What I would do over and over again is to find better people. A good person is not two times better than the average person. A good person is 10 times better than the average person.
Naeem Zafar is the founding CEO of Bitzer Mobile, a company that provides a platform for enterprise data mobility and security. He is also a faculty member at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of business and has taught entrepreneurship and New Venture Finance since 2005.
Naeem started his own business at the age of 26 and subsequently went on to start, or work at, six startups. His first job out of Brown University with a degree in electrical engineering was to design chips and electronic systems. Twenty years, two kids, one IPO and three CEO stints later, he founded Startup-Advisor, a company focused on educating and advising entrepreneurs on all aspects of starting and running a business.
Naeem works frequently with the US State Department in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship across the world and was invited to the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC to participate in a dialogue about starting an entrepreneurial ecosystem worldwide. He is on the International advisory board for the North African initiative at the Aspen Institute. He has travelled to 76 countries to understand cultures and how business is done and considers himself a global citizen.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on Bitzer Mobile right now, which is a new and exciting play on mobile security. Bitzer Mobile allows employees to securely access corporate data and documents on their mobile devices, allowing them to be productive in a way that they have never been able to before, while also keeping the most skeptical CIOs happy.
Where did the idea for Bitzer Mobile come from?
The idea came from my co-founder’s struggles with satisfying large enterprises’ need to accommodate mobile users. He was an enterprise architect working for large companies on assignments and they all kept asking the same questions on how to connect securely with their employees mobile devices -so that was how the idea was spurred.
How do you make money?
Bitzer Mobile’s business model is subscription based. A lot of people in enterprise software are gravitating towards subscription now because it’s an annual contract per user/per year, which means that they are not taking as much of a risk as they had to in the past. If things do not work out, they can swap vendors. This is also attractive from a startup point of view because it creates a recurring revenue stream rather than a one-time sale.
What does your typical day look like?
A typical day would be to wake up at 6 or 7, catch some news, 2 to 3 times a week exercise in the morning and then head into a conference call or a meeting starting anywhere between at 6am or 10am, depending on which time zone we are doing, and then usually ending around 7 or 8pm, and then another check in with the emails around 10:30 to 12 midnight, and then watch some Jon Stewart and go to sleep.
So are you typically in meetings for most of the day?
Not typically. I try to make sure that no more than 40 percent of my day is filled with meetings, because it is easy to spend your time in meetings. Especially the way I run meetings, which I like to think is highly effecient, I start every meeting by asking the question “What is the purpose of this meeting and how do we know we have achieved it?”.
How do you bring ideas to life?
You bring ideas to life by recognizing who cares. The most important thing that most new entrepreneurs forget to realize is that although many people care, they have to answer two fundamental questions. First is, what problem are they solving, and who has this problem. That clarity is not easy to come by and requires a lot of conversation, insights, personal perspective, and conversations with prospective customers. So, it’s easy to have hallucinogenic ideas sitting on your desk, but it is very different when you talk to a few customers and they give you what the real problem is, and what they are willing to open their wallet to solve. The second thing which you have to figure out in that respect is, who needs you more. For every product, you can argue that a large number of people may need it, but even in that large number there is a subset who needs it more. Even IBM has to ask this question – who needs this more. And a startup has to ask it profoundly more because they h ave very limited resources.
If they don’t have the clarity about which sliver of the target customer needs it more, they are bound to run out of money and energy. So you bring your ideas to life by applying some of these lessons learned by a lifetime of entrepreneurship and assembling the right resources, teams, and money, to follow the process, to bring ideas to life.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trend that really excites me is the cross-disciplinary things happening right now. And this is unique to the American education system which breeds people to be able to tackle that. The marriage of biology and computer science, the marriage of construction and computer science, and the marriage of electrical engineering and manufacturing. When you have this cross-disciplinary interaction some pretty amazing things can happen, will happen, and are happening.
Today, if you look at the short term trends, they deal with mobility and security because they bring back the same kind of wave we saw when we went from client server to web, and now we can go from that to a new way of thinking and viewing. It is not just a product slightly tweaked, but it is designing a product from ground up. Another trend which is interesting is 3D printing. I think that is a very powerful trend, and the trend about analytics and big data and the insights we will get on day-to-day life, like making smarter decisions. For example, Wayz which is an app that will change the way people drive because it is crowd sourced, real time traffic information, and it changes how we drive and travel. It is a simple example but there is a lot of insightful stuff happening.
Now today, we hear about NSA using big data to make interesting and intelligent decisions, and people are in an uproar about it. But down the road the same solutions and technology will help drive very informative decisions, like which major should I choose in college, and that is a big data decision.
A lot of data is available, it is scattered, and someone has to pull all that information together to bring to you.
Should I put a restaurant on this corner or that corner?
There is data about all kinds of decisions about real life, and we will be able to extract meaning from this, which is all about big data.
But the most exciting trend is natural language processing and speech progression. All the pieces are falling in place finally; it only took 20 years to get here, but Siri is at Siri 1.0 today. Imagine what Siri 5.0 would look like, when you will be able to speak in one language and it will come out on the other side of the in a different language in real time. The barriers of communication will go down and people will communicate in a way that can profoundly change the geopolitical landscape as we know it today because the barriers will be dropping. So that to me is the most exciting trend.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
That’s a tough one to answer because no job has been terrible because if it was terrible, I probably would have quit or changed, and also because I believe that you have to make things interesting in any job and any situation.
Even in college some people would argue that while I was working with food services, and my job was working the big Hobart machine for washing dishes, that would be the worst job, but it really was not because I was able to apply gamification to that job. The goal of the game was to pick up the plates quickly which were around 70 degrees hot when they came out of the Hobart machine, and to pick them up fast enough, while your fingers were burning and stack them without stopping the machine. So you have to be super fast and gamify the whole thing and I used to pat myself on the back if I didn’t have to stop the Hobart even once.
How did you learn that you could gamify it?
You can gamify anything! I used to sit down with my friends and bet what was the next car to come around the turn. You could bet on the color, you could bet on the model, you could bet on the number of passengers in the car.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
While it may be cliché to say this, I would do exactly what I am doing. I knew since I was about 14, 15 years old that I wanted to be an engineer. I trained to be one, I was one, and then I was able to step up and apply what I had learnt as an engineer, that way of thinking of problem solving broadly, which allowed me to solve more complex problems, and helped me become a more general management and CEO. So in some ways, I’m just getting started now. It has really taken this long to connect all the dots and find some meaning, and the good stuff is yet to come.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
What I would do over and over again is to find better people. A good person is not two times better than the average person. A good person is 10 times better than the average person. And it’s the hardest thing every entrepreneur has to deal with; finding the team of the highest caliber you can find which is going to follow him or her. And I’ve been able to do that in my career from time to time, and when it happens, there is nothing more joyous than that. But it’s the hardest thing and is not easy to do, and I’m still perfecting the formula.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Maybe the lesson learned was not to, for a CEO, lose the trust of the board; that is fatal. That was a heartfelt lesson learnt. The first time I was a CEO, and the board was overseas in Korea. I was trying to make the company look taller and bigger than it really was. It was after the .com crash, and a lot of people were available. I was able to assemble a staff without paying anything as a lot of people were all unemployed; I offered just stock options. After I had assembled this team, I put a press release out to hire eight new VPs. I did not communicate enough with the board and they really blew their top when they read the news. They thought I had violated the trust and I had spent all this money, and was hiding all these people, and that I had not consulted them.
I did not think I had to consult them, but nevertheless, it broke the trust and it cannot be resurrected. At the end of the day, I ended up resigning because there was no way I could work with the Board. So lesson learnt is that business dynamics and board dynamics are a very subtle art and all CEOs should learn about it and manage it.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
It doesn’t have to be high tech, but an idea that I am most intrigued with right now is in a lot of the Third World countries, or the country where I was born, 40% of the fruits and vegetables are rotten, and go to waste. In this case, nothing more complicated needs to happen than having a better packaging technology, which is already available in Brazil and Mexico. We see the packaging in Costco; how fruit is packaged and they last several weeks. So to me a good idea can be low tech also. We need to take this technique, which has already been practiced and perfected, and take it to the Third World countries. It is a huge economic multiplier when a farmer or someone can preserve their food supply due to simple packaging that is not expensive.
If you’re looking for a high tech idea, one of the great changes happening in startups is online education has been totally revamped. Five new online Universities have been started, like Khan Academy, and this change is redefining how education is delivered, and the role of the teacher in the classroom. I think there are tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs to take advantage of this seismic shift that is happening right now. The use of video, which is on almost free bandwidth, the prevalence of smartphones and tablets, and all of the free wifi worldwide will spur this revolution to use video for teaching. If you look at these education institutions that are spreading, this is just a start. If you study that, you’ll find in your country, that in your region, you will learn how to monetize that. I think that’s a huge trend and I personally plan to start a company in this area.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I almost never cry when people die, or there are deaths, but a good song or a movie can make me cry.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
Join.me for free video conferencing from anywhere and any place. WhatsApp, which is a way to communicate between SMS free worldwide from any place, any carrier, and TripIt for travel which is really good.
Who are some people you follow and you really like on Twitter?
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
Well, any episode of Seinfeld does, and I’ve seen every episode multiple, multiple times.
Who is your hero?
My hero? I don’t know about a hero but there are people whom I admire. How Steve Jobs pulled it off. I like everything about Thomas Edison. I think his biography was the book which changed my life when I was 11, or 12 years old. It got me thinking about taking the path of an engineer, and inventing things and so forth. Hero is a word which I take a little bit too seriously I guess.
A question I usually ask in an interview, which most people find difficult to answer is like, “What drives you?”.
That’s one of the questions, which people can either answer very profoundly or very stupidly.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
Because the fact is, whatever it is they tell you, there is no misconception; it’s truth.