A plan is just a plan. You can plan things to the core, but when the reality hits, and when you go to execute, things change. We had a lot of changes, especially when COVID-19 hit. You have to learn to be flexible and adapt. In addition to plan A, you must also strategize what plan B and plan C entail.
Work hard to keep team morale high, even in tough times. People lose motivation. To combat this, you need to make sure each team member has someone who can be their go-to person for support and advice. On a team, everyone needs to listen to one another and lift each other up. It’s a tough job, but someone on the team needs to do it.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sukhwinder (Sukhi) Lamba.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in his home country of India, Sukhwinder (Sukhi) Lamba moved to the United States. With a passion for creation and transformation, he found himself in roles leveraging technologies ahead of their time. This included five years at Ford in computer-aided engineering and hybrid vehicles in the 1990s and early 2000s. Following that, Sukhi spent eight years working in sales and customer success at IBM during its first rollout of telematics and other solutions. During this time, he earned his M.S. in mechanical engineering and an MBA. These experiences drove his desire to create startups and mentor others in the community. In 2019, Sukhi joined NEC X (https://nec-x.com/) as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. The company is a startup incubator and accelerator launched by NEC Corporation in 2018 to leverage R&D’s emerging technologies as the core for startup projects.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you for having me, Jerome. As part of my upbringing in India, my entire family emphasized entrepreneurship. My parents were successful in business. My father was an officer at one of the central banks, and my mother opened her own retail business, selling electrical appliances.
In Hindi, there is a term called “jugaad.” Though it doesn’t have a direct English translation, the idea behind it is to innovate using whatever is around you. Jugaad still drives my thinking today. Growing up, we didn’t let a lack of materials stop us. I would help my mom in the shop daily. I had a knack for building things using unconventional materials. After creating so many gadgets with my hands, I knew I wanted to study engineering. Still, it was important to me that I work in roles where I could make a difference.
Early in my career, I was fascinated by the automotive industry. I worked on the earliest hybrid vehicle projects at Ford, and then moved to IBM, where telematics was first being introduced. These transformational roles were exactly what I was looking for, even though I was told time and time again that these ventures would fail. Many didn’t see the potential that I saw, and I think I’ve carried that trait with me on my entrepreneurial path.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
For me, this moment was extremely clear. In 2017, everything changed. Wildfires ravaged my hometown of Santa Rosa, California. My family’s home was one of 5,000 destroyed in the fire. And 22 of my neighbors died because they were unable to escape. Year after year, our community was continuously hit by fires.
In 2019, I attended NEC X’s Tech Showcase. At these events, NEC’s R&D team presents emerging technologies that have great potential to become the basis of a successful startup company. The team shared information about an internet of things (IoT) solution that could assist first responders in critical missions by tracking the location of team members using sensors. From virtually anywhere, another team member can lead rescuers to the correct location by following their coordinates on a tablet.
This can help in rescue missions by opening a communication path that didn’t exist before. Traditionally, GPS doesn’t work in those types of scenarios. This technology is a considerable disruptor because it’s much easier to implement than building new cell towers. When I learned about how it could have prevented so many people from being lost in fires each year, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It felt like it was meant to be, and I knew I needed to apply to be the entrepreneur to lead this project.
It’s my mission to do everything I can to help save those at risk. This is a very intriguing, multi-industry problem that is yet to be fully solved. Fortunately, I have an incredible team behind me who supports my vision. They know how personally affected I was by the tragedy we faced, and they are helping me to change how rescue missions will be performed in the future.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Here I have to mention the fires once more. It was hard moving my family around from one house to another. We were evacuated multiple times in just a few years. We’ve even had to evacuate from the home we live in now. We faced a lot of hardship on multiple levels.
For my IoT project, it was challenging to connect with local fire departments. The rescue teams were very busy, and we continued reaching out to different departments. Then COVID-19 hit. This was extremely difficult because we were also getting ready to start customer testing. Initially, we were cut off completely from this opportunity. How do we even test our technology when we can’t go out?
Our solution is more than just a software product that can be easily distributed; it’s something that needs to be deployed in person. Each time we were hit with a new challenge, we needed to pivot. We ended up developing our proof of concept and changed our targeted locations to ones with fewer restrictions. This allowed us to begin testing again. I was persistent because I know how important this solution is for society. Eventually, it paid off and fire departments were able to start using our technology in their drills.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
All things considered, everything is going well. Within NEC X’s Corporate Accelerator Program, we went through the different discovery phases, including problem-solution fit, customer validation and further testing with customers. It’s been a great success. We’re currently working to commercialize the process. Given everything that’s happening in the world and the constraints that exist, I feel great about the progress we’ve made.
Our solution is helping our customers address a well-known problem. It’s been an issue for decades, and the moment we mention what we’re doing, they instantly get it. It’s still scary to think about what my community went through during the fires. But now I can tell first responders — who clearly understand the need — about my experience, while demonstrating the solution on their training sites.
Our customers give us strong feedback. During a drill and mission at one of our test fire departments, they expressed gratitude because they benefited by having a visual tool to track their first responders. The department can now quickly course-correct, as needed. Before they had access to our technology, this wasn’t possible. They would communicate through a radio and share directions, but if someone got turned around during the mission, the directions could be incorrect. Due to the nature of those situations, one wrong turn could be a fatal mistake. Using our IoT sensors linked to the tablet, we eliminate this risk. It’s these stories that help push us forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my IoT project stand out is our people. I love our culture. At the very heart of it, we have a very strong team. Any miscommunication can be easily handled because the teams are open and transparent with one another. It’s important to me that we’re honest because it shows trust.
One time, I realized I had not shared new customer survey data with my technical team, just as I was presenting it to everyone during our all-hands meeting. By that time, it was too late. The data was very detailed, and I should have asked the team to provide input on a crucial item.
During the presentation, one of my team members stopped me. He reminded me that it’s not beneficial or a good use of time to present data without our experts’ input. Right then and there, I apologized, thanked the team member and postponed the presentation. This might seem like a small incident, but it helped me gain a lot of trust from the team. There are numerous examples like this every day, when we trust and accept feedback to correct ourselves. Overall, this builds great team cohesion and trust.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I began as an entrepreneur, I faced my fair share of failures. For my first startup, which focused on computer-aided design data over the cloud, my co-founder and I recruited a big team before starting anything significant. We hadn’t conducted discovery with customers or created a minimum viable product. When I look back on it, I laugh, because I realize now that we did the whole startup thing upside down. You need to put the customer first. Once you know who will buy your solution and what changes need to be made, then you can hire the right people.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
One piece of advice I received was related to the IoT product that my team was developing. As you know, IoT technology has a software and hardware component. With restrictions, we had to make modifications to our startup process. One of my startup community peers told me to create a full prototype to show to potential customers. In reality, just sharing a clear vision of the technology, even in a brief video format, would have been enough to demonstrate our goal. If we had done this, we would have saved a lot of time and money. Again, having the customer’s input is crucial to the decision-making process.
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?
First, I’m willing to make bold changes. Throughout my career, I made drastic changes. I jumped from engineering, to sales, to entrepreneurship. I felt that I needed multiple perspectives before starting my own company. These shifts helped me grow in my career and see new viewpoints. As an engineer, I could create amazing technologies, but I didn’t always have the opportunity to see where they ended up. In sales, I was able to build relationships with customers and better understand what they needed and where gaps existed.
Next, I can envision opportunities early on. I’m not afraid to fail, and I hope that everyone reading this feels the same way. Some of my greatest early successes happened only because I embraced risk. Even in those early days at Ford, I was told I’d be out of a job soon; but just think about how significant electric vehicles are now. And there’s so much more to be developed in that space.
Last but not least, building and maintaining relationships is vital; it’s something I prioritize. Relationships are important, both personally and professionally. They can make or break you. From my IBM sales days, I have a network of colleagues and customers who have become close friends. Every business leader needs good people around them.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
In entrepreneurship or even other related careers, it’s important to decompress during the evenings and on the weekends. While I maintain a strict schedule, I still find time to relax. Every morning before work I take a walk, and every evening I spend time with my family. I move meetings around so that I don’t miss these opportunities. I also recommend having a hobby — for me it’s karaoke with friends — but do whatever makes you happy and breaks up the routine.
It’s also important not to sweat the small stuff. I learned this during my MBA program when I was stressed out about a tough managerial accounting final exam. My classmate told me to look at the bigger picture and elevate my perspective — all the way from a 30,000-foot level. In the grand scheme of things, one exam was not going to make or break the type of person I would become in the business world.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see is what I call the “my baby” syndrome. When someone creates their own startup product, they become attached to it. While this is understandable, it also leaves some founders deaf to criticism, because they can think the business is better than it really is. That’s not to say that the startup doesn’t have potential, but they aren’t taking in feedback. When you’re first starting out, you need to have all your senses going and truly listen when others are trying to help.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
People often underestimate the importance of building a culture. It’s not often appreciated, and many overlook it. Culture is more than just a group yoga session or team lunch. It goes beyond the company’s mission or vision. Culture runs deeper than that. Building culture is hard. Through my experiences in the corporate world, I was able to better understand what works and what doesn’t. When you analyze other companies, you can see what’s important. When you aren’t transparent, things break down.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Leading is not a lonely job. Conventional wisdom says that if you are a leader, it’s lonely at the top; that you can only count on yourself. But what I experienced is that there are people who are there to help, and there are even mentors available. While you have to be resourceful and seek out these opportunities, in the end, you should be able to get help.
- A plan is just a plan. You can plan things to the core, but when the reality hits, and when you go to execute, things change. We had a lot of changes, especially when COVID-19 hit. You have to learn to be flexible and adapt. In addition to plan A, you must also strategize what plan B and plan C entail.
- Work hard to keep team morale high, even in tough times. People lose motivation. To combat this, you need to make sure each team member has someone who can be their go-to person for support and advice. On a team, everyone needs to listen to one another and lift each other up. It’s a tough job, but someone on the team needs to do it.
- In India, there is a concept that the customer is like a god. Still, the people on your team are also very important. Focus as much on winning their trust as you would with your customers.
- Exit is not a strategy. When you begin work on a startup, everyone asks, “What’s your exit?” They ask if you want an IPO, if you want to be acquired, etc. In my experience, you need to have a higher purpose to have a sustainable business. You need to be in it for the long haul. You must constantly show how are you going to bring value to customers. A good exit will naturally follow after you’ve worked toward a sustainable business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
In my life, I’ve seen so much conflict as a result of differences in language, race, caste and religion. I don’t know if it would be best to merge these differences all into one, or to somehow make others more accepting of those different from themselves. Eliminating differences here, or at least increasing acceptance of others, would be the way I think I could help the most people.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Here is my LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/entrepreneurialbd/
Here are links to NEC X’s social media channels…
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
Thank you for this opportunity! I’ve really enjoyed my career, especially more recently as I moved into entrepreneurship. I’ve met amazing people along the way.