When Shlomi Gian heard the words, “mobile content performance” and “mobile speed as a service,” he paused to hear more – breaking a long-term habit of not responding to headhunters. He listened as the caller, Neil Sims, continued to talk his language.
Sims was talking from his office at Boyden executive search: an office lined with photos of Silicon Valley’s stars. As head of Boyden’s Technology Practice in the Americas, he talks to tech founders, investors and leaders of the Fortune 500 every day.
After a brief conversation, Gian agreed to meet him, but remained skeptical. He was already Head of Market Development, Emerging Mobile at Akamai Technologies – a role right in the sweet spot for pursuing his vision for mobile.
Sims knew that and more. He knew that if Gian met his client and found the proposition as compelling as Sims thought he would, Gian would have to consider the significant risks involved in exchanging everything he had created at Akamai for a startup with a proven, but short track record.
Within the first few minutes of meeting Sims, it was clear to Gian that what was going through his mind had already gone through Sims’. They exchanged insights over breakfast on the latest developments in Silicon Valley and how Sims’ client could revolutionize on-device content performance. The electricity between them began to crackle.
Gian agreed to a short meeting with Sims’ client, the co-founder and COO of PacketZoom.
John Joseph glanced at Neil’s summary on Shlomi that he had read the night before.
On paper Shlomi was compelling and he hoped Neil’s instinct was right. This could be a great match, but hiring a new leader was a big step, professionally and personally. The search committee, investors and founder CEO/CTO Chetan Ahuja would need to agree on the right individual: someone with sensitivity, judgment and tact, as well as exceptional leadership skills, technical savvy and a kindred vision for mobile.
John walked Shlomi to the break-out room next to a mass of screens.
In just five minutes Shlomi was captivated. The potential for PacketZoom was huge, the opportunity even greater. Mobile speed as a service was a groundbreaking capability for on-device content that not only transformed mobile app performance, but could shape a new mobile world.
Seven hours later, involving a basketball game and a brainstorm over supper, Shlomi was hooked. Neil had been right. One of the best people to come in as next-generation CEO was sitting right in front of him.
Performance depends on protocol optimization and having control of both ends. But how can that be possible?
Shlomi: In the Internet environment, cloud infrastructure had already enabled a content provider to connect to a local server, increasing download speeds by bringing caching closer to the user. So the local server could do the caching, removing the bottleneck in the middle mile.
Chetan: With the development of mobile, the ecosystem changed and it was the cellular network – the last mile – that slowed down delivery. As much as 70 percent of content delivery latency is in the last mile, between the user and the nearby content delivery server.
What was needed was a special effort focusing on the last mile.
Mobile websites evolved, but with over 60 percent of requests coming from mobile devices – and out of that 60 percent, 90 percent were from applications instead of websites – the bigger problem was mobile apps. They were getting more sophisticated, and traditional solutions couldn’t help them.
John: So in 2013, Chetan and I started work specifically on last-mile protocol optimization and last-mile optimization in general. We were fortunate that Tandem Capital (followed by First Round Capital and Baseline Ventures) understood our vision. However, our business depended on accessing the device itself, so we put a lot of work into the security this required. Our investors had the conviction to really support us on this.
PacketZoom is now the leader in this space with the biggest footprint, better results and better applications.
Shlomi: What PacketZoom has achieved so far in protocol optimization, and can achieve in the near future, takes us into wave two of content delivery networks for mobile applications.
The next phase of content delivery networks for mobile applications.
Chetan: The concept of protocol optimization itself is not new. Some smart techniques were developed, but for the Internet as a whole.
In order to improve a protocol, you have to have control over both ends – that’s the top criterion. But mobile has two challenges: one end is always a private device, so you need to get the user’s permission, or have the user download code, to help you control it; the other is a technical challenge: In mobile there is no single network. There is 2G, 3G, 4G and wifi. And 4G in India for example is different to 4G in the United States.
Added to this, a WIFI network in Atlanta, for example, will behave differently to one in San Francisco. The ever-changing conditions in wireless networks make the protocol more sophisticated. So you have to factor in latency, throughput, arc signal and so on.
Shlomi: Every time there was a big new promise – 4G will fix everything, 3G will help people use a mobile device like a desktop – users became more sophisticated. We went from being happy to see our bank’s logo on our device, to wanting to shop, see videos and do lots of other things with a phone, in various different places.
Those places today include the car, but a 40-year old fixed-line protocol is designed to disconnect someone who is not responding in 20 seconds. A mobile that is mobile is a problem.
The car companies out in front, like BMW, Tesla and also Uber, are all working to improve the protocol, because it is the protocol that is the bottleneck.
John: We knew that protocol optimization would be a problem, and Chetan and I also knew we could develop the answer.
Shlomi: Over 60 percent of the world’s population is on 3G. To have everyone on 4G or 5G could take 10 years.
In the meantime, most people are unaware that they lose connection all the time, and on some networks connection loss is a major issue.
PacketZoom extends and restores connection time because our technology sits in front of the application and therefore includes caching. This means we also save money for the developer or a company selling goods via a portal, particularly the big names that use legacy content delivery networks. Caching content on the device on our server means that when performance goes up, our clients’ costs go down.
How do you sum up PacketZoom’s business proposition today?
First, we have something of value to app developers themselves. They put our technology in the app based on our analytics and how the protocol behaves on the app or the network.
Secondly, while speed is a good KPI, what we are selling is longer sessions, retention and returning users. Through speed and connectivity, we increase user transactions, so the PacketZoom proposition is about business owner issues.
In the early days, PacketZoom made its name in gaming. What industries are you focusing on now?
The success we achieved in gaming really shows what PacketZoom can do. To deliver a user experience with the kind of graphics and functionality in today’s games on a mobile device is a major turning point.
We have a lot of demand from retail, as well as travel companies, portals and news. For the news industry or any business that is heavy on rich media, we also optimize video services for short videos (2 to 3 minutes long).
PacketZoom already “changes the equation for mobile productivity,” “converts visitors to customers”, and “creates mass adoption for apps,” to quote your co-founders. What does the future hold?
Wherever you are in the world, you are going to need connectivity. We want to be connected all the time, not only in the house or the office, but in the car, the train and the plane. If mobile is to deliver what we need, it has to be always connected.
This is the challenge – reliable connections and constant mobile performance when you are in different locations or in transit. For us, solving that is a matter of focus.
How does a second-stage CEO – someone like you – navigate the sensitivities involved in leading a business and its co-founders?
This isn’t so unusual, but I agree it requires skill and tact. In early-stage companies there are usually two founders and one tends to be more technical. Then when they develop and start gaining traction in the market, they need business leadership in place.
But you can’t just bring in a ‘superstar.’ You have to have something in common – like the kindred vision that Neil Sims understood right from the very beginning. As a business leader you talk to smart product guys and engineers and if you don’t speak their language you will fail.
You have to understand the product and how to translate functionality into business benefit.
In a business like PacketZoom, you have to have deep technical expertise in conjunction with sales savvy. At my previous company I was leading innovation and working on similar concepts, so when John, Chetan and I make decisions, we speak the same language and we know we are aligned.
How would you describe your experience of being headhunted?
I didn’t know Boyden or Neil Sims, so he did an excellent job of finding me! I would be approached by headhunters every other month and never took the call. But Neil introduced a business to me that was doing something I care about, mobile performance, so that prompted me to take the call.
When I met Neil he knew how to handle the concerns I would have at my level – leaving so much behind and taking such a risk. He knew how to identify the weak points in my current role and the time it takes for things to happen.
I had looked into different technologies in my previous role and I was fascinated by PacketZoom’s product. I saw the data production, the customers and a product that emphasizes value – performance improvement. I was amazed I hadn’t heard about PacketZoom and that Neil had connected me to them.
What first attracted you to working with PacketZoom?
I knew during my first meeting with John that PacketZoom was a client I wanted in my portfolio.
John, Chetan and the team were working on the next ‘holy grail’ of mobile computing. I could see that they were poised to have tremendous success and I wanted to be associated with what they were building.
What is it like to work with founder entrepreneurs?
John and Chetan demonstrated the collaborative behavior that accelerates the work I do. They were leaning forward to engage in the process with me. As entrepreneurs at the helm of a hyper-growth company, they had very little time to devote to meetings and calls, but we found those essential moments at night, on the weekends or in stolen moments between their other commitments.
I also came to appreciate the engagement of their board. As members of the PacketZoom search committee, the board locked arms with us to smooth the path to success. The interactive dialog between us as we focused on Shlomi made engaging him very straightforward.
What is your personal approach to search?
My responsibility to clients is to work on their behalf as if I were a stakeholder in the company.
I challenge myself to focus on the market and potential candidates with an internalized view. It helps me to match skills, accomplishments and temperament with what I believe will work best with the culture and mission of a company like PacketZoom.
I knew from Shlomi’s first questions on our initial telephone call that he was at the center of our target. Shlomi confirmed my convictions at our first meeting. He stood out among the others under consideration.
The legacy of executive search is to see companies and leaders optimized for success because you introduced one to the other.