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In episode 23 we speak with guest Zach Supalla, Founder & CEO of Particle to find out how companies can bring their IoT products to market faster, with full-integration done in one place!

Particle is a fully integrated hardware, software and connectivity platform for IoT products and connected devices, making it easier for manufacturers to bring their physical products online and go-to-market, with over 8,500 IoT success stories their products are trusted by companies around the world.

Zach is widely recognised for his Entrepreneurial and Leadership abilities, developing start-up IoT products to a global scale.

We begin the episode by discovering how Particle has helped evolve companies go-to-market time and determine the success of their IoT solution. Zach then leads us towards what a typical full-stack integration looks like using Particle, showcasing the Tacker One Reference product to display use cases and the intertwinement of hardware and software. We end the episode exploring the effect a good time-to-market strategy has on an IoT products success and what we can expect in the future regarding new IoT players and strategies.

Tune in and discover:

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    • Zach’s background and what Particle does? 00:51-03:35
    • What do your customers use your products for? What are the common use cases? 03:35-05:35
    • What differentiates Particle as a company? 05:35-08:23
    • What does a typical full-stack product integration piece look like using Particle? How can customers get to market quickly? Example: The Tracker 1 reference product 08:23-12:24
    • Does a good time-to-market strategy determine the success of an IoT product? 12:24-15:20
    • How has Particle and your customers been affected by the pandemic? 15:20-20:16
    • Where can we expect to see IoT in the years to come, what role will Particle play in this? 20:16-25:53
Tom White:
Welcome to the IoT podcast. I’m your host, Tom White. Today I’m joined by Zach Supalla. Zach is the founder and CEO of Particle. Particle is a fully integrated hardware and software consultancy, connecting platforms or IoT products and connected devices. Particle makes it easier for manufacturers to bring their physical products online. Zach’s widely recognized for his entrepreneurial and leadership abilities and developing IoT products on a global scale. Zach, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Zach Supalla:
Absolutely. Thanks, Tom, for having me.

What does Particle do?

Tom White:
You’re very welcome. Zach, as always, when we have new people on the show, could you just start by explaining a little bit about your background and obviously what Particle does?

Zach Supalla:
Yeah, absolutely. So I got into this, I started particle in 2012, in what was the early days of IoT. And my background previous to that was on the business side. I used to be a management consultant working at McKinsey & Company. A lot of my clients were, I worked in supply chain, product development, operations. So I was generally working with manufacturers of products, so that’s some of the background that led me into this product. But in the early days of the company, we started not as a platform, but launching a product. So I was one of the many entrepreneurs who in the 2012, 2013 era were attempting to launch a Nest for X, seeing what Nest was doing with thermostats and applying that in a different area.

Zach Supalla:
I was interested in lighting. My dad is deaf and I wanted to make his lights flash when my mom sent him a text message. And I was generally interested in the ways that we could create new experiences through connected lighting if these products had APIs, if software developers had access for interacting with hardware in the physical world. That turned into a failed Kickstarter campaign for that product. And when that campaign hit its end and we hadn’t achieved our fundraising goal, me and my early team stepped back and said, okay, what did we learn from this? What’s the next opportunity for us? And we had learned firsthand how complicated the technology stack under the hood was to bring an IoT product to market that, generally speaking, connecting products requires a combination of skills. You have to be really good at classic hardware design and manufacturing skills. You also have to be very good at web and mobile software skills, security, connectivity, networking, things like that. There are very few companies that have that breadth of skill.

Zach Supalla:
And so we said, what if we can help other companies create Nest and Tesla-like products by creating an integrated platform that we can sell to them to power their connected products. And so that’s what Particle’s now become. We’re the most widely used IoT platform. We have a hundred enterprise customers with 1,000 startups deploying products on Particle. 8,500 companies in developments with Particle, so different stages of prototyping and pilot of future IoT initiatives. And 200,000 individual developers who have used our platform to build some kind of prototype or proof of concept of something that they are hoping to scale up. So we broad reach in a lot of different verticals and industries. We do industrial equipment, high-end consumer electronics and everything in between.

What are your customers using your products for?

Tom White:
Wow. I mean, they’re not rookie numbers. There’s some serious numbers that you’ve got there, Zach. I mean, what do your clients use your products for in general? I mean, you touched upon there is a wide gamut of use cases, industrial, et cetera, but what’s the common trend that you see people using particle for?

Zach Supalla:
I’d say number one and number two, the most common use cases we see, and I think this is broadly true for IoT, is asset tracking and condition monitoring. So, and a lot of times they overlap. So for instance, we power a number of micro mobility companies. So when micro mobility surged in the last couple years, where all of a sudden scooters and bikes started showing up all over the world, parked on the corner and you could rent them, the connectivity stack behind the scenes, in many cases, was Particle. So for instance, we would call this an asset tracking use case, where the technology need is in order to provide a fleet of rentable vehicles that are distributed around the world, well, you have to know where they are. You have to be able to do things like remotely lock and unlock them. You have to have some ability of remote control, battery, power management, along with just generally really high quality tracking.

Zach Supalla:
So, we do a lot of asset tracking use cases. We’re also in logistics and pallets and equipment rentals and vehicles of a variety of kinds. We’re on equipment on long haul trucks, but that’s one set of common use cases. And then another is condition monitoring, which is more, what is the state of a machine where various kinds of compressors in… As an example, in HVAC air conditioners, or in other environments, where the company who manufacturers that product wants to monitor the state of the compressor, make sure that things are behaving normally. They want to make sure they send somebody out to fix it when there’s problems. That’s probably the number two use case.

Tom White:
Yeah. I mean, it’s fantastic, in a relatively short period of time to have so many different clients, so many different individual people using that. I mean, I’m curious because, I mean, there’s obviously other companies in the world that are doing similar type products and platforms. Without revealing your secret source, but what makes Particle the success it is. And how have you got to that point in such a short period of time?

Zach Supalla:
I think what’s made us unique is really tightly coupling our product with the customer journey. So one of the things that we believe very strongly, that is embedded in our product, is every IoT product starts as a prototype. There’s always the first one. And there are a couple of points in the development of an IoT product that are particularly challenging. The zero to one is one challenging point of going from an idea to a functional prototype. And in the early days of Particle, that’s all we did. When we launched in… the product first hit the market in 2013. And at the time, the only thing we did was make it easy to build IoT prototypes. And so it was all about that zero to one. And that built us a developer community out of the gate of thousands of people who were using particle to build prototypes.

Zach Supalla:
We then were able to, we were having conversations with thousands of companies that were intending to build products to scale. And we got to learn from them, what are the things that you want to do? Why do you want to do them? What are the technical challenges associated with doing that? And we built our product and our platform to make it easier for folks to move through that journey, and to do so where all the investment that you make in that first prototype is directly applicable to launching the product at scale. That means that with… You’ve, I’m sure seen research that shows that 75% of IoT initiatives fail. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, but it can generally be tied to high level of technical complexity, lower level of either budget or technical competence applied against that. So people under-resource, underestimate how hard it is to bring an IoT product to market. And inevitably that leads to product project failure.

Zach Supalla:
90% of Particle’s customers get product to market within a year. So that’s the thing that has set us apart is we’ve built a product that makes it easy for companies to go through the journey of developing their IoT product and bringing it to market quickly and effectively. We solve a lot of the technical hurdles around, for instance, security and networking, which are some of the hardest things to get right. And then our customers have a high success rate. So we… I don’t know if we necessarily have started conversations with more companies than other people, but more of our customers tend to be successful. So that, over time, leads to a pretty wide portfolio of customers with product to market.

What does a typical product integration look like using Particle?

Tom White:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s some really good numbers. That within 12 months can go to market. I mean, one of the things I wanted to understand from you is, Particle, obviously, provides a full stack needed for this development. Could you talk us through a little bit about that product integration piece and what that usually looks like using Particle and how people are able, Zach, to get to market so quickly?

Zach Supalla:
Yeah. Well, I’ll give a reference with one of our newest products, which because we do a lot of asset tracking, we recently launched something that we call the tracking system, the Particle tracking system, which is specifically tailored for asset tracking use cases. And so we have what we call a reference product, which is, it’s called the Tracker One. So this is a product that’s probably, how big is this? Like, it’s bigger than a deck of cards. It’s like a deck of Tarot cards in terms of its size. So three inches by six inches by an inch and a half or something like that. This is a, what we call a reference product, which means a customer can buy this and start using it as a tracker. And, out of the box, it will track the location of an asset. We have all the mapping and location services built behind the scenes. That all have happens automatically. It’s running software works, it’s a 30-second set up process and then it’s online.

Zach Supalla:
It’s also fully customizable, and it has, so you can plug in external sensors to be able to track things like temperature and humidity. So if it’s a cold chain application where you want to be able to track vaccines, and you say, I need to know its location, I also need to make sure that it’s staying below a certain temperature, that all works out of the box. And so we’re able to provide an experience to customers that allows them to do a proof of concept with an off-the-shelf product that works exactly the way they expect, but is fully built on APIs so that we can integrate into other IT systems that inevitably all of our customers already have. So all of this geolocation data gets sucked into the system they’re already using to manage logistics.

Zach Supalla:
What makes this a reference product is that it’s open source. And all of the technology inside is a reference design that companies can then use to fully integrate this into their product, their truck, their vehicle, whatever it might be. And so this is what I mean by it’s really easy to get started. So you can do a proof of concept by swiping your credit card, buying an off-the-shelf product. And you can be started later that week. But once you say, what I really want to do is integrate this technology into my product, into my systems, we give you a very clear path to go from this proof of concept to that product at scale. And that’s really something that nobody else does. Nobody else is trying to carve a clear path through that customer journey. Generally speaking, the rest of the technology players in IoT focus on solving a discrete problem. So they’ll say, okay, we’re going to try and solve the security problem. We’re going to provide SIM cards. We’re going to handle device management.

Zach Supalla:
That puts a company in a position where you need to acquire a bunch of different technology products and integrate them. And the average number of technology solutions necessary to build an IoT product is 23. So the alternative to Particle is go work with 23 vendors and pull it all together yourself, which is a high technical burden, and also ends up being very expensive and complicated and slow. Whereas with Particle, we can say one, throat to choke. We give you the whole thing and that’s a much faster and easier path to market.

Tom White:
Yeah. No, I really appreciate that, and I think you’re only as strong as the weakest link within the chain. So if you’ve got 23 companies, project planning around that and knowing where you get from each point, it’s going to be a domino effect with being late sometimes, isn’t it?

Zach Supalla:
Exactly. And it’s not like we’re doing that on behalf of our customers. We have 23 vendors behind the scenes because, for instance, our connectivity modules come from Qualcomm, so we’re partnering with the same companies that our customers would partner with. But we’re just pulling it all together and then making it work out of the box.

Does a good time to market determine the success of an IoT product?

Tom White:
Yeah. And do you think that’s one of the key differentiations that people can have in determining the development of a successful IoT product, that time to market, strategy, the fact that you’ve got those vendors, but you’re putting it all together, you’re project managing it, so to speak, on behalf of those people. Do you think that’s one factor that can determine the success of the development of a product?

Zach Supalla:
Yeah, I do. And what I’ve seen is, early days, we used to describe our value proposition really being about time to market, where we would say if you build it yourself, you’re going to have to hire 30 engineers, and it’s going to take three years. And if you build it with us, then you can do it with two engineers in six months. That was the sort of… It was about time to market and development costs. But what we saw was those things directly affected success and failure rate. Because what would happen is, the problem with something that takes three years and requires 30 engineers is by the time you actually get close to launching your product, the technology landscape has changed.

Zach Supalla:
So for instance, we’ve seen this a lot with the transition of cellular technologies. If you started working on a product, an IoT product three years ago, you probably were building it with 3G. Because at that point, the parts of LTE that are designed for IoT were pretty young. They were pretty nascent. LTE was generally very expensive for IoT products, so you would pay five or ten times as much for an LTE modem as you would for 3G. And 3G was still very viable. So you started working with 3G and then you worked on it for three years, and then you got close to launching. And now all the carriers are telling you that they’re sunsetting 3G. They’re giving you timelines for when this product is going to stop working. Everybody’s moved on to LTE and you can’t launch a product. So now you start through R&D cycle again.

Zach Supalla:
And what ends up happening is people end up in this R&D loop where the technology development takes so long that the technology landscape changes underneath you and you never ship your product. And so at some point, some executive is going to come look at this and say, we’ve spent a bunch of money for five years, and we have nothing to show for it. And now I’m going to fire the team and build a new team who knows what they’re doing, and you start the whole process over again. So it’s that loop. I think that time to market and development costs get really closely tied to success because you have to get something in market quickly, so that you can make your mark, you can learn about, you can actually get in front of customers. You can learn about what customers’ real needs are and iterate from there with a real product to market.

Tom White:
Yeah, sure. Sure. No, that’s fantastic. I think it’s clear that there’s a full process going into this and the way that you’ve constructed it, et cetera, and loads of use cases to talk about, loads of different companies that have been on the platform and been able to successfully bring their self to market. So thank you for sharing that.

How has the pandemic shaped IoT?

Tom White:
One thing that I’m curious to understand is, and we’ve asked this to a few people that have come on the show, Zach, is how the pandemic may have affected things or changed things. At the time of recording right now, there’s The Things Conference on in the Netherlands, and many of the people that I speak to have said that there’s been a bit of a slowdown really in deployments and devices, et cetera. But clearly future intent is there to really supercharge this. I mean, how is Particle and your business, your clients, how have you guys been affected by the pandemic, so to speak?

Zach Supalla:
It’s been interesting because the net result is that our business has changed, but not been significantly affected negatively or positively, other than very short-term hits. So when the pandemic first hit in a large-scale way in early 2020, we found a lot of our sales pipeline dried up. Because we were in these conversations with people about innovative new initiatives, and in one week, two-thirds of them became irrelevant. And so we hunkered down along with everybody else to see, okay, what’s the world going to look like as we come out of this? So that happened back in early 2020. Practically speaking, what happened over the course of 2020 is some of our customers did very poorly. Some of them did well. They surprisingly ended up netting out about even. And what I mean by that is, for instance, micro-mobility. We were doing a lot of business in micro-mobility, pre-pandemic.

Zach Supalla:
A lot of those companies went out of business. We do still have some companies who are big users of the platform who are in countries that have managed the virus really well, that are still full steam ahead on micro-mobility. But a lot of our micro-mobility got wiped out, or the business got wiped out. It’s coming back now. Interestingly, micro-mobility is this funny commodity business where it’s easy for a lot of companies to pull off, especially because you have providers like us that will do the heavy lifting behind the scenes. And so the companies we used to be working with, some of them have gone out of business. Now there’s new ones popping up doing the same thing in the same geographies, totally different teams, different companies. So the use case is coming back in a different form.

Zach Supalla:
But what ended up filling the gap of things like micro-mobility that were challenged in the pandemic is air purification and air filtration. So we had some customers who were already using Particle to deploy air filtration systems designed to pull the flu virus out of the air. And a great example of this is we have a customer called Aura Air. They’re an Israeli company. They have been making a pitch for an air purification product saying one day there’s going to be a pandemic and this is the product that will clean your air. It’s specifically designed to pull viruses out of the air. They’d been working on this for years. The pandemic hit, they were right. They were able to do a test with a hospital system in Israel to prove that they could filter out COVID-19 virus particles as easily as they could influenza. And they are now, they’re on a tear. And we have other customers in a similar position, but they’re just really a perfect example of that.

Zach Supalla:
And so the net impact on Particle has been kind of a wash. Different use cases, but the overall business ended up in a very similar place now coming out of the pandemic as it was when we went into it.

Tom White:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s one of the things on IoT in general, because it touches so many different industries. Clearly the pandemic effected some industries catastrophically, tourism, hospitality. But others actually benefit, gained, profited from this situation. And I can see why that makes perfect sense when you’re talking about you’re kind of netting out. It’s interesting, actually, Zach, as well, because it’s not yet published at the time of recording, but we had Hans Nikol from Signify on the show recently, talking about UV-C lighting and the benefits of purification based on UV-C and how one of the solutions that they’re looking at, and one of the solutions some of their partners are looking at, is the air filtration and passing it through a UV-C light.

Where will we see Particle in the future?

Tom White:
So when we all go back to the office or the experience center, or whatever they’re going to be called in the future, perhaps you’re going to see a lot more of this, which will be really exciting, I think. And again, more use cases coming out of bad times, and that’s a really heartwarming thing as a race, that we can do that. There’s been some fantastic tech deployments coming out of really, really critical times that we’ve seen. But on that note, I mean, you’re a successful entrepreneur, Zach. You’ve done very well in your business, it goes about saying. Where are you going in the future? Where is Particle going in the future? What do you see this developing into within the business, but also on a wider scale within IoT? I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on that.

Zach Supalla:
When we’re looking forward with IoT, I think what we see is there’s a mismatch between the marketing story of IoT, of where we are in the hype cycle versus the reality of IoT. And what I mean by that is the majority of companies who are going to be IoT companies in the future are not yet IoT companies. There are an extraordinary number of manufacturers who make some kind of product, who are thinking about how is this product going to become more intelligent, more connected over the next decade, that are just starting their journey now is a… That population is much larger than the people who have already started. And what that means for Particle is that’s our primary customer set, is people who are doing this for the first time. And generally speaking, that means that what the use case for them is the low-hanging fruit, it’s the easiest thing to do. What is the thing that you’re going to do that’s going to create a lot of value with a limited investment right out of the gate?

Zach Supalla:
So for instance, if you have a product that breaks, it’s a big piece of industrial equipment. It lasts for 15 years. The biggest problem you have is that when it breaks, some bad things happen to your customers. Some process has to stop up until somebody can come out and fix it. The easiest thing to go out and do to create value for customers is break-fix. The moment that it breaks, somebody is notified, the correct person gets a text message or an email, and they go fix it immediately. And you can improve the service and maintenance experience around that product with very limited processing of data. It’s literally machine says it broke, somebody shows up to fix it. And that is the kind of thing, it’s the lowest hanging fruit when you think of service and maintenance with IoT, because you just need to get that thing online so it can say, “I’m broken” and that somebody can hear that. That’s usually the kind of place where our customers start.

Zach Supalla:
And then you say, well, now that I’ve got a bunch of these online, I now have a regular stream of machines telling me they’re broken. Now can I start to predict when they’re going to fail? And where I think the hype cycle breaks for IoT is that there’s a lot of folks out there pitching predictive maintenance right now and saying, you can predict when your machines fail. But that’s a little… For a lot of folks who have never had their products connected before, they’re not really there yet, because the first thing you have to do is build a dataset of failure events. You have to get sensors on these things and leave them out there for five or ten years to build a data set of failures that you can use to predict. If you’re trying to do predictive maintenance out of the gate, it’s not going to work. You need failure data to inform that. If you start with break-fix, you can start collecting the data and then layer on predictive maintenance as phase two.

Zach Supalla:
And that’s where we’re going with our customers is we’ve been supporting a lot of phase one roll outs of what is the lowest hanging fruit of the thing that you can do out of the gate. And then they are looking at it and saying, there’s more I want to do. I now have a data stream from these devices. I have opportunity that I have not explored yet with what I’m going to do with this data. What can I do with it? How am I going to do it? How am I going to ingest this data and actually turn it into insight? And that’s what we think of as the future is supporting customers, not just in the initial go to market of their IoT product, but the continuing iteration and expansion of what they’re doing with it over time.

Tom White:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, fantastic. Zach, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. Honestly, your insights have really significant. I mean, we have quite a lot of people on the show, but you’re able to talk so articulately about this quickly and you know exactly where you’re going as a business. So thank you so much. And I genuinely mean this. It’d be lovely to have you back on at some point in the near future just to see where you are with the business and how it’s shaped up to be, because no doubt it’s going on to bigger and successful things than it already is. Of course.

Zach Supalla:
Absolutely. Well, happy to come on anytime. And we have a conference coming up called Spectra. That’s our annual IoT conference. This year it’s digital, of course, because the world is digital this year. And we’ve got some product announcements that we’re excited to share and that’s in March. So would love to connect later this year and talk about some of the new stuff that we’re going to be bringing to market.

Tom White:
Yeah, absolutely. And for our listeners, look out to Particle online. Obviously based on all socials. What are your handles on… are you big on Twitter or anything like that?

Zach Supalla:
Our website is www.particle.io. Our Twitter and Facebook are both @Particle.

Tom White:
All right. Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Zach. We really appreciate you coming on the show and, yeah I’ll be sure to have a look at Spectra myself as well.

Zach Supalla:
All right. Thanks, Tom.

Tom White:
All right. Cheers.

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