Link Labs CEO Bob Proctor is back for another episode of the Get Linked podcast! In today’s episode, host Carson Garner inquires about what it means to be a global leader in IoT technology and innovation. From how to assess your customers to how to assess your team, we delve into what makes a winning company in the IoT space and how Link Labs works to exemplify those values and priorities.
Join the AirFinder Difference!
- Innovation. Organizations can be freed up to innovate and bring more impactful products and services to market.
- Profitability. Increased profitability provides new opportunities to innovate and improve valuation.
- Digital Transformation. Discover competitive advantages, new revenue opportunities, improved customer relationships, and increased efficiency.
Carson: Welcome back to our Link Labs podcast, Get Linked. I'm your host, Carson Garner. We've got another great episode coming at you today. Today we brought back our CEO Bob Proctor and I couldn't be more excited to have Bob join us for this episode. If you didn't have the chance to listen back to our previous two-part episode with Bob, Bob was actually a founding advisor and investor for our company. Prior to that he co-founded Blue Ventures Investors and he was the CEO, board director, and investor of FlexEI. He holds a PhD in applied physics from Cornell University and he's led teams that have won corporate wide awards for best business breakthrough, managerial excellence, spirit of generosity. So we're super excited to have Bob join us for another great episode. On today's episode, Bob and I will be having a conversation on what it means to be the global leader in the Internet of Things. Bob, thank you so much for joining me today and welcome to the Get Linked podcast.
Bob: Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks, Carson.
Carson: So how have you been?
Bob: I've been great, I can't complain. Things are good, you know? COVID's been hard for everybody. A lot of people think of it from a disease state, which is now sort of behind us. But from a business perspective, I call it the four crises of COVID. You had the demand shock where everything shut down, and then you had the supply chain's shock, and no one could get chips for IoT applications. And then you had the labor market and wage inflation in engineering, and then you had Silicon Valley Bank collapse and the financial shock. So it's been one thing after another, but suddenly like nothing bad's happening. So lots of good things are happening.
Carson: Don't jinx us. No, it's hard to believe this is our 20th episode. I think the last time we had you, we were on like episode four or five or six, but we've flown through 20 episodes since we had you back.
Bob: Yeah, I think my hair is a little grayer.
Carson: Mine is too, to be honest with you, but yeah, it's great to have you, Bob. I'm excited to hop into this topic because just what we've done at Link Labs in the past couple of months has been revolutionary to begin with. And also it's great that we have shifted to the spot to where we're able to call ourselves the global leader in IoT location service technologies. And that's partially, you know, accredited to our amazing team – to you, to Jennifer, to everybody we have on the team. But my first question to you is, many people, organizations, are named by publications or self-named the global leader in IoT services. What is an IoT leader, and how does someone determine who is one?
Bob: Yeah, so a great question, and really, when we thought about it from a Link Labs perspective, framed it as in location services and technology. And that last word, really, “technology” is critical. So we're all about location and location services. And I think we can defend against any other company on the planet, the statement that we have technology that really demonstrates global leadership.
Bob: Now, even then, you would have to say, but what's your criteria for being a leader? How do you define a leader? So you've got to define the space. Us, as the technology side, if you want the best breed technology. And then you've got to say, “Well, what makes it the best breed technology?” And to me, there's two axes to that, very simply. One is performance of the technology, which for most people, that’s accuracy, and can you do it indoors and outdoors in many countries. But ultimately, you know, “Can I find something?” And for us, it's a foot of accuracy, which is, you know… Honestly, when we started the company and even over the last three or four years, I didn't think it was possible for what we're doing, but we kind of hit… “Where it is” is no longer a conversation in the sales or commercial process because we can find anything within a foot.
Bob: Which is remarkable. But the other axis there is cost. You know, you could always find something within a foot before, it's just that it would cost a fortune, both in infrastructure, tags, data transport, processing in the cloud. And so it's really about, in the end, bang for the buck, from a technical perspective. I think that's where we really stack up. And a lot of that's having some fundamental insights on architecture and then kind of transforming that into practice.
Carson: Yeah, and you talked about how we're the leader in technology and IoT technology, but we've actually had – ever since 2014 when we began – we've had a lot of firsts. You wanna touch on that a little bit?
Bob: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we were the first company to have LoRa-certified products. LoRa's an IoT… I call it a purpose-built IoT network layer technology. We actually had some of the first chipsets of that technology before it was even LoRa, from a company called Thicleo out of France that Semtech bought. And so we really got very deep into this purpose, what I call purpose-built IoT network layer technologies. Then we're the first company to have CADM, which is again purpose-built IoT network layer technologies for cellular operators that have certified products in the United States. For CADM, that was riding on Verizon's network. And we ultimately were the first company to integrate Bluetooth into those location technologies and location service capabilities. And then, for all of those, we made it more performant, frankly, than other companies.
Bob: And I kind of liken it – if I go by analogy – to, you know, the age of videotapes, there was… Sony came out with Betamax – showing my age – in the 80s. And it had like 300 patents on it and incredible videotaped technology. And, you know, VHS came out. And it was… not nearly as good, but also a lot cheaper. And, you know, VHS ultimately sort of dominated commercially. But the leading technology was Betamax, just too expensive. I think what we really focus on is, “How do you make it a leading technology and make it the least expensive technology?” You know, so that's a doubly hard thing to do from a location perspective. So, yeah, but we innovated. And I think one of the keys for us is learning how to put algorithms – location algorithms – inside standard chipsets that you would find in devices like Bluetooth chipsets. And then from there, we've continued to innovate on integrating multiple location methodologies into the same device, which gives you an enormous amount of flexibility that architects something for super power-efficiency and all that. So 29 patents in the US and there's international variants of those that probably take us well over 100 globally.
Carson: Still growing.
Bob: And still growing a lot. And it's really starting to show up now on the commercial side of the business in terms of just the rate at which we're growing. I would say that, you know, it comes back to the global leadership question. You’ve got to define your space; and every company wants to define a space where they're the leader. If I said, I'm the trucking telematic global leader, and I define it by how many trucks have my technology in it… Like, no, we're not that. We're the technology leader for location services, but we're not doing point telematics where you plug something in the engine, you're getting engine data, that kind of stuff. Somebody else is the leader in that. We're not the leader in edge AI for IoT. But for location services, I'd put our technology head-to-head against anybody else on both a performance perspective and also cost access, and I don't think anybody else could beat it.
Carson: Yeah, and I think you hit right on the head. It's all about finding your niche. And I think that's something we've done really well in the past year, you know, finding our niche into logistics and manufacturing operations. So yeah, that's great. How would you say that someone can determine when they've become the global leader in some space and not just, you know, another follower?
Bob: Yeah, that's a great… I mean, usually you know if you're a follower. “Hey, somebody did this, if I can be a fast follower…” It's a great business strategy to be a fast follower, you know, particularly in large markets. It's just like, you know, many companies can win and there's nothing wrong with that. I think for us, in a sale, that ultimately organizations we find want to know that they're buying technology that has, again, the most bang for the buck, but that also gives them the most architectural flexibility going forward. We're not locking people into any one type of location technology today. They can have enormous forward flexibility, which you don't really get with others.
Bob: So in terms of how you know when you're a leader, I think it's your customers that really tell you. We've had companies spend two, three years looking at 20 companies and types of offerings and saying, “You're the first company that can really meet the combination of performance and cost effectiveness that we're looking for.” And then you start hearing that kind of thing over and over and over again. And you enter some.. You know, we just won Product of the Year from IoT Evolution a couple of weeks ago. And it seems like every time we apply for any kind of head-to-head competition…
Carson: We always win.
Bob: We always win, which is nice, right?
Bob: I mean, I think someday, we could get disrupted. We're always worried about that. You know, somebody invents a new thing and we're not… In our core values, we are not afraid to find if somebody else invented something better, we're going to incorporate it into our platform at this point in time. But right now, we are the global leader.
Carson: Yeah. And we talk a lot about partnerships, too. So if that were to ever happen, you know, Link Labs could always develop a partnership around that to make our technology even better than it already is.
Bob: Well, you need more than just technology as a solution provider. So we bring to the table an ecosystem of suppliers to make sure that there's low cost, commercial, robust hardware available. We bring a software platform in the cloud that now is processing, like, 65 million location and sensing events a day, cloud diagnostics, massively scalable. We bring reporting and analytics, we bring installation capability. You know, there's a lot…
Carson: All the different statistics.
Bob: There's a lot that goes around, just the location services piece, that, you know, it's kind of interesting. You kind of use your winning position in location services, build a company, and then, if technology gets disrupted or that kind of stuff, you’ve still got all these other things that just come with scale that you wouldn't have otherwise.
Carson: Yeah, and that's what's so exciting. I think about just Link Labs in general and our ability to scale so fast as a company and with our technology with our, you know, services and all of that. So that's awesome. Yeah. So, you know, many companies and individuals want to be the global leader and they drive the direction into their industry, their niche, like we talked about. But how can someone who is not a global leader drive innovation in the industry?
Bob: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I mean, I look at it in... I've been on multiple company boards and different technologies and that kind of stuff. And I think you have to start with the market and then you've got to think about what you're good at on the market side. And I can remember exactly where I was when the lightbulb went off for me, and I can remember it with other companies, too. You know, for me, somewhere along the line, I was like, you know, everything would be tracked. Because you could figure out a technology, even five, 10 years ago, that could find stuff with high accuracy. It was just really expensive.
Bob: And, you know, you’ve probably heard me say this before: I used the beer keg example of, “Is there value in tracking beer kegs?” Even now, beer kegs aren’t tracked. Although frankly, I don't know why, because we can do it. We just haven't banged on any Guinness, Busch, or in Bud stores hard enough. The question is, “Is there value to be created?” Well, sure. I can do delivery route optimization. I can tell when there's out of stock situations at, you know, bars and restaurants. I can tell you if the temperature went bad, if I'm actually serving bad product. And then there's brand issues. I can understand how much is being consumed and therefore how much I need to produce and do better planning and forecast. I mean, there's value to be created by knowing where stuff is, how it's doing, what's being consumed. None of that information is created today. Why? Must be because it's too expensive. Like, that's the only real reason. You would do it if it was free.
Bob: So the question becomes, okay, either the technology is just too expensive or doesn't perform well enough. So once that lightbulb went off for me around how we just have to drive cost, we just have to be relentlessly focused on this particular niche of cost and location accuracy. It became this very clarifying thing. I basically went to the engineering and R&D team and said that everything we do has to move us forward along one of those two axes. And you've got to be looking long term at how we can constantly be moving forward on one of those two axes. And we've had an engineering team now – a world class engineering team – grinding on that problem for, you know, three quarters of a decade. So you're making steady progress because you have that relentless focus on that side of the equation.
Bob: The other side of the equation is who is on the team and do they have the technical competencies that kind of align with that need? Given I’ve got a background in applied physics and spent a lot of time in the tech world, it was easier for me, I think, to get my head around the technical competencies that we need to have embedded in the organization in order to be successful at moving down that path. And so we've really gotten not only the clarity of what we need from a market demand perspective, but what we need from a talent perspective to innovate in that direction. And I think that's what you need. So, you know, if you sat me down and picked a hot topic of the day – AI, AI, AI, you know – it's like, okay, if I was going to do that, I'd need to understand how AI really works and the team I really needed. And then where would they really work to drive true advantages from a customer's perspective? Which is always, you know, about getting an ROI.
Bob: So it's about building the right solutions, but it's also about building the right team to, you know, fit what you're trying to do. And then it's tricky to do that for a large enough market. One of the reasons we really love location services is there's just, you know, billions of things out there. As you’ve started providing this kind of capability, you can generate a lot of value. So the addressable market is massive.
Carson: Yeah. And there's so many things in the logistics space, right? There's healthcare, there's, you know, trucking, transportation… Like you talked about, there's just so many things that can be tracked. That's why it's such a great opportunity and why what we're building here is so scalable. It's because there's so many things that you can track.
Bob: And it's a really exciting time.
Carson: Yeah. But like you said, and like we all know, technology is so fast and moves so quickly. So many things are being built and, you know, constructed so quickly and everything's changing. How would you say that someone can stay or remain a leader in their space within an environment where technology is moving so quickly?
Bob: It's another great question. I think about it more from people. They're people that really are unique, that are good at staying on top of the front end of technology and can really invent with that. And you've got to create a playground and protect it. You know, so if you look at our chief engineer, I don't mind just saying “go invent,” right? Stay on top of it and go invent and have fun.
Carson: It would be complacent.
Bob: Yeah, but not only that, it's like when it starts to become a thing you've got to commercialize. I’ve figured out all the key pieces, I've demoed this piece of technology... Hand it over to a team that's better at hardening, scaling, turning something from a development environment to a production environment. That's a whole different set of skill sets than inventing the next big thing.
Bob: And you know, people like to invent the next big thing. They’d get pretty bored if you told them to go build a scalable version of it. So that's the way you do it. It's like, you keep saying, “Hey, you invented the next big thing.” They've usually got a lot of ideas on how to make it even better or something new comes out in the market somewhere else that they incorporate into the technology stack will make it that much better. I mean, that is a really fun job. You also have to be really good at it. And we're really fortunate that we've got a group of folks that… You know, kind of crushed that aspect of the business, and I've got to let them be. I can't suck them in.
Carson: Let the engineers do what the engineers need to do, because they're like–
Bob: Right, let the real innovators do what the real innovators do.
Bob: Let the other engineers turn that into, again, a commercially hardened, massively scalable, “99.999% of the time it just works perfectly” kind of Six Sigma product. Because that's a whole different set of engineering competencies.
Carson: Let the innovators innovate while we sit back and we market and we sell the product.
Bob: Yeah. We sell the hardened stuff too. You can't sell the latest innovation because it's not quite ready for prime time. We still have additional tricks up our sleeve, but it's fun to think about. And I've always got to be like, oh, hold on. We can actually sell a lot of what we have. Cancel the next model car before you've cleared the lot of the one you got on it.
Carson: Well, going off of that, I think one of the cool things about Link Labs is our ability to customize our solution to meet the customer's needs. And I think that's, you know, the majority of the time companies make their decisions about products based on customer needs. How does the ability to listen and to respond to customers' needs affect the status of an IoT leader?
Bob: That's great. I mean, there's real pros and real cons, honestly, to that question. The real pros are when we look at large opportunities, at companies that can and should and usually do want something unique to their situation. And so a lot of what we pride ourselves on is, you know, not just that we have the best location services, but that it's highly configurable and highly extensible. So I can add in things like temperature and humidity and shock and those types of things. So you can broaden it to many sensor types, but can also take it indoors and outdoors or multi-geography.
Bob: But then you can get into large opportunities where they just need… I just had this inquiry the other day. It's like, “Hey, we need everything to be intrinsically safe,” which is a set of standards, you know, and that often happens in the chemical and oil and gas industry. We've got other people that are saying, “I want to actually make this a clandestine tracking device for my assets because I don't want bad actors to remove it.” So how do you kind of embed this into another component so that it looks like another component of the vehicle but actually, the tracking technology is fully encapsulated within that. So those are unique to the customer... Well, intrinsically safe isn't, but, the form factor and other things embedded in a specific element of an asset might be.
Bob: And those are the kind of things where you've got to be able to tailor to that end customer to win their business. So we provide that capability as long as the opportunity’s large enough. You've got to be able to amortize the engineering expense across the assets. Otherwise, it's just not worth doing. So we don't do science projects for universities. And we do have inquiries around that. But if you’ve got 100,000 assets and you need to modify the form factor, the tag, or need solar or battery or some sort of temperature range so you can put it in the Arctic… Anything is possible and can require some level of customization. That's doable for high enough volume opportunities. The downside of that and the con side is you can't take on a ton of those opportunities because in the end, even finding great engineers and engineering partners, you're limited by the human capacity that you’ve got. That can scale and does scale over time, but… You know, it can be a huge distraction if you're not careful from a communication perspective. So we're very thoughtful about it: are we willing to take on those projects? And the way you do it, of course, is what I described earlier. You're trying to raise the bar on how many assets you have and if it’s really worth everybody's time.
Carson: And I think I've seen from personal experience, there's a lot of customers who need something fitted for their solution. And it just gets to a point of, “What's the ROI? Is it helping you?” Is it worth the time to, you know, actually go out and have our engineers create something for them like that? It's all about putting out priorities and making sure of that.
Bob: Yeah, that's exactly right. Somebody says, “Hey, I've got a thousand things and I’d love some custom engineering.” And the next customer comes in and says, “I have a million things.”
Bob: Well, the guy with a million problems gets the attention every time. And in fact, I'd rather wait three years for the guy with a million things then pick up like five projects that are all a thousand things, and then when a million things comes along, you're like, “Sorry, I can't do it because I'm already committed.” That's the trick. Now for us, that bar is more like, you know, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 things.
Carson: Yep. Yeah. And if you are, you know, a company that needs your assets to be tracked, no matter what assets they are, we have the ability to cater our solutions to fit whatever you need. So please reach out to us through our website, through booking a demo. We'd love to talk to you and make sure that you’ve got everything that you need for tracking and putting eyes on your assets because we all know that it's extremely important to know not only the location of the assets but what your asset is doing, where your asset is, and how your asset is doing like we talked about.
Bob: So yeah, and I would also just add, you know, the way we've architected the solution, there are literally hundreds of edge devices that are available off-the-shelf that are down the cost curve. So it's as much about creatively figuring out what's the right tag to use from what third party. As a company, part of what's our secret sauce is we figured out how to leverage the ecosystem of third party hardware devices and put our secret sauce firmware into those devices, into the chipsets. And that was, again, I think the fundamental insight for us was, “How do you start to build edge processing?” And a lot of the software we have is firmware that sits on third party chipsets and can go into third party devices. That opened up the ecosystem of hundreds of edge devices that are available within our platform. And usually one of those will work. I mean, the customers are always like, “For it to be perfect, it needs to be a square.” And we're like, “Well, we don't have a perfect square, but we have a rectangle that's only a couple millimeters longer, can you work with that?” And once they get their head around, it's like, yeah, that's fine. So that's the kind of thing where there is an enormous amount that's off-the-shelf that more often than not can work.
Carson: Yeah. And then that's also accredited to our SuperTag and its ability to have that hub mode to where it can connect to the different BLE devices that you're talking about. But yeah, finding the right tag that fits their solution, form factor wise is extremely important. And we can do that through third parties or however, whatever it means we need to.
Bob: Yeah, and I think for me it's, tell us your business problem and we can show you what's available off-the-shelf and market check the solution. I think it's interesting how many customers that really don't understand the technology stack in-depth kind of pre-architect what they think the right answer is. Yeah, from a solutions perspective.
Carson: Yeah, everything though.
Bob: And then, you know, you talked to them for a while. Like actually what you're asking for, is it really the best fit for what we can do to meet your needs. So, yeah.
Carson: People love to be their own experts, right?
Bob: Yeah, absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with that. We don't have any issues with that, but what I'm saying is don't hesitate to ask us for some free advice, because frankly, we give it out all the time through our sales and sales engineering.
Carson: And speaking of advice, I would say that you're one of the people in this world that I would say would be the best to get advice from. What kind of advice would you give to those striving to become a global IoT leader?
Bob: I think you’ve really just got to take a frank assessment of the market, like I talked about before: the demand side and your team and what you're good at. And those need to align. And you can either change where you focus on the market side or you can change your team. And you might have to migrate one versus the other over time. That can lend a lot of focus, but it's a hard question to answer. I mean, I spent a lot of time for our organization thinking about, “Where are we the leader? Where can we be the leader?” But you want to be a leader. It's a lot easier to build a business when you tell the world, “I'm the leader at this.” And then that's very defensible. People go, “Well, I'm looking for that. I want the leader.” It's much harder and you're like, “Well, I'm a master of everything. I do a little bit of everything, but I'm master of none.” Then you tend to struggle as an organization.
Carson: Yeah. How would you say that your role as a leader helped bring Link Labs as a whole to be a global leader in IoT?
Bob: A lot of it is persistence. We mentioned the four crises of COVID before. And I think we could have shrugged our shoulders and sat down and said “We can’t do that,” and it's been a long struggle. And getting the vision right. I didn't have it right away, honestly. We started out as a purpose-built IoT network layer technology and said, “We're going to be the leader in IoT network technology.” And then we realized that the market for that as a pure thing… Most people didn't know what to do with it; it was really limited. People aren't looking to buy a sliver of the technology stack. They're looking to solve business problems. And so, for me, there was a revelation that was, “Okay, that's not good enough. Say, how do I reinvent who we are and what we do in a way that sort of serves a bigger market?” So, you know, you don't have to sit down with a stroke of a pen, write it down, and never change it. You hear in the business world about pivots and, you know, we're a company that's pivoted a few times to get to where we are today.
Carson: And there's nothing wrong with that, I'd say.
Bob: You just have to be honest with yourself.
Carson: Yeah. And I'd say that, you know, your job as a CEO or anyone's job as a CEO would be to realize where you need that pivot. And that's what's so incredible about what you've done with Link Labs.
Bob: And you have to have the guts to do it. I remember sitting in one of the leadership team meetings and I was like, all right, we're going to focus instead of network layer technology on asset tracking and being a solution product provider. And there was a guy in the room who goes, “Is this the moment we're pivoting?” And, you know, I never really thought of it as a moment before. And then I said, “Yes, we're pivoting. Everybody needs to get their head around it. We were this, now we're this, as of now.” And that's a really hard call to make because people are like, “I used to be in this kind of company and now I'm in a different kind of company.”
Carson: But it's the necessary call to make.
Bob: Yeah. Well, it's one of those things where the data starts piling up. You kind of wake up early in bed one morning going, I don't think we're going to be successful being a leader in one narrow area. We need to be doing something much bigger. And that meant, for us, that meant we had to add engineering capabilities and rethink our go to market and sales. I mean, there’s a lot of change that comes with pivot. And it changes what you promised your investors and everything else. You've got to go to the people who gave you money to build the first thing and be like, “I know you gave me a lot of money to build that thing and I've been building that thing, but I think I was wrong. But now I think I'm right.” So it's not an easy thing to do and you've got to recognize that when you pivot. But that's how you're ultimately successful.
Carson: Yeah. Yeah, but obviously the pivot has pivoted us into a spot where we can call ourselves the global leader in IoT location services and technology. What would you say is the strongest traits of our company that exemplify to give us that title?
Bob: Oh, I think it's the two axes I've talked about before, you know, simply bang for the buck. We now can tell you where something is to within a foot, indoors or out in most countries on the planet. And we can do that at a price point that is typically one-fifth to one-tenth of any of our competitors. And I get asked the question a lot, “Well, why don't you raise the price?” And I come back to, because this market is a cost play. That other realization, right? It's like, we can track a lot more things with a lower price point because it opens up ROI and accessibility, this technology that so many companies… So our competition is really, you know, do nothing. But we don't, you know, we can solve problems that just no one else can solve and cost effectively.
Carson: And why would we want to cost more for our products when we already have a great solution that's helping customers all over the globe, right?
Bob: Well, and it's just so growing fast. And I think we've struck the right balance between what we do. But, you know, you look at lots of technologies, right? And they tend to get cheaper over time with more performance and we've done the same thing.
Carson: Yeah. Yeah, well, Bob, it has been such an honor to have you again on the podcast. We love having you when we do. What would you say is the best way for someone to reach out to you if they have any questions?
Bob: I'm bombarded so much via email and those kinds of things. I would say, you know, reach out to the company, and the best questions will filter up to me through our contact Link Labs form. I do sit in on the meetings. So, you know, if somebody said, “Hey, I really want to talk to Bob. I saw this episode,” and you got to this point in the episode, you put that in the contact us, form or inbound inquiry. I do actually see all of those, and we pick it up. Unfortunately, the volume is more than I can personally respond to everybody, but we’ve got a whole company and super smart people in it.
Carson: Yep. Yep. Yep. And that's so exciting. Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining.
Bob: Thank you, Carson, for having me and, uh, have a great rest of the day. Appreciate it.
Carson: Thank you so much for listening to our episode this week. Link Labs is a leading innovator in all things internet of things. If you want to learn more about Link Labs and asset tracking and all the many benefits that we can provide to your company, visit our website at link-labs.com, and be sure to follow us on all of our social media platforms at Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and of course, subscribe to this podcast for more episodes to come in the future. We look forward to seeing you next time, and as always, thank you so much for listening in.