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Big Ideas: “Online realtime technology” with PubNub CEO Todd Greene

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Greene. Todd is the CEO and co-founder of PubNub, an Internet infrastructure company that delivers realtime technology into the apps and products you use everyday. Todd started his career […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Greene. Todd is the CEO and co-founder of PubNub, an Internet infrastructure company that delivers realtime technology into the apps and products you use everyday. Todd started his career as a management consultant at PwC, and soon after, transitioned to the world of Silicon Valley startups. With a focus on unlocking new markets with Internet-based software, Todd has found success launching and leading companies delivering business, consumer, and tech infrastructure products. Prior to founding PubNub, Todd created Loyalize to deliver realtime mobile experiences to TV viewers that synchronized with live broadcasts, a company acquired by the owner of American Idol. Prior to that, Todd founded CascadeWorks (now part of NASDAQ: UPWK), which invented a new way for large companies to onboard and manage their consultants.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been fascinated by computers, going back to 5th grade when a kid in class brought his old Commodore Vic 20 to show-and-tell. Since then, I’ve always had a passion for figuring out what things I could create out of thin air, with just a head full of crazy ideas and a keyboard.

I discovered the Internet early in college, pre-web days, in about 1991. In fact, I recently found an archive of my first Usenet posts (a pre-web global discussion forum) from 1992, which pretty much illustrated what I was passionate about back then: emulating a Mac on my Amiga computer, and playing guitars. Not much has changed since: I still play guitar, and for those geeks out there, I now run Virtualbox on my Mac to emulate Windows and Linux.

From early on, I always had tons of cool new ideas. In fact, in college I remember often saying: “Wow, this Internet thing is amazing. If you could only use a mouse to click, and if it had pictures, my mom could use it!” But I never considered actually starting a company or creating a product. And then, the browser was invented, and Marc Andreessen launched Netscape. The web exploded, and I realized for the first time that I didn’t want to be saying “I thought of that” my entire life. I wanted to take ideas as far as they would go. Software geeks were finally starting to change the world, and I wanted in. I left my stodgy job to join an exciting startup called NetDynamics, which invented and launched the technology needed to create the kinds of interactive websites we all know and love today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

That’s a tough question. Not sure it’s the “most interesting”, but I learned the most from moving to London for a year in the late 90’s to help launch a remote office to cover all of EMEA. I was amazed at the massive differences in the business cultures country-by-country. Everything seemed different in each location: from the way people made purchase decisions, to how they worked, to how the interacted on a daily basis. It starkly illustrated (to me, anyway) how a product that was successful in one country would fail elsewhere, and then with some seemingly random tweaks, someone else will have amazing success on the same idea.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

I’ve dedicated the better part of this decade focusing on PubNub because I believe that everyone, and every product, will be dramatically changed by our “always-on” connection to the Internet, and through it, to every other person and device in the world.

3 billion people now have smartphones, most with virtually unlimited data. Most people use their phones to read content, watch videos, and send emails. Yet the most exciting uses of our phones happens when we leverage that realtime connection to the Internet. Just think about what has changed in the 6 years: People worldwide now use their phones to order taxis, track food delivery, control their lights, and have a bunch of apps specifically for chatting with people. These apps are all powered by a new layer of technology, realtime technology. At PubNub, we call this a Data Stream Network, and our tech is used by many of the apps you already have installed on your phones, in your homes, and on your browsers.

In the early days of PubNub, pitching our vision about realtime technology was mostly about speaking in the abstract. That was before Uber, Peloton, Slack, Yelp!, Logitech, Symphony, and thousands of other similar apps became commonplace. But as far as we’ve come, the uses of realtime technology have just started to scratch the surface.

How do you think this will change the world?

Cars, planes, and other means transportation are a leading cause of climate change. But as realtime experiences get more real, people will find fewer needs to travel to and from work, meetings, conferences, seminars, and other events. The online experience will meet, and eventually exceed, the “real-world” experience. The online tools to collaborate will get better than people standing at a whiteboard.

Realtime technologies will also change how people attend and participate in large events, like sports matches, concerts, and speeches. Already, leading companies like Hotstar in India are using PubNub to break records by powering live audiences of 10 million plus who participate in online experiences that are synchronized with live cricket broadcasts. And people like actor/musician Jared Leto have performed in live streaming concerts where PubNub is used to provide a massive scale audience experience online.

But that’s also just getting started. Online realtime technology exposes everyone to amazing classes at the best universities. People can get medical help from experts halfway around the world. We can have deep and meaningful collaborations with people in any subject: academic, creative, and professional.

While the rapid rise of smartphones and realtime tech like PubNub might make it feel like we’re already living in the future, we’re really just embarking on a change that will affect every person worldwide in every aspect of their lives.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The rise of the Internet and global social media has already led to some scary outcomes: the recent “fake news” phenomena, the many privacy breaches, and increasingly worrying security concerns from individual and state actors, to name a few. Realtime technology, especially when home-grown and not well designed, can be used in support of these nefarious activities, and sometimes even are used as the core of how these attacks are planned. Much of our time at PubNub is designing this technology to balance it’s power with its ability to be secured, monitored, and controlled. In fact, that’s one of our key selling points with our customers.

Beyond privacy and security risks, realtime technology will also change the way we interact, and demand new interpersonal dynamics, rules, and customs. We don’t know how this will change our cultures, and traditions, and our values. And ultimately, we are biological creatures that crave each other’s physical presence for love, comfort, and contact. Hopefully, our ability to connect with anyone in realtime online will actually give us more time to spend in the real world with those we cherish.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My brilliant co-founder, Stephen Blum, demonstrated an early version of PubNub to me, and I immediately knew this was going to be big. In prior years, I had tried to build a number of online games and apps that all needed realtime experiences. And yet I’d always stumbled on delivering these products because I didn’t have the right underlying technology to deliver on the vision. I knew that if I took the time to get the tech right, I’d never have time to launch the app. And if I hacked together some flimsy realtime tech, the app would crash if it ever got real adoption. We figured that we weren’t the only one caught in that Catch-22 situation. Turns out we were right. Today, fewer and fewer people are trying to build their own realtime tech, they’re too busy launching their own amazing idea, and using PubNub to power it!

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Any new market requires education. There’s no shortage of demand for realtime technology; in fact the majority of new software projects require it. But most people still don’t go searching for a “Data Stream Network”, since the nomenclature for this technology isn’t normalized yet. So a lot of our efforts go into blogging, speaking, and sharing best practices to better inform the world’s software developers that they don’t have to build all of this, it’s available and easy to use.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

It’s not Easy — Everyone has a story of a friend that “got lucky”; joined a company at the right time, worked for three months, and got rich. While you may indeed win the lottery, go into a new venture making sure you truly believe in the vision, and that you will be happy dedicating many years to it’s realization.

It’s about People — Make sure the people you work with share your vision and values. And, that you like being around them. I once mentored a duo of startup co-founders that always sat at opposite ends of a conference table. They shared a common vision (and it was a great idea), but you could tell from their body language they disliked each other. As you can guess, that didn’t work out so well.

Spend as much time on “go to market” as you do with product invention — In Silicon Valley, we still live with the fantasy that “if you built it, they will come.” But the people and products that win are inevitably the ones that are marketing, priced, positioned, and sold well. Remember the Apple Lisa? Probably not. Even Steve Jobs got it wrong sometimes.

Four Things are Sometimes as Good as Five — Don’t overdo it. I once spent 6 months trying to start a company with three other guys who were all brilliant and amazing people. We wanted to build a new social platform that mixed a ton of great ideas together: tweets, news recommendations, music, cars, and lots more (this was before Twitter, Reddit, and Spotify were founded). We tried to do way too much, and all of a sudden a tiny startup called Twitter launched a silly webpage that could do nothing except send 140 character messages, and it blew our huge idea out of the water. I still save the design spec from that failed startup as a reminder.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

I’m a terrible person to ask about career path. I’ve never thought about mine in any structured way. At various times I’ve held positions in engineering, sales, product, marketing, consulting, and management, jumping in where I thought I could make a difference and trying to learn something along the way. If you combine the things you’re passionate about, a willingness to keep learning, and lots of hard work, things generally work out.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I never give out investment advice, it just inevitably makes someone angry.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

  • Treat everyone with respect and make an honest effort to learn something from everyone you encounter.
  • No one’s ever truly found a substitute for hard work. Lots of people have made money selling books trying to convince you otherwise. But they all put in a lot of hard work writing the book.
  • Always keep learning.
  • Learn from failure and don’t let it destroy your momentum.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I keep learning new success habits. I’d recommend reading Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to the recent Can’t Hurt Me from David Goggins, and a few other similar books published in between.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

I’ve given enough VC pitches in my life, so I’ll save the pitch for another time. But I’d say please stop by PubNub and let’s grab a coffee. We could probably learn something from one another, and probably help each other out. Most likely, the majority of companies you are investing in need PubNub to power them!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @tgreene

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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