Kevin Ashton is best known for coining the ‘Internet of Things’ term in 1999, however that’s just one part of a varied career that’s included building a number of tech startups, co-founding MIT’s Auto-ID Center and leading some of the early development work in RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, which led to the IoT label being born.
Since exiting his last business Ashton’s focus has been on consulting, mentoring some of the startups he’s invested in and writing with his last book “How To Fly A Horse, the secret history of creation, invention and discovery” released at the beginning of this year.
During his visit to Sydney last week, he spoke to Decoding The New Economy about his startup experiences, the future of work, skills needed for success and why the media is a doing a poor job on reporting technology.
Let’s kick off with your book, what was the motivation behind writing it?
In the late 1990s I started a lab at MIT and most of my talking was about the research we were doing. I’d talk and then they’d hear it. But occasionally someone would say, “Oh, but you’re leading a very innovative team, and we’re very interested in innovation. Can you talk about innovation and how things get created?”
So I started giving talks about my experiences of driving an innovation and trying to be innovative, and so on. And that became more and more popular through the 2000s. Eventually I was giving a talk in Napa Valley, California, and a friend of mine came to watch, and at the end they were like, “Oh my God, that was amazing! You need to write a book.”
I started writing a book of the talk and it did very well. People really liked it. And it was weird because, I guess, you kind of get used to a way of thinking about things, and it seems you forget that to other people it might be insightful.
The book is really my experience and my strong belief that creating is not about magical flashes of inspiration and being a special kind of person, or being a genius, or whatever. It’s got a lot more to do with being willing to just keep going even when it’s not working, even when you can’t see a way forward.
And it’s also not an individual thing. It’s very much about building on the work of other people. Creating itself is very individual, which turned out to be a controversial point as well, that you’re always part of a community of people you know, people you don’t know, people that are still alive, people that died years ago. You’re making these incremental steps, building on the work of others. So that was always my thought, and that’s the book that I wrote. And I’m lucky. People seem to really like it.
What’s your thoughts on the current startup mania?
I think, by and large, big companies suck at doing new things, and the reason is structural. Every big company was a small company at some point. Someone was doing a new thing. And eventually they happened upon something that worked.
The first thing you tried doesn’t work, the second thing you tried doesn’t work, and accidentally you stumble across something that does work and starts making money. Maybe those people move on, maybe they stay, but it’s easy to become addicted to the comfort and safety of the thing that works.
And the money that flows from the thing that works, it’s easy to believe that that thing will continue to work. Or you make a slight change. You only had a red one, and now you’ve got an orange one, and you feel like you’ve been profoundly innovative.
So, if you really want to do something new, you probably need to be in a small, passionate group of people. Now it is possible for a big company to take a small, passionate group of people and sort of stick then in an airlock somewhere and leave them alone. Theoretically, that’s possible. It seldom happens, and particularly because most of innovating is failing.
I’ve seen time and again is the people who rise to the top of big companies are often people who are very good at avoiding failure, or the appearance of failure. Very good at taking credit for other people’s success. They’re often from a privileged class. It’s typically white men. The typical CEO is a tallish white man with a full head of hair and a deep voice. I see that all the time. Failing is not good for your career. Ironically, because it is good for creating.
So, I think startups, meaning small companies, small groups of passionate people who are either not scared of failing or don’t have any choice but to keep failing until they succeed because there’s nowhere else to go, are always going to be the engines of innovation and creating.
Now, I will qualify that. There is also a class of privileged white men called venture capitalists who like to make you think that unless they’re allowed to give you some money that you can’t succeed and that you’re not a credible startup unless somebody blessed you with some venture capital or something. And I think, frankly, that’s all bullshit.
The last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur is, and I’ve done it, I’ve started companies without venture capital, and then taken some eventually. My most successful company never took on any money from anybody else. There was kind of in the middle somewhere.
Not only is venture capital and outside investment not a prerequisite for having a successful startup, it’s really a last resort. Because what comes with that money is loss of control and people who don’t… you start to get some of the problems that come with a big company. Venture capitalists who hear this will just throw up their hands and hate it when they get called out on their shit, but that’s true.
And by the way, a lot of very successful companies that take Microsoft, or Amazon, or whatever… had a very slight relationship with venture capital. So it’s entirely possible to build a large, successful, high-tech company, without venture money.
The discipline that comes from living hand to mouth and trying to find a customer and trying to make a profit and not wasting your money on bean bags and air hockey or whatever, that’s a good thing. So, I’m all for people of all genders, colours, sexualities, shapes and sizes trying to do something by themselves. I think you can be successful. I don’t think you need anybody’s permission.
Which was your most successful company?
Zensi was a company I started with some academic friends, and it was a very smart way to identify how people were consuming electricity and water. I was very into knowing things relatively. In the case of water, for example, we put a very simple sensor that you could screw under the kitchen sink. It was just a little diaphragm. But every time you use water anywhere in your home, the pressure in your water system changes.
So, you turn on the shower upstairs, and throughout your water system, there’s a pressure drop, and then a pressure stabilisation as the system gets back to its regular pressure. And what we found was, you could analyse that pressure change and determine someone had just taken a shower, for example.
It’s a very simple sensor connected to the internet, a bunch of algorithms in the cloud. And you could identify leaks, you could tell people where they were wasting water. So, we started that company, basically, with cash of our own and that was in January, February 2009. So that was the depths of the recession. When nobody was starting anything, by the way.
What do they say? They say buy low and sell high. Well, guess what? When you can buy low, nobody’s buying. They’re scared, right?
So we started it 2009, and about 10 months later we had a couple of people trying to acquire it for a lot of money. The best answer you can ever give somebody when they want to acquire your company is, “we’re not for sale”, because then the price just keeps going up. You have to mean it, right?
Eventually, we got an offer we really couldn’t refuse. At the same time, we were thinking about trying to raise venture money, and so on. It wasn’t like a deliberate strategy to never do it. But the acquisition deal was just so much more valuable. And the beauty of that is, you’re not sharing the money with anybody else.
Today you’re an author and speaker?
Author, speaker. I’ve got some investments in some Austin-based startups. I do a little bit of consulting here and there. So, companies I’m interested in. I have done the MIT thing. And then three startups. And I’m actually enjoying not having a very formal schedule. It gives me a chance to write, which I love. It gives me a chance to come here and do this. I’ve never been very successful in companies that I was not in charge of.
Like a lot of people who are interested in innovation and passionate about creating new things I find that a lot of the kind of mansplaining and bullshit and endless PowerPoint and people wanting to have nothing but meetings and, you know, a lot of posturing and politics and stuff, I have a very low tolerance for that crap. I’m very bad at it. So, I love my life right now, because I really choose. I’m very much the master of my own destiny, and I don’t have to… I’m not obliged to deal with too many idiots. Which is good for me, because I’m not good at it.
In part two of this interview Kevin Ashton will talk about why the IoT is so much more than talking toasters and the skills needed for the future (coding isn’t one of them)