Embrace failure. Angel investors and venture capitalists all build portfolios because a small percentage of investments disproportionately drive returns. What few people talk about is the tremendous amount of failure you’ll experience, and possibly for an extended time (i.e., years), before the smashing success becomes apparent. The same can be said for the first few years of development of many companies. It may take failure followed by a pivot or two…or three, before you hit on the thing that becomes a smashing success. In my view, people don’t talk enough about how psychologically challenging it can be to fail over and over. I believe it leads a lot of people to give up too early. Expect failure, accept failure and embrace failure. More often than not, failure drives learning and insights that ultimately lead to success.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robert Proctor.
Dr. Robert Proctor joined Link Labs as CEO in April 2016. He was a founding investor and advisor to the company from the beginning. Prior to Link Labs, Bob was the Co-Founder of Blu Venture Investors and CEO, Board Director and Investor of FlexEl, LLC. He is the Co-founder, Board Chairman, and Investor of Wiser Together, Inc. and Phase 5 Group, Inc. Bob served as Global Head of Marketing reporting to Chairman and CEO of Corporate Executive Board. He has decades of Senior Executive experience in public companies, including line, staff, and IPO leadership positions. Bob led teams that won corporate-wide awards for Best Business Breakthrough, Managerial Excellence, and Spirit of Generosity. Bob also served as an associate Principal McKinsey & Company, Inc. He holds a PhD in Applied Physics from Cornell University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Investing in early stage companies has been an interest of mine for a number of years. With this passion, I am also focused on the formation of new companies where a critical mass of world class talent comes together. At its founding in 2014, my company Link Labs brought together a veteran group of engineers from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab who had worked together for years building, tracking and monitoring solutions for the U.S. defense and intelligence industries. They saw an opportunity to build commercial products for the IoT industry and so Link Labs was born. The opportunity became so compelling that I joined the company as CEO a few years after the company’s founding.
Link Labs is driven by advanced software engineering and innovation, primarily at the firmware level of IoT devices — we don’t make IoT devices; we engineer the software that makes IoT devices more effective and efficient. This requires a lot of innovation and our company holds more than 25 patents for its technological innovations that provide the means to locate, monitor and manage critical business assets anywhere at any time. There is a near limitless number of business use cases for IoT, including tracing the journey of high-value shipments, enhancing workflows, ensuring compliance, improving resource allocation, tracking returnable assets, tracking movements of personnel, monitoring and preventing loss, boosting safety alerting, enhancing property and facility management, detecting costly equipment leaks and failures and tracking prefabricated elements, among others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the more memorable moments in my career happened on a flight from New York to London, prior to 9/11/2001. I was a consultant at the time and my client was kind enough to fly me first class on Virgin Airlines. There was a full bar in first class and Richard Branson sat down at it not long after take off. I ended up having drinks with him for the entire flight across the pond. It’s not every day that you get to hold a billionaire captive for hours! What I remember most was how much he listened to and cared about the people he worked with and how he gathered and processed ideas from anyone he met. I came away from that flight confident that if I stuck with my passions for people, technology and building companies, I’d be successful over the long run.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
At Link Labs, we’re pushing on three general areas. First, we’re constantly aiming to drive down the cost of IoT solutions by utilizing lower cost tags, such as those incorporating energy-harvesting technologies, or by extending the battery life of tags through more efficient location determination and communication. We see many opportunities for significant further gains there. Second, we’re aiming for interoperability with a broader set of technology partners up and down the technology stack. Solution buyers don’t want to be locked in to a particular vendor, they want maximum flexibility so the more interoperability we have, the more global we become as well. And third, we are driving toward greater insights and impacts from location information. It’s not enough to know where everything is or how it is doing. You need to draw insights from that — think analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). You also need to be able to take action based on those insights. That means someone does something differently than before. With workflows, alerts and better reporting, at the end of the day the customer doesn’t care about the underlying technology. They want their business to have higher productivity, better customer service or more efficiency. That means taking data and generating insights and making it easy to take action from those insights and generate a return on investment (ROI).
How do you think this might change the world?
What will be interesting to see over the coming years is how customers turn RTLS into a source of competitive advantage and differentiation in their own industries. We’re already seeing that with many of the projects on which we’re working. These projects are allowing our customers to disrupt their own industries with new business models, lower prices or better customer service. I don’t think most companies fully appreciate how fast this change is coming. It reminds me of the time prior to the widespread use of video on the internet. There was a lot of talk about video delivered over the Internet for years. Suddenly, data transfer rates and storage capability and lower costs all crossed a tipping point and the use of video online exploded. RTLS will reach a similar inflection point soon, certainly within the next year or two. RTLS technology will move from a “nice to have” capability to a “must have” in industries as diverse as supply chain/logistics, manufacturing, warehousing, construction, oil/gas, hospitals, aerospace and hospitality. IoT was over-hyped early in its evolution. Today, it is now delivering on its promise.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
That’s certainly an interesting question. All new technologies ultimately find their way to both constructive uses and, sadly, harmful uses as well. As an entrepreneur, you are naturally optimistic and focused on all the possibilities and positive benefits you envision. In some ways, that blinds you to the potential downsides. The one area that comes to mind is tracking people and the implications for privacy. There are a lot of positives, from billing verification to safety and security. But, when data falls into the wrong hands, and then is combined with other data, that is worth thinking more deeply about.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
I don’t think there was a single “tipping point,” as much as a series of “tipping points” that collectively have had a multiplier effect. One of the first for us was realizing how thin purpose-built IoT data pipes are as well as how remarkably expensive they are on a per megabyte basis. For example, the data fees by network operators for LTE-M services are approximately 100 times more expensive than data fees for mobile phones. I think of IoT data backhaul as a gold-plated soda straw — very thin and very expensive. This high cost led us to focus on edge processing.
A second tipping point for us was our focus on Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) chipsets as the edge device of choice. IoT is fundamentally about tracking things that already exist. All of these things would be tracked today were it not for cost. The necessity of achieving very low cost is complicated by the simultaneous need for a plethora of required form factors and onboard sensors. You need both mass customization and mass production of edge devices. With more than four billion Bluetooth LE chipsets sold every year and a robust ecosystem of companies making every form factor and onboard sensor imaginable, we wanted to co-opt that ecosystem and provide better firmware for those devices.
Finally, and crucially important, we recognized that the gold standard of location determination is range finding. That’s how GPS and ultrawideband (UWB) work. But it hadn’t been done before with Bluetooth LE chipsets. Our timing was fortuitous. The latest generation of Bluetooth LE chipsets have the underlying radio controls that are needed to perform phase ranging. This gives us much higher location accuracy and a structural cost advantage relative to alternative Bluetooth-based location technologies. Anytime you achieve higher performance at a lower cost, you’ve reached a significant tipping point.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
To date, the technology sector has only been modestly successful in driving adoption of wireless IoT solutions for asset tracking. But I don’t think the problem has been one of awareness of RTLS as a category. IoT has already peaked from a “hype cycle” perspective. I think the key issue is awareness about how fast the underlying technology is improving and how these changes are positively impacting ROI.
For some use cases, such as fleet tracking using GPS receivers powered via on-board ODGB ports, there has been generally widespread adoption. And historically we have seen adoption of RTLS solutions where there is a high concentration of high value assets. Large hospitals are a good example. But to date, we have not seen mass adoption of wireless asset tracking solutions for mid- and low-values assets, such as returnable plastic containers in the supply chain, power tools and calibrated instruments in manufacturing or even medical equipment in smaller footprint facilities such as same-day surgery centers.
We think we’ve hit the tipping point where tracking mid- and low-value assets now
has a compelling ROI. For us, phase ranging using Bluetooth LE chipsets has allowed us to improve the accuracy of Bluetooth LE based RTLS solutions, while simultaneously extending the battery life of a tag by 4–5x over traditional asset tracking solutions. This is making RTLS solutions accessible and affordable for many companies for the first time.
Given these latest improvements, we do have work to do to get the word out. Companies that have evaluated earlier generations of RTLS solutions need to be educated on this next generation of technology.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Our marketing team has been driving multiple campaigns to inform the IoT community and companies in search of RTLS solutions about the technologies Link Labs is using to enhance the asset tracking industry. Part of this initiative includes creating educational content such as ebooks and white papers through online journals related to radio-frequency identification (RFID) and RTLS.
Naturally, the marketing team benefits from its SEO strategy. Each week, our goal is to post two blogs related to hot asset tracking topics that interest our prospects and customers. For example, earlier this year, marketing drove a multi-channel campaign around Apple AirTag vs. Link Labs AirFinder. The goal was to inform prospects of the difference between a consumer tracking device (AirTag) versus a commercial asset tracking device (AirFinder). We’ve had many prospects come up to us at conferences telling us about the limitations that occur when they’ve used AirTags for commercial asset tracking, which is an opportunity to steer them toward Link Labs.
We’ve also expanded our presence this year at both in person and virtual events. In addition to dedicated IoT expos, we’ve found great interest in our product at healthcare and elections conferences, among other sectors.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s definitely hard to pick one person when there are so many people that have been instrumental in helping me on my own journey. One person that stands out is Jon Katzenbach, whom I worked with when I was consulting with McKinsey & Company. I met Jon after a year or so at McKinsey. I was a nerd lacking business polish and experience. As a newly-minted Ph.D. in applied physics. I was initially assigned to a series of quantitatively intensive engagements, which made sense given my analytic background. But I wanted to learn about other areas of business for which I had zero experience and gain exposure to and interact with senior executives. Jon enlisted me to work with him on a succession planning engagement for a Fortune 100 company. It’s hard to understate Katzenbach’s credentials — he’s a prolific author, a renowned consultant and a great mentor. He was widely respected both inside and outside of McKinsey and took me under his wing as a young associate with some very rough edges. I ended up working with “Katz” for several years and ever since have applied an HR lens to almost everything I do.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In thinking about giving back, early on I struggled with where to place my emphasis — direct impact (“give a person a fish”) or indirect impact (“teach a person to fish”). Where I have the most impact is the latter, as a mentor and angel investor for first time entrepreneurs who have a mission I support. I provide the capital to “go for it” and get started and then get behind the business with substantive coaching and involvement until it takes on a life of its own. I’m looking for people with a passion for changing the world for the better.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Embrace failure. Angel investors and venture capitalists all build portfolios because a small percentage of investments disproportionately drive returns. What few people talk about is the tremendous amount of failure you’ll experience, and possibly for an extended time (i.e., years), before the smashing success becomes apparent. The same can be said for the first few years of development of many companies. It may take failure followed by a pivot or two…or three, before you hit on the thing that becomes a smashing success. In my view, people don’t talk enough about how psychologically challenging it can be to fail over and over. I believe it leads a lot of people to give up too early. Expect failure, accept failure and embrace failure. More often than not, failure drives learning and insights that ultimately lead to success.
2. Aggressively discount customer forecasts. Most customers overpromise what their future orders will be in order to get more service or better pricing. If you relay customer excitement to your investors, you set yourself up for a situation where you can overpromise and underdeliver. At Link Labs, we made the mistake early on of getting our investors excited about specific customer projects, where the customers were giving us aggressive scaling forecasts. While our customer champions believed what they were telling us was true, their own organizations were much more conservative. They missed their forecasts wildly. In our early years, we regularly overestimated our revenue growth despite backing it up with specific customer calls and forecasts. We simply weren’t conservative enough in discounting what our customers were telling us and we ended up with too much unsold inventory and disappointed investors as a result.
3. Big companies can move fast by partnering with small companies. We often think of the large network operators as big and slow. But when Sigfox, for example, raised hundreds of millions in funding to build a global IoT network, the network operators felt threatened. The response by them was to aggressively launch capabilities for LTE-M, a type of 4G cellular network specifically designed for IoT, and Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT), a low power wide area technology that enables a wide range of new IoT devices and services. The roll out of those two standards was much faster when compared to the evolution and roll out of 3G, 4G, 5G, etc. Our assessment back then projected that LTE-M and NB-IoT were still years away from being commercially viable. My company was fortunate to be able to leverage the accelerated timetable of the network operators and positioned ourselves as a key partner in helping to monetize those initiatives, which led to strong partnerships with both Verizon and AT&T. Those partnerships wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the strategic need for those big organizations to move faster by partnering with a small company like Link Labs. Since then, our partnership with AT&T has been instrumental to our growth and success.
4. Identify assumptions that are not true and use that knowledge to drive differentiation. Our product strategy and strategic focus became a lot clearer when we realized that IoT challenged two key assumptions. First, many people and companies were focused on data processing in the cloud because of its capabilities for scaling massively and lowering operating costs. Second, many companies assumed that sending data to the cloud via IoT network technologies was inexpensive. Both of those assumptions are true for mobile phones, but not for IoT. Data transport via purpose-built IoT network layers technologies — for example, LTE-M or NB-IoT — is many orders of magnitude more expensive than data transport for mobile phones. And sending mountains of data to the cloud from battery operated devices means those devices will need frequent battery replacements, which also is not an inexpensive proposition. Once we realized that sending massive volumes of data to the cloud was too expensive and killed the business case for many IoT applications, we began to instead focus on edge processing using the available processing power and memory in standard Bluetooth LE devices. We invented techniques for sending only useful, actionable information to the cloud, which led to a 100–1,000x drop in data transport requirements, which also extends the battery life of devices — which means a large drop in costs as well. Our R&D efforts around edge processing within Bluetooth LE chipsets led to the creation of a significant portion of our intellectual property and today gives us both a cost and performance advantage in the market.
5. Global crises happen more frequently than we’d like to think. I’m old enough to have experienced multiple economic crises in my lifetime — including the dot-com bust of the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and today’s global pandemic. I also remember the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s and the deep early 1980s recession with soaring interest rates. If you’re going to lead a company, at some point you’re going to have to deal with a crisis. An early stage company rarely has the balance sheet strength or financial freedom to be conservative and plan on the possibility of a crisis. But you can act quickly and decisively when a crisis occurs. Before the pandemic, Link Labs was heavily concentrated in the hospitality industry. But as it became clear a pandemic was on the horizon, we spent one full week revising our strategy and developing our “pandemic playbook” that enhanced our offerings and diversified our customer base. We executed against this new strategy with lightning speed and adjusted our spending to be in line with a revised and quite dire forecast for the next 12–18 months. It was a very risky and stressful decision to make. However, I firmly believe our quick actions saved the company. We not only survived as a company, but we also used it as an opportunity to reinvest in our R&D and become stronger than ever.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think the early stage investment community must tackle climate change head on. Angel investors can lead a “live carbon neutral” movement that can drive the capital markets to accelerate the utilization of carbon offsets by high net worth individuals, family offices and ultimately the LPs behind venture capitalists. Individual investors need an easy path to carbon neutral living and seed stage companies need an investment community that allows them to choose investors that are helping lead the transformation to a carbon-neutral society. This is what I am focused on as the next chapter in my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard.”
Every time I’ve felt overwhelmed or that a goal was too high to reach, this quote comes to mind and keeps me going. The saying is widely attributed to author John Bytheway. My mother utilized it so often that I have a hard time believing she didn’t come up with it. Regardless, it has helped me continue to work through challenges across most of my career when I could have easily given up. I tend to be guilty of the other extreme — not recognizing when something is futile early and moving on. For example, I struggled to find the technical breakthrough that ultimately led to my Ph.D., but ultimately set the world record for the shortest pulse of light generated directly from a laser — a record that’s been broken by others since. The credo also helped me stick with executing a business pivot when not everyone was onboard with the decision, even when I feared it might not work. Sometimes when you’ve set a big goal, you have to focus on incremental progress and not worry about how long or hard the entire journey will be. Lastly, I was in a pretty bad accident two years ago and it has taken almost the entire two years to fully recover. The first few months were rough but I set a simple goal — find one thing that was better each week and celebrate it. After a year, I was well on the way to being fully healed.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Link Labs has a massive total addressable market (TAM), patent-protected cost and performance advantages, a world class team and is enjoying 100+% YoY growth!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn here.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.