A Story of Innovation: Parisian Pioneer Behind Our Everyday Tech
Philippe Kahn is a renowned technology innovator and entrepreneur, credited with having created the very first mobile camera phone solution that allowed users to instantly share pictures to public networks.
A true pioneer, Kahn has created several pieces of technology that are used by millions of people every day. He continues to innovate in this field with a current focus on wearable technology. Kahn’s latest venture Fullpower Technologies is a a leader in wearables and IoT (Internet of Things) with the Sleeptracker® & Sleeptracker-AI platforms (and won first design award of 2016 with Mondaine Horological Smartwatch).
Kahn also set up and was CEO of LightSurf Technologies, which was acquired by VeriSign in 2005 for £300+ million; Starfish Technologies, Inc, which was acquired by Motorola in 1998 for $300+ million; and Borland Software, which is now a part of Micro Focus. Three of the four companies he started, were co-founded with his wife Sonia.
(NB this interview was conducted in 2012 for Mad Men of Mobile — updated interview to follow soon).
Newnham: Can you tell me about your background and who inspired you?
Kahn: I come from a working-class background in Paris and was the first in my family to graduate from high school. My family are master cabinet makers, self-educated in the arts and sciences so, in grade school, I spent all my time making things in our cabinet shop or playing music. Both these pastimes fostered invention and improvisation, which have followed me throughout my career.
“My father was always my hero. He was a mechanical engineer and extremely hard-working, and he taught me that I could start anything from scratch, which is what I did when I moved to the States.”
I think it’s also because most of my family are musicians that studying mathematics and music seemed like the most natural subjects to study when I went to college. I became passionate about math and how to build technology that could improve the lives of everyday people. It is what I have worked on ever since.
My family inspired me. My father was always my hero. He was a mechanical engineer and extremely hard-working, and he taught me that I could start anything from scratch, which is what I did when I moved to the States. Inspiration also came from my grandfather. He was a fantastic master cabinetmaker and a great Swing-Musette musician — even now, I play his restored accordion every day.
“Silicon Valley was legendary for technology, and I wanted to be close to that energy.”
Newnham: After working as a programmer, you left Europe for Silicon Valley in the early ’80s armed with a suitcase and tourist visa. Tell me about your first job and how you progressed on to your first business, consulting for clients, including Hewlett-Packard.
Kahn: Silicon Valley was legendary for technology, and I wanted to be close to that energy. I was a technologist who had arrived with no Green Card, so I couldn’t officially work in any technology business, but I visited a computer store in San Jose one day called Horizon Systems and, while there, I noticed there was a line of people who wanted printer cables. I approached the owner of the store and said I could make them, so naturally he gave me a try.
Printer cables in the mid ’80s were complex because there were no industry standards, but I was able to make some and sold them to Horizon Systems for $40, which they then resold for $95. The store owner and I were both happy with the arrangement, so soon I was hiring a couple of apprentice cable makers and training them up to help me out.
Each one of us could make three to four an hour, and at the time, there was an infinite demand — it was before WiFi, so cables were used by every household back then. This granted me a good income stream while allowing me to start doing some consulting work for companies such as Hewlett-Packard, who couldn’t have hired me ordinarily as an employee because, of course, I didn’t have a work permit. That’s when things changed for me.
“Finally, it taught me about humility and hard work. If you want to compete with the big players, it is crucial that you innovate and continue to do so. No one can afford to rest on their laurels, not even the big guys.”
Newnham: From there, you went on to found Borland, just a year after arriving in Silicon Valley. Can you tell me about the business and what it was like competing with Microsoft?
Kahn: Yes, Borland was an “offspring” of my different activities that I founded and ran for over 12 years. We were small, so we had to be creative and we had to be better. We put together two key products: Sidekick, the first desktop organizer, and Turbo Pascal, the first integrated programming environment. Both were runaway successes and sold via mail order, but it didn’t start out like that so I had to learn very quickly how to market the products.
One memorable event was my very first press conference in Las Vegas’ COMDEX show (Computer Dealers’ Exhibition). I asked the organiser, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, for credit so that I could have a small booth and host a press conference but he said, “If you can’t afford to pay me upfront, perhaps you should ask McDonald’s?” He was clearly joking but I thought about it… then proceeded to set up my first press conference in Las Vegas at McDonald’s! Still, a handful of journalists turned up and among them was Jerry Pournelle who wrote for Byte. He wrote about my technology, which got the sales flooding in, and the rest, as they say, is history. Borland took off like a rocket ship.
I made mistakes while I was there though — especially as CEO. The truth is that I am not a natural salesman, and that is what the company needed. I prefer to stay in the background, working on the innovation, so that is what I should have done. I was basically a scientist running a business with over 3,000 staff. The Ashton deal, in particular, was a big blunder for me, but, like I said, I was completely outside of my element at the time [under Kahn’s leadership, Borland bought software company Ashton-Tate for $440 million, but both businesses faltered following the acquisition]. In hindsight, what we should have done is hire someone to replace me so that I could focus all my energies on what I am good at and passionate about — making technology. But we didn’t.
I never went to business school, so effectively Borland was my business school. I learned a lot on the job, though. I learned that my natural instinct to focus on innovation, invention, and quality are a great recipe for success. I also learned that it’s not an individual that brings success but a team of great people, working together. Like any successful team in the sports world, a team who work well together with a common goal to achieve have the ability to succeed.
Finally, it taught me about humility and hard work. If you want to compete with the big players, it is crucial that you innovate and continue to do so. No one can afford to rest on their laurels, not even the big guys.
Newnham: You set up Starfish Software in 1994, the first of three companies you have founded with your wife. What do you think makes you such a successful team?
Kahn: I think it is because Sonia and I have very similar backgrounds: we were recent immigrants from working-class backgrounds and successful academic trajectories. We both work hard because we know what it takes. We also share our love for practicing the arts, so that helps put everything in perspective.
I think what also helps is that we understand each other and complement each other. We don’t have arguments other couples have when building a business because we don’t need to tell each other that we work too hard. We understand what is necessary to succeed.
We also know how to employ great people, which is important. We hire people who are smart and know what they are doing so that we don’t have to micro-manage them. They are all hard-working team players.
Newnham: The birth of your daughter was a momentous occasion, not just for you as a parent. Can you tell me about the first picture you took of Sophie and why it is so important?
Kahn: It was the first time you could “Point, Shoot, and Share” instantly. It’s what every camera phone does now, but in 1997, it was incredible to send two thousand friends and family that birth picture of baby Sophie. It was a first and something I am extremely proud of for several reasons. It was like magic.
My next business, LightSurf, was then built around the camera phone and all the infrastructure that makes “Point, Shoot, and Share”, instantly work. We patented and licensed that technology worldwide. It became a significant growth/profitable business which became of great interest to VeriSign, so they acquired it.
I must point out the importance of patenting innovations in order to protect them. It was a good decision for us to do this with all our inventions, and we did this from the beginning. Knowledge is good and powerful, but inventions need to be protected.
Newnham: Your fourth and current business is Fullpower Technologies. Can you tell me about its MotionX platform and where you think the future lies for the technology you invented?
Kahn: MotionX leads the mobile-sensing revolution, with over 15 million users of our technology. With a broad IP portfolio, the MotionX platform powers leading solutions from companies such as Nike, Jawbone, Comcast, Pioneer, JVC, and others. We see iPhone and iPad applications as a showcase for the MotionX technology platform, and our applications are leading the way in several sectors such as health, fitness and navigation.
Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand are two of our most popular user products. I think they have done so well because they are easy-to-use, priced attractively, and are elegantly designed. The space is still not without its problems, though. Our main obstacles that we are continuously working on include making these devices smaller, which means making the batteries smaller, longer-lasting, and faster-charging. We also need better power management of the batteries and better algorithms to ensure that the readings are as accurate as they can be.
Accuracy, as you can imagine, is really crucial here; not all products on the market are that accurate, which is a problem. It especially matters to users who wear our devices to measure their fitness levels. Why use a device to calculate how many steps you take if it misses some? Our Jawbone UP device also does a great job: it accurately monitors sleep while having a long battery life.
We are always looking at the industries best-served by this technology, which include the medical space. The future will see devices that one can swallow, for example; that can travel through the body and report findings but that are non-invasive. On the wrist, it’s going to be devices that work jointly with smartphones and the cloud and that are more elegant in appearance.
Finally, there is the sports world. There is a new generation of tools that will help athletes monitor their heart rates and other vital biometrics — all of which can contribute to improved performance when measured and reviewed.
Newnham: Invention and innovation go hand-in-hand. What particular characteristics do you think tech pioneers like yourself and Jobs have which makes you able to create products that have such a profound effect on our everyday lives?
Kahn: I always focus on innovative technology, real inventions, and quality. Business success comes as a natural consequence. Not to say it is easy to innovate. It takes a lot of passion, hard work, and foresight, but with the right team and technology, you can achieve anything. Timing is also key: one can be too quick or slow to market, and both are equally problematic.
But our focus has always been innovation, invention, and quality, so it was a natural match to do business with Apple. When Steve Jobs ran the “Think Different” campaign, I was totally inspired and remained so. I think, like Steve, I am good at creating a practical future for users, one where technology sits seamlessly in their everyday lives. I think also we both always focused on one thing at a time which is also critical to success in this industry. Steve had a razor-sharp focus on Apple, every day, and that is really what made him and Apple successful.
“I keep creating and building businesses because I do what I love. I’m not a businessman. I’m a creator, an inventor, and an innovator.”
Newnham: Part of your success has been due to your ability to build and create. Can you tell me what makes a good inventor?
Kahn: I am a designer. I love starting with a blank piece of paper and a pen. Then, I like to build a prototype. And, very importantly, I like to work with a great team. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to attract the most talented collaborators, and like I said before, a successful company and product comes from a great team that works well together.
I keep creating and building businesses because I do what I love. I’m not a businessman. I’m a creator, an inventor, and an innovator. I focus on doing my job and putting together the best teams. Together, we build innovation. And, in terms of engineering for innovation, a great engineer is focused on quality, performance, and needs to be a team player.
It is also important to test your technology. I have always been a keen sailor and test my technology when I am out on the water, which is almost every day; it’s my meditation. I am always testing different sensors from pressure to humidity, as well as navigation, which relies heavily on accuracy. I also monitor my sleep to ensure that I have the optimum amount in order to compete, which I regularly do. Sometimes, I am out at sea for a week or more. I believe that part of the reason we do well in these competitions is undoubtedly because we have managed to optimize our sleep patterns compared to our competitors.
The sailboat has essentially become the MotionX laboratory, and all these factors we review while out at sea ensure that we cover every aspect of designing and building the devices that users will carry in their everyday lives. Whether it’s to monitor their sleep patterns, heart rates, fitness levels, or vital biometrics, users will soon be reviewing this information at the touch of a button.
“I have always lived my life like that. I build high-tech businesses frugally, which has worked wonders with four companies.”
Newnham: A lot of technology startups seek funding while developing a product or service, but with your businesses, you build them very successfully without such help. What’s the secret?
Kahn: Each to their own, I say. I grew up in a cabinet shop where we lived on a cash basis — cash that we kept in a shoebox. If we built a nice custom armoire for a wealthy customer, we’d get a new pair of shoes, go to the movies, and have dinner at the cafe next door. It was as simple as that.
I have always lived my life like that. I build high-tech businesses frugally, which has worked wonders with four companies.
Newnham: What plans do you have for the future, and where do you see the future of mobile?
Kahn: Like I said, I love what I do, so my plan is to keep on doing what I do! I’m always working on the future of mobile. We first created the IP for wireless synchronization, then the camera-phone. I think the camera now will play a big part in the future of mobile phones. It will get better at taking both photos and videos in all conditions, including the use of night vision.
I also think we will see a surge in improved mobile technology around security, including facial recognition, as well as payments and sensing. I believe there is a lot of innovation that we will bring to market with mobile sensing in the near future — some of which I’m afraid I can’t talk about now.
This excerpt (edited for brevity) is taken from Mad Men of Mobile (2013), available on Amazon. #madmenofmobile
My second book, a collection of one-on-one interviews with female founders and innovators in tech, will be released Spring 2016.
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