Jorge Perdomo of goTenna: “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”
Don’t do it alone. Get advisors, get a great co-founder, build yourself a support network — because you’re going to need it to get through this. This is something I did not do and wish I had.
As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jorge Perdomo.
Innovator, product developer, engineer and artist, Jorge Perdomo is best known for his patented invention of goTenna, the world’s leading mobile decentralized off-grid communications system for smartphones. As the Inventor, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of the firm, he brought the project from concept to market in six years, during the course of which, he designed and released 10 different critically-acclaimed hardware and software products. The 31-year-wunderkind and avid music fan has also explored his creative side with the debut at the 2019 Burning Man festival of The Fluffy Cloudy, a 30 ft. tall and equally wide, audio and light installation that provided attendees with an unprecedented 360-degree visual and aural experience.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Well, I grew up mostly in Brazil but moved around a lot growing up. I came to the US to attend college at UPenn, and although for a while I thought I was going into law school, I started music blogging, which in many ways led me to my first major tech startup, goTenna. I would go to big music events and kept getting separated from my friends. I wanted to find a way for us to keep in touch and find each other in the crowd. At its simplest, I wanted texting and Google Maps to work even when cell service was down. That’s where things started conceptually, but I also quickly saw that a lot of people have this need, not just festival-goers. From outdoor sports, to public safety, to the military, I did my research and saw that the tactical radio market was worth over $34BB at the time and had only had legacy players with big black radios that hadn’t changed much since the 60s. So it seemed like a place where we could come in and make a big impact specifically by leveraging the power of the modern smartphone but marrying it with the resiliency of radio.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways idd you take out of that story?
One of the most interesting parts of building goTenna was finding out all the weird ways people wanted to test our product and push it to its limit. At the start I wasn’t aware of what a community of preppers and other kinds of radio system enthusiasts were out there, and really set on pushing us. We’d get stories of people jumping out of planes with them, or sending them on gliders, or sprinkling them through abandoned sewer systems. People got really creative and passionate. We even had a sort of stalker/internet troll come after us for a bit, which was a tad disconcerting, but I suppose that can happen in this space where people care so much about privacy, decentralization, etc.
I’d also say the opportunity to work closely with military and public safety operators was incredibly unique and rewarding. I’m a tech guy, I have no military experience, but building up the critical goTenna government market required me to gain security clearance and often go right out into the field with these guys, learning how they think, the challenges they’re up against, and how we could help them. As a kid who read his first Tom Clancy novel in the 4th grade, the experience was super cool for me. One of the lessons I took away from these experiences is that, as much as I, as a technology designer, may believe I understand how my technology is going to be used, your customers may still surprise you. You have to be ready for those surprises and see if you can pivot them into a possible advantage, as we often did by adding new features specifically tailored for these new, “weird” use cases we hadn’t thought of before.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are startups, then there are hard tech startups. goTenna is about as hard as it can get without getting into biomedical devices. It is not only hardware, which is already known as the hardest class of startup you can do, within that, we are RF — which, within the hardware world, is known as the “dark art.” It’s known as this because it is invisible, it rarely operates the way you expect it to, it’s incredibly difficult to test, and all in all, there is rarely a single right answer. It’s an artform as much as an engineering discipline. Due to the incredible difficulty of hard tech and the huge amount of research and development required to make something work, we’re really the only startup in the tactical communications space. You look from one side to the other and there are a few massive multi-billion dollar defense contractors doing the same stuff (at 40x the cost, mind you), but we’re really the only upstart in here.
To give you a story to illustrate how difficult goTenna tech is, I can tell you about our one year delay in releasing the goTenna V1. For weeks in the early winter of 2014, myself, Raph (hardware engineer), and one intern, would go out to Rockaway Beach in NYC in average 0 to -15 degree windchill weather to try to range-test our prototypes. It was the only place we could think of to test because it was relatively flat ground, which would minimize (but by no means reduce) reflections off of buildings and other structures that could make the test fail. On what I think was the third day out there, we finally got a successful message at a range of around four miles. The next day we tested again and got the same success. Excited we had reached our benchmark target, we went back and continued to proceed with QA, manufacturing prep, and other things like our apps etc., that weren’t really working yet (keep in mind unlike other companies where all they have is an app, at goTenna we have iOS, Android, hardware, firmware, manufacturing, supply chain, networking, firmware all to manage). A few weeks later we went out to test the latest builds to make sure things still worked. We couldn’t get a message through at any distance beyond a mile, at best. Nothing we could do worked. What had happened? We had no idea but we knew there was something about that original build that we had lost. I delayed launch until we could figure it out. Months passed. We burned through so much money, but we couldn’t launch without reliable, repeatable range performance. Eventually one day Raph, who was essentially brute-forcing matching networks on our antenna chain via putting a punch of different value resistors on its path, suddenly hit a value that increased our efficiency by 6dB. That is 12dB in link path, which is like a quadrupling of range. Yay, right? No. Even though this value was working we couldn’t get the factory to manufacture this with any kind of consistency. Our antenna contractors, “the experts,” gave us an antenna design which was quite literally non manufacturable with any sort of consistency. So we had to come up with a last-minute, flexible kapton tape printed antenna that removed the need for human input, which was causing the problem — even the same resistor just placed a tiny bit to the left or right, effectively the same, was messing up the antenna. The books, the paper, all said it shouldn’t be that touchy and finicky, but it was, and that process of trying to get the range up for a year and be able to manufacture, almost drove us out of business. Black art indeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Absolutely. We got help from a lot of places, and got some really lucky breaks, too. One of the biggest helps came from an awesome guy at DARPA. He saw our crowdfunding campaign and happened to be in NYC that week and asked if he could come see us. Completely random, completely luck. I said yes of course and we met in our little subterranean windowless conference room in the first goTenna offices (which are now a nail salon). We were still trying to get our first consumer product out, and although we knew the military/public safety space was the eventual move, we were in no way ready to start doing anything with them — we didn’t have the resources. This guy had some budget and developers though, and he said if we could give him the SDK access for goTenna, he would get a prototype working with this program called ATAK, that apparently a lot of government people were starting to use. Mind you, this is in like, 2015. We supported him as best we could with our buggy SDK, but he got an integrated plugin working, and that was the start of getting the ball rolling for the government business market. By 2016, our consumer goTenna models had been deployed in conflict zones from Iraq to, well, not Iraq…with great feedback. Without the help of this DARPA program, without this guy and his team taking a chance accepting and integrating our barely proven new tech, we probably would have lost years of government exposure, which is our lifeblood now. I’m not sure we would have survived if we hadn’t started making those in-roads really early on. Since then, the ATAK-powered market is by far our biggest market, far outpacing what we do in the consumer space — and it all started because a guy who was bored at one of our competitor’s training seminars in NYC decided to come take a chance on us. Luck and help, you need both for sure.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
goTenna products reached maturity, finally, in early 2018. So, as is often the case with other inventor/technical co-founders, I started getting a bit bored. At the end of 2018, as it became clear that we were on a really solid trajectory with Series C funding from Founders Fund, I decided it was time to get back in the trenches and build again. I spent all of 2019, and a painfully large amount of my net worth, building a gigantic 360-degree mobile sound and light experience for Burning Man called The Fluffy Cloud. I had been a huge fan of music and live events and after my first Burn in 2018, I was super motivated to give something back to the community — not just at BM, but the whole music community. I saw a problem. Even in a hub of creativity like Burning Man, I felt like all the music experiences were kind of the same. One stage might be more elaborate than another, some were even on wheels, but fundamentally, it felt like everyone doing the same thing, a regular front-to-back concert. As I left that year, it stuck with me that the reason I didn’t like the front-to-back format was because even when you’re with friends, supposedly enjoying these experiences together, you are disconnected. You’re staring at the back of heads. It eventually occurred to me that if I could invent a kind of flying, circular experience with unimpeded views in every direction — a kind of modern interpretation on theatre in the round — it might be something that really made an impact and got people excited. It got me excited, at least. I felt like I had something special that had never been done before. It was an engineering challenge in many respects and it could give me an opportunity to spend a bit of time away from tech, and perhaps, make a life in the arts. So that’s what I did.
If 2019 was the year I built and refined the Cloud experience, 2020 was supposed to be when I really hit the road with it, on tour. But alas, COVID-19. It’s certainly thrown a wrench in things but we won’t be stuck forever so I’ve just shifted planning to being on an indeterminate timetable, and the work goes on none-the-less. My plan after The Fluffy Cloud is underway and once it is self-sustaining, I would like to start using it to raise money for a non-profit. I want to start looking into funding technologies that help us explore space while also using resources more efficiently on Earth. I also have two more tech startups up my sleeve, but for now, I’m going to try to keep it to one thing at a time :).
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My success is still early and I have not exited goTenna yet. We are still not public or acquired. All I had was a secondary. That being said, I have signed the Founders Pledge, which legally commits a percentage of my future upside to charity. They’re a fantastic group that help founders find ways to funnel their success towards good causes, and help you find a cause you care about. I’ve had a lot of conversations with them recently, trying to find something I personally care deeply about and to be honest, although there are tons of great causes, none of them spoke to my personal passions that much. That’s because, I think the most important thing for us to do as humans, is trying to deal with the threat of existential risk — some kind of catastrophic event that wipes us off the planet. It’s happened many times in the geologic record, and it’s not a question of if, but when, this will happen again. Because of this fact, I’m firmly in the contingent of people that believe we need to become multi-planetary as a top priority, so as to provide a kind of back-up/insurance against an unforeseen disaster. It may sound kind of dire or insensitive, but I think of it as, “Well, why should we save Animal X, if Animal X is going to be wiped out right alongside us if an asteroid shows up to dropkick the planet?” From this perspective, enabling space travel is the most important goodness we can do — that is, if you believe the continuation of the human species is a good cause (some people disagree). To that end, mostly because I haven’t found anyone doing it yet, I want to start a foundation that identifies critical technology categories that need innovation — such as waste reprocessing, fuel reprocessing, habitats, and more. Such topics are needed to get us into space, but are ALSO critical for making Earth a better home. If we can find a way to make a waste processor that is 50% more efficient in half the volume of current solutions, that is not only great for a spaceship, but also for helping solve waste problems here on Earth. Seeing as I’ve basically already built a spaceship in the form of the Fluffy Cloud, I feel like this gives me a unique ability to bring attention to this issue and raise money for it, which, whenever the world re-opens, is the path I want to get back on.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I love to read non-fiction, which gives me tons of random knowledge about the world. But I’m still a huge fan of science fiction. An amazing book series I read a couple of years ago is the Hugo Award-winning trilogy known as the “3 Body Problem.” Written by a Chinese author, the series is old-school sci-fi at its best. It’s not about laser battles, it’s about posting a challenging sociological question in the face of a really creative sci-fi scenario. Essentially, the question is, “what would the world do if it got notice that an alien civilization, of unknown intent, was coming to visit us, but would take about 400 years to get to us?” It dives into questions of long-term technology development and diplomacy, in a universe limited by the speed of light, humanity’s ability to work together, and at its core — existential risk. Although this series did not ignite my passion for the existential risk problem (credit for that actually goes to Tim Urban and his fantastic website at WaitButWhy.com), it showed me that perhaps what the world is missing, is something to unite us. Ideally, it’s not a huge threat like a possible alien invasion, but I think it’s important for us, as a species, to have something we work towards together — which is survival via space exploration. It’s exciting, it’s hopeful, it’s useful, and the benefits of investing in this as a major goal, I believe, would pay huge dividends in technology development to make a better world here. We just need people willing to tell the story and make it possible. I’m a huge fan of SpaceX specifically because this is their mission, and once they open the doors to space for us, well then it’s up to the rest of us to make it happen. That is something I think we can all be excited about.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
- You have to grow up very fast. I don’t think there is any way the world “should work,” but I’m inclined to believe that it is at least unusual for a 20-year-old to be responsible for the livelihoods of so many people. At goTenna, the decisions I made not only affected my life, but would affect the lives of dozens of people, and their families. There were multiple times when things got really tough, where I had near panic attacks thinking about what would happen if we had to close shop, with members of our team having kids on the way, or kids entering college, etc. The gravity of responsibility weighs very heavily, and you’re gonna grey fast.
- You can’t really have friends at the workplace, especially as a younger founder. You need to maintain a certain separation from employees for liability reasons, which can be particularly challenging when they’re your age and you want to hang out with them. You can be laid back, you can hang out sometimes, but you can’t really open up and be vulnerable with them because, in many ways, you’re the parent and they’re your kids, and you often have to shield them from the scary bits, which means shouldering an immense amount of pressure alone.
- It is very hard to find peers. Not many people get the opportunity to have a successful startup, and it’s not like there is a “Startup Founder Bar,” where we all hangout. The people you can talk to openly, if only for emotional support, are super busy themselves and often hard to find. Yes, there are founder groups specifically for this reason, but they’re usually kind of contrived and I never saw any real long term friendships come out of them.
- The hours do not end. There is no such thing as a weekend or after-hours, not as a founder. I mean, you can, and should try to take breaks, but it’s very hard because your responsibility is so incredibly high. For the first three years of goTenna, I took a total of four days off, and even after that, I never hit our yearly PTO allowance, there was just too much to do.
- It’s addictive, and if it doesn’t work out, there’s an anti-founder hiring bias (unless hiring for a top position). This is to say, that after helming your own ship for a long time, it’s reallllllllyyyyy hard to be a cog in the machine. It’s not impossible of course, but founders know they’ve gotten used to the ability to make decisions decisively and it’s hard to go back from that. Bigger companies know this too, which is why founders are not usually at the top of a hiring list for anything other than CEO-type positions because, well, we may be a pain in the ass for those higher up in the food chain. This only adds to the pressure of making your startup work.
- You get a level of creative freedom, or power I suppose, that very few people ever achieve. Although a board may guide some decisions, as a founder, you really get to direct incredible amounts of resources. In my lucky case, millions upon millions of dollars in research and development, after what was once the figment of my imagination, as I saw fit. It was exhilarating. Scary too, but it’s a huge rush to see something you imagined starting to take shape. And after all the blood, sweat and tears you threw into it, when it is finally complete, it’s not just a product or a company, it’s your baby.
- You learn faster than anywhere else. Being a founder means you need to be ready to do every single job at the company, whatever it takes. There’s lots of work to do, yes, but there is no faster way to learn than by doing. Personally, I can’t imagine a single career where I would be 31 and already know manufacturing, international supply chain, four different engineering disciplines, hold multiple patents, government contracting, e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retail — the list goes on. This may be a uniquely long list thanks to the amount of work goTenna needed, but I’d say, just about every founder with success gets a really broad base of experience that you can’t get anywhere else.
- With some luck, you can find yourself in a position of financial freedom and happiness quite early in your life.
- Even if you don’t succeed, but particularly if you do, there is a respect for founders that have gone through the gauntlet. You can only be a “first-time founder” one time, and after that, it becomes radically easier to get people to support you on any future endeavors you might have, which means the world is really your oyster. But you’re gonna have to bleed to get there.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty-year-old who is looking to found a business?
This is a question I get often and my answer is a bit unusual… I would ask them “Why do you want to found a business?” The reason this is such a critical question is because I have seen way too many young people throw themselves into idea X, not because they’re actually passionate about making idea X a reality, but because their passion seems to revolve more around the shiny veneer of being a founder of a company. I think people don’t realize how incredibly and crushingly difficult it is to be a founder of a business. It’s an incredible amount of responsibility and work, often done in a very lonely personal space. The only way you’re going to make it through that gauntlet is if you’re in love with making that idea a reality. I loved, I still do love goTenna — I love what it does, and I use it myself (mostly at Burning Man). I wanted it to exist in the world, I thought the world needed it, and that love is what kept me going, even through some truly terrible times. I worry that if it had been more of a passing interest for me, something I was excited about but not in love with, I would have given up — which is what happens to many founders.
Now if your answer is that you really want to make X happen, then we’re on the right path, and now I feel ok giving advice. Know how to answer these questions:
What problem are you solving with your business? How big of a problem is it? Has anyone else solved in some other way? Why is your solution the best? What is your go-to-market strategy and its associated timeline? What would stop someone from just ripping you off once you figure out the hard bits? How does the money you’re asking for match up with a runway for what you want to achieve? These are key questions investors would be diving into.
DO YOUR RESEARCH before you start working on this! Go to people that have no reason to give you friendly advice, and get their opinion. You’re not looking for agreement, you’re looking for smart people that will come at your idea with a spiked baseball bat. It’s better for them to punch holes into your ship while you’re still in the drydock than when you’re halfway out to sea. Remember a startup is going to be YEARS of your life at best, you don’t want to waste that precious time on an idea that is just OK, wait for the idea that is GREAT and makes you terribly excited. Something that wakes you up in the morning and you can’t stop thinking about, you can’t stop telling friends about. Kind of like a relationship, it should feel like that, because well, it’s going to be a long-term choppy one for sure.
Don’t do it alone. Get advisors, build yourself a support network — because you’re going to need it to get through this. This is something I did not do and wish I had.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Elon Musk, without a doubt. He’s probably the greatest engineer alive today and I am in awe of the amount of risk he took to make Tesla and SpaceX. He literally put everything on the line to the point of being basically homeless to make those incredibly important companies a reality. Not to mention all the other cool stuff he’s doing with AI, human-brain interfaces, etc. I think it would be an incredibly interesting and heavily geeky conversation. He’s also clearly a weirdo and Burner, which is my kind of crew.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can follow me personally on Instagram @soundsommelier. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I’m not really active but have plans to be soon, @jperdomoz. You can also follow goTenna @gotenna and my Fluffy Cloud project at @realfluffycloud.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!