Although Silicon Valley’s consistent hustle and “move fast and break things” mentality are some things I would have liked to merge earlier on into Seattle’s culture, the move ended up being very beneficial for us in the long run in terms of building a smart sustainable long term infrastructure.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Xiao.
Jim has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, from starting his early ventures in junior high school to his first company in college. Since then, Jim worked for visionary giants such as Microsoft and Nexlink Communications, and worked as an analyst at Detroit Venture Partners. These experiences helped develop a special passion for hardware and infrastructure. Mason was born to fill an inefficient gap in the B2B hardware space — mobile infrastructure that is elastic and as easy to deploy and scale as AWS. Jim constantly challenges the team to think laterally, question the norms, and add value, so the company can continue building smart and sustainable products that help drive value for humanity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I had a penchant for entrepreneurship, even as a boy. I was always the kid who had some kind of business — from trading baseball cards to pressure washing. In college I started a nonprofit to raise funds for low-income schools so they could afford to give each student a laptop. However, having a Chinese immigrant mother who encouraged me to pursue something with a clearer career path, I worked for Microsoft China where I started marketing Windows to a young Chinese college generation who did not believe in paying a license fee, even if a clean copy cost only a few dollars. My experience at Microsoft taught me the power of the platform and how it can provide tools for innovators to go to market while overcoming cultural gaps in assessing value.
I took what I learned from Microsoft and went to work in venture capital at Dan Gilbert’s new firm Detroit Venture Partners. This stint in VC scratched the startup itch I’ve always had. From the sidelines, I saw what other CEOs did to become successful and learned from those that failed. I also witnessed how hardware innovation lagged behind software. Because of this, I decided to leave VC for Nexlink Communications, a wireless company refurbishing iPhones and Android devices.
At Nexlink, I ran strategy and learned about manufacturing devices. During my time there enterprises started requesting we refurbish older Samsung devices to be used for a life-saving defibrillator. This occurred multiple times and I saw an opportunity to do something no one else was doing.
All of these experiences culminated in the founding of Mason. At Mason, our mission is to empower innovators to build smart devices to improve humanity and make software delivery on a smart product line — whether it’s a tablet, wearable or new form factor — as simple as delivering software in the cloud. Today, Mason is being tapped to solve vital use cases in retail, healthcare (such as clinical trials), hospitality and government. We believe this is just the beginning.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
In founding Mason, the focus has not been on reinventing the wheel, but creating chariots that will help win the race as it relates to smart device development and delivery. The Mason Smart Device Platform is the only fully managed infrastructure for developing and delivering dedicated smart devices. Whether businesses are looking to build a single-use device from scratch or scale a line of smart products, Mason is the fastest way to take smart devices from idea to end user.
For example, we’ve revolutionized processes in various industries such as healthcare and government. In healthcare, our customers have partnered with ten of the top global pharmaceutical companies to run clinical trials around the globe, including COVID-19. We’ve helped these customers deliver dedicated Mason devices loaded with clinical trial survey software directly to patients, growing from serving 30 patients to 40,000+ in over 58 countries in just 18 months, advancing digital transformation efforts and shortening the time to market for life-saving medicine.
One of our customers in the government space has also been successful in making an impact on immigrant journeys, specifically improving the human experience as immigrants embark on the path to long-term legal status. Our customer has been able to provide mobile phones to immigrants without proper documentation and visas, allowing access to services and tools they otherwise would have difficulty obtaining. This improves the immigration experience during a difficult transition.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early days of Mason, we worked out of a house in Seattle where one of our main meeting rooms was in an attic with a slanted floor. During this particular summer, the city was very smoky and we had to get portable air conditioning units to circulate cool air while our windows were closed. The executives of a public healthcare company visited us this summer to finalize a deal. It was a funny scene: we were negotiating this million dollar deal in the attic room where the floor was slanted to the point where our chairs would periodically slide down, and the executives were in suits while we were in our very casual startup uniforms (t-shirts and jeans). A big lesson from this is that I learned you don’t always need a fancy office or a particular set of tools to succeed in business — if you have something people want, people will come to you to get the deal done.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
One of my mentors is John Buller. He was head of marketing at Bon Marche which became Macy’s and then became the CEO of Tully’s, the popular retail coffee chain and brand that was later acquired by Keurig Dr. Pepper. He mentored me throughout college and taught me the importance of learning the history behind industries, specifically the human aspect beyond technology. He shared anecdotes with me about how Bon Marche became a crown jewel and how Macy’s eventually took it over. He taught me about the key inflection points of where Bon Marche started — from product-market fit — to domination.
From these stories I learned that people crave mastery, autonomy and structure. People want to be the best at what they do, they need the room to do it and they need structure to show what success looks like. I didn’t understand his lessons until I had to put them into practice in my own work. Throughout the years, he’s always reminded me of the human side of running a business.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
A huge positive about technology is how it can enable a person to do much more in the same amount of time. A downside of technology lies in the implications of automation, which could show that perhaps businesses don’t need a workforce that has been trained to do a particular task now that a robot or tablet can replace their function. However, if we focus on where technology can drive value in a particular industry, new jobs will be created. As long as the economy grows, those displaced by technology can be taken care of. It’s not computer vs. humans; computers should always service humans.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
I’ve received a lot of advice from mentors when I was getting Mason off the ground that I just didn’t follow. One piece of advice I was given was from Michael Seibel, my YCombinator group partner who’s now the CEO of YC. He told me not to move the company to Seattle because it’ll be hard to find talent, but we did it anyway. Silicon Valley would have been great if we were building a consumer app or the next “marketplace for X.” However, it would not have been the place to build what I wanted for the long term — a smart and sustainable infrastructure that can be laid between the two Seattle cloud giants. Although Silicon Valley’s consistent hustle and “move fast and break things” mentality are some things I would have liked to merge earlier on into Seattle’s culture, the move ended up being very beneficial for us in the long run in terms of building a smart sustainable long term infrastructure.
The second piece of advice I wish I had paid more attention to was “what got you here isn’t what’s going to help you scale to the next level.” The first seed stage was all about rallying the troops as a family-style business of around 10 people with the mentality of “throw yourselves against the wall and knock it down.” As we scale up, I’ve had to learn that it’s not about me coming up with ideas — it’s about delegating, empowering the team to come up with a plethora of ideas that are better than what I could dream up and providing resources to help them iterate and make sure the ROI turns positive at the end of the day.
The third piece of advice is a “Dan Gilbert-ism” I learned early on in my career: “Take the roast out of the oven. If you spent all day putting together a roast for everyone but forget to take it out of the oven, then we have a fire on our hands!” It means to follow through on what you started. At Mason, one of our company values is “Owners be owning,” which includes always measuring what success looks like. If it’s not quantifiable, then it’ll be a lot harder to know if you’ve obtained your goal. It’s good to have quick tools to measure like the rule of 70 to 2X (divide 70 by growth rate to get the number of periods it takes to double). For example, if the goal is to double traffic in 8 weeks, then we’d need to grow 8.75% week over week to hit that goal.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Our passion for creating technology to solve real world problems fuels our team to develop technological innovations that bring the Mason mission to life — to build smart and sustainable products on behalf of humanity.
We are revising the company’s pricing model and financing offering. This pricing model change will significantly reduce the total cost of ownership for businesses along with offloading traditional hardware risks like replacing devices that break. By lowering the financial barrier, we can empower businesses of all kinds with hardware-dependent initiatives to meet digital transformation requirements.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
A book I read when we were going through tough times was Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” The most memorable line from this book was about how enduring companies face death two to three times — it’s not just a one time ordeal. Those deaths serve as a reminder of what it’s like to be in stressful situations. For example, I learned about Andreesen-Horowitz’s experience in building Opsware and how that hockey stick to the right was not a pleasant rollercoaster. My biggest takeaway from his book is that if a company is going to be amazing, its people need to anticipate those stressful moments and learn how to face them with grit instead of fear.
It’s about having the right people and mentality. For us, this means Masons have grit and a mentality of always adding value (with both being core company values). We are also deeply invested in building an inclusive culture as a core value — in those tough situations, bringing together diversity in thinking, experiences, and backgrounds is key to helping us succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Lao Tzu has said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” It’s easy to get anxious about the future or fall into regrets or what-ifs with past failures when working in startups and tech. I’m learning to enjoy the present moment, for this may be a gift from the future and luck from the past.
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 would love to find an affordable way to live sustainably in smart mobile home communities where we can instantly divert resources during disasters and crises to areas of need. We’d be able to use resources saved in aggregate to buy up communal land and create ways to co-exist with the environment for the long term. In this scenario, smart homes would be truly mobile and have the ability to dock in 3D-printed community hubs running on solar and connected to 5G.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!