Conversation with John Candish
This is Ken Forster, Executive Director at Momenta. Welcome to our Digital Thread Podcasts, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. In this series of conversations, we capture insights from the best and brightest minds in digital industry, they are executives, entrepreneurs, advisers, and other thought leaders. What they have in common is like our team at Momenta they are deep industry operators. We hope you find these podcasts informative, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.
Good day and welcome to episode 148 of our Momenta’s Digital Thread podcast series. Today I'm pleased to host John Candish. John has been developing and scaling connectivity companies for over 25 years. Coming out of early 3G wireless services work at Nortel.
John founded xtempus a company focused on enabling messaging services between mobile operators. He subsequently sold this to Cable and Wireless scaling the digital interconnect business across subsequent owners, Sybase, SAP, and now Sinch John. Welcome to our Digital Thread podcast.
Thank you, Ken. Thanks for the invitation. I'm looking forward to the discussion.
As well. And we've had some pretty good early discussions going into this a little bit. I love this idea that you've created and followed a business over four different companies. So there's a great digital trajectory. If you will, a theme, that we will follow.
But I always like to start this, right up front, by asking, what would you consider to be your digital thread? The one or more thematic threads that defined your digital industry journey.
That's a great question. I think it's about making sure that Dialtone is available for services and then scaling that up globally for those services.
So I got, I guess for a phone call, everybody knows what Dialtone is, it's what you need in order to access the phone service. And I've really been doing that for person-to-person communication for digitally connected devices and for other multimedia services.
I started out designing credit card terminals, a job I was at whilst at university, and that was really a connected device. And although, that was sometime before the internet of things became a term. We were still concerned by and focused on security, making the best use of bandwidth, and ensuring the resilience of the connection.
So, in that sense, nothing's changed. And then I've gone on to do that around mobile data, for messaging, for multimedia and voice services, and laterly for connected things and devices.
I like your analogy about the connected a credit card terminal. That is when we started momentum back in, 2012 now, so almost a decade ago we did it with the subtitle.
The IoT is not new or novel. And the idea was that of course there are patterns of connectivity that you can look at going from industrial automation, telemetry to machine, our RFID machine on and on that ultimately culminate in IoT. One of those clearly is, what came out of the original kind of telco connectivity, right?
Where a lot of your module companies Telit Gemalto etc., came up during that time about remote connectivity. I love your idea about the dial tone and that’s probably even a subtitle for this podcast. After formative work at Nortel, you founded xtempus in 2000.
What problem did you originally set out to solve?
I think originally, we probably set out to try and solve too many problems for too many people. But I guess that's perhaps a separate story in itself, but our original aim was to be the Babble fish. I don't know if you're familiar with Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy.
Yeah, wacky novel. And in that, there was the Babbel fish. And if you put a Babble fish in your ear, it would translate any language. So you could speak and interact with any language. And we were really trying to be the Babble fish in the wireless world, enabling any internet service. Any brand to put the services they had on the internet onto wireless devices.
And back in the late nineties, early two thousand mobile phones were very different from the kind of smart devices we have today. So, we were trying to do that for banks, for entertainment companies for retail, for enterprise messaging. And enable that connectivity to be rendered appropriate for any wireless device.
Pretty soon we found that we were trying to do too much too soon. And we realized we had to focus on something as an initial problem to solve and then scale that up and then look to go on and solve other problems. So, we ended up focusing on enabling messaging and making mobile messaging work globally.
So people were quite used to being able to message between subscribers on the same network and probably within the same country. But you'd take that globally. And you encounter problems of interconnectivity, the billing, commercial relationships, and the different formats and technologies.
So we ended up building a hub that sat between the networks and enabling seamless communication with messaging on a global basis between operators.
Now you sold the company to Cable and Wireless and 2004, spinning this up into a new business line, providing mobile operator data interconnectivity.
So you can certainly see the lineage there if you will. And then four years later, I love this, you engineered a sale of that new business line to Sybase, where your platform provided global inter-connectivity for 2 billion. Plus connected subscribers. What were your key learnings scaling up this business so quickly, especially through various owners?
I guess for us, the first key learning was that when you sell a business to a much larger company the story is certainly not over, in fact, in many ways it's just begun. So I guess. Probably one of the main learnings and most important things that we did was working out how to fit into the larger organization.
So it's important to keep the uniqueness of our service offering and keep behaving like a startup in terms of keeping creative and keeping the services relevant. But at the same time, we really learned the importance of fitting into the wider process of the organization, particularly around support and operations, as that's really key to scaling the service, making it reliable, keeping the dial tone on, and enabling to build the business from having, 15 wireless operators connected up to having hundreds of wireless operators connected.
And as you said billions of subscribers behind that also in terms of the go-to-market, the processes, and the complexity of going to market in a much larger organization, is much more burdensome, but obviously, the kind of scale that this offers has great benefits. But we had a lot of learnings about how to make our product fit in with the sales process of those larger organizations, both at Cable and Wireless and Sybase and be something that sales guys sales were able to sell easily and fitted well with the rest of the products that they were offering.
So we'll call that phase one of your scale story, moving up to 2 billion connected subscribers. Now we know SAP acquired Sybase in 2013. So yet again, you scaled this business up to create SAP's digital interconnect Business, which was providing end-to-end connectivity for SAP's customers and their I0T devices in over 180 countries.
So scale-up phase two you also took on what I consider a great title, chief expert of internet of things. What were some of your key use cases and wins at SAP at the time?
To go back to the start of that story at SAP we were already connecting people and devices for messaging services, and really saw an opportunity to build that out, to bridge the gap between SAP's cloud services and applications for IoT and the end devices.
And if you like, take the cloud service all the way down to the device along with the security that was inherently part of that. And that enabled us to address quite a few key markets, some of the notable ones were automotive. We were working with an automotive manufacturer in North America who was developing performance and predictive maintenance systems.
They needed connectivity that would guarantee the best connectivity possible anywhere the vehicle is. So connectivity on a single network will only offer the coverage of that network. And the reason this company chose our service was we were able to offer seamless connectivity across all of the networks in the US and enable the devices to run between those in real-time. And also because our service was hosted in the cloud. Truly elastic and able to scale in real-time as the users required and also provide native connectivity to the customers, own cloud services, where they were collecting, analyzing, and drawing insights from the data.
We were able to offer a much more secure and efficient form of connectivity for them.
Another example would be a packaging and logistics accompany company. They needed to connect their packaging systems to ensure quality and performance and make sure that they had the right supply of the raw materials that they needed for that process.
They also needed to ensure that they could track high-value packages as they were shipped around the world. And really there, again the neutrality of our service offering and ability to roam & connect on different wireless networks anywhere in the world, but manage all of that connectivity from a single dashboard and with a single API was crucial to that customer.
Perhaps another interesting example where we combined, in fact, connected devices with connected people, was for proof of concepts, we ran at a major airport. They were wanting to increase the efficiency of aircraft turn around. So every minute that an aircraft spends on the ground at the airport, the aircraft itself is not being used for transportation and is consuming resources of the airport.
Just shaving a few minutes off a turnaround can be quite significant in that industry. And there it's about not just coordinating the things, the steps, the baggage systems, the aircraft itself, but also the people that are involved in the turnaround.
So the project there was to combine connected things and the information from them. To wearable devices. So smartwatches, for example, could enable the staff involved in coordinating the turnaround to make sure that they're in the right place. They've got the right information.
They need to make the best decisions to make the whole process run smoothly and get the passengers onto the aircraft and allow it to take off as quickly as possible.
What a great use case and really very much exemplary of the value of connecting devices, connected people, the internet of things is, we often like to call it again, love the title, chief expert in internet of things.
Keep that hat on for a second, relative to SAP. And this is probably more of a sidebar question, but many will know that we sold PlatOne. It was one of our earliest portfolio companies to SAP in 2015 that ultimately became at least one of the basis for SAP’s Leonardo IoT platform.
I remember we were sitting across the table with the head of M&A at the time at SAP and the thesis we were using to really support the deal was that the value of connected devices, what, ultimately rise to those who held the business rules. So you think about, Salesforce for CRM, as an example, or of course, SAP for their core ERP, allowing those companies.
It's a process that those business rules with better data, faster data, more granular information. I'm curious to what degree do you think that this value is realized at least over the time you were with SAP?
Yes. I think that's certainly right. That the value is when the information has been gathered and can be made use of in those CRM or ERP systems.
So looking at the automotive manufacturer we're working with. The value comes from those deep insights they get from being able to monitor all of the cars and look at the information in the round, and really only then pull out the key insights that they need to improve the operation of the vehicles.
And again, going back to that airport example, it was really only by monitoring many flight turnarounds and looking at those in their control systems that they were able to determine what improvements they could make to the operation and really then get the return in value on the investment that was made.
So I think that's very true. I think the key challenge is the ecosystem. And by that, everything from the hardware, the sensor types, the connectivity, the systems integrators who are part of that ecosystem. Pulling the hardware and software together and connecting to to SAP’s cloud services and applications for IOT, and it's really the ecosystems, I think across this, the space that needs to evolve much further to make it much easier to implement IoT deployments. And keep them current and avoid people being locked into particular hardware configurations, or having to re-engineer things.
When you get the next version of a product or a process. That's why I see that the challenge very much is still in building the ecosystems to support all of this and allow the CRM and ERP systems to collect the data.
I think you've really hit it on the head. And in some sense it is that the dynamics of an IT call it versus OT, enterprise IT, some sense winner take all. There's only a handful of companies that will drive, like Salesforce for CRM or SAP for ERP.
But when you hit the OT side, it's pretty much aligned across specific, usually local companies like Siemens or ABB or Rockwell, etc.. that are geographic. Then you've got a whole bunch of technology vendors and then you've got a number of SIs that usually are domain-focused. In some sense, it is very decentralized and very much the antithesis of winner-take-all. Just because, you've got the local. And so you were at that intersection point between the two of them. And especially wearing your SAP hat, I could see where you'd look down on the OT system at least southbound and see how disintegrated it is.
It is right in that regard and in some sense, you're right. It hasn't changed that much and I'm not sure we'll see the day that there'll be the equivalent of enterprise IT. Probably with the exception of the hyperscalers and how much, how they're moving down now. And they are providing some level of at least ecosystem alignment, right?
You're an AWS shop or you're a reserve shop or, Google cloud, etc.. So it's still an interesting dichotomy in that regard. So speaking of ecosystem and we'll call this scale-up phase three, you've now followed the sale of this digital interconnect business a record fourth time to Sinch a global provider of mobile engagement services.
Now it's interesting. I could not have told you whose Sinch was probably a month or two ago, but as I got to know you, I began to see them not only with respect to your business but all over the press in terms of other acquisitions as well. So I'm sure there's an interesting story, but given they acquired your SAP digital interconnect business in December of 2020, and now clearly have done others.
What's a next step for your digital interconnect.
Sinch provides a great opportunity for the former SAP digital interconnect business to scale up further and be part of an organization that in fact, eight out of 10 of the largest tech companies are using for their consumer engagement.
And since Sinch is growing both organically and through acquisition to enable consumer interaction over virtually any possible channels. So for instance, Facebook messenger, RCS, WhatsApp, Viber, Instagram, voice, and video. There's really a huge market opportunity to be enabling immediate relevant and personal communication with organizations & customers.
And it's a really exciting journey as this company is expanding both as I said, organically and also through acquisitions. Where there is new technology going to further build upon Sinch’s ability to help enterprises reach their subscribers they are acquiring new technologies where an organization is able to increase their geographical reach they're doing the same.
So for instance, acquiring a company Wavy in Brazil, who are leaders in that space, in that particular geography. And as we go on that journey, using the economies of scale as these companies become part of Sinch to increase the overall value of the offer. And at Sinch I've got the really exciting opportunity to be part of the integration process of these acquisitions as they're being acquired and the optimization of our overall product offering, as we bring all of these different technologies and platforms together - So it's a really exciting place to be at the moment.
I can see that in getting the scale of direct to consumer, if you will, is really the next step up to scaling, what you've primarily done in B2B in the past. And in some sense, it truly is a very fitting phase, three of your scale story. So let's go back now 21 years since you created xtempus, the roots of which, you continue to scale today.
What do you think you called right in the early version of that company and probably what has surprised you conversely?
I think firstly back in 1999, we saw mobile as being a huge opportunity. I think perhaps to some extent we underestimated the size of that opportunity and the impact that some mobile technology has had on society and the world.
We, I think we're right in seeing the key value of enabling mobile services across networks globally and being able to help enterprises engage with mobile networks.
The hundreds of mobile networks across the world as one. And as we do now at Sinch through a single API, a single gateway into accessing all of those networks and the real value of being that bridge between enterprises consumers and the wireless networks and devices.
In terms of what surprised us. I think we were a few years too early back at the beginning of the two thousand. The development of mobile data and the handsets took a number of years longer than we expected to develop but when it happened, with the arrival of the iPhone and Android then it exploded much faster than perhaps anybody had expected.
SMS, I think with is perhaps the surprise, that SMS is still going strong has been growing. Continually over, over the last 10 years. And I think if you'd asked us back in 2000, we would have said that SMS, is probably going to hit peak usage before 2010, and then we'll need to be onto the next thing.
And I think perhaps something else that surprised us is the growth of all these other ways of messaging, so SMS has continued to grow, but alongside it, we've got Facebook messenger, Snapchat Instagram, Viber, and so many other rich ways of communicating. And I don't think anybody could have imagined that 20 years ago.
Pushing this learning further.
What trends are you watching today relative to digital interconnectivity?
I think probably the most interesting area is connectivity between different platforms and services. Technologies and companies that are providing the glue to build ecosystems. So I guess, taking Sinch as an example right now Sinch is enabling communications across all of those different channels.
So you might start a conversation on Instagram, then follow up the interaction on SMS and perhaps make a voice call to a call center. Providing the glue to maintain the context of that interaction across all of those different services. Looking beyond messaging and consumer interaction.
I think there's a really an interesting space to watch is going to be that interoperability between devices and services to build ecosystems around industry 4.0 and around the digitalization of companies and bringing all that, that disparate data together and managing it in a way that is useful, but also allows you to connect new technologies different vendors and different sources of the information without needing to continually build everything from the ground up, all over again.
So perhaps your initial vision of at least as I pronounced it, the Babbel fish is finally coming to pass.
Yes. I think it is. It's over 20 years on and the size and complexity of the task has got much, much bigger, but I think the kind of solutions that people are coming up with, is also much bigger and there's some really rich ecosystems evolving out there and some really interesting companies new startups getting involved in solving some of those problems.
Good timing on the interesting companies and interesting startups, that were digital industry investors, VR, venture capital focus.
What interesting startups do you see in the space?
So seeing quite a few interesting startups who are really helping provide the glue to build and hold ecosystems together. So companies like Brytlyt and Dashboard and Senseye who are all involved in the business of enabling information to be collected from devices and sensors and the real world analyzed and interpreted in real-time and that's across different industries from heavy manufacturing, through to oil and gas, health, and really key aspects of what they're doing. And I think what is important is enabling an open interface to the devices and sensors and an open interface for what happens to the data and insights afterward.
It's really crucial now in ecosystems that they're open and people aren’t having to commit to one way of doing things when technology is changing so rapidly and they're able to ensure that whatever systems and services they're building on these platforms are future-proofed and able to evolve with changing landscapes and technology.
So I think it will be really interesting to watch those spaces and see the value of these companies that enable, as I said the ecosystems to be built and really held together even though it's quite a dynamic situation with as I said, new technologies, devices and just the sheer pace of evolution in this space.
So Brytlyt, Dashboard, and we appreciate Senseye as they are one of our portfolio companies. And we actually interviewed Simon Campa. I think it was podcast 141. So not that long ago there as well. There's another, I would add just for you and that is the former cap work guys have spun up a new company and they're calling it Industrial data ops.
So there's another one to take a look at as well. So the final question I always like to ask is, where do you find your personal inspiration?
I think to really talk to people and often that's outside of the formal meetings. And when you’ve sat down with a particular agenda. xtempus came out of a conversation with some friends outside of the mobile industry back in 1999 just thinking about what the possibilities were for mobile in the future.
On that journey through xtempus, as I said, we started out trying to focus on far too much and do everything, but that was an important part of our journey. And it was only through getting to know the mobile operators. As part of that process that we understood the basic challenges that they had around enabling messaging, interoperability around the world and enabling the commercial relationships that are necessary to support that.
And if we hadn't had those conversations, we wouldn't have ended up focusing on the technology and the offering that we eventually successfully built and sold the business on. And then moving on to Sybase, I guess when I was at Cable and Wireless, it was through knowing people in the industry and actually a conversation in a London pub with somebody who was at Sybase and understanding what they had set out to do around building a mobile connectivity ecosystem and really taking that to the next level in terms of connecting enterprises and mobile operators together.
And it was really out of that conversation that the acquisition of our business group into Sybase happened. And then again with IoT, it was an informal conversation and just being curious about what was happening in the rest of SAP and getting to understand something of some of the challenges teams were facing there around connectivity.
And reducing the time from sale to deployments of their IoT services and reducing the complexity around the connectivity for IoT that the IoT connectivity business came to be. And all of those were around sharing ideas and I think most importantly, listening to other people and getting their opinions.
You've used the term ecosystem quite a bit in this discussion and it strikes me that every ecosystem needs effectively a catalyst and usually lots of connectors to be able to function properly. And I would suggest that you've gone from simply being a participant in some of these earlier conversations to being the catalyst in some cases.
So probably very fitting that you run a business that's called digital interconnection. John, thank you for spending this time with us.
Thank you for the invitation. I've really enjoyed reflecting on goodness. So I must have, must be saying the past 20 years or so.
That's quite some time that's gone by there.
It's scary when you start to measure your experience in decades, isn't it?
Sorry about that. So this has been John Candish. Thank you for listening and please join us next week for our next momentum digital thread podcast.
Thank you and have a great day.