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Founded in 2013, Helium’s mission is to make it easier to build connected devices. Joining Cameron Herold in this episode is Frank Mong, the Chief Operating Officer of Helium. Frank talks about what Helium is offering its users as well as building the People’s Network with the Helium hotspot. Digging into the network that Helium hopes to achieve that empowers its users, he also shares his thoughts on what makes a good entrepreneur and some tips on how to navigate an unfamiliar industry or product as a COO. Tune in to this episode to discover how Helium competes for talent in the Valley and learn how you can apply it yourself and get that competitive edge.
Frank Mong is the Chief Operating Officer at Helium, the world’s first peer-to-peer wireless network owned and operated by consumers. At Helium, Frank is leading the global go-to-market organization, introducing the Helium hotspot nationwide and enabling anyone to build The People’s Network. Prior to joining Helium, Frank was a VP/GM at HP enterprise security products, where he led go-to-market activities that included product marketing, service and research marketing, channel marketing, technical marketing, technical alliances and overall customer success. Before HP, Frank was the head of business development and alliances at Silver Spring Networks. While there, Frank successfully led a team to establish a vibrant ecosystem for the smart grid and smart home market and source the mezzanine round of financing prior to the IPO. Frank, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Cameron. It’s great to be here.
I’m looking forward to this. First off, I want you to tell us a little bit more about what the people network is or this peer-to-peer network is so we understand. I’ve got a rough idea but maybe go into what the core business is first.
What Helium is trying to do is the crossroads of science fiction and crazy. The company is trying to build a global ubiquitous wireless network that serves the Internet of Things or IoT. What’s IoT? Think of air quality sensors or think about tracking devices for your dogs or cats that doesn’t exist now necessarily or maybe tracking anything that’s valuable. If you’re a farmer, it could be your farm equipment. If you’re a greenhouse farmer, which is one of our customers, you might want to collect data on soil samples so you can be more efficient on how you farm certain types of boutique crops. If you’re a large pharmaceutical company that makes expensive cancer medication, you might want to make sure that the cancer med is transported correctly from cradle to grave before usage. Those are all things that cannot be tracked using existing infrastructure and existing technology.
The first thing we all think about when we’re outside is cellular. Cellular is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. The problem with cellular goes beyond the cost of data plans. It’s about the battery life, about the ability to innovate and create applications in an open-source environment with lots of tooling. Those things are all missing in that world. Helium’s mission is to capture what we consider a beachhead in a space that isn’t innovating. IoT isn’t growing outside of your home outdoors as much as it should.
Our thesis is to build that network, it shouldn’t be done by one company. It’s not Helium that can do it. It’s not AT&T or Comcast or anybody else that’s going to do this. It’s up to the people. How do you incentivize everyone to create this network together? How do you solve that cold start problem is where we brought in blockchain and the idea of cryptocurrency built into a Helium hotspot where every individual in the world has an incentive to help us build this out. When they buy Helium hotspot, they own and they operate it. They earn the cryptocurrency.
Helium is a company that is no longer there as a middleman. As a company, Helium focuses on bringing in user’s use cases, whether be its scooters, bicycles, pharmaceutical applications, as well as ag-tech and so forth. It’s like a two-sided marketplace. It’s attuned to Airbnb, enabling people to turn their homes into hotel rooms and getting others to come and stay at your house instead of Marriott. Helium is trying to get you to turn your home Wi-Fi into an extended IoT network that can go from miles and miles from your house and you get rewards for that. You get tokens and cryptocurrency for that. The individual is happy and the users of this IoT network have a network to connect to and that creates this vibrant two-sided market. It’s insane almost but so far, it’s working.
If you were to explain this to your grandma and grandpa and you were to say, “People would buy a little Wi-Fi device for their home and you’d have a whole bunch of these people buy our devices. They would all be linked together and that would become a network. Instead of us making all the money, they would make some of the money as well.”
If you’re talking to my grandmother or your grandmother, I would say you’re essentially buying a hotspot that can mine the Helium cryptocurrency and it turns your Wi-Fi into something called long-fi that is able to extend for miles away and connect small little devices using a little tiny bit of bandwidth. It’s not taking your YouTube or Facebook or Netflix away. It’s not using anywhere near that. It’s tiny bits of data like temperature readings or air quality readings. They’re connecting from miles away, not even close to you and you would earn cryptocurrency for doing that. That’s probably the best way to describe it. You own and operate that Helium network along with your neighbors, your community and you’ve created a whole new platform that is decentralized and peer-to-peer based. It’s not owned by your cable provider or your cellular provider, it’s owned by you.
The crux of your issue is how do you get more and more people signing up for this platform before the platform exists?
In all two-sided marketplace challenges, it’s always about the chicken and the egg. We had the chicken and the egg. The key for us is getting the blockchain, creating a brand new what we call critical chain that doesn’t exist and making it work on a small little Apple TV looking device that can operate on 5, 6 watts of power that’s roughly $2 a year from your home. You’re able to extend wireless connectivity up to 25 miles away. That’s bringing together all innovations that happened before. We add our special sauce to it, which is the Helium blockchain, and then we build this product. The cool thing about this is that it’s all open source. We took off the shelf parts that others have created. We added our blockchain and we open source it all. Anyone can go to GitHub, download all the components and build everything themselves.
How many of these devices are out there? How many are these partners or subscribers?
We’re building hotspots and we probably have 1,400 and change. We will quickly get to 1,500. We’re probably adding roughly 100 or so every few days at this moment. We should probably be inching towards 2,000 hotspots in the United States across 429 cities.
How many do you want? What gets you a network or a big enough network? What’s the tipping point?
We don’t know. For us, we’ve created this internal goal of ten cities in the United States that have coverage so good that it’s competitive or more competitive than cellular. We’re targeting ten cities in the United States. We get those ten cities covered so that users of the network or people that are testing, trialing and piloting with us have ten target cities to try those things.
This is similar to how we built at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? years ago. We said we wanted to be in the top 30 metros by the end of 2003 and we picked all the cities that had NFL teams or MLB teams. We wanted to have a good presence in all of those markets before our competitor popped up. We figured that if we didn’t get a presence, the competitor could get a stronghold in those markets. Back to even Uber, I remember I was at Burning Man and the founder of Uber was pitching me on the idea and I told him it was a stupid idea. This was back in 2008. We didn’t understand that at all. They were going to go after four cities and they were going to pay limousine drivers to sit there $300 a day to be available in case someone pressed the button. Is that what you’re doing as well? Are you seeding the market?
We did not take that approach to start. We were debating that for a long time. We took an approach of, “Let’s make this Helium hotspot available to anyone in the United States and let’s see how sales go.” We’ll take the cities with the most momentum and then go after those cities hard with this approach that you’ve talked about whether it be the Uber approach or the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? approach. What we did was a pre-sales in June or July and we launched on August 1st in Austin, Texas. We shipped the first batch of 150 hotspots to Austin, Texas, because we sold it to random people in Austin, Texas. They all plugged it in and turned it on.
What we did was we essentially used that environment as our late beta. We were doing a bunch of alpha-beta work in San Francisco where we’re headquartered already. We did our first production run hotspots and truly beta that in Austin, Texas. That worked out well for us. Once Austin, Texas was up and running from August 1 to October 15 roughly, we were able to use that time to work out any of the firmware kinks, the blockchain kinks, figure out our supply chain, that was a big thing for us because no one here knows how to make hardware scale, including me. We had to figure it out. It’s difficult by the way to understand how to do that right.
Did you have to build in any incentive for early adopters on this at all or for the innovators to get on? Is it the same for anybody, no matter where you sign up?
We did not create any incentive. The blockchain system itself has its incentive, meaning that the way our blockchain works is there are no pre-mine tokens. If you understand the world of Bitcoin and Ethereum, we as a company and as a blockchain and the cryptocurrency did not create cryptocurrency out of thin air. Our premise is that the cryptocurrency called Helium should only exist if a network exists, meaning the hotspot and the crypto has to be tied together. As hotspots are rolled out and as hotspots are turned on, they’re mining Helium cryptocurrencies. The genesis block occurred in Austin, Texas on August 1st and the first tokens were mined when these hotspots were turned on and live creating coverage. That’s the premise of how this works. Because that’s how it’s done, if you’re an early adopter, you’re mining the crypto first, essentially.
You’re going to collect and mine more than the person that’s number two to the 10,000. If you’re number 10,000, the first ones are going to mine more tokens. That’s the only built-in incentive and why you want to do first. You’ve got to go through extreme pain with us, meaning some of the onboarding things don’t work well. We’ve got to support iOS and Android on the app side. There are a lot of firmware application blockchain pieces that we’ll pick up here and there that require updates. Early adopters have to feel the pain of being first, like a guinea pig but when it works and it’s smooth, they’re mining cryptocurrency first as well. There are pluses and minuses in all these things.
What am I not getting on and the last thing on the technical, and then we’ll go into how you’ve built the business, but you are selling these hotspot devices that are beautiful. What was it you were saying that is open source that you’re downloading? Is that something else that the user has to do or is it plug and play?
It’s plug and play. There’s the hotspot and the interface to the hotspot is on an iPhone app or Android app and those two things are paired together. Your account is on your phone, essentially. The Helium hotspot, whether it’s your configuration or it’s the account that holds the tokens that are mined from your hotspot, those things are how it interfaces with each other. There’s not a whole lot for the user to do. If you buy a hotspot, it’s as simple as plugging something into the wall, put it by the window so it can see outside and then using your phone app and following the directions and within a few minutes, you’re up and running.
What are people making? How much are they making off this or how do they make money off this?
The interesting thing is we can’t answer that question. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been fairly unclear about how to treat cryptocurrency and what’s considered a utility versus a security. As a company, we are conservative and we can’t talk about ROI. We can’t use that as an incentive to ask anyone to buy this. I cannot answer you or anyone else who asks me, “What’s the ROI? How much money do I make? What’s the upside?” The answer is, “I don’t know,” and that’s the truth. That was something we asked our customers early on, we asked about 280 customers, “Why did you buy this?” We don’t claim any future gains. We don’t talk about the promise of future gains. Why would you do this?
As a consumer, why would you pay $495 not knowing that information? These are logical questions. The number one answer, which is interesting, was this. The vast majority that purchased said, “We’re buying this because we want to own and operate a future telco.” They want to be or have the potential to become the next decentralized AT&T. That’s when an a-ha moment happened for me which was this greater cause, this vision of creating a peer-to-peer network to connect IoT and putting it in the hands of the individual is powerful. In the sense of ownership, the sense that you can be an entrepreneur by having a little hotspot automatically doing its own thing at the window of your home from your living room, that’s unheard of. The broader vision of creating this network together, we call it the People’s Network, resonated with a lot of people, at least early adopters.
It sounds like the innovators, early adopters, were all doing this less to make money and more to be a part of something that had a greater purpose. They’d rather give the money to Helium than to give it to the government or give it to a big telco.
The sense of ownership, the sense that you can own a piece of a network for $495 and being early, that was a huge draw for a lot of early adopters.
How did you get involved in the company and what do you think it was that attracted you to Helium?
It’s one of those things where you probably hear this before. There was a series of missteps and this opportunity came up. I wasn’t actively looking to join a startup like Helium. Prior to Helium, I was at two companies. I was a CMO at Hortonworks for two months. Before Hortonworks, I was at Palo Alto Networks as their senior VP of product marketing for two years. The mistake came from me thinking that I wanted to be a CMO. I was done being the product marketer or the second in command to the CMO. That rise in the corporate ladder was what I thought the right thing to do.
I jumped ship from Palo Alto Networks into a Hortonworks job not doing enough homework on the situation there. I went into a situation that was incredibly unstable between the executive team there. As a result of that, after two months I had ejected. It was not the right place for me. It is what it is. From that point on because I ejected, I was sitting around doing nothing. I started talking to a lot of people and did the networking and did the due diligence which I should have done. I talked to 40 some odd companies, maybe 50. A lot of them came through introductions from Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures.
Helium was the first company I spoke with through that process. Helium was number one that I spoke to. I went through 39 other interviews, conversations, coffees, and came back around to Helium. What’s interesting is when I first met with Amir Haleem, our Cofounder, CEO, after about 5, 6 minutes of talking to him about IoT and trying to build networks, I paused and I said, “Amir, I like you. You and I have this weird positive energy.” We are different in that he’s technical, I’m good at market-oriented, but we had common interests. We both love video games. We both grew up in the ‘90s and 2000 playing Quake. He was a Quake champ and I wasn’t. He’s clearly better than me. We love racing cars. He builds Toyota Supras. He’s always better than me. He’s more technical. He’s deeper.
We rifted on that for a long time and finally, I said, “I like you. We probably could hang out and be your buddy. I don’t think I’m the right guy. You’re looking for a COO or President to help you drive this thing. I’ve never done sales. Sales is a big component of this. I could do the marketing piece, but I don’t have a background in IoT. I don’t even know if I’m interested in IoT. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’m going to save us the rest of the 45 minutes here and tell you I’m the wrong guy. I know a lot of people and I was at Silver Spring Networks which is all about smart metering using IoT radio waves. I should introduce you to the cofounder, Eric Dresselhuys. I’ll introduce you to him. I worked for him. He’s a great guy. He’s probably the right guy for this. I’ve got probably 2 or 3 other names I can think of.” He’s like, “That’s great, thanks. Send them my way.” We continued to chat about our personal lives. At the time, he had one child with a baby on the way and I had two kids. We talked about all kinds of stuff and had a fantastic conversation. We shook hands and I left.
I went on an interview with 10 to 12 companies. He texts me, “Let’s meet up for a drink.” We got together for a drink. He’s pitching me and I’m like, “Did you talk to the guys I sent you.” “I talked to them.” “What did they say?” “They said I should hire you?” I’m like, “That’s not right. You should hire them, not me.” He’s like, “They said you’re the right person for the job.” I say, “Tell me, why do you insist that I’m the right guy? I’m telling you, I’m the wrong guy.” He says, “You’re the right guy because one, you have self-awareness. When you don’t know something, you’re honest about it. I want someone that I can trust that’s honest. You’re clearly trying to call it out a spade, I appreciate that. Two, no one’s an expert in IoT. Nobody knows what’s the right path. If someone knew that, this thing would have blown up and become this hundred billion-dollar market that it promised to be many years ago, which still hasn’t. Clearly, no one here is an expert and because you know you’re not an expert, you won’t be afraid to try anything. In the world of startups, you have to try anything. You have to have that mentality.”
I was like, “That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.” I’ve been at these large companies for too long and become one of the corporate drones that don’t want to try anything. I didn’t see that. I was blind to it. We had drinks. I walked away and was like, “Let’s hang out sometime but I’m not convinced. I still don’t think I’m the right guy.” I went and I interviewed with twenty more companies. Every time I was talking to another company, I was looking for the chemistry and the click that I had with Amir. I was talking to early-stage cybersecurity startups to late-stage cybersecurity startups with companies that are about to go public. It could be lucrative to go and jump into that situation. I did not see the spark that Amir and I had in any of these other interviews. It’s not that they’re bad people or they’re wrong, it’s just that we didn’t click in that way or the phase and situation of the company did not allow for it to happen in that way. The culture wasn’t at that phase possibly.
Amir texts me again, “Let’s grab a drink.” This time I’m going into this third meeting with him and it’s roughly 2 or 3 months into the process. I’ve already spoken with the 49 others. I knew what I was looking for and it wasn’t necessarily a company. What I was looking for was a group of people that I would like and enjoy working with. The mission and vision were important, but the people were more important to me than the mission and vision. If I leverage what I do in cybersecurity, I should join a pre IPO company and make a ton of money. I didn’t want to do that.
It’s interesting that you kept looking and kept getting drawn back in and I love that he brought you in partially because he loved that you are truthful. That seems to be something the CEO is always looking for in a second in command is someone they can trust and someone who will tell them what nobody else wants to tell them. How do you maintain that balance? You must have to tell the CEO often that he’s got a crazy idea or that’s the wrong way or you disagree. How have you found that balance?
It’s not formulated. I don’t think you can manufacture this. The reason I say that is because a lot of pieces have to align. As an individual in that role or interviewing for that role, you have to be in a state in your life and your career where you’re willing to be honest with yourself. I heard this early on in my career. You have to be truthful to yourself. You have to do what you’re passionate about and you have to do it as yourself. You can’t pretend to be somebody else. It’s difficult even for me early on in my career, early on in life, to have the confidence and to be honest with myself. It’s not easy. You always strive to be someone else. You want to become like somebody else.
I worked in Symantec when John Thompson or JWT was CEO. He inspired me. I wanted to be like John Thompson. He’s an amazing leader. I met guys like Enrique Salem who is CEO of Brightmail and then became CEO of Symantec later on. He’s another amazing character, an amazing guy and super smart. I wanted to be like them. It took me a while, maybe until I was mid-30s or late-30s with two kids to realize that I don’t need to be anyone else. I need to be me. You’ve got to be yourself. Some people come to those realizations a lot sooner or mature there a lot sooner. Some like me, maybe I’m a late bloomer, I don’t know. It took me a while to get there. Once I knew who I was and what I wanted to do or how I want to be, then it became a lot easier and connecting with people like Amir became a lot easier because I had nothing to prove.
I didn’t feel like I had to be somebody or had to prove myself in a certain way. If I could be myself and I can always be that way 100% of the time with my peers, with the entire team, with Amir, it’s a lot easier. He knows exactly who I am. I know exactly who he is. He’s a little younger than me and he’s already there. He’s mature. He knows who he is. He is himself and he never wavers from that. He is 110% steadfast on his beliefs. Those are some traits that I see with entrepreneurs that succeed. They do not care what other people think. If they believe it, they go with it. I have to be that way. I have to be who I am and be honest in every situation. If you’re yourself and honest in every situation, it’s hard to fake it. You can’t fake that. You won’t slip. I’m a jerk sometimes. I’m an idiot, foot in mouth all the time, but it’s okay. Everyone here accepts that.
It’s better to speak from the heart and mean what you say and say what you mean because then it resonates with people. When we’re being political or being calculated, people are always wondering what’s going on. It’s almost the same as a dress code. When you’re dressing up to be at work, people are wondering what’s beneath all that layer. I heard a funny quote years ago that said, “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” How many staff have you got at Helium?
We are roughly around 30 to 31 people and we’re probably bringing on board 5 or 6 more. We’re in this path of hiring. We’re still small.
How are you funded?
We’re funded through venture capital. We’ve got three rounds of funding under our belt, Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures led Series A, Google Ventures led Series B, and then Union Square Ventures and Multipoint Capital lead our Series C.
How much have you raised total then?
I want to say roughly $50 million or so.
That’s not an insignificant amount of money.
No, and it’s been a few years. I would say, for the outsider looking in and not understanding hardware, it seems like a lot of money over a few years and maybe not a lot of traction. Now that I’ve been in it for years, the hardware is incredibly difficult to figure out, and then once you figure out the hardware, getting the firmware and the user interface right takes a couple of years. The blockchain took us about two years along with the apps and the connection, the full stack on top of the hardware. It’s taken us six years to get the hardware right.
I’ve been involved in crypto for 5 or 6 years. I first said that I would accept payments for coaching and speaking in Bitcoin back in 2014. It was $400 and people thought I was crazy. I’m like, “No. I’ll take it.” I used to run a digital currency company many years ago. I had a private currency that we had Bose Stereo, Hard Rock Cafe, Starwood Hotels, Avis Rent a Car, they all accepted our digital currency instead of the US dollar and that was in ‘99 and 2000. We sold the company in March 2000. It was a barter company, but we created an electronic debit and credit system to facilitate that and I understand it, I get it.
We met with Goldman Sachs back in ‘99 and they said, “Your digital currency is not backed by the US dollar.” We went, “No.” They went, “How is their value?” I started explaining and they go, “You’re a country.” I’m like, “Pretty much.” We had to account for 1099-B with all of our clients. I get the industry. I get the digital currency side, but the trend has worn off. Bitcoins fell back to $7,000 again. The trend has come off a little bit for now. I don’t think it’s forever. Has that hurt you? Has it distracted you? What are the thoughts around the leadership team, the employees and investors related to the digital space?
It’s interesting because we are not digital currency people at all. I knew nothing about Bitcoin prior to joining the company. We are wireless technology, hardware, firmware, peer-to-peer networking people. That’s the makeup of the company. We don’t track or follow where Bitcoin is, where Ethereum is. We don’t know if we should. We certainly don’t care because naturally, we’re not that way. We do care a lot about wireless technology. We do care a lot about protocols. We’re passionate about open source. Those are the things that drive us.
We’re like an oddity in that cryptocurrency world that you speak of. I don’t think we’re recognized. I don’t think anyone would know who we are. I’m not clear, nor do we focus a lot of our attention on that and maybe that’s a mistake. I don’t know yet. What we focus a lot of our time on is customer satisfaction and user experience, because we have a few thousand customers that purchased our Helium hotspots. Some are going through the installation and some are going through the experience great, some are having hiccups. I spend my time when I’m not talking to you or talking to a customer, I’m on support or intercom support line. I’m answering support questions. I am taking escalation.
I did a house call. Someone in San Francisco had a hard time with their hotspot. We’ve never seen anything like it before because we thought the hardware was good but yet his problems seem like a hardware issue. He wanted a refund and I said to him, “Because you’re in San Francisco, instead of a refund, would you mind if I came with an engineer and we replace your hotspot with a brand new one? We’re going to sit there, watch you onboard it, walk you through it, and then we’re going to monitor it for a week to make sure it’s fine. Are you okay with that?” I’m lucky the guy is like, “Of course.”
Only in the Bay Area would anybody want to do that because then they have a story and five years ago, “Back in the day they came to me.”
That’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking that far ahead. I wanted to make sure we, as a company, understand that customer care and customer success is probably the number one thing that we should worry about. Everything else is noise, it doesn’t matter. That’s all we do here. I want to make sure that I don’t just say it, but I lead by example. I’ll do house calls if that’s what it takes to keep a customer.
Talk about the competitiveness of being in the Bay Area. We’ve got probably the most competitive area in the world for talent in the engineering space, even in tech support space. How do you attract talent into an early-stage company when you’ve got all the big boys throwing money at them and throwing perks at them?
I can’t lie. It’s difficult. Especially in engineering, the ones that we need peer-to-peer engineers. You would find them at companies like WhatsApp who got acquired by Facebook. They’re all in Facebook or Google and they make a lot of money. It’s hard to deny that. What we have to do again is focus on what we’re trying to do. You would be surprised. A lot of people that have the ability and potential to make millions will look at Helium because our mission is unique. Our technology is on the verge of being crazy. It’s cool.
The challenge of the work that we do, how new and leading-edge it is, is a draw for some people. It’s not for everyone, but certainly for some. That’s something that is part of our culture, especially being small. Everyone’s got to buy into that. Every person here is a salesperson for the company to attract talent. You know this early on, you always go through friends and family, friends of friends, and that’s the network that you go through. It’s no different. We’re trying to go through that. We’ll probably be exhausting it at this point. It’s not easy to compete against money. I would argue that a lot of engineers do want to work on things that are cool. They don’t want to just be a cog in a wheel at Facebook or Google working on one little sliver of a thing. They can own the entire thing here at Helium. There is a plus or minus for that.
We should get a promo code for all of our followers. If you could have one to see if we can generate a few buyers. If you have free installations, hubs or whatever, it’d be cool. I’ll also push it out to all of our members of the COO Alliance too because a lot of them are in the tech space and are in the innovator, early adopter zone for sure. What is it that’s keeping you because you’re in a stage that you could get poached? Certainly, having the backing of $50 million is a big vote of confidence and you’re in a growth company and in an exciting space. What keeps you in the company?
It’s back again to the people. I brought and hired quite a few people into the company. I’ve been asked to consider other roles. That’s ongoing constant. A year in, I got a call from a good friend that I’ve worked with in the past and he said, “I want you to come and work for me and be my CMO.” It’s hard to turn him down because we’ve known each other, we worked well together, and he’s a great leader. For a moment I considered maybe that’s a path for me. What stopped me wasn’t the money. I don’t think there’s anything else but the people that I hired into Helium and I thought to myself, “If I leave, I wouldn’t let Amir down or the board down.” That’s certainly not great, but letting people that trust me and came to Helium because I said it was the right move, letting them down, I couldn’t live with myself. I couldn’t do that to them. It’s not fair. It’s not right. I know if I were in their shoes, I would be mad. I would be angry.
This is one of the rare traits of the COO versus all the other C-level team is we feel this immense connection to making the CEOs dream happen. We feel this immense connection to the people that we’ve recruited and put in place and the plan that we’ve put in place to make that thing happen. We can’t leave until we’ve done it because we’re now completely attached to them. We’re like the yin and yang in a partnership. How about yourself and your skills? You were saying, “I’m not the guy. I don’t have the skills for this.” How have you had to grow over the years?
This skill that I had to pull out of me and my history is the hustle. I grew up in San Francisco for most of my life. I grew up in the Tenderloin, which is not probably one of the good areas. That’s where I grew up. I remember growing up, we were poor and we didn’t have much. If you wanted anything in life, you had to seriously hustle. I’ve lost a lot of that over the years especially in corporate Silicon Valley world. That wasn’t the way most people behave. There’s a way of behavior. You put on a shirt, put on some khakis or slacks, and you’ve got to talk a certain way. That created a shell probably over the years. Coming here, I’ve been able to rip all of the shell off and who I am is a hustler, at the end of the day. I don’t know how to say it.
I wouldn’t have expected that as the answer. I would have expected that that was already a part of the DNA of living in the Bay Area, living in Tenderloin.
It certainly was and it still is apparently. I’m able to draw those skills out. When you think about what hustling means, for me at least, it’s not taking no for an answer. Finding ways to make things happen and not depending on somebody else but you have to do it yourself. That do it yourself and making it happen is in all of us, you’ve just got to have the right situation.
It’s that tenacity and that narcissism that CEOs often have to have. It’s a balance of work. Maybe it’s becoming narcissism. It’s the tenacity, the grit, the drive and the desire before it hits narcissism. It becomes unhealthy at that point.
Those traits or those skills are a must for any startup, any small company without a whole lot of resources.
You’ve got some big VC money behind you but also some big-name VCs themselves. What’s it like working with them? What have you learned working with them? Is there anything hard about it?
I joke about this. I’m not sure if Vinod is going to kill me. Vinod has probably been a crucial icon in our existence here. He has unparalleled respect for founders. I see it. He treats Amir like his own son and he talks to him that way and coaches him that way. After he recruited me and got me on board, I’m not a founder. I don’t have that status. He’s incredibly hard on me and I appreciate it because it’s taken him a bootcamp with Vinod for a year, for me to adjust out of my corporate shell and get into the hustle. I see Vinod Khosla as probably the best hustler I’ve ever met in my life.
He’s got a great reputation.
He’s extraordinary. He knows everybody and he’s got a great reputation as you said, but he is a mastermind at building successful companies. You have to let him coach you. If you’re willing to let him coach you and you’re trainable, you take his feedback. He’s not always right of course, but you take it. You make it your own. It’s helpful. He’s been helpful for me.
I was on a stage in these 550 CFOs that have all graduated from MIT Sloan School of Business. I was talking to them about how it was always hard for me to take feedback, to take criticism. Tim Ferriss had coached me on this. We’ve been friends forever. We were at Burning Man together and we were talking about negative criticism that we get from fans and positive feedback we get from fans. He said, “Both of them are crazy. Don’t listen to the positive raving fan, they have way too much free time and they’re all nuts and all the negative ones have got way too much free time too.” How have you been able to take the constructive criticism from Vinod and embrace that, learn from that and not feel beat up?
In the beginning, not knowing him that well after the first board meeting, it’s hard. You take it personally and you’re like, “Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I was right. I’m not right for the job.” Amir helped in this case, where his attitude is, Vinod or anybody else can tell us what they think, it’s up to us to take the parts that we think are most important. Amir has told me over the years that he lets Vinod go through his process and then it’s up to us to pick out the pieces that we think we need. Vinod is not in it every day. He’s a smart guy, has a great strategy and a great mastermind, but then you have figure out how to execute. Taking nuggets of what he says and then executing is how we’ve approached it. The whole ten city thing, that was Vinod. He’s like, “You’ve got to stop doing too much. You’re doing too much. Do less but do more of the less,” is exactly what he said. “Get the ten cities. Nail those ten cities and get people on the network in those ten cities. That’s all you have to do now.” We’re like, “Okay.” It’s great feedback and you take nuggets of that and you execute it in the way that best fits for us. That’s been great.
A contrast to that is another great group of guys at Multicoin Capital, Kyle and Tushar are our partners there. They’re different from Vinod. Vinod is the head coach like coach Gruden with the Raiders, and Kyle and Tushar are the offensive and defensive line coaches. They get a lot more execution-oriented. They’re younger guys, smart and extremely helpful on the execution side. We get Vinod’s feedback. We create our strategy and start to execute. I have Kyle and Tushar there helping me execute essentially. It’s amazing. It’s a great combination of the VCs. I love working with these guys. I would absolutely want them helping us, supporting us or any company I’m in.
I would start making lists of all the notes and ideas they give you and that will become your book when you’re done because of the life lessons you’re pulling on. There’s one last thing I’d like to pull from you. You’re the father of two kids and you’re juggling the family and business stuff, but when you were 22 years old, you were getting started in your career. What is some advice that you wish you had known then that now you know it to be true but you wish you’d known at 22?
I ran fast. I was all about hustling, running fast, get ahead, and get to the next level, whatever that may be, whether it’s the corporate level with titles or starting a company, selling the company and making a lot of money. The thing that I probably didn’t have enough of earlier on was self-awareness and the things you say that impact others. As fast as you want to go, I made many mistakes. I’ve said many wrong things that probably were hurtful and unintentional. At the same time, I was going too fast.
I remember back then when I was going fast, John Thompson told me once, “Slow down, buddy.” His point to me was, “You make a bad decision when you’re running hastily and not having full awareness. Slow down enough to collect data. Get full awareness to make the best decision possible.” For me, that’s the one thing I would impart to everyone that’s reading if you’re a young entrepreneur, 22 to someone that’s hitting their stride. It’s okay not to be first all the time. It’s okay to build some awareness so you don’t hurt others along the way, but certainly so that you don’t make catastrophic errors. Assess the situation.
You’ve done stuff that has hurt people as well. I think back to my own career where I’ve done the same thing where I’ve said stuff. It’s those words you can’t take back. That’s an equally important lesson with our kids and with our spouse as well. It’s to slow down and be mindful. I’ve always said that the CEO is the chief energizing officer and they have to look to raise the energy of the group, but with one word or with one sentence, they can destroy the energy for weeks, for months or forever. Frank, thank you so much for sharing with us. I appreciate it. You shared some great ideas. Frank Mong, the COO for Helium, thanks for being with us.
Thank you, Cameron. It’s my pleasure.
I appreciate it.