Before I started working full-time at RIoT in November 2018, I had a chance to meet with each RIoT team member. I asked how they thought I could bring the most value to RIoT. I also asked how they describe the organization to others.
I got different answers from each person, of course. But there was a thread that connected the conversations: RIoT moves quickly, and the most valuable thing RIoT creates is the value it creates for others. (Also—don’t be surprised when people ask you for RIoT t-shirts. People really like them.)
Almost 18 months later, it’s incredible to reflect on how true those statements are at RIoT. First, RIoT does move incredibly fast. Like, hosts over 90 events in a single year fast. Can plan and launch a new global initiative in two weeks fast. And second, the team’s focus is 100% on the value that it can create for others—jobs created, investment in startups, new smart city projects, even solutions during a mass global pandemic. (And yes, the t-shirts are really popular. It’s the cool factor that comes with being part of a riot, I think.)
As I close out my last week with this amazing organization, I thought I’d share what I learned with the RIoT community—the people who make all of RIoT’s great work possible.
1. How strict is “IoT”?
Something I was asked a lot—”Does [xyz] count as IoT?” I think because RIoT has IoT in its name, people worried that the RIoT team members were Internet of Things purists. (Those exist, trust me.)
But RIoT respects and encourages all kinds of cutting-edge, disruptive technology, with the belief that the world is in the middle of a new industrial revolution. Past revolutions (steam engine, electricity, internet) led us here, to today’s Data Revolution.
More than ever, our society can collect and analyze data about the world around us, and technology can leverage data insights to improve, optimize, scale, change. A big part of that technology is the devices themselves—the things collecting the data, transmitting it, and even taking actions to respond to events. That, in a nutshell, is the Internet of Things.
But of course, there’s so much more to it. There’s edge computing, with more of the “action” moving away from the cloud and to the on-site devices themselves. There’s AI technology and the powerful computing power that makes it possible for us to understand and draw insights from the data. There’s blockchain and new ways for us to secure and track data (and, therefore, things). There’s VR/AR, with new ways to experience data more accurately and immersively than ever before.
“But is that IoT?” people would ask, all the time.
My (biased) answer—yes. It’s all a part of this Data Revolution, this new world that has the capability to collect and utilize data like never before.
That’s one of my biggest takeaways, about IoT and almost all new disruptive technology—it can’t happen in one vertical. It’s the incredible new hardware capabilities and the cutting-edge software. It’s all the new connectivity strategies and wireless technology, from low-power, long-range networks (LPWAN) to new high-bandwidth networks (5G). And it’s the powerful data analytics platforms, and new ways to draw insights and understand data. It’s all of these things.
At RIoT, I learned to focus a lot less on what tech is and isn’t IoT, and to focus more on the incredible things people are doing with it.
2. “Machine to Machine” and the importance of how we got here.
One of the most fun projects I led at RIoT was starting the RIoT Underground podcast. One podcast interview stands out—speaking with Arrow Electronics’ Paul Peterson about Moore’s Law. My whole career, I’ve heard engineer’s reference Moore’s famous prediction from the 1960s—that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years while the cost would be halved (the exponential explanation for how your smartphone has more computing power than the Apollo 11’s guidance computer did).
But I remember talking to Paul about it because he started at Intel in the 70s, just a few short years after Intel’s Gordon Moore made his famous prediction. Paul was there, in the middle of it, as it was starting to happen.
Paul is one of many RIoT partners who can discuss the most cutting-edge technology out there today while also remembering how it got here—back when IoT was just known as “machine to machine”. He’s seen it evolve since his early days in the semiconductor industry, and I think because of that, he has some fascinating insights into where it’s going next.
I think, as a culture, we’re biased to expect the “Zuckerbergs”—the baby-faced wunderkind with bright ideas and half a college degree—to bring the next wave of tech to life. And certainly, there are some rockstar wunderkinds in the RIoT community. But RIoT also celebrates that enthusiasts and entrepreneurs come in all forms, supporting minority-, women-, and veteran-owned startups; promoting movements that support women and people of color in tech; showing again and again that a rising tide raises all boats, and that the results will be better if all kinds of voices have an active seat at the table.
And certainly, some of the most fascinating conversations I had at RIoT were with the developers and leaders who have been a part of this revolution for decades. These seasoned professionals’ pursuits are energized by new tech and fueled by the context of the climate that’s made it all happen.
I heard stories from people who remember being a part of 70s hobbyist groups like the Homebrew Computer Club, the club where Steve Wozniak famously met Steve Jobs. And those same people compared those hobbyist groups to today’s IoT developer and hacker groups.
In a way, while the technology is new, the movement has been a return to tech’s roots. We’re going back to some kind of open-the-device, build-it-yourself movement that brought us the home computers we have today.
At RIoT, I learned how valuable this history is—the history of IoT and the Data Revolution we have today; its roots in the semiconductor industry; the growth of the sleepy suburban Santa Clara Valley into what’s now Silicon Valley—this revolution is more clear, more interesting, more understandable, when you know the history.
3. A job created is a job created.
At its core, RIoT is an economic development group. Most know that RIoT is a nonprofit, but I find that people are surprised when they hear just how great RIoT’s economic impact has been. Helping to create hundreds of jobs, for example. Or helping to raise millions of dollars for investment into startups.
Those stats are the result of a lot of hard work, of course, but also a reflection of RIoT’s approach to economic development: RIoT’s focus on collaboration.
There are plenty of organizations out there talking about IoT and disruptive tech. There’s a new startup accelerator popping up every day. There are enough tech events to break your calendar. And seemingly every place is fighting for economic development dollars and trying to attract talent and companies to their region. I think what makes RIoT unique is that it truly sees all these other groups and programs and places as partner opportunities.
A job created is a job created. If RIoT helps create it, or if one of RIoT’s partners does—it’s still a job created. Whether it’s for employee #3 at a new startup or for employee #350,601 at a Fortune 100, that new job drives this ecosystem forward. RIoT recognizes that the new job is good for the ecosystem overall, and our sights are on the ecosystem.
We’ve worked with everyone from the fabulous Economic Development Partnership of NC (EDPNC) to the Chamber of Commerce for American business in Slovenia. (You’ll have to ask Tom about that one.) We work with the tiniest of tiny startups, and RIoT’s accelerator program doesn’t charge those startups or take any equity. But we also work with some of the largest multinational companies in the world.
Don’t get me wrong—RIoT is proud of the accomplishments it’s had a stake in, and RIoT has had more than its fair share of wins. But as a true ecosystem builder, I think RIoT has been in a unique position to partner with others, and to not see similar groups or initiatives as competition.
At RIoT, I learned a lot about collaboration, how to get rival companies together at the same table as partners, how to help cities see growth of hometown startups as equally important to (or even more important than) the landing of a new corporate HQ to their city.
As RIoT’s said many times, IoT doesn’t happen in one vertical. All these different groups and teams and industries and people and company sizes and cities and communities—all of them have to come together to move the ecosystem forward. Not only does RIoT recognize the importance of collaborative work, but I think RIoT’s been uniquely positioned to prove that collaboration can work.
Remembering Larry’s Words
In the summer of 2018, I had one of my last conversations with one of RIoT’s original co-founders, the late Larry Steffann. At that night’s RIoT event, Larry knew he was sick, but not how sick. I remember thinking that he looked tired. But I also remember how fired up he was.
It was a “Founders Roundtable” event—a series that RIoT was hosting to help leadership from top companies and government agencies meet with the areas most promising startups. I was in the room as a startup founder, and Larry was (as he often did) giving us an earful.
“We need more sharks,” he said, practically hitting his fist on the table as he spoke, his blue eyes burning with that passion he’d get when he talked about his vision for our region. Larry knew what made startups successful (having been involved with plenty of successful ones himself), and he wanted to see startups in our area meet their potential.
I loved arguing with Larry, and that night was no different.
“There isn’t just one kind of entrepreneur,” I shot back. There were about 20 people in the room, but for a minute or so, it was just me and him, debating back and forth. “We don’t all have to act the same or be the same to be successful, do we?”
I meant it. But for him, I was missing the point.
He wasn’t saying we all needed to be the same, he explained. He wasn’t saying that there was only one type of entrepreneur; he agreed that there wasn’t.
But he was saying that the entrepreneurs—all kinds—needed to be hungry. Like, don’t take no for an answer hungry. Iterate and iterate until you know what you have is exactly what your target market needs hungry. Hold customer discovery meetings until you feel like you could be in their heads hungry. Knock on doors and make phone calls until you lose your voice hungry. Apply to accelerators and grants and pitch nights until you’re blue in the face hungry.
He wasn’t telling me—us—to change, or saying that some personalities weren’t fit for entrepreneurship. He was trying to argue that “being hungry” was a shared skill that any entrepreneur could embrace, and needed to embrace. And he was right.
Just a few months after that, Larry passed away. It was an incredible loss, for the local tech and entrepreneurial community, and even more so, for his family. It was a loss for his RIoT family too.
I never got to tell Larry that I was thinking about taking a job at RIoT, ask him how I could add value, or ask him how he thought of RIoT as an organization. But I did go into this role with his words in my head, hungry for wins. I felt strongly that I could help RIoT grow, and I was hungry to extend RIoT’s reach, to help support globally impactful initiatives. I wanted to tackle stages at the biggest conferences, sharing news about RIoT, our sponsors, and our startups with the world.
In these last 18 months, I had a chance to do those things and more. The team has grown, the sponsor network has grown, and RIoT evolved from the organization known as “NC RIoT” at ncriot.org to the truly global RIoT—now at riot.org.
I’d like to think the work we’ve done would make Larry proud.
I’d still agree with that original sentiment that I heard from Tom, Caroline, and Rachael: RIoT moves quickly, and the most valuable thing RIoT creates is value created for others. It’s true. And it’s been incredible to be a part of.
But what’s great about RIoT—its mission isn’t just for its team. It’s for everyone in the RIoT community—all 80+ sponsors, all 30+ startup alumni, all 9,000+ community members.
While my last day on the RIoT team is coming up on April 17th, I know I’ll still be able to contribute to its mission, by rejoining the RIoT as a community member. After all, I’m an even bigger RIoT fan than before.
In fact, I’ve got not one but three RIoT t-shirts now. (…Unless, on my last day, I have to return any extras I’ve collected… and if that’s the case, then Tom, I think I only have one after all.)