Conversation with Ohad Zeira
Good day everyone, and welcome to episode 97 of our digital leadership podcast series. Today I’m pleased to have Ohad Zeira.
Ohad is an advisor investor and a public speaker, who has overseen the launch of innovative new technology driven products from ideation to scale. He brings a repeatable process for helping early stage startups successfully collaborate with corporations, and for creating entrepreneurial new initiatives within large enterprises by implementing repeatable processes.
Previously as VP of Mobility & Future Ventures for Avis Budget Group, Ohad created new businesses that deploy and support the shared electric autonomous fleets of tomorrow and transformed the company from a rental to a mobility brand. As Director of Consumer IoT at Verizon, Ohad owned the consumer IoT portfolio and led key projects in natural and contextual user interfaces.
Ohad was the Co-founder and product lead for the WeMo brand, a pioneering connected smart home platform, which was launched out of the corporate New Venture group that he led at Belkin. Ohad is an active board advisor for mobility and IoT companies, including Autofleet, Kyte, Home365 and Myplanet. He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Operations Research from Cornell University.
Ohad, welcome to our digital leadership podcast series today.
Thank you Ken, it’s a pleasure to be here.
And it’s a pleasure to have you. As many of these podcasts do, there is a back story, and that is back in the day when I was at a prior firm and Ohad was at Belkin, I had an opportunity to meet him and his co-founder at the time around WeMo, and that’s Kevin Ashton who many of you will know, who is given credit for having coined the term ‘Internet of Things’. So, we looked quite a bit at some early products they had for potential usage by the company I was at, and since then we’ve supported Ohad most recently at Avis Budget Group, so a repeat client shall I say in that regard!
Let’s start with your professional journey, I gave a quick outline here but tell me a little bit about what you consider are the highlights, and how it has informed your views of digital industry.
I started my career with Ernst & Young Consulting, which then became Capgemini. I was the youngest, and by youngest, I mean by about 30 years, of a group of technology strategists within this one team. These guys were not digital natives by any means, kind of salt of the earth ex-IBM’ers that were there to solve problems. I bring this up because I think it was maybe the best foundation I could have ever got into this digital world, it was not a technology first, it was a, what is the business strategy? What are the capabilities needed? What’s the best way to achieve those capabilities, and then how do we take this transformation and make it a self-perpetuating process? I had the opportunity to do that again, and again, and again, across retail, banking, Aerospace in Defense, Telco Utilities.
With that foundation I’d left for business school, and whilst at UCLA Anderson I was fortunate enough to join the New Ventures Group at Bose. Bose is a very heavily engineering led culture. The New Ventures Group’s charter was to leverage Bose’s IP outside of audio and video, so I spent a lot of time thinking about magnetic actuators, about single processing, about the lowering cost of compute, and about where those technologies could be used. And that was really my first introduction to that space of New Ventures, but it was also an example of a common pitfall; this group by the virtue of its charter was filtering the world from the point of view of how a technology can change a category.
In 2007 I joined Belkin and there had the opportunity to stand up their new venture group, as part of a broader umbrella, and I had the chance there to reimagine that same toolkit, and involve the craft to give technology, but also capabilities and the voice of the customer equal footing. I was working at that time under a very visionary CEO by the name of Mark Reynoso who is currently the CEO of Ecosense, and he at that point really encouraged me to dig into the macro-trends, whether those be societal or economic or political, in order to try and vision likely and bizarre future states that we could take advantage of.
That was a real fantastic ride, over 8 years there I was able to build and to launch several new businesses and categories, a bunch of them that failed fast, some that withered on the vine, and three of them that achieved significant scale. The last and most significant of these businesses that you referenced earlier was WeMo. WeMo was one of the first mass market consumer IoT experiences when it launched in 2012, and over the next three years we scaled it to around $250 million. This was my real introduction and indoctrination into IoT.
But more than that, I also had a driver’s seat view for how deeply digitalization can change all aspects of the organization. When we launched WeMo, kind of overnight we changed the company from a traditional consumer electronics world of, call it, stack them high and let them fly, into an always connected experience into a constant and ongoing relationship with the customer. This drove some fundamental changes to the touchpoints and the way we engage with our customers. It changed the engineering teams, the marketing teams, customer care, even finance and pricing needed to evolve to fit the new reality.
In 2015 I was recruited by Verizon to build home automation business, and in my time there I was fortunate enough to be trusted to also run other digital initiatives in natural user interfaces, and other IoT programs including wearables, and Verizon’s scale and breadth also meant I was able to partner with telematics and smart city teams. So, this was a really rapid maturity for me; whilst Belkin was all about speed, Verizon was about massive scale, massive capabilities, and the intersection of dystric categories.
Finally, in late 2017 I joined Avis Budget Group with the mission to both envision and create new B2B businesses leveraging Avis, Budget, Zipcar, and the other brands capabilities. What became abundantly clear to me there was that whilst the opportunities were abundant, the business was not set up to capture them. So, rental like many is a legacy service business, and it has grown over time monolithic systems and processes that are extremely efficient and doing that one business extremely well but could not easily be applied to new use cases.
So, what started out as a purely new venture quickly morphed into a digital transformation; basically, how do we use the opportunity of the new business to transform the core of the business in bite-sized chunks.
Very good. You’ve got a really rich history. When I look at that red thread going all the way from corporate venturing in the application across smart home and then mobility, it’s a very rich experience base.
You were involved in corporate venturing, well this was some of the early days compared to a lot of corporations who are obviously setting up scouting in Silicon Valley now, and other things like that. Tell me a little bit about what your key learnings were, relative to the value of corporate venture into the corporations themselves.
When I first started with Bose, I believe it was 2005, and the key learning here was speed, or maybe velocity is a better phrase to use than speed, and it’s important ‘venturing’. When I first joined the Bose New Venture Group, they had shared with me research that they had recently chartered around corporation innovation activities. The stats are outdated at this point, but at that time it showed the average lifetime of a new venture group was around 3 to 3 ½ years, which is basically six months less than the average tenure of a CEO, and that direct relationship. So that means you need to show impact, and you have a limited time to show that impact, but of course doing new things is hard, many are going to fail, you don’t know if the first one or the second one, or the first four are the ones that fail.
So, if you need to have results in let’s say three years, you’d better have a few threads of commercial activities going in 18 months. If you follow that up the following year in your portfolio of concepts above that are a large funnel of opportunities, and it becomes an engine, it becomes a process. The key learning here was about how to treat new venture creation as repeatable, measurable, it’s often thought of as a creative process, it’s not, creativity has its moments, but this is a process and not a moment of inspiration.
So, pressure profile systems was the first place I was able to implement my own take on the system, but later on at Belkin was where I really had the resource to put it to work in a meaningful way.
So, in some sense its engineered innovation versus how substantial, or as you say maybe just inspiration driven, and the processes to innovate are as disciplined as probably as those to productize if you will, in the end. You mentioned as moving to Belkin particularly, I think at the last count WeMo was in over a million homes, so clearly an early leader and continues to be a leader in the smart home space. As I mentioned, I know you had worked with Kevin Ashton at the time who has got his own fame in IoT, but what inspired you and Kevin to really build the WeMo line?
I think to get to that story for WeMo, I actually need to go back a couple of years before that to 2010, which was before we had acquired Zensi. Zensi was Kevin Ashton’s IoT company, and at that time I was building a new energy management business for Belkin. We were seeing the rapid conversion of the grid and the capital going into smart meters, and we had a small but well-received consumer power brand called Conserve that was having moderate success on retail shelves, in helping consumers reduce their power consumption. What I was trying to do was position Belkin as the partner of choice for utilities, as they were looking to help consumers access the insights generated by the smart meter.
Zensi, which was founded by Kevin and Shwetak Patel, a MacArthur grant recipient from U-DUB, was very early, very early, to use machine learning to detect and identify individual energy appliances, not by connecting a whole bunch of lines to the meter box, but by listening to the frequency of noise that each appliance left on the powerline. We acquired Zensi as a differentiator in the insights that we could extract and provide the consumer in this case, about what was happening within their home. The problem is that market never materialized, for all the promises that utilities made the public utility commissions, the investment just stopped at smart meter, and never really reached inside the house.
So, for both Kevin and I this was a really negative experience, and in many ways, WeMo was actually a direct reaction to this negative experience of centralized energy management. The thinking was, how can we solve consumer problems without the need for a central authority. We had all this great insight into the jobs consumers wanted to do around the home, and a lot of them sounded like home automation, of course not using those words, and people wanted to do these things, but they weren’t able to take the leap, either technically or economically.
We put these two motivations together, our internal ones to distribute away from the utility, and the consumer jobs that we were seeing, and we started solutioning. The solution almost seems kind of obvious now when I talk about it 8 years later, but back then some of the choices that were made were really counterintuitive. So, we had rules like don’t have a hub, and we used Wi-Fi. Don’t have a website, we were mobile only. Keep things under $50, so we optimized for the cost of trial, not the cost of ownership for an entire house. We launched in 2012, we found product/market fit and then we just held on for a while, trying to keep up.
It was a beautiful simple proposition, and Kevin being the brilliant marketer that he is really pushed the entire company to maintain the simplicity, and weave it into the entire product experience, and brand experience. Later on, once we found success it got more complicated again, but that might be a story for another time.
Well, you said earlier, moving from Belkin to Verizon really have a lot to do with scale, and Verizon of course very well-known in terms of being an innovative telco in the IoT space. As you went over the run the connected home initiative, what is your perspective of the state of smart home these days, or at least I’d say post Verizon?
Smart home in the traditional definition as a consumer category, yeah it’s been a difficult space for a while, we can refer to the trough of disillusionment maybe. The industry as a whole I think never quite evolved to solve the same tradeoff that we were trying to tackle in the WeMo and the Version days, which is solving the tradeoff between do it yourself, and this magical multi device, multi experience, interoperability.
Today, the do it yourself, or still do it yourself systems, and the larger systems like Control4, or more modern attempts on the same Josh.ai comes to mind, which is call it a controlled system with a natural voice interface to it, they’re still paywalled and gardened off. And it was a really interesting piece of research that I used to study a lot, and what it showed is that net promoter score, the satisfaction or the delight provided by the product rose more than linearly, so had almost exponential increase for every incremental experience that was integrated into the smart home. So, let me say that in a different way, the more experiences that worked well together in-house, the more benefit each device brought to a user, to a family. But this is really-really difficult to achieve, and that’s really the nut that still hasn’t been cracked.
Voice assistance has dominated the market by offering really what I would say is a vastly superior control to what was there before, which was the phone interface. But because they are first a voice assistant, and primarily a voice assistant which aims to do many things beyond the home, the work on choreographing within the house has really stalled. There’s been recent advances around interconnectivity, and around finally standardizing between the eco-systems, and maybe that’s foundational stuff that will make choreography happen better in the future. But I think this is really how we climb out of that trough.
Another way, and maybe perhaps a more measured way to think through this, is that we’ll get smart verticals well before we get smart homes as a general horizontal category. Maybe that truly automagical feeling for the mass of choreography comes when enough homes have enough verticals to make coordination almost a follow-on activity, rather than a lead proposition. So, today the most pre-eminent vertical, or security, you have companies like Ring who are now part of Amazon, and SimpliSafe, that are strong challengers to that vertical, but they don’t even need to eat that much, or any of ADT or monies launched to succeed. Traditional security never penetrated beyond 22 percent of you as households, so there’s plenty of growth to be had in offering security in normal ways.
I think insurance is another really interesting vertical, and Roost is an example of a bitesize device, originally a battery, its evolved since, but basically provides smoke detection and leak detection that’s remote monitored in a very easy and economical way. We’re seeing really wide adoption of that kind of device through insurance partners that are happy to have it penetrate their households.
There are companies like Home365 that are trying to automate property management, there’s a host of startups doing the same thing for warranty services. So, really trying to attach devices or use technology to fulfill a service proposition, rather than the other way around. And some future emerging areas around here, I think solar and especially home batteries will drive further innovation and new categories around home automation. Smart kitchen and cooking seems to be gathering a lot of momentum, and probably still in the prosumer or the real aficionado world, but will make into our homes, and perhaps be somewhat accelerated through the rediscovery of the kitchen over the lockdown in the last few months. And then tiny houses, maybe this is something that’s near and dear to my house, but tiny houses could be automated in a very different way, and this of course ties into modular construction, the ability to really become in a pre-fab sense with a lot of the gut and sensors already built in.
You made almost a conceptual leap from consumer or connected home, if you will, consumer IoT to leading mobility and future ventures for Avis. I think you mentioned earlier, you were working closely with the Telematics Group at Verizon, so that explains a little bit. Tell me a little bit about what was the incentive for the jump particularly, in some of the work that you did there. Obviously, this whole space of rental is pretty interesting, not only from as you said earlier, positioned as a bit of a legacy business, but in the world of right sharing of course it takes on a whole new meaning. Most recently with some of the challenges mainly by Hertz in the industry, I’m sure a lot of people are looking at this space and wondering what’s next.
Hertz might be an interesting place to start this. Hertz obviously has had a very troubled last five years, but they didn’t go bankrupt because of their pricing, or because of their operational cashflow. Hertz’s bankruptcy was because the wholesale market crashed by over 20 percent, the used car marketplace. When this happened, they needed to make – call it a $500 million payment, to right size the collateral value of their fleet. The reason I bring up this very specific example is because it’s really easy to get excited about the new mobility landscape and use cases and forget that vehicle depreciation has become almost a mutable mathematical property, that it’s very risky to try to innovate your way out of. I don’t know if holding costs are as powerful as laws of thermodynamics, but they seem to be pretty steady. And a good recent example is Fair who thought they had a magic bullet for predicting residual costs at the end of a vehicle’s lifetime, and it turns out that was harder than it looked.
That said, on the other hand of the equation is a customer base that’s just screaming for change, and for a different way to engage with mobility brands. It’s been trained by other digital experiences, and I think Uber played a really huge part of that in transportation, to demand more and to demand better. Customers want vehicles that are closer to where they work, they want vehicles that are closer to where they live, and they want those vehicles, or maybe not even vehicles, those mobility services just in time and on demand in a seamless way, and priced in a way that matches whatever their use case and quality expectations are.
So, that’s the rub, that’s the big paradigm in mobility, and maybe that’s the parallel to home automation, its these really massive incompatibilities between what the market has, and customer demands that are interesting to innovate within. But in mobility it’s how do you do just in time? How do you do local? How do you do all these things whilst maintaining high utilization? Because the whole depreciation, holding cost, all of economics are based on these concept of holding cost legalization. So, to solve both is the challenge, I think peer-to-peer brands like Turo and Getaround attempted to break this by using a shared economy, by using shared assets, and by crowd sourcing their fleet, but it becomes extremely difficult to scale, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain quality standards.
So, the question becomes how to do this with a centrally managed fleet. I spent a lot of time thinking about this at Avis Budget, and I’d like to propose these five points.1. You need a fully connected fleet that supports contactless transactions. So, the ability to walk up and engage in the way that you do with a scooter, you need to do that with a car, and with any other model as well.
2. Really good demand prediction models. So, the ability to know where the customers are, and when they’re likely to want which use case.
3. Dynamic pricing. This includes dynamic pricing of the risk proposition.
4. Frictionless switching between use cases. Now I’m coming at it from the fleet’s point of view, or from the mobility provider’s point of view.
5. Maybe the least sexiest, but efficient and low capital distributed operations. So, the ability to do things out in the field.
I think these are really valuable things to build, because the same capabilities that are needed to fulfil that current gap in consumer expectations are also what’s needed to effectively deploy an autonomous fleet, which is that shiny beacon on the hill. The question that becomes today is, will the current operators who have these massive advantages of scale and efficiencies, and footprint, be able to transform themselves to gain these capabilities which are all digital capabilities, before the disruptors build in green field systems be able to scale themselves.
It’s interesting, the five points that you make there. You’re absolutely right the value, sometimes fulcrum is whether you need to own your own presence, your own fleet, or whether you can do like Uber and literally crowdsource it in some sense and distribute that. So, ultimately you can see value in both, it’s played out certainly in bricks and mortar versus online retail, that same kind of balance.
So, you’re culminating a rich experience base in a number of companies you’re working in, your most recent venture Mambo Strategic Ventures. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there, and if you don’t mind me asking, what’s next?
Mambo is an advisory vehicle, and just something that I’m using today to be able to share my experience as someone who has led product, who has led operations, has led business development activities. I’m able to help companies with forming new strategical alliances, create new ventures, figure out how to enter markets. Some favorite projects I’ve been working on are with the startup enterprise combinations and figuring how to de-risk pilots or accelerate decision-making. Then selfishly it’s a vehicle for me to really get to know companies and their management teams, as I think about what’s next. Personally I want to build again, for the last five years I’ve spent a lot of time in the C-Suite, changing hearts and minds, and right now I’m looking to founding management teams with a passion for a mission to do something meaningful, whether that’s in mobility or IoT, or other adjacencies.
Excellent. I know you’re advising a number of startups, so tell me about some interesting startups you’ve seen and certainly promoting ones that you’ve worked with as well, but this is giving your dual perspective of smart home and smart mobility, where are the ones to watch out there?
Well, one I’m excited about, we actually talked about earlier when we said Zensi, they’re now a different company called Phyn, and if you recall Zensi which was Kevin’s company was doing electricity monitoring. Well, Phyn is using the same techniques, it’s a spin-off from Belkin, and a joint venture with Uponor which is a Finnish industrial. They’re concentrating on the problem of water using infrastructure mediated sensing, looking at shock waves in the plumbing, rather than in the electrical wire to identify appliances or leaks. To me this is exciting because it brings that vision into fruition, but for another reason if we look far enough to the future, water will be our most critical natural resource, and today in the US it’s almost free and I just can’t see a world where that remains so.
Another in the mobility space, and one of the companies I’m fortunate to be able to advise is called Auto Fleet. Auto Fleet is really early stage startup, they have a SaaS product that helps fleet become more elastic, and basically integrate any source of demand without the need for human dispatch or driver decision-making. This really helps Fleet become multi-use case, and reduce the friction between those use cases, which is one of the points I shared earlier.
They also offer a simulation service through the same platform, which means as an operator I can AB test any fleet or infrastructure configuration or optimize against any KPI, using real life existing operational configurations. I think Auto Fleet becomes a critical service and exploration fleet, and broadly I really like the ability to simulate directly out of an operational service. Generally, I’ve seen those as two different systems, so the ability to either simulate out of the operational service, or conversely drive into operation an exact set of managing rules that were optimized through simulation, is really compelling.
Next is a combination of pretty veteran startups, so I don’t know if it qualifies Ken to your question, but I’m really excited to see what they take to market. So, a couple of weeks ago, Superpedestrian bought the assets of Zagster; so, Superpedestrian in case you’re not familiar with them, is a mobility team who initially made a splash four or five years ago for a product called the Copenhagen Wheel, which was a retrofit device which made any bicycle electric and smart via retrofit. They then moved into eBikes and recently announced their first scooter, so they’re basically a full stack integrated design manufacturer for micro-mobility devices.
Zagster on the other hand began their life as a city bike competitor, over time shifted to be more of a while label operator. They became an accelerator for other mobility brands to deploy micromobility, and they started engaging as well directly with municipalities, basically interfacing between the municipality and the micromobility operators, or micromobility brands. They put the city and the city’s service level up at the forefront of their operations, so when these two come together I’m really excited to see what they could do as a vertical entity, which should be a powerful combination.
The last one I’d like to call out, and this touches on a conversation you and I had previously in terms of how much more innovation is there in certain spaces, and this one I want to call out because it surprised me, and it showed me that we were continuing to reinvent some of these things, and that’s through hard tech. So, a friend of mine who is one of the founders of Union Labs, which is a hard tech fund and accelerator, just invested in them, they’re called Strella sTRAIL Biotechnology, and they’ve created a new sensor that measures fruit maturity. I think it’s interesting because it is real hard tech, but now it opened up something that I thought was closed for a while like cold chain, and puts a whole new spin on it and allows a whole bunch of new entrants to think about how to service it.
Excellent. So Phyn Autofleet, Superpedestrian/Zagster and Strella Biotech are all great references in this, and I do love the diversity of I’ll call it smart things that you’re focusing on in-between all of those. A final question we like to ask, any recommendations of books or resources that inspire you, and you’d like to share with the audience?
A couple of recent ones, first on the personal development front, I’ve been reading and practicing Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I’m really excited about the initial returns in personal productivity. So, it’s been an interesting few months between politics, pandemic, recent street actions, I don’t know how to say it except that the attention economy is winning. So, Deep Work and those concepts is the best way that I personally find to fight back and gain some of that centeredness and productivity.
From a professional point of view, I highly recommend a book that just dropped earlier this week called, Transportation Transformation by Evangelos Simoudis. I was lucky enough to get a pre-read a few months ago, Evangelos is the managing director with Synapse Partners, and he tackled a very difficult topic that is usually grossly oversimplified. He looks at autonomy and thought through the mid to long-term effects of mobility ecosystems. Then also mapped up the second order and interaction effects on each of the ecosystem participants, and made pretty concrete recommendation on each of them, whether OEMs Cities, transportation providers, needed to do and adopt to earn a right to play and win in the future. So, highly recommended as a read.
It’s funny, I know Evangelos well, way back from his Apex Partners days, and then more recently Trident Capital, I think I had lunch with him probably about a year ago in the Bay area. I think another podcast speaker in the making, so good mention there, and Deep Work. I think the third P we’re looking for was politics, pandemics, and protests! Yeah it has been the tri-effect in that regard.
Well, Ohad it has been a fascinating conversation, you truly are a renaissance leader in this space. I really appreciate the time you’ve spent, you’ve been a smart home, smart mobility advisor, investor, and public speaker, and it’s been great to have you on the call. So, thank you so much.
Thank you Ken.
Take care, and we will look forward to episode 98 next week of our digital leadership podcast series. So, thank you and take care.