How To Succeed in IoT Business: Solve Customer Problems Then Scale

By Arti Loftus September 29, 2020

Swift Sensors recently announced a new Chief Executive Officer, Ray Almgren, who joined the company four years ago as Chief Marketing Officer and rose through the ranks, while always maintaining an extreme focus on providing practical solutions for customers. 

"If IoT innovators only innovate in the lab and in trials, and don't innovate with better products and business models that deliver clear return on investment, they will not grow – no matter how cool their concepts may be," Almgren said earlier this month. 

With a degree in Electrical Engineering, Almgren has been a pioneer in the IoT industry long before it was called IoT, having started off his career thirty years ago when he joined National Instruments (NI) in Austin, Texas, after graduating from the University of Texas, joining as a Director of Research and Development, and taking a similar path at NI, moving into a leadership role in Product Marketing (leading over 100 product managers), and from there became Vice President of Marketing and supported the launch of a new corporate brand and over 200 new product introductions. 

"What customers benefit from is measurement and data, and the way we have always succeeded has been in listening to what the customer's challenges are and finding ways to use affordable sensors, platforms, networking, cloud and applications that clearly, consistently and sustainably improve how they operate and serve their customers," Almgren said.

Bringing a natural focus on customers through product development, management, and marketing, Almgren is a grounded realist, using a left brain/right brain approach to innovation and shortening the cycle from concept to commercialization, having mastered the disciplines required to "go to market" with easy to understand "before and after" scenarios, based on affordably priced sensors designed to measure elements of systems, for example, equipment in restaurant kitchens, cold case trucks delivering food to those restaurants, all the way back to the production and packaging of food – from farm to plant to transportation to preparation and service across a safe and compliant food supply chain. 

"Swift Sensors has been a tremendously successful company by simply making it easy to deploy sensors and analyze sensor data, and developing new types of sensors that can be used in places where they've never been used before for data insights that directly impact improvements," Almgren said. 

Launched out of stealth mode in December 2016, Swift Sensors has developed low-cost monitoring solutions, making wireless IoT devices available for what the company claims are one-tenth of the cost of traditional systems. These sensors monitor critical quality data such as temperatures for food processing and pharmaceuticals, or machine health and operation in industrial manufacturing. 

With Almgren as CMO at the time, the company's original founder and previous CEO, Dean Drako, who continues as Chairman of the company, attracted large enterprise customers earlier than most start-up companies. 

The company took a stand in positioning in the wireless IoT domain and offered accessible IoT solutions by producing sensors at scale to make pricing more affordable and still profitable, and designing wireless connectivity capabilities as a forethought, not an afterthought. In contrast, similar companies struggled with the economics, and their customers were surprised to find expenses rising out of control as trials grew into larger deployments. 

We asked Almgren what his rapid journey at Swift Sensors taught him, and he said, "The path I have had at Swift Sensors is similar to my entire career, and I feel I've been preparing for this role throughout. I joined NI out of college – quietly one of the largest IoT companies in the world – and became immersed in measurements, sensors, computing, and embedded software. Technology now based on wireless sensing systems and cloud-based monitoring is where Swift Sensors has made its mark, along with simplification that allows customers to take advantage of connected systems without having to be an expert." 

Almgren compares IoT's general evolution to the early days of Personal Computers "when people were bringing that tech into a range of business operations and management. Like the IoT, PC's were a revolutionary tech platform with unlimited promise and equally unlimited challenges. We had different vendors, different operating systems, different motherboards, network cards, software applications, and more. We all knew this was the wild, wild west, but everybody also knew PCs would bring businesses serious competitive advantages, and over the years, made PCs affordable, intuitive, more predictable, and sustainable. I see the IoT in the same way, with a lot of elements and a lot of gaps – for example, a current fixed network may not work, WiFi may not work, battery life may not be good enough – but for every hard problem, there are companies solving for it. The key is to solve technical problems, so you have the opportunity to solve big customer challenges."

As complicated as all the "moving parts" may be, Almgren envisions Swift Sensors' role as turning a complex set of problems into a sophisticated solution that leads to simplicity for customers. "What can they measure, why measurements will matter, and how their operations and bottom line will improve as a result," Almgren said, "is all they need to care about when the system comes with no surprises. We have democratized measurements, and while our sensors may not be as exciting to look at, the data being produced by those machines through the sensors make up the new nervous systems for OT and IT teams. As an industry, and as a company, we have to be really good at finding the technologies that make it possible to help our customers – you can't solve the customers' problems if you can't identify and solve for the fundamental challenges."

Since joining the company in 2016, Almgren has followed the progress of IoT and Industrial IoT, and said, "we have clearly evolved from a lot of experiments to commercial deployments." He gave us an example of helping a food manufacturer keep vinegar at exactly the right temperature, eliminating the need for manual inspections, automating the monitoring process, and dramatically decreasing losses. 

"It's much more about applications in common areas, and while more exotic applications like smart cars, smart homes, and smart cities may be getting the most media attention, we're seeing deployments in small manufacturing, food production, and emerging restaurant chains as people move out of the initial exploration and adoption experimentally into a truly broad base. Great systems match the needs of the early adopters who are trying to simply solve business problems and have no interest in being a poster child for the most exotic tech. We don't even call what we do 'IoT' at times – we're just creating connected systems using sensors that solve everyday business problems – every day." 

As in the early PC days, Almgren said, "You have to understand the system is not going to work exactly the way you want it to work – there will always be a number of variables out of your control when dealing with emerging technologies. When you put a lot of components together, things can get complicated fast, and it's sensible to structure your business and product evolution with a recognition of this."

Almgren is a fan of wireless sensors, saying that because they can be placed on equipment and in environments that have not been possible to address historically, "We are driving huge business value for our customers. There will be tradeoffs and challenges given now relatively new wireless IoT is, but those challenges can be solved with the right focus and innovation. If you love a hard problem, this industry is a perfect place for you."

Almgren recalled a formative experience when he was early in his career and got to meet the designer of the Speak and Spell, a well-known engineer from Texas Instruments, Gene Frantz

The Speak & Spell was created by a small team of engineers during the late 1970s and began with an initial budget of $25,000, as an outgrowth of TI's research into speech synthesis.

"The Speak and Spell used a DSP chip that TI invented a decade before, and the first thing Frantz shared in his talk was that the technology didn't work perfectly--it was revolutionary and brand new! You have to design around limitations then supplement to ensure the gaps are filled." 

(According to the IEEE, "the Speak and Spell digital signal processing (DSP) innovation in audio processing is the starting milestone for the huge digital signal processing industry that has a more than $20 Billion market today. Using digital signal processing has grown tremendously with the development of analog to digital and digital to analog conversion chips and techniques. Digital signal processors are used in many of the consumer, industrial, and military applications.")

Almgren says tweaking and evolving applies to IoT ecosystems as much as it applies to product and solution development. "We try to integrate as much of the technology as we can, so what we offer is designed and tested completely by Swift Sensors, and while our tech can be deployed without a systems integrator (SI) or engineer, we see the IoT business community as very valuable partners." Today, one of Almgren's first initiatives as CEO is to build a cadre of SIs and resellers, especially as the company scales. 

"Just like we bring huge benefits to customers, we bring benefits to partners in the form of Recurring Monthly Revenue because of our cloud-based system. They can implement then manage sensor-based offerings for years to come. Customers appreciate having experts outside their company ensuring everything is running properly, and the data is making a difference in real-time, all the time. Managed service providers appreciate the opportunity to bring new value to their customers, deepening and broadening their relationships with those customers."

With experience across every layer of the technology and business stacks, Almgren has a 360-degree view of the business and a connection to customers, with a true enthusiasm for helping solve complex business problems with simplified systems that start at the edge with sensors and go northbound into live operations scenarios that drive better business outcomes. 

"This is a very exciting time for all of us in the tech world, especially for those of us who are connecting things and people to create a tangible difference," Almgren said, "and it is an honor to be asked to lead Swift Sensors with greater global reach and a continually evolving offering."

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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