David Wilson of Asimmetric
Welcome to Founder Friday, where we’ll learn a little about the people behind some of the companies doing their thing at Highway1.
Who are you?
David Wilson, co-founder and CEO of Asimmetric.
What does your product do?
We’re helping make the internet better by helping WiFi and mobile operators measure and improve their network user experience. We have a network sensor that’s kind of like a smoke detector for internet quality, coupled with cloud-based analytics that we deliver as a service to our clients.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
When I was at university, co-founder Ross Douglas and I worked as software developers at a life insurance startup in Cape Town. After it got acquired, I moved on to consulting with Accenture and then Delta Partners, a company focused on management consulting for telecommunications clients. I mainly worked with large fixed and mobile telcos in emerging markets — the AT&Ts of Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
I did a lot of work with Fouad Zreik, one of our other co-founders, on network strategy. Operators spend almost half a trillion dollars every year investing in their networks: huge amounts of money, and there’s not as much science and rigor behind it as there could be. That’s what made us want to do something about that, to help them understand how good their networks are, how good they need to be, and from that, do a better job of investing in the right things and not under- or overspending.
Right now, it’s very difficult for anyone providing a wireless network to really understand how their users are experiencing that network. This is especially the case for WiFi. Every company runs a WiFi network, including hotels, hospitals, stadiums, coffeeshops, and every other kind of venue.
Most of these are what we’d call a new wireless network operator, in that it’s not really their core business, and yet WiFi is mission-critical: you can’t get anything done without it. We’re trying to help them improve internet quality for their users.
Where did the idea for this business come from, and what role did you play?
It really came from a lot of experience working with and talking to WiFi and mobile providers, both on the technical side and the business side. It’s very difficult and expensive for WiFi providers, especially to monitor and manage their networks. So we’ve developed a simpler way for them to do so, which puts user experience (and business sense) first.
I'm on the product and business side of things, mostly. I love data and information design, so I've also been designing some of our dashboards and reports. That's fun. Being CEO means I mostly end up doing the jobs nobody else wants to!
How did you find out about Highway1?
I’ve been reading Techmeme every day for about nine years, so there were a few accelerators I knew about, Highway1 included. In May, we saw that Highway1 was accepting submissions, and we thought “Let’s apply, why not?”
What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far?
Every few days your eyes get opened to new things. It’s been more the rate of learning that’s been a surprise rather than one key thing.
What are your goals, both while you’re at Highway1 and beyond?
We want to get the next version of our hardware done. Right now we’re conducting some trials and are aiming to start fundraising and growing the business. What we’ve been blown away by is the demand for what we’re doing. It helps that we’ve got paying clients as well as our hardware working out in the field on three different continents, so we’re delivering a service and doing our best to keep up with demand.
Any advice for people looking to start out in hardware?
Someone asked me that question the other day and I quoted Richard Feynman, who said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
That’s very true with startups; it’s so easy to focus just on making something without being realistic or knowing whether anybody wants it, how big that market is, or if it’s worth your while.
You need to really understand, if you’re building a startup you want to scale and grow, that it’s a multi-year commitment. I think a lot of people see what they perceive as overnight successes, but those are the result of a lot of hard work and existential doubt. It can be tough, but it’s also super rewarding because you’re actually making something.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in hardware?
There are three.
1. I think the biggest challenge is how multidisciplinary it is, which makes it very cash-intensive. It’s not as if you can have one guy or girl making all the hardware, the software, and doing all the business stuff as well. You need a broader range of skills, which means more people and money.
2.The time it takes to iterate on ideas. There’s a lot of people launching software startups where they’re able to release new updates every day based on real user feedback, and that’s much harder to do with hardware.
You need to be much smarter about how you go about it if you want to do that with hardware, and that’s one of the focuses of the Highway1 team: looking at ways to prototype and iterate on very specific things. Sometimes you need very low-fi, easy-to-produce prototypes in order to get the specific feedback you want, but that requires a lot more directed effort. You can’t just put something out there and see how people take it.
3.The gap between a successful working prototype (which is hard to get to in the first place), manufacturing at some kind of scale, and distribution and managing the logistics afterwards. These are entirely different disciplines and knowledge areas you need to have or be able to access, and that’s also something Highway1 does a good job of illuminating.