Sujai Hajela and Bob Friday are the cofounders of Mist Systems which is leading the transition to AI-driven IT, making Wi-Fi predictable, reliable and measurable by providing visibility and proactive automation to the user experience across the AI-driven enterprise. The company raised $90 million from Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, and Norwest Venture Partners. Ultimately the company got acquired by Juniper Networks in a deal worth $405 million.
In this episode you will learn:
- The four essential traits of a great CEO
- The four critical things to look for when picking an investor
- The three teams it takes to successfully execute in a startup and why engineering alone isn’t enough
- How to deal with the ups and downs as an entrepreneur
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Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
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About Ara Sujai Hajela:
Sujai Hajela is the chief executive at Mist Systems, a Juniper Networks company.
Acquired by Juniper in April 2019, Mist is leading the transition to AI-driven IT, making Wi-Fi predictable, reliable and measurable by providing visibility and proactive automation to the user experience across the AI-driven enterprise.
Prior to Mist, Sujai Hajela held several roles at Cisco, including the SVP of the Enterprise Infrastructure and Solutions Group for Cisco’s Enterprise Segment organization, SVP of Product Management and Strategy for Cisco’s Enterprise Networking Group and VP and GM of Cisco’s Wireless and Cloud Networking Group.
Sujai Hajela also led the Cisco acquisitions of ThinkSmart and Meraki. Before Cisco, Sujai Hajela held senior roles at Motorola, Nortel and Hewlett Packard.
About Bob Friday:
Bob Friday is CTO of Mist, a Juniper company, which develops self-learning wireless networks using artificial intelligence.
Bob Friday started his career in wireless at Metricom (Ricochet wireless network) developing and deploying wireless mesh networks across the country to connect the first generation of Internet browsers.
Following Metricom, Bob Friday co-founded Airespace, a start-up focused on helping enterprises manage the flood of employees bringing unlicensed Wi-Fi technology into their businesses.
Following Cisco’s acquisition of Airespace in 2005, Bob Friday became the VP/CTO of Cisco enterprise mobility and drove mobility strategy and investments in the wireless business (e.g. Navini, Cognio, ThinkSmart, Phunware, Wilocity, Meraki).
Connect with Sujai Hajela:
Connect with Bob Friday:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have two co-founders with different backgrounds. They’ve done fantastic things before they came together to build this incredible company that we’re going to be talking about today. They’ve done it a couple of times, so this is not their first rodeo, but without further ado, I’d like to welcome our guests today. Sujai Hajela and Bob Friday, welcome to the show.
Bob Friday: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Sujai Hajela: Thank you.
Alejandro: Let’s do a bit of walk through memory lane, guys. Why don’t we start with Sujai? So Sujai, you were born in India. How was life growing up there?
Sujai Hajela: Life growing up there was fun. Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s our motto in India.
Alejandro: Where exactly in India were you born?
Sujai Hajela: I was born in the capital, New Delhi.
Alejandro: Got it. Bob, in your case, it was Northern California.
Bob Friday: Yep. I was born in Chico, up there.
Alejandro: Sujai, tell us how did you get involved in all of this technology and business? Was this early on or how did it happen?
Sujai Hajela: A benefit was upbringing. I come from a family of technocrats and bureaucrats. Heavy influence in technology was my dad, who has done some amazing things in engineering. That’s what I thought as the career I wanted to adopt because I like to solve problems and solve problems analytically and in a structure. So that’s how I got into technology early on, and hence, went to pursue my computer science and technology in India as my undergraduate degree.
Alejandro: And the same for you, Bob. Right?
Bob Friday: Yeah. I started my technology career back in high school. I think my first science project was building a hologram back in the ’70s. I was always big into science, math, and building things.
Alejandro: Let’s talk about the professional career because I understand, Sujai that you went around the world. Tell us; why did you decide to pack the bags and see what’s out there?
Sujai Hajela: I think I would paraphrase it with some amazing opportunities, which gave me a well-rounded framework in the business world. I started my career after graduation in India. A year after working in India, I got an amazing opportunity to be recruited by Siemens in Germany, which is where I spent close to two years in Berlin and two years in Munich. There, it helped me understand the value of time and understand the value of commitment in a European culture. From there, I moved on to Hewlett-Packard. I was recruited by Hewlett-Packard for an opportunity in Singapore in their open-view Telecom Group, which was a very fast-growing unit. That opportunity offered me the ability to give a practical aspect to things I needed to do. All the management principles with Hewlett-Packard really was bringing to the table helped me shape my thinking in management. From there, Hewlett-Packard relocated me to the United States. I was working in the Santa Clara division in the Santa Clara area. From there, it was an amazing ride. I got to work with Hewlett-Packard. Then joined an upcoming startup called Alteon WebSystems, which then was bought by Nortel for a multi-billion-dollar valuation. I stayed with Nortel for some time, and then saw a big change in the evolution of wireless technology. That made me join Symbol Technologies as their Vice President of Engineering. Symbol Technologies did extremely well. Got acquired by Motorola in 2007. I think it was north of a 3-billion-dollar acquisition. I stayed with Motorola to run their Enterprise Wireless LAN business, and then got recruited by Cisco as the VP/GM for their network management business. Then I moved on to run their Wireless LAN business, which is where I met Bob Friday, and we had an amazing run making it a 2.4-billion-dollar revenue stream for Cisco when we left. But at Cisco, itself, after doing extremely well in the wireless business as, frankly, a key role being played by Bob, who helped shape my thinking on how the technologies are evolving, went on to lead the enterprise networking business for Cisco from a product management and strategy perspective. In 2011-2014, at Cisco, you got a bigger picture of the customers out there and the trends in the market. I started having a joint discussion with Bob, where we felt something had to evolve. In 2012, Bob and I led the acquisition of a company called Meraki into Cisco. It was a 1.2-billion-dollar acquisition as a part of our view on what’s changing in the industry. But in 2014, we came to the realization that there is definitely a need for a network architecture which focuses on end-user experience rather than focusing on the network. As soon as we came to that philosophy, then it’s important for me to know what’s Alejandro’s experience on the network rather than knowing whether an access point is working or not. As soon as we made that philosophical statement, it then led to a new architecture driven by Artificial Intelligence.
Alejandro: And that led to your business. Let’s pause it right there. Now, let’s go with Bob. You went to Georgia Tech, so you moved from Northern California, then you went to Atlanta, then Georgia Tech, and then you went at it as an entrepreneur right away. How did you develop this bug for starting businesses?
Bob Friday: Yeah. I think my first job coming out of Georgia Tech is I made a beeline back to California and got a job at Watkins-Johnson, which was a military contractor. I was there for about three years. Then my first startup was Metricom-Ricochet. That’s where I learned that when you’re in a startup, you can basically do anything you want. I started Metricom as a software engineer. It turned out that in that business, we were building these wireless mesh networks for smart grid, and we had no one to build radios. I became the person who started to build radios there. It was back in the early days before CAD systems. I was able to teach myself how to build a radio, turn around, and get it built within six weeks. So I was keeping ahead of the software team. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurship of what it really takes me to do a startup. You end up wearing as many hats as you can.
Bob Friday: There’s no limit to what you can do. You’re limited by whatever you’re capable of.
Alejandro: Whatever happened with this company, Metricom?
Bob Friday: Metricom-Ricochet was in the 1980s or so. We started building wireless mesh networks. That’s when the unlicensed spectrum was becoming available. So we were building these unlicensed mesh networks across the country to read the meters on your house. From there, I think it was the late ’80s when the first internet started to come out and the browsers.
Bob Friday: Then we made a decision to start building wireless mesh networks to hook up all the laptops and browsers out there. That was a lesson I learned. The interesting thing in that part of that venture was, that was when I learned about market timing. That was back in the late ’80s, ’90s. Wireless internet wasn’t a bad thought. It was a much better thought when the iPhone came out. That was one lesson. Another lesson I learned is during the internet boom at Metricom-Ricochet, they invested way too much money into inventory. So when the Boom came around, Metricom-Ricochet did not survive the internet crash. That is where I learned the importance of having very high IQ executive teams. There are always a couple of critical decisions during the startup where you need your executive team to make critical decisions.
Alejandro: Bob, what was your biggest lesson? From successes, you don’t learn as much as when things don’t turn around, or they don’t turn out to be as you expected them to be. What was your biggest lesson on not such a positive outcome?
Bob Friday: Metricom-Ricochet was actually a very positive outcome in terms of it finally went public, and everyone made a bunch of money.
Bob Friday: The thing I learned about Metricom-Ricochet during that venture was – really, two things. One is the market timing – making sure a great thought is at the right time in the market. The other thing I learned about the critical and the right executive team. That’s where I learned that yes if you’re going to do startups, you need to make sure you have very high IQ COs and COs who can make the decisions.
Alejandro: Then you went and did your next venture, which was Airespace. Tell us about this company.
Bob Friday: Airespace happened during early 2000, 2001 timeframe. That was an interesting time because that was right after the internet crash. We were trying to start a company, so we were out raising money. While most VCs were shutting down companies, we were out trying to raise money. It turned out to be a good time for VCs to hire teams because there were a lot of teams out available. But the Airespace adventure was focused on the WIFI transition. That was when WIFI was just starting to come out to market.
Bob Friday: Enterprises were having to start to deal with a large number of employees and a large number of employees bringing the WIFI to the enterprise space. It was a security issue of having people bringing in their access point in the enterprise space. Airespace is about trying to help enterprises. From my perspective, we’re looking a lot like wireless service providers following my Metricom adventures. This looked like a wireless service provider enterprise opportunity.
Alejandro: The company ended up being acquired by Cisco. I believe the terms were about 450 million. So, good outcome. This is the time where finally the two of you – this thing puts you under the same roof. You guys were talking about, Surjai, how you guys started brainstorming and thinking about how to come up with an interesting solution for all the stuff that you were seeing around you. I want to know, what was that day – and Sujai, you can tell us about this – when you guys finally made the decision that starting Mist made total sense?
Sujai Hajela: Alejandro, it is always sometimes certain things happen in our day-to-day lives which become an aha moment. I think the aha moment came for Bob and I when we were at Cisco, and we had just won a big multi-million-dollar deal. For a Wireless LAN refresh. Then there was a dinner meeting where there was a discussion going on as to everybody’s excited, Cisco’s excited, the customer is excited, the prospects of the whole new wireless network to be put. It was interesting. At the dinner, Bob was asked by the customer, “Bob, I’ve spent multi-million dollars on this investment. How do I know that on Monday when this network goes live, and the first customer walks in, on his screen he doesn’t get a spinning wheel, which means he’s having a bad network connection?” Bob basically said, “I do not know. I can tell you whether the access point is working. I can tell you whether the switch is working. I can tell you whether the network is working, but I can’t tell you what is wrong with the end-user experience.” And here’s a customer looking at us and saying, “So I’ve spent multi-million dollars on this refresh, and you still cannot answer my basic question.” That was an aha moment where Bob realized that when he co-founded Airespace, it was fundamentally about connecting laptops and making sure the access points are working. It was about managing the network. And now, after this discussion, it went to it’s all about managing the end-user experience. Hence, the new network was all about knowing what is the experience of the end-user connecting to the network rather than whether the network is up or down. That was the first aha moment, and as we started digesting that aha moment, it came to the fact that if I have to be able to deliver a network which focuses on the end-user, it means I have to fundamentally look at creating an architecture with a clean sheet of paper without any more acts of past association with a single focus on end-user experience. So, Alejandro, for us, that was the day, frankly, at the customer meeting and then coming to the realization that it indeed is time to look at a next-generation network.
Alejandro: Got it. So as you guys were thinking about this and the execution – obviously, I understand that Bob went at it first, and then it was Sujai. Why did you guys make this decision? Why didn’t you go at the same time together on this, Bob?
Bob Friday: I think as Sujai was mentioning, we looked at the Mist. The other big thing was around Jeopardy and what I call Watson. The other big emphasis from this was around the fact that this AI technology was ready for primetime. So I took off in May of 2014. At the time, Sujai still had some commitments at Cisco that he had to follow up on. I left in 2014 to get the company off the ground and started. Then Sujai left in the October timeframe of that year.
Alejandro: Sujai, why being the two of you with a background of engineering, why did you guys decide to divide up the roles of you being the CEO and Bob being the CTO?
Sujai Hajela: The way I would look at it is, Bob and I have had a very strong partnership where we’re fundamentally decided by what am I good at and what is Bob good at? Bob was a technology soul of Mist; he still is. He was the one who had the idea. Where I was able to contribute in the role was to look at Bob’s idea and see how to create a market out of it? How do I create a product/market fit out of it to fundamentally build the company? I would ask Bob for his opinion, but it actually was very simple and obvious as to how we both divide our roles.
Alejandro: So, Bob, what’s your opinion?
Bob Friday: In my background, I’m mostly a technology guy who enjoys figuring out how to turn technology and how to modernize technology. Both at Airespace and at Mist, I have always looked for and finding partners and CEO partners. For me, CEOs have five good attributes. To have a good CEO, they need to have five attributes. Typically, I have found that really good CEOs are good at sales, product management, running the business, and understanding the technology. When I worked with Sujai, Sujai met all of those four or five criteria. When you look at trying to find a good CEO for a company, Sujai had been a GM. He had been the General Manager at Cisco. He was used to running very large businesses. I think, to Sujai’s credit, the difference between a GM and a CEO is slightly different. There aren’t many people who can actually jump between a General Manager role and a CEO role. That’s something that Sujai’s done. Sujai’s been both a General Manager and a CEO of a company. So when I look for partners, Sujai met all the criteria of having all the attributes of a great CEO.
Alejandro: Then, in this case, Sujai, what ended up being the business model of Mist?
Sujai Hajela: From my perspective, when we were looking at a new architecture, which was focused on end-user experience, we also feel proud that we satisfied the network. What I mean by that is, we brought the agility of a SaaS business to a very cold, Spartan networking business, which allows customers to make changes to the network at the speed of the mobile application. Before that, the business was pretty much a software business where the customer – it’s a SaaS-based subscription. They buy what they need, and they renew if they like the value we drive. It’s a very simple business model, but the fundamental focus, Alejandro was SaaSifying the networking business by bringing that agility and by bringing that whole focus on trying to have the customer consume the network in a Cloud business model.
Alejandro: Bob, as you’re looking back and thinking about how you guys brought this company and got this business model to gain shape, what were some of the early days? What were some of the challenges that you guys were experiencing?
Bob Friday: You look at any startup, like Mist, there’s what I call product fit, market fit. So we have a market fit theory of market needing new architecture. Product fit is around execution. In the early days, we were trying to execute on two different things. On the WIFI side, we were trying to execute on bringing a solution to market that could answer questions on par of network experts. That was the AI-execution challenge. That’s a multi-year journey. You look at Mist trying to build that AI solution. We had to build it in steps while we were still selling it. Then on the line of business side, we were also bringing indoor location on par with GPS vision. Because this was tied to people putting more critical service on top of the wireless networks. I think in the early days, there was the challenge of how do we bring a solution to market that’s an AI solution that we have to monetize in steps? It’s a four-year journey. We have to bring it to market in steps. Then on the line of business side, we’re bringing a whole indoor location technology alongside of it.
Alejandro: Sujai, how did you guys go about capitalizing the business because I understand that you guys raised a bit of money? Obviously, from the sound of it, it sounds like a capital-intensive business as well.
Sujai Hajela: Absolutely, Alejandro, and I appreciate that you recognize that challenge. I think our fundamental focus if I take a step back, started with clearly realizing that we have to come out with a new architecture and that new architecture, which is going to be AI-driven needed us to have control of the data. So, unlike many other startups, we made a big decision, and frankly, I thank Bob for having that foresight to build our own access point hardware. Many people questioned us, Alejandro. “Why do you need to build access point hardware when you focus on software?” We needed that because we felt existing architectures just couldn’t give us the data to create the insights that we needed from our AI engine. That meant it’s a capital-intensive business, and that meant we had to focus on having Tier 1 investors who believed in longevity and the long game. That is where our Series A was done by Lightspeed and Norvasc. We were very lucky that in less than 14, 15 months we had an unsolicited request from some investors for Series B, and we partnered with Google Ventures who led our Series B. Then last, but not least, again within 12 to 14 months, we had an investment for Series C led by Kleiner Perkins. Again, a very accomplished set of investors, which allowed us to make sure that we can focus on building what we had to build. Along the way in Series C, we were also joined by some strategic investments by In-Q-Tel, which is well-known from a federal government perspective and also NTT DOCOMO from Japan. Having this lead set of investors, it put us at ease from the perspective of the capital-intensive nature of the business. Then looking back at the business, our key thing, as Bob said, was all about achieving product/market fit. So we were not in a mad rush, Alejandro, to just create or get a product out. We were in a very strong maniacal focus of bringing a product which could deliver our end-user experience. We were very blessed, and we felt the technology spoke for itself that we had some of the Fortune 10 companies who started looking at our architecture. Then as a few of them joined our beta programs, then the word started spreading, and we were extremely lucky and extremely blessed that some customers said, “Yes. The way Mist is doing is the way to go.” They started shaping the product. So it was not just Bob’s foresight of where the industry is going, we were able to get a product/market fit because early on some key customers shaped where the product needs to go. Then from there, as the word spread that, “They’re really able to bring AI to networking for a next-generation network. The rest was history. Our [0:25:32] acquisition grew extremely rapidly.
Alejandro: Going back to one of your comments, first and foremost, how much capital did you guys raise prior to the acquisition?
Sujai Hajela: Prior to the acquisition, approximately 90 million, around 87 or 88 million, Alejandro.
Alejandro: Also, to follow up on one of your points there, you were mentioning that it was super important to bring onboard Tier 1 investors. In your mind, when you guys were discussing, and between you and then also with some of your advisors, what in your eyes was a Tier 1 investor? What did that profile look like?
Sujai Hajela: It always starts with the brand. When we interview people, we look at what schools they went to. But that was not enough for us. Beyond the brand, there were three critical things. The first thing we wanted to look at as an investor, who was ready to play the long game? Who had resiliency, and who had a proven track record to stick on with companies through the thick and thin? Norvasc does extremely well in that regard. Second, was about looking at investors who are able to open a network for you because these investors manage multiple companies. And many of the companies go through the same growing pains. We wanted to look at an investor who has worked with a company to solve some of those growing pains through a network they had. There, you start looking at – you’ve got Sequoia, Battery, Benchmark, Lightspeed, and many which come to the table. But then the last thing which we wanted to look at is the investor who understands or has an empathy for the type of business we are in. That is what led us to settle on Series A with Lightspeed, Norvasc, Series B with Google Ventures, and Series C with Kleiner Perkins.
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Alejandro: Very cool. Definitely the red carpet. The Oscars of venture investors, guys. So, really cool. Bob, I’d like to get your thoughts here on one of the points that Sujai was talking about, product/market fit. What was the key validator or that type of validation that you were looking for in terms of something that would tell you guys, “Hey, we’re there. We made it to product/market fit, to that promised land for the product.”
Bob Friday: When I was a mobility CTO at Cisco, I could start to see the market was changing about halfway through my Cisco venture. When I was talking to some large customers, it became clear that the market had started from WIFI being this nice-to-have back in the early 2000s to becoming more of a must-have. We started seeing more and more big customers trying to put critical services on top of their wireless networks. This was in the form of either B2C customers, hotels, retail stores who were trying to put some sort of consumer app on the mobile phone. They were trying to do some sort of digital transformation on their consumer product. Or it was some business putting robots on the wireless networks. So that was the key to there’s something happening in the market transition. I would say the other key thing that became clear is that it was what I call an architectural change. I saw this happen at Airespace also. That was an architectural change from an autonomous access point architecture into a controller architecture. Here at Mist, the architecture change was two things. One is moving to more of a Cloud distribute software architecture, so there’s a major architecture change. Then there was the AI technology. There was the realization when I saw Watson play Jeopardy, I started to understand that the AIML technology was starting to become more real. Those were the key milestones of there’s a market change, a basic market transition happening. Then there was also an architectural change that was easy to do in a small startup. When you see architectural changes, that’s when you have an opportunity to go into a mature market against big established players.
Alejandro: We were talking about – you guys got this validation. The company started to mature, started to grow. You got these great investors. Sujai, how big was the business? How many employees did the company have prior to the acquisition right at the time you guys were signing the documents?
Sujai Hajela: Close to the acquisition, we were north of 120 employees which was across sales, engineering, and marketing. Engineering was the biggest chunk of our headcount.
Alejandro: Can you tell us how the acquisition came about?
Sujai Hajela: Absolutely. It was very rapid. I have to say that. It was very rapid and very fast. What was happening is as we got to enjoy a lot of success in the industry, we were getting approached by some key companies in the networking space and at the same time, by investors to see if we wanted to partner with them to grow the business. At this point and time, we, as a company had a choice of either continuing on to build the company for an IPO, which is the way we had started the company in the thought process because you have to.
Sujai Hajela: The second option was, should we partner with certain companies. Our overarching goal became twofold. The two key aspects we wanted to look at 1) Which of these options helps us realize our vision for an AI-driven network, what we call the AI-driven enterprise. So number one, which option allows us to get there faster? 2) Which option is better for our employees? That was one of the primary considerations because, remember, Mist is made up of folks who have been in the wireless networking industry for a long time. When Mist started, it was a lot of folks who we had competed with before who came and joined to form Mist and create an amazing technology. So we had to make sure that any option we chose was helping us realize our vision for an AI-driven enterprise, and number two, helping and making sure the employees felt good. And going through a lot of discussions, going through the board who was extremely supportive of what Bob and I wanted to do, we came to the conclusion that the Juniper proposal made the best sense in terms of realizing our vision, and at the same time, something which is good for the employees. The key factor for the Juniper acquisition was the CEO, Rami Rahim, who was so personally involved in the acquisition and clearly saw the vision and realized the importance of employee satisfaction.
Alejandro: Very cool. Bob, what was going through your mind when those papers were signed?
Bob Friday: As Sujai mentioned, we went through the same process at Airespace. We always planned on going to IPO, and that’s always the plan when you start a company. But you finally get to the phase where you want to scale the company. That becomes a big sales cost. I think we got to the point where going into Series D you have to make the decision, do you want to raise money and stay at the plate, or do you want to join a partner who has a big sales team that can actually scale the business? That’s what happened at Cisco and Airespace, where we went to Cisco and scaled the business. I think we’re doing the same thing at Juniper. We joined a great company with a great sales team in the enterprise space. Now, we have the opportunity in the next phase scaling the business.
Alejandro: Very cool. This is a question that I’d like the two of you to give me your thoughts. There is no such thing as a straight line when you’re an entrepreneur. I’m sure there are those moments where you have the ups and the downs. On the downs is really where we can break through and achieve unbelievable and unimaginable results. Surjai, we can start with you. What were some of the grey days and a breakdown that led to a massive breakthrough for you and for the business?
Sujai Hajela: You know, Alejandro, this is such an important question, and hopefully other entrepreneurs can get some feedback and advice from the answers. From our perspective, we had not one, but we had multiple days of “Oh, my gosh. What’s going on?” What kept us going, and frankly did unimaginable things, and I’m going to speak about two of them specifically. What kept us going was the belief in each other as a team. The bond between Bob and I is extremely strong, but at the same time, having that same bond and a culture of family first, which bound us as a company was critical. Even during the dark days, it was not about an issue of nervousness. It was more about how do I get out of it? One of the key things we did, which is industry-changing in a pattern which was in less than a year, Bob’s idea of something called the Virtual BLE, the Virtual Beacon Technology. It has never been done before. There was no precedence, and it was not an easy task, but we went on to it, and then we realized that we had to build a certain type of antennae, which has not been done before at all. But we stuck on with it. There were days like, “Bob, is this going to work?” That is where we had to have the belief and guess what? It worked, and it worked beautifully and was one of the key milestones for the company to achieve. The second thing was all about the focus on the efficacy of the AI engine. It was about an organizational change, which I’m not going to go into too much detail. An organizational change within how companies are normally structured, where customer success, engineering, and data science have to work very closely together. Today, it had never been done before again. No companies or organizations are built that way. That was the second key decision we took on how we wanted to organize our teams. I would say these were two critical moments. I’m sure Bob will have some of his own, but what kept us together was the fundamental belief in the team, and it is always team before self.
Alejandro: I love it. So, Bob, feel free to share your thoughts on this.
Bob Friday: On this venture, I have to say the product fit and the market fit were straight and narrow. We did not deviate much when we started the mission. We started the mission with AI and bringing the location par GPS. For me, it was mostly about execution. Now, there were some moments where the execution was, “Are we going to make it on time, or we’ll have customer issues?” If I think back to the venture, the BLE Virtual, BLE Ventures, there were some interesting points on that venture. And as Sujai mentioned, it was ultimately a team sport. To Sujai and his credit, we had a very strong team on this venture that stood up to every moment when we came up against it. When you think about startups, it’s about execution. There’s usually more than one startup that has the same vision. What separates the winners and the losers is how the team executes.
Bob Friday: On this adventure, we came up to every scary moment, and the team stood up and executed whether it was on the Virtual BLE in getting that to work, or whether it was on that Marvis AI engine and bringing that together. I would agree with Sujai probably the critical part on the AI was bringing the operational team, our customer support team, and our data science team together. That was something that’s never been done before. That was another moment in the company of making sure, “Is this going to work?” That was another one where the team actually executed beyond our expectations.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. Another question here to throw and this one is one I always like to ask the guests that come on the show. Knowing what you know now if you had the opportunity to go back and have a chat with your younger self and give that younger self one piece of business advice before launching a company, what would that be and why? We’ll start with you, Sujai.
Sujai Hajela: Absolutely. I think the critical piece of advice will be, build the culture of the company earlier. We feel that was one of the key pieces for success, and the culture has to mean something. The way we built the culture was all the things which kept me away from a startup. Why did I have to wait till I was 46 before starting a startup of my own with Bob Friday? It was three things: 1) I’d always heard that startups, you don’t have a family life. Incorrect. We made sure our first gospel was our family comes first. 2) Second thing I used to hear was we never know how much money is in the bank. Incorrect. We came out with openness and transparency, where at any time every employee in the company knew how much money we had in the bank. 3) Last, but not least, a 24-hour rule. If something is being blocked and if it doesn’t get to an executive’s attention within 24 hours, there’s something wrong in the company because if issues fester, you cannot execute. If you cannot execute, you die. So these were the three tenants of a culture: family first, openness and transparency, and 24-hour rule. As we scaled, we added a fourth critical tenant, which was 4) Team before self. So if I was to advise anyone else, the key part I would say is yes, technology is important. Go to market is important, but if you don’t have culture, you don’t have the link; you don’t have the bond; the company will not succeed.
Alejandro: Very powerful. Bob, what would you tell your younger self?
Bob Friday: I think after all the things I’ve learned after the last couple of ventures is 1) product/market fit. You have to believe. You have to make sure your product and market fit theory is correct. Along with what Sujai mentioned, I would say startups are the ultimate team sport. It takes both engineering, marketing, and sales to execute on a startup. I think a lot of startups think it’s all about engineering. It takes all three things to execute. While it’s an ultimate team sport, the CEO and the executive team make the big decisions. In most startups, it’s usually one or two decisions that make or break the startup. I’ve found that you have to have the right CEO and the right executive team in place to make those critical decisions on the adventure.
Alejandro: Got it. So for the folks that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi? Maybe you guys use social media, or maybe there’s an email or something. Sujai, let’s start with you. What is the best way for them to connect with you?
Sujai Hajela: They can send an email to [email protected] or reach out on LinkedIn or Twitter, or any aspect you prefer.
Alejandro: Fantastic, and what is your Twitter handle, Sujai?
Sujai Hajela: @sujaihajela
Alejandro: Okay. Bob, what about yourself?
Bob Friday: [email protected] and LinkedIn are two good ways to get connected with me.
Alejandro: Well guys, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Sujai Hajela: Thank you so much, Alejandro, for the opportunity.
Bob Friday: Yep. Thank you much.
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