Jeff Pulver talks about Zula, Vonage and his life less than 80 pounds

Jeff Pulver with Brian Park
Jeff Pulver with Brian Park

By Dennis Clemente

“I don’t want to hear about What’s App,” said Jeff Pulver, the Vonage co-founder considered a pioneer in VoIP telephony. Pulver was at the Startup Grind at AOL last February 19 to present his latest venture, Zula. What’s App was acquired by Facebook for $19 bilion this week.

People heeded his plea. Besides, the comparisons have to stop sometime soon. Its site has this to say: Whatsapp focuses on social interaction, while Zula provides a central stream of conversation that gives users access to shared files, shared events, polling and one-touch group calling.

The talk was beyond Zula, it was about Pulver who didn’t mind talking freely and openly about his early years, Vonage and his successful weight loss of some 80 or so pounds. He is now 51.

On how he discovered VoIP (voice-over internet protocol): “I was very lonely growing up,” said Pulver who grew up in Kings Point, New York. “I didn’t have any friends.” The word “lonely” escaped his mouth more than five times, but he didn’t mind talking about the past he remembers fondly.

Not having any strong connection with the people around him, Pulver communicated with people using ham radio when he was very young. He earned his license by the time he turned 12. “I listened, connected, shared and engaged with them. “I never met them, but I knew their personality.”

He recounts how he made his family miserable with his obsession over ham radio, even on vacations. “When we were in Barbados, I was on the radio eight(sic) straight days.” In his teen years, he turned to disc jockeying to be able to get close to the girls.

Pulver was always trying to earn extra money. He created a consulting company at 16, even set up 3 companies along the way. Because he was earning so much money, “college didn’t matter.” But he became a “trained accountant.”

In figuring out VoIP, he knew back then he could make use of two modems–one for dial-up internet; one for telephony. In 1995, he launched Free World Dial-up, the first international voice calling. That lay the groundwork four Min-X which became Vonage in 2001.

“Getting fired saved my life,” he said. Today, Pulver describes himself as a futurist, serial entrepreneur and long-time evangelist for VoIP technologies. He founded the VON Coaltion in 1996 which helped keep VoIP unregulated in America for 9 years and paved the way for Skype and Google Voice.

On how Zula will gain more acceptance, he recounts how in presentations, he see how people can get online faster than him setting up the projector. “Independence from my laptop is everything.”

On how to solve the high cost of phone plans nowadays, he said, “We need more competition.”
On how he lost weight more than 80 pounds, he said it was important for him to avoid wheat and sugar, which he said has given him more energy and made him more productive. Before when people told him to exercise, he would say, “Exercise judgment.”

Now he exercises regularly. He said it’s important for him to point this out to everyone, because he thinks it affects how we can all work more effectively.

Brian Park hosted the talk.

Silicon Valley giant Steve Blank on demo days, pivots, entrepreneurship

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By Dennis Clemente

How much evidence do you really need before launching your startup? The person at the receiving end of that question responds: “That’s like guessing how much sex is enough. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

The crowd of about 200 people burst into whistles and hoots. That set the mood for Startup Grind’s event at Alley NYC last September 23. The man speaking was Steve Blank, the pre-eminent Silicon Valley entrepreneur, author of several books (one of which launched the lean startup movement), an educator and the man that continues to remain in most top 30 influencers’ list in technology even after more than 33 years in the tech world.

True to how he espouses his ideas and the way his highly organized mind works and because he’s a teacher at heart, he responded, “But who are you building it for?” Blank said more and had the audience hanging on his every word.

On demo or show-and-tell days. He decried how many startups are graded by how well they pitch instead of whether their startups are a good product-market fit, or if they have run enough experiments with customers, citing even VCs are getting burned out on demo day.

“An incubator (has become) like the Miss Universe contest. It should be more of ‘how we got here, where we are and what evidence we have’ about where we are going?” He thinks there should be a “Lessons Learned Day” than the continuous Product Demo Day.”

On gauging the thermometer of success. He tells the story from 30 years back when NASA and the Department of Defense decided to come up with a Technology Readiness Level. “Level 0 could be (about having) demonstrated the principles, Level 5 and 6 could be you have something working. Level 8 or 9 could be you have reached nirvana.

“What we never had was the Investment Readiness Level? But there are some criteria on that now. We may now be able to play Moneyball with startups,” referencing the book where a small team was able to compete against the New York Yankees by relying on data or statistics—and hiring players who could gets base hits alone than most other players.”

On rising number of incubators/accelerators. He acknowledged the help these incubators and accelerators provide, which is a long way from just sharing of physical spaces back in the old days. “What we’ve had last five years are the mentor-based, equity types. We have Paul Graham’s guru-based Y Combinator who mentors, demos and gives you partial funding. We have Tech Stars in multiple cities with community mentoring. Are there too many? “We need to think past existing models. We need to make way for a new model. Accelerators may (want to consider) a curriculum.”

On when to pivot or stick to your vision: “We used to pivot by firing executives. What we’ve learned is that instead of firing executives, we’re going to fire the plan first.” But these days, Blank said pivoting has also been done to the extreme. He said he told Eric Ries (his student and the one who coined it in the book, Lean Startup) that he draws the line somewhere in pivot.

“The problem is that now, it has given rise to its (misuse) by founders with attention deficit disorders. Pivot should not be…like someone told me something yesterday I’ll turn the company upside down.”

On existing markets and new markets. “A small startup is nothing like a large company with its existing markets or how you can find out about size, competitors, pricing and customers. Customer discovery is really easy in existing markets. You can get sufficient data and pivot.

Talking about how startups get started, “Attacking the incumbent (existing market) can be suicidal, but what others see or not see is that there could be a niche (in a new market). But what is a new market? With a new market, you don’t (have data). It’s about seeing something no one else sees. Now you have to go outside and ask the bigger question, where is the world and what do you see?”

On intellectual property. If you’re in the web, mobile or cloud, unless you have a really novel product, it’s going screw your head. What matters most is velocity of learning. Instead of talking (and having it in your head), you can go out and listen (to your customers.)

On gaining the vision to see what’s out there 3 years from now. Rephrasing the question, Blank said, “Can you teach entrepreneurship? We have been asking the wrong question for a hundred years. Of course, we can teach entrepreneurship.

“We can teach it but the question is, who can we teach entrepreneurship to? Yes, we can teach it to those who passionately volunteer… If you desperately want it, we can teach it. If you think it as a job, you’re through. We are now in the renaissance of teaching entrepreneurship. We (eliminate) stumbling blocks and prevent people from doing the wrong things we used to do.”

On why the closest thing to a founder is being an artist. “What we missed for a hundred years is that the closest thing to a founder is (being) an artist. Who are they? When we see a blank canvas, they see a starry night. When we see a block of marble, they see a theater. When we see nothing, they say, ‘Follow me, it’s here.’

On his young self, some 30-plus years ago. Blank is a native New Yorker. He was born in Chelsea, grew up in Queens, and lived in the Bronx. He went to the University of Michigan, dropped out after the first semester, and joined the military in Vietnam. “I had the lowest GPA. I was ‘thrown out’ with a .5 grade point,” he said. After Vietnam, he went to find work in Silicon Valley in 1978. “I was surprised to see 48 pages of job ads for engineers alone in California.”

Blank worked the night shift at a military intelligence systems supplier whose location, to this day, he has not disclosed. Because there were no close vaults during his time, covert manuals were just within his reach. He said he read them because he loved to read, admitting he wasn’t too bright at 24 to think how risky it was for him to do so.

When someone found out that he took notes of the manuals, someone grabbed his notebook, and told him, “You’re not cleared to write this. Do you mind taking on another hobby?” There was a cold war between the U.S. and Russia then and he was asked, “You’re not going anywhere, are you? We do have your passport?” Well, he did go somewhere as author of the most loved books by Silicon Valley.

Never a CEO, “my career was more of incremental apprenticeship.” Still, he managed to retire from Silicon Valley at 45, so he could see his kids grow up. And take on other hobbies, like writing books and teaching young people to build their own careers as entrepreneurs.




Aereo founder focuses on streaming live TV than library, expanding in key cities

chet kanojia

By Dennis Clemente

If you’re a Time Warner subscriber in some key areas like New York, you don’t have the highest rated network these days, CBS. But if you have Aereo and you have Internet connection, you can watch Big Brother all you want, if that is your thing. Aereo is a boon to consumers and a bane to cable TV providers. The intrepid man behind Aereo is Chet Kanojia, born in India, educated in both India and the United States.

“If you succeed, you succeed. If you fail, you fail,” he said in response to a question if he lost the fight against the cable TV providers at the Startup Grind meetup last August 14. Aereo is an online TV platform.

Kanojia knows Aereo faces an uphill battle against the big cable TV companies but he thinks he doesn’t need millions to get enough business. “I’m focusing on live TV than library. The five channels are the future. The rest is library, which is expensive and a shrinking market.” The latter means recorded programming (eg. dramas, movies).

To fight the great fight against giant cable TV providers, of course, you need a strong ally. Kanojia has the backing of a powerful man in the industry—IAC chair Barry Diller and other premiere investors, plus a strong engineering team. With more than 100 staffers (he started with 10 last year) and still hiring, they certainly mean business.

In the hour-long intimate talk at the ThoughtWorks office on Madison Avenue, Kanojia did not mince words. He was open about his early years as the son of a ship merchant who smoked (cigarettes) when he was 14 as he was about venture capitalists, kidding how his relationship with them is better now that he’s not asking for more money. In 2008, Microsoft bought Kanoji’s TV ad company Navi Networks for $40 million.

Asked about fundraising, the most interesting question for the attendees, Kanojia said that “raising a million could take you a year and is the hardest, getting $300,000 indicates you have something.” Breaking it down, a venture capital investment between $300,000 and $500,000 is low where $10 million to $40 million is mid-range.

Some words of caution to those seeking VCs, though, “Do you have the energy to sleep in motels six years in a row? Things can change 15 times,” said perhaps to emphasize the accompanying challenges in dealing with VCs.

For those who want to take a dip into the TV cable industry business, it’s a huge multi-million investment. The cost of boxes could mean these companies could be investing in 300 million boxes just to be able to cater to every American household. On top of that, you must have the distribution and marketing muscle. The consumer pays for a higher subscription fee as a result.

For those who haven’t heard of Aereo, what’s so special about it? You can watch TV online at a much reasonable cost with its proprietary cloud-based antenna and DVR technology. This allows you to watch live or recorded HD broadcast TV on any type of Internet-connected device, including smart TVs, smartphones, tablets and computers.

What’s also making Aereo the talk of the town is how Kanojia knows the TV industry in and out. He is clearly challenging today’s highly fragmented media landscape by pushing the development of breakthrough solutions. He holds more than 14 patents in fields ranging from robotics to data communications systems.

The soft-spoken Kanojia dated himself in a good-humored manner, saying he came to the States during “Jimmy Carter’s last term” (1981), that his first job in 1991 at Mitsubishi was only one day, no thanks to some paperwork mishap, and he had a handwriting compression business for the defunct Palm Pilot after grad school.

Perhaps because Aereo wants to spring some surprise to cable TV providers, he’s keeping his mouth shut regarding the growth of his company. Early this year, he said he would expand to 22 cities across the U.S. It now streams in Atlanta, Boston, New York with Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami (in the next few days) and Salt Lake City next.

Later he asked the audience which industry can help Aero with its business? “The largest variable for us is real estate,” he said. Aereo is rolling the way it does through geographic concentration, similar timezones, early registrations.