Interviewing Phunware – Top Austin app Developer
About Alan Knitowski, CEO of Phunware:
Alan is a successful serial entrepreneur with multiple exits over a 15-year period to companies including Cisco Systems, Level 3 Communications and Internet Security Systems (now NYSE: IBM). He was a 2014 Finalist for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Central Texas and has been a Founder, Executive, Angel Investor and Fund Manager throughout his career in the private sector after serving in the United States Army as an Airborne, Air Assault and Ranger qualified Captain in the Corps of Engineers.
As a mobile and multiscreen industry expert, Alan is frequently quoted in trade publications, serves as a panelist at industry events and writes for the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerators Blog. He holds an MSIE degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, an MBA degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a BSIE degree from The U. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Alan is passionate, informed and tireless. He cares more about Phunware’s visibility and success than his own, and will embrace any opportunity to evangelize Phunware. Alan put mobile, native and full integration first before the rest of the world went mobile, and maintained this focus as other companies attempted non-native development.
Phunware is the pioneer of Multiscreen as a Service (MaaS), a platform that lets brands engage, manage and monetize their users anytime, anywhere. Phunware creates category-defining mobile experiences for the world’s most respected brands, with more than 650 million devices touching its platform every month.
Phunware has ranked 2nd among the top Austin app developers, and here we ask Alan a few questions.
What advice do you continue to heed?
In the military I was taught to keep a mental note: “I wish it would suck more here.” The idea behind that philosophy is that the worse the trial, the better the learning opportunity. Leading a company means weathering an unending series of ups and downs without being swept away by them. Successes are what we work toward, and failures and struggles are opportunities in disguise.
Another favorite piece of advice: You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak. Listening is one of the most powerful tools we have, and it’s free.
Where do you see Phunware 3-5 years from now?
According to Gartner, the internet of things will contain 6.4 billion “things” by the end of 2016, and Juniper Research predicts that it will contain 38.5 billion by 2020. My vision is for Phunware to index every device in the internet of things over the next decade. (Phunware is well on its way, having already indexed 650 million devices.) Although social networks like Facebook have massive user bases, they are “walled gardens:” they can only touch their own users. Phunware, on the other hand, can touch any device that runs a Phunware app or Phunware digital advertising.
This vision is not about amassing an enormous quantity of users, but about building the world’s greatest indoor/outdoor, contextually-aware user engagement and targeting tools. Phunware’s app portfolios are the conduit to it all.
What is your take on the current app market? Does it still have life or is it being overtaken by bots?
There’s been a huge shift to people spending most of their time in-app. In fact, consumers now spend 90% of their mobile-media time in apps, so it’s safe to assume the app market will live on. Apps will continue to play a big role not just because of the experiences they enable, but because they’re giving brands incredible data and deeper insights into their customers than ever before. Instead of depending on traditional methods like cookies or traffic data to measure success, apps are providing brands with unprecedented levels of details and insights of who their customers are, where they spend their time in-app, the places they frequent and more. Utilizing this data gives brands a detailed view of how and when to engage their users that results in conversions.
What do you hate about apps that you use frequently?
The levels of engagement that apps offers enable great experiences for users, but there’s nothing worse than having that experience be interrupted by an ad. For example, if I’m playing a game, having an ad pop up in front of me will not only slow or stop my experience, but likely turn me away. I’m not adverse to ads, but I believe there are ways for brands to create branded experiences that enhance my experience instead of detracting from it.
What do you know now about running a startup that you wish you’d known earlier?
I wish I had known earlier that how you structure, fund and monetize a company is even more important than what your idea is and what types of products, solutions and markets that you offer to the world. How to structure is tied to creating a “Delaware C Corporation” to maximize your ability to raise money and account for the equity that you want not only your investors to have, but also your founders, employees, advisors and directors. How to fund is tied to the decisions around bootstrapping versus Angel investment versus venture investment versus corporate strategic investment versus private equity investment … and the desire to use debt and equity in some combination to start, grow and scale your business. And how to monetize is tied to whether you intend to keep a company private forever and use it as a personal piggy bank, or whether you want to ultimately sell it or take it public to cash in on the investment of time, effort and money made over the years of running it.
Just like any other startup, I’m sure you would’ve hit a rough patch at some point. What did you tell yourself to keep going?
I always expect rough patches for start-ups as it’s a fairly fundamental reality for every entrepreneur choosing this type of career path as a livelihood. Being an ex-Army Ranger and having served in the military for many years, quitting or giving up have never been options for consideration. No matter how difficult things get, it’s always important to keep calm, address the issues and move things forward—hour by hour, day by day, week by week and month by month. The biggest failure of most startups is allowing themselves to believe that they can’t or won’t be successful. Once you convince yourself that it is OK to fail, you will, with certainty.
What would you consider to be your USP (that one thing that you’re best at!)?
My strongest trait is the ability to do game theory at a high level. Expecting the unexpected is fairly normal in young companies, but being able to use game theory to maximize your chances for success is critical. I would always rather be lucky rather than good, but it’s better if you can be both. Game theory forces you to understand all of the things that could or couldn’t happen and how to best determine what cards to play and what actions to take to get the outcomes that you’re looking for. It also ensures that you are never unprepared for a meeting and that you have already worked through all likely potential objections and how to overcome them.
How would you explain an ‘app’ to someone who knows nothing about it?
An app is really just an experience for users to enjoy. It is something a user launches to enable a window into things that interest them as individuals—whether for entertainment and enjoyment or to get something done. A well-done app provides value and utility to users who want to engage with the brands, content, venues and activities of interest in their lives.
Who was/is your inspiration in the tech world?
I have always respected Steve Jobs and Elon Musk—not for their personalities, but for their passion for creating amazing companies, over and over and over again. Serial entrepreneurship can be a disease as much as an asset— doing it well ultimately takes a toll on you and your family alike. But in terms of thinking big, changing the world we live in and aspiring to achieve the impossible, no two people in my lifetime have been more influential than these men.