are just so much better. You can cover more distance and carry a lot more information.”
The reason the mainframe of his operation is here in the North East, starting with places like Peterlee, is that this is where he knew his companies could do the most levelling up. Faster web connections bring in investment and give individuals and businesses more of a chance to compete.
In the more challenged parts of the country this will make the biggest difference, so his own internal GPS brought him here and YouFibre has been levelling up ever since.
Is he on track and now able to do that long-term planning he has often avoided?
“Maybe there isn’t a rigid five-year plan, but for the next three we are on track and actually ahead of our ambition is to deliver to up to 2,000,000 premises by 2024,” he says.
The North East is an exciting place to be for many reasons, and the next generation of business leaders growing up in here will be in a better position to grow and develop because of the innovation, drive and self-belief from companies like YouFibre and Netomnia.
Jeremy seems finally content with his achievements and the business plan he has been rewriting since he was eight is clearly working out well.
“My life is basically fantastic,” he admits.
“I have got a wonderful wife, a wonderful daughter and a great company that is hopefully improving the life of a lot of people.”
Not a bad result for a programme that has been running for 38 years in a variety of languages.


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