Accelerator Day One: how wrong were we?

Two weeks ago, we celebrated threelyActive, the three-year anniversary of reelyActive’s incorporation. At that time, the motivation for our incorporation was our acceptance into FounderFuel, one of Canada’s premier startup accelerators. Today is the third anniversary of FounderFuel Day One. On August 13th, 2012 we met the seven other startups of our cohort at Notman House (pre-renovations) and in the afternoon gave our first formal five-minute pitch. Today, to celebrate, let’s revisit that pitch deck, have a good laugh, and see just how wrong we were about our vision, our business and the future.

Proximity Identification Platform?

While we clearly recall wrapping up, with immense pride and satisfaction, a day-long discussion among co-founders having arrived at the title “Proximity Identification Platform”, I don’t think too many people, ourselves included, would today argue that we should have stuck with that. Indeed, today we’re about “Smart Spaces”, which, among other things, supports a far more elegant shortened domain name:

We were definitely wrong on the branding: people get “Smart Spaces”. Many will go so far as to add the term to their vocabulary. No such luck with “Proximity Identification Platform”. Nonetheless, we weren’t all that wrong on the concept: Smart Spaces are simply a platform for identifying people, places and things at a human level of proximity.

The Creation of Adam?

When this is your bold intro slide, it’s quite obvious that what follows will be a vision pitch. You are indeed correct if you identified this as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam drawn as stick figures on a whiteboard, photographed and imported into the presentation. We stopped using this slide long ago when we focused on what are we doing and why. The drawing, nonetheless, was the best way we could, in 2012, represent the why without words.

We were definitely wrong on the presentation: you’d never stand up in front of hundreds of people on demo day with this painfully monochromatic hack of a slide projected behind you. However, our experience has repeatedly shown that the image is both polarising and attention-grabbing. We touched something, be it privacy concerns, self-perception (a mix of physical and digital) or simply a critique of the artwork. As time goes on, our role as humans amidst the Internet of Things becomes increasingly uncertain, making those concerns increasingly relevant and preoccupying. Why shouldn’t the fully-connected world have its own Sistine Chapel ceiling for each of us to observe, contemplate and question?

Log in to a space?

This is the slide that most people remembered from our pitch. Even months later, other members of our accelerator cohort would bring up how this slide in particular struck them and sparked the thought “wait, what if walking into work and logging in to work were the same”?

We were decidedly un-wrong on the theme (yay!), but indeed wrong, again, on the branding: a year later we launched Log in to Life which made the concept a reality, but failed to stir the same excitement. In retrospect, the term “log in” should be utterly avoided in the branding of any experience. Today, instead, we talk about Smart Space Experiences and shot a video to bring the vision to life. Are we wrong again? Almost certainly. How wrong? Both time and our audiences will soon tell.

Bluetooth Smart

Look, a slide with some colour! Here we asked our audience to take a leap of faith with us. In 2012, we achieved “proximity identification” with our proprietary keyfob tags (Active RFID). But we knew that Bluetooth Smart (aka BLE) would slowly make its way into smartphones and other gadgets that people were likely to carry. In other words, we had to convince our supporters that the totally painful, non-scalable proposition of asking people to carry our keyfobs would soon evolve into our platform identifying the occupants of a space “for free”.

We were definitely wrong on the timeline. 2013? Ha! Apple wouldn’t unveil iBeacon until the Fall of that year (which we totally capitalised on). Nonetheless, we were very un-wrong in our prediction: there are currently 3 billion Bluetooth devices shipping annually, and in many cases our Smart Spaces are actually doubly-detecting their occupants via their smartphone AND their wearable. That’s the kind of problem we could only have dreamed of having three years ago!

The Summary

You learn quite quickly that when investors ask you “who is your target market”, your answer should not be “everyone”. However, that’s effectively what we went with in this slide. So how wrong were we there?

Well, over the last three years, we have indeed deployed our platform in businesses, homes and vehicles. Our best sales channels are through systems integrators who co-innovate with us and develop on our platform often as both clients and partners. And every human carrying a Bluetooth Smart device is typically already a participant, and occasionally a user (through opt-in). Moreover, the groundwork is laid for those users to revenue-share with us, so perhaps we were wrong about labelling them as customers. In fact, we’d be very pleased if that was the only part that we really got wrong.

How about the multi-billion dollar market? Boy were we wrong about that! Just after our demo day, Cisco pivoted to become “The Internet of Everything” and suddenly both they and GE were floating around market opportunity values in the tens of trillions of dollars! Were their predictions wrong too? Surely! They’ve actually raised those predictions since!

Yes, looking back, our first formal pitch on FounderFuel day one was indeed a vision pitch. We were certainly wrong about a lot of things, as is to be expected. But were we wrong to dream about changing the human world? Were we wrong to accord so much emphasis to our vision? The curious thing about our relentless evangelisation is that it has actually fostered many deep, meaningful human relations with our partners, clients, supporters and audience. In other words, we at least made a small impact on our human world by sharing our own dreams about that world. And with that, we have the courage to press on, continuing to knowingly be wrong, hopefully again underestimating the size of the societal transformation that is upon us.

Click here to see the full presentation


Three year anniversary of reelyActive

Today, August 1st, 2015, marks, from an official perspective, the three year anniversary of the moral entity known colloquially as reelyActive, and more formally as 9266-5777 Québec inc. Although today we may enter our fourth fiscal year, in reality we embarked on full-time development of the project in the first days of 2012. And the name reelyActive? It was registered as a dot-com as far back as April 16th, 2011 when I, (Jeffrey Dungen, co-founder and CEO) sparked on the idea of Active RFID infrastructure in a reel configuration, connected the terms with a ‘y‘, and took advantage of the availability of the domain name.

We tell the right story to the right audience at the right time.

The above slogan is one that we began using in the Fall of 2014 (in yet another attempt) to explain what reelyActive does. I’m proud of that slogan because I feel it extends elegantly to all types of societies, not just those of low-power wireless devices, or humans. But before we digress, let’s put that slogan to the test, because chances are that if you, the audience, have read this far, you’re genuinely interested in our story on this, our anniversary.

In the summer of 2010, in an unmemorable food court café, I sat down opposite a very striking man with the most ridiculous beard. It was a curious moment, because I too had a most ridiculous moustache. There we were, two people at a turning point in our own lives, endowed with intentionally-grown fur on our faces, meeting for the first time. It felt like our whiskers tingled simultaneously and without words, we immediately knew our paths had crossed for a reason. And when those words came, they brought confirmation. “Imagine there were transparency across the world” proposed the bearded man “because you could see anywhere in real-time”. That man was Drew Sechrist, the founder of Koozoo (neé Kuuzuu), which proposed a crowdsourced network of cameras pointed at public spaces all over the globe to foster transparency and real-time understanding through computer vision.

None shall shave!

The facial hair, shown above, lasted until Christmas of 2010 when, upon seeing a photo of my bare face, Drew had his beard professionally removed, knowing himself victorious in the unofficial man-test.

Drew and Koozoo made me believe that it was indeed plausible, if not possible, to actually achieve global transparency and understanding through technology. And for that I owe him a great deal. He chose video, because it was tangible. With my technology background, I would have chosen radio. And for that part of the story we’ll need to go back several more years…

A few days after the 2004 New Year, another bearded man sat down to speak with me. Only this time it was in a lab at École Polytechnique Montréal, the man was my research director, Jean-Jules Brault, and his beard truly suited him well. “Jeff” he said to me (in French), “there’s this physicist who lost his luggage and wants to build a wireless system for precisely locating and tracking luggage. He’s looking for an embedded developer”. Cool. The only problem was that I didn’t believe in the technical feasibility of the proposed means of Time-Difference Of Arrival (TDOA) measurement core to the project. “Don’t worry” he reassured me, “there’s government funding specifically for such experimental development”. Cool. That would be my initiation to the incredible fiscal advantages of Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) in Canada, especially in Québec.

Coding with the baggage

And that was the start of my journey with Purelink Technology inc. which would last until 2010 and would take me to exotic places such as the baggage sorting facility at YUL, shown above, where we would sit on plastic bins, coding and debugging our Real-Time Location System (RTLS) using concrete barriers as makeshift tables. Smiling in that photo is a young Pier-Olivier Genest who would later become not only a reelyActive co-founder, but also the father of an epic beard (yes, there’s a theme here). The other co-founder of reelyActive, Traian Antonescu would also hail back to the days of École Polytechnique Montréal and Purelink Technology inc. where he would consistently show his resourcefulness, not only in the design and implementation of radio circuits, but also in the design of startup sleeping accommodations, as shown below.

Startup Sleeping Accommodations

Purelink made us believe that it was indeed plausible, if not possible, to identify and locate everyday objects using low-power wireless technology. And while we didn’t always agree with Emerson Nerat, the founder, on strategy, I commend him fully on his tenacity, which can only be described as being in a class of its own, and has inspired me not to give up on reelyActive through the many hardships over the last three years, and surely those to come.

Which brings us back to today, the third anniversary of reelyActive. Having survived, for lack of a better term, these past three years, we can look ahead with plenty of optimism that there will indeed emerge a global network for the identification and location of low-power wireless devices embedded in everyday objects that will enable a real-time understanding of the world, laying the foundation for a massive gain in efficiency that will benefit not only humanity, but also everything with which we share this planet. Yes, that sounds bold, but at least now we’re backed up by heavyweights such as Jeremy Rifkin making similar arguments, and the 3 billion Bluetooth Smart devices shipping annually in smartphones, wearables and everyday objects that can already be identified and located by our distributed sensor infrastructure. Plausible has been replaced with possible, and we’re well on the way towards probable.

We unlock the value of the data you choose to share.

The above is another slogan we began using in the Fall of 2014 (in yet another attempt) to explain why reelyActive matters. I’m perhaps even more proud of that slogan because, to me, it encapsulates how the Internet of Things empowers the individual within a society, be it human or otherwise. Sure, you’re likely left scratching your head at how that actually happens. But if we put the technology aside for a moment, imagine your next trip across town where you hop on and off sidewalks, buses, private cars, taxis, bicycles, (hoverboards?) arriving as efficiently as possible. All it takes is real-time understanding of space and the vehicles that occupy it, including their state, which their operators can simply choose to share.

This Fall, a colleague will be moving his family from Europe to join us in Montréal. When we first spoke, he highlighted that we were the only IoT startup he found, after extensive research, with a “user-centric value proposition”, referring to the aforementioned slogan. Another colleague is moving his family from South America to join us in “working toward a more efficient world”. Our team is growing with world-class talent rallied around a common vision. And that is, by far, what makes me the most optimistic about what can be accomplished over the next twenty years, a period of time following which we will again be able to mash up a number up with our name: twenty-threelyActive. A man can grow a hell of a beard in that time!