On this week’s episode of the Full Stack Leader, we interview Felix Zhao, CEO at Cassia Networks.
Felix, an experienced inventor and innovator, discusses Bluetooth-powered IoT solutions, emphasizing their pivotal role in education, digital health, and personnel management. He also explains the advantages of Bluetooth in IoT due to its low power consumption and cost-effectiveness, stresses the crucial role of cybersecurity in the rapidly growing world of connected devices, and discusses the significance of staying adaptable and pivoting based on market feedback.
Top leadership tips from Felix Zhao
Below is a summary of the top Leadership tips shared during this week’s interview. Listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips:
- Be wise and sincere
- Stay courageous
- Pursue continuous innovation
- Be customer-centric
- Stay focused
We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find more Full Stack Leader episodes here.
Part 1: On experience and innovation
Ryan: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Full Stack Leader podcast. This week, I’m here with Felix Zhao. He is the CEO of Cassia Networks. Cassia is a leading provider of enterprise Bluetooth IoT products and solutions. I’m really excited to have you here today, Felix. I’m glad you could join.
Felix: Thank you, Ryan. Thank you for having me today.
What Cassia Networks does
Ryan: Absolutely. So let’s start by talking about what Cassia Networks is and how it works.
Felix: Cassia Networks is the leading provider of enterprise Bluetooth IoT products and solutions. We make a long-range Bluetooth gateways and the network management software for enterprise IoT customers.
Our products have been used widely for industrial IoT, digital health, smart buildings, smart campus, asset tracking, and many other applications in more than 35 countries in the world.
Ryan: That’s amazing. It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of global work to get the world connected.
The exciting world of IoT
Ryan: I was doing a little bit of research on you and I found that you’ve won a number of awards over the last little bit, including the Best of CES, which is wildly impressive, as well as Bluetooth Imagine Blue Innovation Award in 2017. Tell us why Cassia Networks is winning so many awards. What about it is so exciting?
Felix: Yeah, I guess there are three things.
The first the IoT is such a a a rapid rapidly growing and exciting space. Trillions of IoT devices are online now and will grow continuously in the future. It will fundamentally change the how we live, how we work and how we play in the future.
The Bluetooth is really a big part of that. WiFi just consumes too much power for IoT devices that use batteries for power supply. And Bluetooth is extremely low-power and low-cost. It’s a dominant technology for consumer tech applications, but for enterprise IOT applications its range is too short, it’s a one-to-one communication, and its network management capability is very limited – and Cassia has changed that.
We we make the first long range Bluetooth gateway in the world and make it enterprise grade gateway that is very reliable, secure and scalable. And for the first time, customers can use the Bluetooth IoT networks to access thousands or even millions of Bluetooth devices in the enterprise environment – and Cassia has a lot of innovation, a lot of patents for these unique and fundamental technologies. That’s probably the second reason.
The third reason is that once these products were provided to the customers, they really love them. Today, we have a lot of customers that use these technologies and products to solve the real world problems – and they’re very happy about the progress there.
Ryan: Yeah, that sounds really amazing. I can only imagine being able to expand the Bluetooth capabilities opens up a pretty massive market of availability, especially in the enterprise world. And I’m really looking forward to talking to you more about that because I want to hear some perspective as to where the IoT industry is going over the next couple of years.
But first, I’m interested to know, how did you get into the space originally? Where’d you start?
Felix: Yeah, I was working for Cisco for about eight years. I was mostly working on WiFi and cellular technologies at Cisco.
About 15 years ago I left Cisco and started my first company making WiFi routers. That company was acquired by a Cisco competitor, Aruba Networks several years later. So, when our colleagues and my friends learned about me starting this new company doing the Bluetooth IoT, they were quite surprised. They were asking “Why?”, “Why not Wi Fi?” and “Why Bluetooth?”
I told them that, basically, time has changed. WiFi is great for high-bandwidth applications, but for IOT the most important thing is not speed and not bandwidth, but battery life. WiFi is not a good fit for that. On the other hand, the Bluetooth low power has much, much longer battery life – almost 1 to 2 years for calling battery. If you use the same battery for WiFi, it probably only will last for one or two days.
So the difference is not just one or two times – it’s probably like a hundred times difference. That’s why we started to focus on Bluetooth for enterprise IoT. We are very happy that we made that choice because since we released our first products we saw a lot of demand for that – and the growth has been pretty fast.
Inspiration from WiFi
Ryan: Yeah. That’s amazing. I’m really excited to hear about how you guys have expanded that enterprise gateway because it seems like you’ve opened up the concept of Bluetooth into being something more dynamic.
Were you inspired? I know you worked at a venture before, Cassia Networks called Azalea Networks, which I believe is one of the WiFi companies, correct? Were you inspired by some of the work that was done in the WiFi field to bring it over to Bluetooth?
Felix: Yeah, absolutely.
There are certain similarities there, right? Yeah. So, we actually borrowed a lot of concepts from WiFi to Bluetooth. For example, Bluetooth didn’t have a router, a gateway concept at the beginning. It’s a one-to-one communication between a phone or a PC and a Bluetooth end device.
We changed that. We made the first-long range Bluetooth gateway to connect to the Bluetooth end devices 24/ 7. That’s very similar to WiFi. And also we introduce this Bluetooth IoT access controller concept to enterprise IoT. That’s another concept we borrowed from WiFi. And this became very, very popular in the Bluetooth IoT space as well.
Gathering the right team
Ryan: So, when you’re creating something like the first long-range Bluetooth gateway, let’s use that as an example. And you really have to lead people through seeing that vision. How did you hire the right kind of people for that, and how long did it take to develop it?
Felix: Yeah, it was pretty hard because of the Bluetooth. Devices, have to, they have to save power to prolong the battery life. So the transmission power level is very low. To make it a long run, basically, the gateway has to have very high receiver sensitivity. A very good antenna.
And many people thought that was not possible. We have an amazing team, and they overcame a lot of technical difficulties to make that possible and make that a reality. So, we found many patterns along the way. And, The core team actually came from my last startup company, Azalea Networks.
They like to apply their technologies to Bluetooth. And we also hired guys from Cisco, Aruba, HPE, Google, and some other companies. They’re all very young, very passionate professionals, and together, we worked for two years to make this happen.
Overcoming the limitations of technology
Ryan: That’s amazing. So it took two years for you guys to work through those challenges to get there. Were there times during those two years that you weren’t sure if you were gonna make it?
Felix: Oh, many times, because the biggest challenge was that we couldn’t change the Bluetooth protocol, and the Bluetooth and the devices because otherwise, it won’t be compatible with our, basically, the Bluetooth devices that exist today.
So, everything has to be done on the gateway side. So that’s very challenging. Again, our team. It has worked very hard to overcome all those technologies, and eventually, we did. Yeah. So, the gateway today can communicate to a Bluetooth device almost a mile away. In the open-space, outdoor environment.
It connects and can connect to up to 60 devices at the same time. That’s quite amazing. And also we invented the Bluetooth roaming, and that’s also the first in the world.
Exploring the potential applications for technology
Ryan: That’s amazing. Before you invented all of these technologies, though, were you thinking of specific product applications that you could use with them? How did the end-user experience play into your creation?
Felix: Yeah, very good question. Because this is a completely new product category, it can potentially be used for many different applications for the right digital house, industrial IoT, smart home, smart building, and so on and so forth. We were not sure which application would be the key, would be the killer application.
So what we did was that we made a, like, a minimal viable product and brought that prototype to the market as soon as possible. Basically, we let the market tell us which application would be the killer application, and Eventually, we settled on two major target markets: industrial reality and digital health.
Focus and adaptability as key success factors
Ryan: Do you think that settling on those two industries and adding some focus to what you were building helped the product and the release? How were you able to hone in on what you knew was gonna be successful?
Felix: I think staying focused is really key. Yeah. Because, for an early-stage startup company, your resource is very limited.
The last thing you want to do is to spread yourself too thin. The second thing we learned was that you also have to learn constantly to adapt or pivot very quickly if needed because, in the beginning, it’s very hard to know which target market would be the best.
The only way to find that out is by talking to the customers. Working very closely with them and, by trial and error.
Innovation through communication with customers
Ryan: Do you let your engineers talk directly to the customers, or do you have a team that sits in between the engineering team and the customers and translates?
Felix: Yeah, at the beginning, everyone talks to the customer. But, as the company grows, we’ll have a dedicated sales and marketing team that will spend more time talking to the customers.
Ryan: How do they, how do you get them to properly communicate back with the next innovation? Successful innovation would be on the product.
Felix: We encourage our engineers, especially the leaders of the engineering team, to participate in many of the customer calls. We also have a weekly or monthly meeting inside the company to facilitate better communication between the sales team and the engineering team.
It’s really amazing how many creative ideas can be created during those casual or sometimes formal conversations between the teams.
Showcasing the first prototype
Ryan: Yeah, I can imagine. I remember how, in our earlier conversation, you had mentioned as well that you went from thinking smart homes were the first approach that might be the best. But as you got into it, the calls really were coming in from enterprise. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you pivoted and how you used that to your advantage.
Felix: Yeah. As mentioned, at the beginning, we didn’t really know which talking market would be the best.
Our initial guess was that the smart home would be the place to be for us to begin with – it already has so many Bluetooth devices there. And we’re familiar with that space. So, when we had the first prototype product, we brought that to the CES show in Las Vegas back in 2016.
To our surprise, we actually won the Best of CES award there. We had the smallest possible booth there, in a place that very few people would go to. But somehow, they found us, and they saw that it was pretty, innovative, and amazing because the first prototype gateway from Cassia could connect to, like, 22 Bluetooth devices at the same time over 300 meters.
Pivoting to enterprise customers
Felix: Best of CES award put us on the radar screen of a lot of people and companies in that space. And also, under some, free prizes. So pretty soon we got a, a lot of phone calls. But to our even bigger surprise, those phone calls were not from the consumers.
They were from potential enterprise customers. They were really interested in the potential application of this new product for their enterprise IoT applications. We quickly learned that enterprise IoT is a much better fit for us than smart home. The demand there is stronger, and the enterprise customers have more resources to work with us to make it happen.
And we decided to pivot to Enterprise IoT at that moment.
Ryan: It’s funny that you won an award for consumer electronics, and out of that, you ended up in an enterprise space, which is great. But it makes sense because a lot of times when an enterprise sees the possibility of an application, you have lots of variation. So I do get that.
How is working with enterprise customer level and leading through some of the challenges that are different than it might be if you’re thinking about a large consumer base specifically,
Felix: Yeah, the enterprise customers have very high standards and requirements for things like cybersecurity, reliability, and performance; so, over the past few years, we have worked very closely with them to improve on those things.
And eventually, I think those things can be applied to the consumer markets as well. So, at a certain point, we do plan to come back to the consumer market.
The key challenge of Enterprise IoT
Ryan: That makes sense. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing enterprise IoT right now?
Felix: The enterprise IoT market today is very fragmented. It was like the Internet 30 years ago. Many people today probably don’t even know what it was like for the Internet 30 years ago. There were many technologies like ATM, frame relay, and TCP/IP; the current technology is just one of them.
But, pretty soon, everyone started to use TCP/IP for the Internet, and all other technologies just sort of went away, and That’s not the case for IoT today. So, there are still many different technologies out there for different industries. And I think that will be the case for the next few years as well.
Eventually, it will go the same way as what the Internet did. Back 20, 30 years ago. We believe Bluetooth would be the key technology for the eventual standard for local area IoT.
Potential Bluetooth innovations
Ryan: Do you think there’s more Bluetooth innovation that has to happen to allow that to take place?
And do you think there are other networks that are innovating just as fast other network types that are innovating just as fast?
Felix: There are many other technologies for sure, and, in some special cases, they can have a very good application as well, but because Bluetooth is so widely used, and it’s so dominant for the consumer space already, it’s much easier to, expand that into the enterprise IoT space and also, achieve a, like a dominant position there as well. The key technologies that will be needed to enable that to happen are several things, I would say.
The first thing is to have a longer range and transmission, and the Cassia gateways certainly help with that. And second, to have this one-to-many communication capability- that’s what we are doing as well. Third, to enable Bluetooth roaming – Cassia invented that, and customers started to use it a couple of years ago.
And finally, you need to have large-scale network management software for Bluetooth. That’s Not. They’reThey’re completed yet, and we’re working on that.
More data from more devices
Ryan: Yeah, that makes sense. I was wondering how you see the future of the data translating from the device into the cloud. There’s a lot that you can do with it, but do you think that there will be a larger marketplace of tools for people?
Felix: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Ryan: And do you think that that we’re gonna be able to handle the amount and the, I guess, the volume of data that comes back at a device level, to be able to translate it that into something usable?
Felix: Yeah, certainly. The number of devices that will be connected to the Internet using IoT technology will, will be, will be amazing.
Trillions of those devices will be connected during the next few years. And, so, the amount of data those devices will generate will be mind-boggling. Yeah. Fortunately, we have the technology to achieve that today and in the future.
Importance of cybersecurity
Ryan: Do you have any concerns about having that many devices connected together, all that data being into the cloud, how it can be used, and. As you’re thinking about it, what are different ways that we can protect people, such as their homes and their offices, and their cars are more connected?
Felix: I think the cybersecurity will be the key. Yeah. Especially for those mission-critical applications, like industry automation and medical applications, you want to protect the data from being hacked. At Cassia, we have spent a lot of time and energy improving cybersecurity, working very closely with our partners and customers like ABB, Philips, and Medtronic to really make sure that the data is protected.
Future of technology
Ryan: Do you think it’s important for customers or consumers? I would say consumers even more so to understand how their devices are connecting. And or do you think that, in the end, it’s just gonna be so connected that it will be an expectation of the way we live?
Felix: Eventually, I think it would become part of the environment. People wouldn’t even notice. The things around them are connected, actually.
Ryan: And that’s already taking place in a lot of cases.
Felix: Yes, indeed. And even more so in the future, it will make our lives so much better and so much more convenient.
Ryan: Do you find that when you’re working with your engineering teams and looking into the future, you’re still thinking of new ways to disrupt the Bluetooth industry and see if you can find new spots and new patents and new ideas?
Felix: Yes, for sure. Last year, we found the first Bluetooth roaming protocol. This year, we are working on a new mechanism to make roaming work even better and even more secure. The amount of innovation is actually increasing now. It’s increasing for sure.
Ryan: That’s amazing. Thank you. I really appreciate you going into depth around the really mind-blowing things that you’re working on and helping create a network that’s gonna be gigantic. I agree, as I think Bluetooth is a widely adopted protocol that can be used in a lot of different ways.
So it’s exciting to see the technology actually expanding. You are doing the work on that. Thanks for giving your perspective here, and we look forward to coming back in just a minute with your top five tips.
Part 2: Top leadership tips
Ryan: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Felix Zhao. He’s the CEO of Cassia Networks, and I’m really excited to hear his top five leadership tips today. So Felix, maybe we can kick it off with number one. What’s your first tip?
Felix: In his book, “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu listed five cardinal virtues for good general and good leadership: wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.
Thousands of years have passed since Sun Tzu wrote that classic book. I believe it still applies today because human nature hasn’t changed that much since then. For the 21st-century tech leaders, I would like to add four more things: continuous innovation, customer centricity, long-term thinking, and finally, staying focused.
Tip 1: Be wise and sincere
Ryan: Yeah, I really like those. I agree that “The Art of War” has a real intelligence and wisdom provided by so much longevity to it, and the fact that it could go this many centuries and still be applicable speaks to the underlying truth that it really tapped into.
And you’re the first person to actually bring it up in these sessions. But it makes a lot of sense because those are five amazing tips right out of the gate. Maybe we can talk really quickly about a couple of “The Art of War” tips, but then also go into some of the additional additions that you provided as well.
Related, I think the first tip around it is wisdom, and there are lots of different types of wisdom. How would you classify wisdom in the case of great leadership in tech?
Felix: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think wisdom is different from intelligence and just being smart.
If you can solve a problem, I think you are intelligent or smart, right? Yeah. But wisdom is more than that. It’s about not only solving the problem but also knowing what problem to solve. So, you can say it’s a higher-level or second-level intelligence. And many times that can only, you can only, gather the wisdom by, by really doing that.
Ryan: Yeah. That’s a great rundown on that. And I do like how you’re splitting up intelligence and wisdom. That makes sense. I think we’re, separately sincerity, the concept of that along with benevolence, they relate to each other. Sure. What do you how do you think those two things work together?
Felix: Yeah, sincerity, the word in Chinese, 信 (xin) actually has several meanings. “sincerity” is one of them. The other, you can probably translate that into, say, “trust and integrity.” And I believe it’s the foundation for good leadership. No one would like to follow a leader who is not sincere and who pretends to be something he’s not.
And I remember that Warren Buffet once said, “If you want to have a good employee, you would like to have three things basically: integrity, energy, and intelligence.” So very similar to what Sun Tzu said. And, if you want to have a good leader, integrity and sincerity are definitely very important.
If you don’t have that, you probably don’t want to have a very intelligent person there, right? Yeah. So you want to have a dumb person. ’cause the more intelligent a person is, the more harm it can cause to the organization.
So, the benevolence people were often surprised by Sun Tzu having that in his criteria for a good military commander. But actually, it makes a lot of sense to me because, again, the subordinates needed to have the confidence that their leaders have their best interests in mind.
If they don’t have that confidence, they won’t want to follow that leader. And, I also think that benevolence really has to go with the last, quality, strictness, otherwise, if you. You are just benevolent, and if you’re not strict, you are just a nice guy, but you may not be a very effective leader.
Ryan: Yeah. Like almost you need the structure to go with that inspiration. Correct.
Felix: So the important thing is really about the balance. A good leader needs to strike a very good balance there.
Tip 2: Stay courageous
Ryan: Yeah. And then, the fourth one, the last one we’ll talk about, is courage, right? And courage in technology. It’s interesting because courage on the battlefield makes sense. I understand that. But how does courage work in the business world, especially around innovation, for you?
Felix: Yeah, especially for a high-tech startup company, you need a lot of courage – otherwise, you wouldn’t start to begin with.
Ryan: That makes sense. Yeah, that makes sense. You’re trying; you’re trying something that’s not really been done before. That’s risky.
Felix: Yeah. And even for a larger company, you have to take risks at times, right?
Yeah. So, if you don’t have the credit to do that, it’s very hard to do great things and to really grow the company.
Tip 3: Pursue continuous innovation
Ryan: Yeah. That’s great. And I think those segue into yours, which is continuous innovation. So once you get going. I think that feels like it ties a little bit to strictness as well as wisdom and blending some of those pieces.
Maybe talk about the continuous innovation part.
Felix: Yeah, because technologies have evolved so quickly. During the past few decades, the pace has accelerated.
Ryan: Accelerating, yeah. It’s faster.
Felix: Yeah. You cannot just innovate once; you have to do it constantly. And that’s the only way to guarantee the continued success and growth of a high-tech company. And to encourage innovation. I think a leader must be passionate about innovation himself and also create an environment that encourages taking risks and tolerating failure – and that’s super important.
Tip 4: Be customer-centric
Ryan: Yeah. And building, building those things, culture in a way that is rewarded and people are excited by it. Yes. But they also, they, but they also stay with number two, which is customer focus, so you don’t lose your marker of where you’re going.
Felix: Yeah, absolutely. You said it very well, with our customer focus. How do we innovate for? Yeah, so it’s not for academic purposes; it’s for customers. And, yeah, I firmly believe that the key to the success of the company is just delighting your customers and making your customers happy.
Ryan: And I think, as you guys have proved, that sometimes, really great tech leadership is able to determine which customer to focus on because sometimes we think we should be focusing on one customer base.
So we find out, for whatever reason, that actually doesn’t make sense – whether maybe it’s not financially viable customer base, or it’s a customer base that, you’re not really solving a problem for them that they need to be solved, but make that leadership decision around which customer to focus on.
Felix: Yeah, that’s a very good point. That’s, I think, where this “wisdom” part comes into play.
Ryan: And as you’re thinking about that too, the third one, long-term thinking, yes. Maybe why is that important in such a fast evolutionary business?
Felix: Yeah. The technologies are changing very fast. There are some things that don’t change. I remember Bezos of Amazon once said, “A hundred years from now, people will still like high-quality products, low price.” I don’t think that will ever happen.
Ryan: That makes sense.
Felix: So it’s a good basic truth,
Tip 5: Stay focused
Felix: Very basic truth. And I think people tend to forget that human nature actually remains almost the same for the past thousands of years. And we need to adapt to the new technology for sure.
But we also need to keep in mind the fundamental needs of our customers; they don’t change, and we want to focus on the things that don’t change during a very fast-changing environment. And secondly, a lot of innovation takes time.
If you have to do it on a monthly or quarterly basis, it just won’t work. You have to have long-term thinking to make sure your strategy is consistent over the years to provide the best service for your customers.
Ryan: That makes total sense. That requires focus to do it, which I think is a good overall theme for your leadership.
And the things that we’ve been talking about, ’cause there’s different ways in which you can focus, different areas of which you should focus. So maybe you can talk a little bit about staying focused.
Felix: That’s probably the biggest lesson we learned during my startup years.
It’s very easy to say but very hard to do because, first, I think it’s always very tempting to try many different things at the same time to hedge your badge and reduce risk. But, as we just talked about, for a very early-stage startup company, that’s actually the last thing you want to do.
That will spread you too thin and almost guarantee failure. And the second thing is, when you invent a new technology, you will find a lot of applications for that. It’s like when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
To be successful, we really have to resist that temptation to do everything at the same time, to really have the discipline and courage to say “no” to a lot of temptations in life – and I found that to be the most difficult part of my past ten years as a startup leader.
Ryan: That makes sense. Very shiny objects – such as winning the 2016 CES Best Show award – are exciting, but they may also not be the exact right thing. Staying focused on figuring out the right thing, right?
Alright. It was wonderful. I appreciate all of the insight you provided today. It was great talking to you about some of the really exciting things that are happening in the IoT space, as well as really foundational leadership, things like “The Art of War.” It’s really amazing how these two things can really be in the same conversation.
Felix: Yeah. It was so great talking to you, Ryan. Thank you very much.