May 13, 2020 | 4 min read

Conversation with Philipp Bolliger

Podcast #91: Full-Stack Leadership

Philipp Bolliger is a serial entrepreneur, investor and technologist in the Digital Industry space. Since 2018, he has served as CEO of Thingstream, a company providing IoT Communications-as-a-Service to industrial and consumer enterprises worldwide. Thingstream was recently acquired by u-blox AG, a global provider of leading positioning and wireless communication technologies for the automotive,  industrial, and consumer markets. Prior to that, Philipp was Co-Founder and CEO of Koubachi, exiting the company to Husqvarna Group in 2015. 

In our conversation, Philipp and I discussed his digital industry journey from ETH and PARC to his most recent successes. He shares first-hand experience from his pioneering startups and describes how implementing true solutions is easier said than done. We also touch on the value of an exit strategy to maintaining a clear view of your end game. He also shares advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, and how it always comes back to knowing your customer.  

 

This podcast is essential listening for both hopeful and veteran entrepreneurs in the Digital Industry space. Philipp’s serial experience provides insight on how critical it is to build a strong strategy and carry throughout from entry to exit. 

 

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Good day, this is Ken Forster, Executive Director of Momenta Partners, and Moment Ventures, with another edition of our Digital Leadership podcast series. Today it’s my distinct pleasure to have Philipp Bolliger join us today.

Philipp is a serial entrepreneur, founder, and technologist in Digital Industry. He’s a CEO of Thingstream providing IoT communications as a service to industrial enterprises globally. He recently exited that company to u-blox, a global provider positioning, and wireless communication technologies for the automotive industrial markets. Prior to Thingstream, Philipp was Co-founder and CEO of Koubachi, an ad tech company, he exited to Husqvarna Group in 2015. At Husqvarna, Philipp established a new smart systems business unit and product line.

Philipp has a master’s degree in Computer Science, and a PhD in Distributed Systems from ETH Zurich. His academic focus was ubiquitous computing, and indoor positioning including research time at the Paolo Alto Research Center, or PARC. So, great creds for Digital Industry.

I’ve asked Philipp to focus on three things today.

  1. His Digital Industry journey.
  1. He is a serial entrepreneur, and a successful one at that, and will talk a little bit about that journey in some of his companies.
  1. And also, what I would consider to be a deep practitioner in Digital Industry.

A little back-story, and that is we’ve invested in a number of Philipp’s companies, including Koubachi and Thingstream, and we also placed him as the CEO as Thingstream as well. So, a long and successful track record, and career in partnerships.

Philipp, welcome to our podcast today.

Hi Ken, thank you very much for having me, a pleasure to be part of your very cool podcast series.

Well, this conversation is long overdue.

Absolutely.

I think you’re one of the first companies we invested in back in the day. I certainly played a key role, I think it was on your board there at Koubachi, and I know our careers and trajectories, and companies and paths have intersected several times, so I’m glad that we’re finally able to hook you in per se to do one of these podcasts. So, let’s start a little bit with your professional journey, and how that has informed your views of digital industry.

Good question. My journey has actually always been in the digital space in some extent or another. And as you’ve just explained in the intro, I started in academia, I started in research working in ubiquitous computing, doing IoT back in 2006/07, so early days when IoT as a concept was not really known yet. I did that because it allowed me to just explore new things and go in different directions with the promise of ubiquitous computing, and the computer becoming ever smaller and becoming part of really everything, this beautiful vision of smart dust. With this kind of high spirit, and the sky is the limit, everything is possible, technology will allow us to change everything, I went into the first startup which was Koubachi as you said, with this idea of, yep we have the technology, it’s all there, we just need to implement that. How hard can it be? And create great products and change the world.

With this first encounter with reality, I found that it’s actually not that simple. The industry is years – which is a good thing right, that’s what you expect – years behind academia, and the concept that from the academic point of view seem quite feasible, or almost impossible to put into reality. I learnt a lot obviously in that first startup of how hard it is to build things, what you actually need to do to create a product, be it hardware and software, and figuring out how ahead of the curve we were with that idea; which was one of the main drivers whilst the strategic partnership, i.e. the acquisition by Husqvarna Group made so much sense. We had an advantage when it came to technology, we understood what needs to be done in order to create such products, but how to productize, how to actually put that into a product that serves mass markets, we didn’t really understand how to do that, and obviously didn’t have the distribution and brand.

The second step then, being part of Husqvarna Group, being part of Kordena, understanding what it takes to create the product that works for exactly the consumer market, and how that is something completely different if you now start to connect that thing to the internet, and how transformative it is to a company that has not been doing that. This was probably I would say the biggest turning point in how I looked at digital, Husqvarna Group – what is it now, 330 years of history, and Gardena more than 65, I think 67 years now. So, very well-established companies that have been selling physical goods, one-off things; you manufacture, you sell to distribution, they sell it, that’s it, and now we start connecting that.

That’s not just a question of some technology and a little bit of product management with a different approach, but it’s really transformative for the whole company. Everything needed to change. We got the product out actually in quite short time being part of Kordena, with what we’d done before at Koubachi. But to make that stake and to make that work in this company of 14,000 people, we had to educate so many different areas, fields, and disciplines, I couldn’t imagine. It was not just explaining what it is to market and enable sales to sell that new product, but aftersales, new tools, new processes, suddenly we can talk to the end user of the product, and not just the guy who sells that thing. Finance, everything needs to change, and that was a challenge.

Obviously if something as transformative as this is entering the area, that’s a challenge, and needs some decent change management in order to stick, and not just be a one-time thing, and how that can be done even within a big company? That was probably the biggest learning when it comes to how to approach digital, what it takes, how mature you have to be as a company in order to be successful with IoT, and how much more that means than just understanding some technology, and having innovation for a new product.

We’ve a subtitle, and in fact it should probably be the main tittle of this podcast, ‘Full-Stack Leadership’, and I think you did a great job of just describing both the technology stack, as people think about it, but also the business stack that goes with that. You can’t just introduce a smart product and hope for the best, right? Especially where it may change the business models, revenue models, your go-to market models etc. for a corporation, and whether it’s a B2C good, consumer electronics if you will, or a large CAPEX good, I think the challenges are pretty much the same, it’s a matter of scale.

Interesting enough, you started Koubachi right out of ETH, and obviously ETH Switzerland, and I’ve always considered you one of the most un-Swiss Swiss that I know, in that you’ve got a strong-strong entrepreneur bend to you. The Swiss are known for being very diligent, careful, and high-quality workers, entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily something that you would always associate with Northern European cultures and such, and yet you right from the beginning jumped right in. I remember some of your first pitches for Koubachi at the time. What drew you to be an entrepreneur at the time, and then also to do so in this nascent IoT area?

Well, to me it felt like there was no other way, it was just the thing to do which manufactures contributed to it I guess, starting with how I grew up, my dad had his own business. So, I got introduced to the concept of being your own boss, being in charge of everything, but also making sure that everything runs at, an early age being quite close to that business of my dad’s. He was a lawyer though, so a completely different area.

But if you spend time growing up with computers, doing computer science stuff and being in that area, the concept of a startup is very close, and you read books about how Apple started, and how about all these other cool Silicon Valley companies started, so that’s already a cool thing that you are interested in. And I think the final straw for me was spending some time in Silicon Valley in 2008, I was working in PARC, but you go for lunch, you spend your evenings going to meet ups, and it was just crazy, everybody that are employed or being in their own startup was talking about startups, even the guys that had a steady job were talking about starting their own thing tomorrow morning.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away having spent some time in California, and I guess it’s where you started, as is the way things have to work out, you plan something, you execute the plan, and if that plan doesn’t work out it’s a failure. I learned in California that failure is an option, and that’s an absolute pre-requisite it you want to start a business. Once I’ve understood that, no blocker, nothing could stop me from taking the risk because I always wanted to create something, I always had the desire to create something that potentially could change the world, even if it’s just a little bit.

With Koubachi, it actually started as a thing that I needed myself, I created that plant sensor because I had a plant in my office and I had to figure out something that would help me to not let that thing die, and that’s why I did it. Then a lot of people got involved, and that vision of how cool would it be if in every home there would be a few of these sensors, and we could make that vision of giving plants a voice, and suddenly taking care of plants even though it’s not the biggest problem in life, is not a problem anymore, and we have a completely different way of approaching a thing, a living thing than we did before. I just loved that idea, I wanted to put that into reality.

You know, I had almost forgotten that tagline, ‘Giving a plant a voice’, and at the time we were doing a lot of work with Syngenta, obviously large ad tech, right? And that was one that resonated at every level in the organization, whether it was consumer, or professional gardening, or Ag – Big Ag. Yet it also describes in some sense, giving ‘x’ as a voice of what the IoT is largely about, whether again large compressor turbine, or a plant, and the ability to connect things, and understand things, and analyze, maybe predict things as well, has always been that underlying promise of the IoT. I like the fact that you used smart dust earlier, because for those of you that don’t know, MIT Initiative, largely DoD funded at the time, but the idea that I could literally disperse lots of little sensors on any kind of field, think a battlefield in that case, and be able to have them synced together and start to detect things like motion, vibration, and temperature, and give me back early analytics.

The concept is still a very valid concept, and in fact it’s being done more and more with off the shelf stuff, or at least be able to be executed with a lot more off the shelf technology these days. So even recent conversations we’ve had with some of our limited partners in our funds have been around smart dust, and some of the concepts that are coming. So, it’s very inspirational, and it’s one of those things that I think give a real good sense for what things could be.

When you started out with Koubachi, and you might want to describe a little bit about the traction that you guys did get as well, but did you have in mind an exit strategy, did you say, ‘Look I think I’m going to sell to Husqvarna/Gardena one of these days’?

The question is, what do you mean by these days? We certainly didn’t have one when we started the company, and I guess we’ll come back to the why and how, but that was one of the key learnings there that, that’s not a good thing. The exit strategy only evolved over time, we started with the vision of, okay there is a prototype, let’s make this happen. Distribution, there is Amazon sells stuff, there are a lot of digital marketplaces in the ecommerce stuff, how hard can it be? Just see how far we get. And because we didn’t know what it takes, we went down that road and took the adventure, and every now and then we figured, oh okay, that’s only partial go, we thought that’s only how high we have to climb, and being at that point we figured that’s not yet at the top of the mountain, there is another thing to climb. Doing it step by step we just went ahead without knowing really what the end game would be.

After two or three years we by that time had launched the app, we had over 100,000 users, we had all the services in place, we had the hardware as well and Koubachi was a two-step approach, in order to get the plant advice it would tell you what you need to do, that you can just start with the app which was a free download, and there was no monetization really, it was a marketing tool. Then if you wanted the advice to be more accurate, you could buy a sensor, and that’s where we would make money. That sensor, selling that hardware piece obviously turned out to be a difficult piece.

We had quite some success selling that in digital channels, in consumer electronics channels, one of the biggest successes for me personally was that it as available in the Apple store, not just online but in the physical Apple stores as well, so that was really cool, and that was about how far we got. We didn’t really get into mass distribution, and with that kind of product we figured that we should be on a shelf in bricks and mortar, in your traditional garden centers and all of these things. That turned out then looking into what does it take to make that happen, something bigger, and we would need to spend more time, much more time, much more money. At that point we had to figure out what’s next? Do we now do this ourselves; do we see a Series B or big round and make that happen? Or, do we go strategic and join forces with someone who already has access to that distribution channel, and has a strong brand.

We ended up deciding for that, option B, which was absolutely the right choice, because it was a perfect strategic fit. From a Koubachi point of view we need a distribution, we need a brand, and Gardena had both of these things, understood by that point in time that they need to go digital and connected, but had no clue of how to go about it.

You talked a little bit before around the role that you guys played at Husqvarna, and for those of you, they tend to be a little more European in terms of a lot of their gardening, especially the Gardena stuff, but most of you will know their robotic lawnmowers as an example, and a lot of their more digital tools these days. I’d say your group was influenced in a lot of these, and I think you and I last got together at Mobile World Congress a year ago, because obviously they didn’t have it this year with COVID, but they had one of the largest exhibits there, robotic lawnmowers and everything else. So, the metamorphosis there was pretty phenomenal in the time that they acquired you. I know you had set up this smart products division there as well.

A question kind of thinking now as we move the conversation over to Thingstream a little bit, what attracted you in terms of making the change from Husqvarna, over to Myriad and Thingstream?

Honestly, I was just looking for a next challenge, and that might not sound like a decent thing to do, but that next challenge could also have happened at Husqvarna. Husqvarna was actually doing a super job, Husqvarna Group and Gardena particularly, in making sure that this acquisition of Koubachi they don’t kill the business, they don’t kill the culture, we bring this startup thing, this agile way of working, and I had a great time. I spent three years at Husqvarna and pretty much enjoyed every day there, but for me this was 9 years in green, 9 years with plants, I knew much more about lawn care than I ever imagined. My role turned more into one of making sure these processes all run smoothly within the whole group. Once the strategy was done, it was more about the implementation, and I’ve done that once within Gardena just looking for a next challenge.

Two things drove me to look at things outside of Husqvarna, one was B2B – I really wanted to do a B2B thing at some point in my life, I had a lot of experience with B2C, and B2B somewhat was a dark think that I didn’t really understand, and I wanted to do more in that realm. But I also wanted to be closer to my origins, wanted to be closer to tech and to the field of IoT. And with that, well you know it, you guys approached me! This is one of the things I looked at, and it just struck me as a brilliant idea, so I went down that road, and the last three years happened!

Well, exactly. Tell me a bit about the big idea, what is Thingstream, for the listening audience?

Thingstream is a provider of, as you’ve said, IoT communications service, and what that means is, we really take care of everything that needs to happen if you want to get the data from a device, into the enterprise, and obviously from the enterprise back to the device. IoT is the Internet of Things, so you have things and you have the internet which means you need to connect those things, and that seems like problem solved, we’re all very familiar and very used to just being connected all the time; we have our phones, and our watches of connectivity, and can talk to the cloud, and all of that stuff.

When it comes down to making things connect and talk to the internet, things that need to be super-small, that need to be battery powered, last for years, and are probably travelling around the world and end up in crazy places, not just in the middle of the city where you always have cellular connectivity, there is a lot of problems you need to solve, just to make that connectivity piece happen.

There is plenty of technology out there that can help you with that, but that’s only part of the solution; once you’ve figured out which network to access and how to send something, you need to figure out the protocol, security becomes an issue, you probably want a message broker in the cloud to deal with hundreds of thousands of devices, firmer update, all of these things are still an issue. By creating a solution that takes care of all of these aspects end-to-end, we were in a position to enable enterprises to think about IoT, and go about IoT without this being one their issues, instead of building it themselves, so buying from four or five different vendors, going with our solution helped them to just reduce the time they need in order to develop a solution, and by that also reduced the risk.

I believe that’s one of the core issues we still have, and why we don’t see IoT growing as fast as it could according to some research from a few years back. It’s because enterprises are in this PLC purgatory, they struggle to figure out how to make something that works as a prototype, work in actual real life and then large scale. It’s unfortunately too easy to build a prototype with Raspberry Pi, and every engineer can do that, and then have something to show to his CEO at the end of the day. But getting that to something that he can manufacture at cost, and to specification, that’s a difficult thing.

You did some amazing stuff in a very short time with Thingstream, another reason why Momenta likes working with you so much; pivoted the company – well helped actually carve it out of Myriad Group AG, which was a publicly held Swiss company, setting it up, giving it a really unique brand, a voice and look, if you will. I know you love purple!

I didn’t in the first place actually!

And I know near and dear to our heart because the area that you really focused on was low power wide networks, and your platform did a great job at abstracting the underlying protocols, whether using UUSD in you guys case, or LoRa, LoRaWAN as an example. I know in a very short time you engineered that LoRaWAN offering, you went to market, you were a real centerpiece at the trade shows and such. So, with all that in mind, it wasn’t a surprise to see a suitor come along so quickly, in this case u-blox. But again, the lessons learned coming out of Koubachi, did you have an exit strategy in mind, and was u-blox art of that? Or did all of this happen in an accelerated time frame?

We did have an exit strategy in place when we started that. I obviously had the lucky opportunity to become part of Thingstream you have to say, Thingstream in 2018 being a project within Myriad Group. But they were already a great group of people, there was some technology, we had the first product almost ready to go. So, we started with quite a few things in place, and it was making sure that we can put that into the right perspective, and mainly figuring out how go-to market works.

In our analysis of the go-to market it became clear extremely fast actually, that it’s going to be an ecosystem play. Yes, we now make the communication part super-simple, you don’t have to take care about how I do get data from the device to the enterprise, but still that’s only part of the solution. There are still some hardware, there are many different ways of going about that, and once you have the data in the cloud you still need to figure out what to do with that data; how to analyze, how to visualize, how to act on that data maybe, which is very domain specific.

So in all the projects that Thingstream actually won, the design and we have been or are now part of the solution, it’s always been an ecosystem play, and hardware companies such as u-blox, going into the IoT space and figuring out what the features are, and what the discriminating factors are that make a difference there. And on the other side you have your big and small, and super-small IoT platform companies that know what to do with the data, and how to visualize, but it all comes together in solution.

Currently this place of IoT consistence is not very homogeneous, there is still plenty of opportunity for things to move around. It was our core belief that this market will consolidate, and that at some point a company such as Thingstream being in the communication side of things, and with this basically being in the sandwich of the hardware and the platform, it would be acquired by one or two, either from a hardware company that realize they need to go upwards in the stack, or from a technology company that understands that they only have an IoT business where they can sell something as a service, per device, if there are devices on a platform, that maybe they should make it easier and simpler for their potential customers to get stuff into their platforms.

So, with this understanding, we even at the very beginning when carving out Thingstream from Myriad Group, formulated the exit strategy. Then many companies on that exit strategy, u-blox was actually part of that, we knew it was going to happen, I didn’t expect it to happen this fast, but that is also down to the position obviously of where u-blox is, and the maturity they have within their own journey from being a hardware only company, to realizing that service is becoming a crucial part to their future business.

If you have the impact on u-blox that you did on Husqvarna, I will say that you’re going to be extremely successful. In fact, maybe another tagline if we had to put it in there is, ‘Philipp Bolliger, impact as a service’!! Because we have high expectations as we’ve seen your past track record in that as well.

For those aspiring entrepreneurs out there, you’re a model of a successful serial entrepreneur at this point, so what advice would you give them on their own journeys, especially in this industry space?

I think one of the most important things I’ve learnt over the past 15 years, is know your customer. It’s of utmost importance that with everything you do, you understand why you do it, and what that thing, whatever it is, needs to do in order to be of value to your customer. The customer can be outside of your organization, it can be inside of your organization, but knowing exactly who your customer is, and what that person needs is absolute key to making sure something is a success. Only if you know that, as good as it gets you can spend your resources, re. time and money, in the right place in order to be successful.

When it comes to creating a startup, the customer certainly is outside of your organization, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand who your customer is, and what they need. In many cases I’ve seen, just the conception of who the customer is, is probably wrong because in the first place you think of ‘x’ being your customer, then looking at this in more detail you figure out the value chain, and how this market actually works, the dynamics of it, and your customer is someone completely different. This other party now being a company for example has completely different needs, and you need to do something else. So, understanding who your customer is, is the key learning, absolutely.

Another important thing is, and we’ve already talked about it, is do have an exit strategy. When we started Koubachi we didn’t have one, we didn’t feel like we needed one, it almost felt like a bad thing to talk about exit, ‘Don’t jinx it’, right. But because of that we made some mistakes along the way, and we could have saved time and understanding where we want to go. This doesn’t have to be a super-precise strategy, but just understanding what the end game is going to be; do you want to be a family business, 50 people, and life is great? Or is the aspiration to go IPO, or is it the trade sale, and if so, are you ready to sell, are you ready to take that step? And do you know what that takes?

It’s not just about putting the right resources into the right place at the right time, but it’s also about making sure that the team of founders, co-founders, or whatever constitutes the group of the most important people within your business, that these people, that these guys are aligned. That you have the same vision and that you aspire to the same things. As soon as there is too much discrepancy in that, things will go sour, and that might happen, but you want to be prepared. And that’s probably the third learning there, make sure that this does not happen as a surprise, but do make sure that you talk openly about why you’re in this, and what success means to you, and don’t do that only once, but do that regularly, because ambitions and visions and ideals change over time.

Great advice, know your customer, have an exit strategy, and to the Boy Scouts of America, ‘Be prepared’! As their motto is. So, in closing we always like to ask two questions, first of all any startups that you see out there as the ones to watch? Obviously, Momenta are investors, and so we always like to find out who the hot startups are.

Well, obviously all the stuff that you guys invested in!

Obviously!

Well, I believe that just as a general observation, in IoT, specifically in that low power area, asset tracking I believe is still the hottest area, because it’s not just about creating new products. From an enterprise perspective, why would you employ or start using IT technology? And it’s not just about creating new offerings and reinventing your business model, but there is also a lot that can optimize your bottom line, and asset tracking most often is actually just an internal thing where you want to save money or have better use through your resources.

I believe we’re now at the point where the hardware is ready to enable asset tracking for much more than it was 10 years ago, and that’s just simply a question of how cheap you can get the hardware, to which price can you get that down? The lower that price, the more opportunity for asset tracking. So, I would say every startup who has a clever angle on that approach, certainly would be on my watch list. As a personal thing, I’m also not just involved in IoT, but in the HR space as well, at least to some extent. My new bride Claudia, started her own business in HR some four years ago I believe, having a completely new approach of recruiting and finding the right talent for businesses. Talent war, the war for talent has become a topic in I believe almost every company. There are some resources that are just very scarce, and job posting on a board doesn’t do the job anymore. Lionstep, her company, has found a super-cool approach in how to go about that, and I believe we will see much-much more movement in how this happens.

Yeah, fully agreed on that, and agreed on your assessment of the company obviously, because we’re an exec search we look at these augmented, if you will, tools for recruiting and staffing, and hers by far is one of the most interesting on the market, so I second you on that one.

Final question, any recommendations of books, or resources, really to say it another way, what inspires you and how do you keep inspired?

I would love to say, go read that book, or absolutely watch this show, or whatever. I unfortunately don’t do much of that, I would like to do a little bit more of that, specifically the book reading. What inspires me most though is talking to customers. As I said, knowing your customer is the most important thing, and I use that as an inspiration to create my agenda, and to figure out what to do, and make sure I have enough time to spend time with customers, and talk to them. Just listening to them about what they do, and how they think about things, and what their problems are, is most inspiring, because I probably have the solution in my mind, we probably have some tech that could help them.

Solving problems, being an engineer by hardened trade is one of the key things. So that is most inspiring, just understanding what other people, what other companies’ needs are, which is a lucky thing I guess in that regard.

We’ve been very pleased to have Philipp Bolliger, the CEO of Thingstream successful serial entrepreneur technologist, investor, engineer, digital industry expert, and aka impact as a service on this call today. So, I really appreciate the time Philipp, and thank you for joining our digital leadership podcast series.

Well thank you very much for having me Ken.

Alright, well thank you so much, and thank you today our listening audience, and we will connect with you on our next edition. Take care.

 

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