Your technology has to connect to the cloud so that you can employ automation over time. Individual devices are limited to the power of the data they possess, but by connecting them to the cloud, you can enable data compilation that can later be leveraged to create bigger and better solutions. Managing smart devices from the cloud can turn what was a fleet of individual pieces of technology into an orchestra capable of rapidly responding to real-time information and the changing needs of both the business and the end user. As a result of this, large scale machine learning applications become possible, while individuation and personalization simultaneously improve.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, 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 Detroit Venture Partners, which helped him develop a special passion for hardware and infrastructure and later create Mason, which 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 we can continue building smart and sustainable products that help drive value for humanity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
My parents are immigrants who started their own medical device company, and from an early age, my sister and I were both very involved in helping with different aspects of the business. It’s by virtue of all the things my parents have overcome that has allowed me to dream big and chase endeavors that others may perceive as impossible. I believe that my early work experiences and encouragement from my parents influenced my penchant for entrepreneurship. Even as a kid I always had some kind of business — from trading baseball cards to pressure washing driveways.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first work trip to Shenzhen, China, was very memorable for me. I was fascinated by the multidiversity of the city and — even though I could speak Mandarin — it felt like a completely different experience to be immersed in the culture. This trip was around the time that social media platforms like Instagram were on the rise and the quality of cameras on smartphones was improving and evolving at a dramatically fast rate. It felt like we were on the edge of a new era for technology. At the time, I didn’t know anything about supply chains or chip sets and I was just beginning my journey learning about hardware. With so little knowledge starting out, I felt as if I was a student again and I was watching the unfolding of a Chinese ‘Silicon Valley’ before my eyes. It was truly inspiring.
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?
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.
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 successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe that being an abstract or unconventional thinker was — and still is — imperative to success. Some of the most impactful leaders are those with the ability to see beyond what’s possible today, and instead, dream about what future innovations they can bring to life. I used to refurbish and sell old Macbooks, which taught me a lot about hardware constraints. During this time, I was able to see the old-world industries up close, while also envisioning the future of computing and technology on the edge.
I am also constantly curious. To this day, I strive to stay abreast with the latest news and read up on history — from tech history to military history and more. For me, learning from the lessons of the past is such an integral part of moving into the future.
Lastly, I think it’s important to adopt a “blue sky” mentality or another form of creative brainstorming that allows you to eliminate the barriers to new ideas you may want to explore. This approach gives me fresh eyes to see that the sky’s the limit when it comes to dreaming big, and it offers me the ability to envision solutions that exist outside of conventional constructs.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
First and foremost, Mason seeks to unlock innovation in software through hardware. You hear about software in the consumer world in sectors like healthcare, retail and entertainment. At Mason, we enable innovators and industry revolutionaries to take their software to the next level. For example, in the aftermath of the pandemic, we witnessed what decentralized healthcare can look like. Gone are the days of having to drive 30 to 45 minutes to meet with a doctor in-person just for an annual check up or minor examination. Now, with innovative software and cutting-edge hardware capabilities, doctors can save their patients time and money by providing personalized, detailed telehealth services.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Mason aims to provide the mobile infrastructure necessary to bring to fruition the full capacity of software innovations. We’re on a mission to take things like computer power and make it bite-sized so it can be installed into everyone’s homes and help people more actively take their personal health into their own hands. This eliminates the need for an IT team to support these functions because not everyone has access to an IT team. The result: we can provide continuous health data to people without interrupting their lives. For example, we want to create solutions like fall detection devices; interactive hubs that can collect patient data from specialized healthcare accessories and peripherals like epilepsy monitors; and monitoring devices for cardiac, neurological and blood glucose functions.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My journey began when I was diagnosed with psoriasis a few years ago. It was during this time that I started to really empathize with patients within a healthcare context. It inspired me to seek out ways to improve the healthcare system using technological services. I later learned more about the power of platform during my time at Microsoft China and became inspired by the marriage of hardware and software.
At same time, we had healthcare providers coming to Mason for advice on how to hack (also known as jailbreak) smartphone devices to turn them into mobile defibrillators or heart rate monitors. I remember being struck by this and thinking that it wasn’t fair that people had access to the latest entertainment and social media services, but not the latest medical advancements or devices that could actually help them manage their health and change their lives for the better.
The exciting part about what we do at Mason is that we get to explore how to take the guts of the smartphone and transform it into a device that can support non-consumer applications. When it comes to developing smart devices to support healthcare-related capabilities, mobile infrastructure is a key component to balancing the unique set of differences in each person’s health condition.
How do you think this might change the world?
One of our goals at Mason is to help create a more efficient healthcare system by using custom hardware to collect and track all of the vital/critical patient data that is currently not being captured by software. We want to empower end users, especially those in vulnerable demographics — like our grandparents — to be able to use dedicated hardware for everyday functions, such as reminders to take medications, help with grocery deliveries and more. By doing this, we can eliminate hardware as a barrier and make it more accessible to everyone rather than manufacturing devices only optimized for professional healthcare use.
The next generation of dedicated smart devices will give healthcare providers and patients access to new kinds of insights about their health such as rich imagery; video capture; and data trends specific to patients (i.e., anomaly monitoring, readers, alerts and various health monitors for health metrics such as blood glucose levels and heart rate). And while this opens up a Pandora’s box of exciting new possibilities for breakthroughs in healthcare, it also opens the door to potential personal privacy issues. It will be imperative to think about how we manage the different rights of the users who use devices they don’t personally own. We need to think about how to ensure corporations remain responsible with this data and how we can protect the privacy and rights of the patient.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
- When building any technology solution, it’s imperative to have a design that will fully support your technology’s functionality. Mason provides phone, tablet and smartwatch form factors that customers can utilize to build out smart devices designed to suit their specific use cases. With modularity and customization in mind, we want our customers to leverage our platform and infrastructure stack to build products according to their unique vision. Ultimately, our mission is to empower our customers to solve the biggest challenges that face humanity — so when we think about healthcare solutions, for example, we are considering designs that truly make sense for the daily problems that people face, from accessibility to usability to portability and more.
- An intuitive user interface should be a priority. The end user of any technology or solution has to be front-and-center while designing an interface, whether it’s a physical product or software solution. The truth is, the end user’s needs can vary drastically — an elderly person with arthritis will most likely have very different needs from their smart device than a 25-year-old engineer. We first witnessed the depth of this chasm when one of our customers, who served an aging population, requested to change the color of a device’s power button to make it more easily identifiable for their users. Because of this experience, we understand that a user-centric design and approach can elevate not only the user experience, but also the user’s ability to utilize a product to its fullest ability.
- Your technology has to connect to the cloud so that you can employ automation over time. Individual devices are limited to the power of the data they possess, but by connecting them to the cloud, you can enable data compilation that can later be leveraged to create bigger and better solutions. Managing smart devices from the cloud can turn what was a fleet of individual pieces of technology into an orchestra capable of rapidly responding to real-time information and the changing needs of both the business and the end user. As a result of this, large scale machine learning applications become possible, while individuation and personalization simultaneously improve.
- As Jim Collins would say, you need to get the right people on the bus. To build and sustain your solution, you need the right team of engineers and experts who can iterate and improve the product without ostracizing legacy users. The right team can balance the needs of both cutting-edge companies on the forefront of technological adoption and older companies that are just now embarking on their digital transformation journeys. A team that takes the time to analyze what they’re building from the user’s perspective and works to serve all of their end users’ needs — rather than just focusing on incorporating the newest tech — can build products that will have a much greater positive social impact. Taking a thoughtful approach to development not only helps legacy companies, who are already serving thousands to hundreds of thousands of humans, but also elevates new and exciting, but not well established, companies in the vanguard.
- Timing and market adoption are crucial. The pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of telehealth and remote caregiving, which has widened healthcare options and accessibility for millions of people in various ways. This shift has also presented an enormous opportunity for companies to modernize their existing tools and technologies. This timing is unique to the issues we’re facing in the immediate present and Mason has a singularly unique product-market fit to solve the inefficiencies and challenges the healthcare industry is currently experiencing.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The “youth” in our society have a distinct opportunity to affect positive change in our society. Being young means you have plenty of runway, time and opportunity to discover your ‘why.’ This ‘why’ is what’s vital to fuel and motivate people in a world where we’re waking up to a myriad of new and different problems to solve each and every day. Even when young people are overcome with adversity, they have more time and endurance to persevere through and challenge the status quo. However, it’s key to not only understand your why, but also identify what your unique advantages and skills are that make you valuable and adept to address the challenge you’re facing. If you can match the internal reason of your why with why you’re uniquely equipped to fix it, then that venture has your name on it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
If I could have a private meal with anyone, it would be with Bill Gates. I would love to hear stories of the early days when Microsoft was creating the early developer tools and what it was like to introduce the world to Microsoft Windows and personal PCs — specifically because his vision of putting a computer in every home office came true. I’d also like to talk about what’s next? What would it look like to put a computer in every nook and cranny of our society? We’ve seen how the personal PC has revolutionized our world, what’s next?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.