James Wu

Founder of InnerSpace

James Wu is the CEO and Founder of InnerSpace. InnerSpace is on a mission to become the world’s leading indoor location platform. Delivering the most accurate WiFi-based indoor location data, the company gives clients unparalleled value with its easy-to-use API, out-of-the-box analytics, and workflow initiation solutions. The company’s Fortune 500 clients use InnerSpace to create innovative solutions that drive revenue and improve operations in their Smart Buildings. James has dedicated the last 20 years to building award-winning products for notable technology startups including Platform Computing, Rypple and Kobo. Playing a pivotal role at each company, James built and led product development while honing his understanding of what it takes to develop a team, product and company from early days to global success. Prior to beginning his professional career, James earned a Ph.D in Computer Science at Queen’s University. For more information visit: Innerspace.io

Where did the idea for Innerspace come from?

I was on a weekend trip to NYC in 2014. As one does, I was depending on my smartphone to find restaurants, get a cab, navigate the city and learn about the landmarks and sites of interest. I had made my way to the Met to see an exhibit, and as soon as I walked in I was handed a bundle of papers with info about the exhibits and a map to help me navigate the museum. And as I made my way around the exhibits that afternoon it struck me as very strange that, even in one of the most iconic and well trafficked buildings in the world, my smart phone was essentially useless and paper was still the de facto way to navigate the space. Whereas outdoors, GPS could navigate me to anywhere in the city, and even to the most remote places on earth. This experience stuck with me through the rest of the trip, and in the weeks after I started looking into why location-based experiences did not really exist indoors. Identifying some of the core challenges was what gave me the idea for InnerSpace.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Typical is hard to define these days! Back when we were going into the office, my day started and ended with a fairly long commute, and in between it often a series of meetings with different teams seeking my feedback or direction. So being productive meant scheduling calls during morning commute times, ensuring meetings I accepted during the day had a clear agenda and reason for me needing to participate, and using the commute home to reflect on the strategic issues that so often need quiet and isolation to wrap your head around. Evenings would be a quick break to spend time with my family, make and enjoy dinner with them, and then spend an hour or so catching up on the things I may have missed during the day and planning for the next day.

In the days of working from home, I try to keep a similar approach without the commute. I block off time in the mornings and early evening for the same kind of activities I used to do during the commute. And I have the luxury of choosing the music to play in my home office while I work, which I have always found helps with focus.

How do you bring ideas to life?

It really depends on the idea. Bringing any idea, especially big ideas, to life requires others to buy into it, understand it, get excited about it, so they can help make it happen. And I find the best way to get others to really see the vision you have is to visualize it for them. Make it concrete in some way. With InnerSpace for example, one of the first things I had done was to create CNC models of the sensors that we originally envisioned would be central to the solution. We had no idea how the sensors would work at that time, so we had no real basis for how the models should have looked. But creating them allowed us to talk about the idea in more concrete terms, and helped to create a target at which everyone can be aiming their efforts. These models helped get early employees excited about the idea and on board with joining the team, and of course helped raise early investment capital. Whether its a physical CNC model or low fidelity sketch, I find creating artifacts to represent the idea is the first and most important step to bringing ideas out of your head on the path to becoming reality.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Indoor location technology. Research shows that 90 per cent of employees waste up to 30 minutes a day searching for an open room. This problem amplifies inside shared work environments, where desks are unassigned and colleagues may be in different places each day. Large companies have deep staff, so this wasted time can get expensive fast.
Now this isn’t to say that flexible working solutions are a bad thing. There are of course benefits too. We simply know that indoor location technology offers newfound vantage points, to see the forest for the trees when it comes to company policies, productivity trends and the best use of space.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am a prolific list maker. There are way too many things to keep track of as a business owner; way too many things that don’t fall under anyone else’s specific purview, so they fall to you. And you have to be involved in almost every aspect of the business at some level. So lists help me keep track of it all in a way that maintains visibility and the ability to prioritize/re-prioritize. Lists help me plan what I will focus on next; they help me keep sight of the things I know I will need to think of shortly, but perhaps aren’t ‘official’ to-do’s just yet. More importantly, lists have this psychological effect on me – I need to cross things off them. Sometimes it is so hard to see progress in your business, especially in the early days. So the act of crossing things off the list is one way to know you’ve made some progress. Conversely, they are a stark reminder when you aren’t getting things done. Things that sit on my list for too long drive me crazy. I feel compelled to either get it done, or reconsider whether it was ever a priority to begin with.

What advice would you give your younger self?

My younger self probably wouldn’t listen! I’d have plenty of advice for him – learn to accept that some things cannot be controlled and are therefore not worth worrying about, learn to delegate trivial things, recognize that things can be done in different ways (that may not be the way you’d do it) but sometimes done is all that matters, develop a disciplined sleep schedule, find hobbies that can take your mind of things, spend more time with your kids. And get a haircut – you’re going to regret the pony tail pics one day.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

The expression ‘business is business’ is just an excuse people use when they are allowing money to make them do things their moral/ethical/social compass wouldn’t normally permit. As an entrepreneur, business isn’t just business. Who you are as a human being is a huge part of your business, and your business activities and relationships are a huge part of your daily life. The line between work and life disappears, so business is personal.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I defer decision making for as long as I can until waiting any longer means some option will no longer be available to me. If I don’t have to make a choice right now then I will defer, not out of laziness or procrastination, but in order to gather more information. The longer I can wait to choose, the more information I may have at hand to inform the choice. As long as waiting doesn’t impact the outcome.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Be acutely aware of the signs of when you as founder and leader have become a limiting factor in some aspect of growth/development of your company. On day 1, the founder(s) are everything, do everything and are responsible for everything. And this doesn’t really change for a while, as even as new people come on board, no one knows as much about the company, the product, the strengths and weaknesses, the customers, the market, etc as the founders. And the ‘cultural’ expectation of a founder is almost superhuman. But at some point, you reach the limit of either your bandwidth or your skill set. No one is superhuman. And if you’ve become too accustomed to the expectation of being ‘everything’, you may miss the signs. And all of the sudden, you are holding your company back. As soon as you recognize the signs that you are at your limit of what you can do for your company, find someone better at it than you and delegate the function. Give them ownership and trust them, and be amazed at how much further they can take things on your behalf. And then you can redirect your valuable but limited resources to the areas that need you the most.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Prior to starting InnerSpace, I ran a product design team for a company that, among other products, sold devices like tablets. Part of my responsibilities included the hardware design and manufacturing. So when I started out on my own, I had a pretty good idea of how to build hardware. But it turns out that building commodity hardware with a large budget to support you and building custom R&D sensors with virtually no budget are very different problems. And getting resources and attention from ODMs when you expect to sell millions of units vs when you are stretching just to produce 100 is equally different. But, manufacturing partners still feigned interest, and we contracted one to design and build our first sensors based on our specs. We spent tens of thousands of dollars of our limited budget, wasted nearly a year of time, and walked away from that engagement with literally nothing we could use. Overcoming it took recognizing that my years of experience in this area meant very little, and starting to be open to approaches that I had never considered. One such approach was suggested by a university coop student we had on a 3 month term. Building on her suggestion, we figure out how to produce small volume hardware in an iterative, agile manner. We had working sensors in months.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

This will sound morbid, but I think there must be a better way to buy a coffin! Sort of what Casper did for mattresses or Warby Parker did for glasses. Everyone dies, and the vast majority still choose traditional burial. And the time at which people (typically a family member) think about purchasing a coffin is usually when they are in a highly stressful and emotional state and pressed for time to make the choice. And they end up paying thousands and thousands to the funeral home for a fancy wood box that is going to be buried in the ground and never seen again. A box that probably costs at most a few hundred dollars to produce. Why has no one solved this yet?

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Noise cancelling headphones. I use them even if I don’t feel like listening to music. Sometimes you just need things to be a little quieter so you can think.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Shift – They describe themselves as ‘workstation for productive people’. I’m not sure what that means. To me, it is a tool that consolidates all my communication into a single app – work email, personal email, Slack accounts, WhatsApp messages, FB messages, LinkedIn messages. There are so many different communication channels for business these days, and this brings all of them into one app. It helps to reduce the number of browser tabs I have open from dozens and dozens to merely dozens.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Range – Why generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein, a journalist at ProRepublica. As an entrepreneur, you need to be good at many, many things. You can’t afford the luxury of being exceptional at just one thing. You can’t afford the 10000 of practice if you are trying to move fast, learn fast, adjust fast, pivot fast. The traditional wisdom has always been ‘jack of all trades is a master of none’, which can be a disheartening idiom for people who need to be good at so many things. This book shows why not only is it not true, but that you can be more successful as a generalist than specialist.

What is your favorite quote?

‘Move it a little bit, and it moves a little bit.’ It’s not really a quote, but a rough translation of an old Shanghainese saying that my father used to mutter under his breath when us kids weren’t quite being as self motivated as he would have liked. I imagine his mother did the same thing to him. I like it because it can be interpreted in a number of ways. It can describe near inanimate laziness – it can’t move under its own power, it only reacts and moves exactly as far as you move it. But from another perspective, it describes many of the early challenges people face when thinking about being an entrepreneur – it only happens if you make it happen; it only gets built of you build it; it only gets started if you start it.

Key Learnings:

  • The tendency these days is not to figure out how to combat this problem, but in fact to experiment with new models of work such as hot-desking and hotelling. In doing so, companies seek to limit the square feet of space needed by each employee. So, businesses are physically compressing themselves, yet they still pay vast sums of money for space that is unused. This quandary can be eliminated by InnerSpace technology.
  • Bringing any idea, especially big ideas, to life requires others to buy into it, understand it, get excited about it, so they can help make it happen. And I find the best way to get others to really see the vision you have is to visualize it for them. Make it concrete in some way. With InnerSpace for example, one of the first things I had done was to create CNC models of the sensors that we originally envisioned would be central to the solution.
  • InnerSpace has the world’s first sensor that uses the signals from cell phones, integrates mapping, location and positioning. By embedding them in a building, InnerSpace understands the movement of people in an indoor space over time.