Building the world’s first peer-to-peer wireless network takes more than just brilliant engineering. It takes the confidence to know that people will think you’re crazy at first. Then if you’re lucky, they’ll take your innovations for granted.
“Even after Airbnb started to get some success, I was still dumbfounded that people would rent out their house. Now they’re the largest hospitality provider in the world,” says Helium CEO and co-founder Amir Haleem.
“The earliest adopters take those chances. As Helium develops and people start to use it and more applications come on board, it’ll seem less crazy.”
Helium aims to simplify connecting things like IoT devices and sensors by building a network of wireless operators. Companies like Lime, Nestle and Stay Alfred are already using the network.
Fresh from a $15 million Series C raise that included investors like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and Napster visionary Shawn Fanning, Amir called into the show to discuss his unfair advantage, kicking Comcast to the curb and reimagining the gig economy.
From gamer to founder
Scott: Where are you from, and how did you get here?
Amir: I grew up around computers. I was just fascinated by them. When I was young, my father was an executive at Commodore. I think the PET was the first home computer on the market. We had one in our house when I was three or four years old. I first heard about the internet before there were web browsers.
I was very fortunate and privileged to have access to computers, because not everyone did at that time. And still, not everyone does. My dad was a mechanical and electrical engineer and taught me basic programming. I got very interested in video games, which led down an interesting career path. I started playing Doom and Quake competitively and even professionally, before E-sports was a big thing the way it is now.
Back then, the only people that had access to internet connectivity that was actually useful for playing games were people in colleges or at offices. That was it. I grew up in England and went to the University of Manchester. All we did was play Quake because we had a 10 megabit connection, which was unheard of at that time.
Because of my access to that kind of Internet connection, I got to meet professionals who went on to do very interesting things. One of the people I met had a brother who founded a video game studio in Stockholm. I was a decent engineer by that point –– or a half-decent one, depending on who you ask. I dropped out of college and moved to Stockholm.
We started working on a game that ended up being Battlefield 1942. The company quickly accelerated. I was employee eight or nine or something like that. Then the company was acquired –– twice. Another game studio, Dice bought it. Later, EA bought Dice. That was my first foray into the professional world.
After that I stayed in the video game world for a long time, working at a sequence of startups that were doing different things in the space. And it was all as a result of being introduced to computers by my dad.
Scott: I’ve interviewed more than 500 founders and CEOs. There are some common threads to their success that you’ve just nailed. It started off with your dad, teaching you how to program and having the unfair advantage of a computer at an early age. That transforms into gaming, when you start to see competitiveness blend with talent and tools. There’s a snowball effect.
Experiencing an acquisition is a key differentiator, too. You’ve tasted something that so few people will ever experience firsthand. What was the level of liquidity you experienced? Enough for you to take some chances others couldn’t?
Amir: I would say so. You’re definitely onto something. Arguably, my whole life is an unfair advantage. At the time it didn’t seem like a huge deal, but having access to a computer so young … I think it allowed me to cheat. And I think seeing what success looks like from an early age is also a kind of cheat. Even if it doesn’t directly affect you, you see your friend or your roommate buy a nice car or whatever. It lets you visualize what could happen much more tangibly.
Hustle vs. luck
Scott: Those that are just watching from afar look at acquisitions like they’re magic –– like they won the lottery. Those that experience it firsthand have a nugget they can use to reverse engineer success.
Amir: I do think people look at it as a lottery. And in some cases for some people it is. Be in the right place at the right–
Scott: Mark Cuban?
Amir: Mark Cuban, not a bad example.
But even from the founding and early employee team, there’s very little luck involved. There is an enormous amount of work. Maybe the valuations are luck to some degree. It depends on the climate. It depends on all sorts of other–
Scott: You’re totally right. Marketplace swings can be luck. But the way you design your team to make sure that you’re viewed as a tech company versus any other type of company, the valuation could shift. A restaurant company could be 4x, versus a company that does the same thing for the restaurant industry it could be 20x and that’s strategic.
Amir: Those are just arbitrary sliders. Was Instagram worth $1 billion and Whatsapp worth $16 billion? I don’t really know. But still everyone’s rich, right? Everyone’s happy. But at the end of the day, the amount of work that went into making them both successful is extraordinary.
I think it’s very difficult for people who haven’t been a founder or CEO to understand how painful the process is. I recommend Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing about Hard Things. I relate to it, because it’s written by someone who went through the phases of grief and then ultimately had success. But to describe that journey as luck or a lottery is unfair. I’m not a big believer in luck. I think you sort of force things to occur.
Power to the people
Scott: What’s the pitch for Helium?
Amir: We’re making it possible for everyday people to become network operators, who can act as their own telecom company. We call it “the people’s network.”
Telecom and wireless infrastructure are some of the most entrenched industries. It’s very difficult to remove or replace them with something better. Everyone has their own version of why it sucks: maybe Comcast is your only provider and you can’t do anything about it. Or maybe your At&T bill is $180 a month and you don’t exactly know why.
Nobody likes their incumbent provider. It’s the easiest industry to hate. And it’s very difficult to affect it, because the infrastructure cost, on a global scale, is trillions of dollars.
With Helium, we’re trying to invert that. We want to provide the design, infrastructure and economic model to allow anyone to act as a network operator and be paid for it.
We’re starting with low-power devices. Most of them don’t exist yet. The best example is something like the tracking device Tile. But rather than only being near a Bluetooth signal, wherever you went with it, it can track where you are. We could take that further out, to wildfire sensors. I live in northern California and there are fires constantly.
There’s stuff that was supposed to have happened 10 or 20 years ago, that hasn’t yet. This is why: there isn’t infrastructure that’s cheap and affordable and makes sense. Because you’re not going to pay $150 to put a sensor on the Internet. You’re going to want to pay, like, $1. That’s roughly what we’re doing: we want to change the nature of telecommunications and wireless infrastructure. But right now, we’re very focused on the low-power segment.
Six years ago, I only lived in the software world. I knew literally nothing about hardware. Building software is comparatively easy. So we asked ourselves whether we could bring software techniques to the process of building hardware. I wanted to build a device that would be compatible with everything –– that it would just be online somehow, almost in the same way that your cell phone is. That was the nexus of the idea. But it took us a long time to realize that building network infrastructure the same way that everyone else does it is a really bad idea.
Over the last two or three years, we inverted the entire structure of the business. We realized that attempting to monetize existing network infrastructure was stupid. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build it. Instead, we can distribute it. We can decentralize it, so anyone can participate in this ecosystem and share its economics, becoming their own network provider.
Scott: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just need to reinvent the way people use the wheel. You’ve done that exceptionally well. Can you provide an example of how consumers will experience Helium?
Amir: There are two ways. One –– think of an Airbnb. There are tons of “hosts” –– the people who are renting out their houses. That’s one kind of user. Think of the other user as the person staying in the rented house.
Our model is inherently similar. We have what we call hosts, who buy a device we call the “hot spot.” It’s a little white box. It looks similar to a WiFi router. You turn it on, set it up in a mobile app and stick it in your window. It creates literally miles of network coverage.
Scott: People always relate the gig economy to Uber. But in the future, people are going to be able to monetize so many things that they use. This is just another example: monetizing your network hostibility. We don’t talk enough about how much of a global economic impact companies like Helium can create. It could offset some of the things we hear about jobs being taken away by technology.
Amir: Definitely. The other thing that’s interesting about cryptocurrencies –– or cryptonetworks, as people have come to call them –– is that the participants get to share in the economics. It’s beyond just earning money on the side. You have an ownership interest, to some degree, in those networks. I think that’s a really powerful notion. It’s different than the gig economy model where you’re paid an hourly rate. Instead, you own a bigger piece of the network the more you participate. It’s an underrated hack, because usually the only way ordinary people get to participate in tech companies is after everyone’s already gotten rich, after the IPO has happened.
Democratizing the dream of 5G
Amir: With the full evolution of something like Helium, whether it’s us or someone that follows us, your 5G networking services could be provided by your neighbor. Why would you even want Verizon involved if you could remove them? There’s a lot of steps before that reality comes true. There’s all sorts of questions about backhauling and spectrum and SIM cards.
But you could imagine what that could look like. Instead of paying corporations, you pay neighbors and local businesses who happen to be operating networks.
5G networks are going to be very challenging to roll out. The range of 5G cell towers, for lack of a better word, is very limited. It’s line of sight only. It gets deflected and disrupted by pretty much everything: trees, cars, buildings, even glass will interfere with the 5G signal between your phone and the base station. The only way to counteract that is to just have a shitload of base stations.
Telecom companies will likely only offer 5G in places like LA, San Francisco or New York, because they’ll be the only places where it makes any sense to justify spending billions of dollars per city. Even then it’s going to be difficult, because I’m not sure that the benefit for the consumer is that great at this point.
But what if you could buy a $300 or $400 device that’s a 5G base station? Then all of a sudden the cost structure is completely different. No one is bearing tens of billions of dollars in costs. Individuals are bearing hundreds of dollars.
Scott: Which they can make back.
Amir: Exactly right. Everything is different when you structure that way.
The only way that we can do something like this is by giving up on the economics of the network, to some extent. Helium isn’t in the middle of a transaction fee chain. If you have a hot spot at your house and a Lime scooter comes near you and uses your hotspot to transmit data to the Internet, that’s your transaction. We’re not even there.
It’s a weird model for almost everyone to adopt. It’s very difficult to make those kinds of changes in companies. You have to explain them to your board and your investors.
Scott: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
Amir: You need an incredible amount of curiosity and perseverance to do anything like this. It’s really the only thing that differentiates the best companies. Jeff Bezos says smart people change their minds often, sometimes just because they’ve thought about something more. No new data has been presented. But they thought about the old data more than they did yesterday.
One of my investors says startups just need to stay alive long enough to get lucky. So refuse to quit. Just keep hacking at it and eventually you’ll figure something out.