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Bootstrapping an IoT Company from North Carolina: Bob Witter, CEO of Device Solutions (Part 5)

Posted on Tuesday, Mar 1st 2016

Sramana Mitra: This is very risky business though – trying to act venture capitalist in startups and building their products against sweat equity. That’s, business-wise, quite a risky move.

Bob Witter: It’s a lot of fun. We have never had any investment dollars, so the risk is our own. We’ve taken a different approach than, perhaps, a lot of big businesses take today. When our Board of Directors sits around the table, our interest is in keeping people employed before profit. Certainly, we need to, at least, break even to make that happen, and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that over the years. In 2009, we had a little trouble. We asked our employees to go to a four-day work week and take a 20% cut in pay. Myself and my founder went without salary for six months in 2009.

Sramana Mitra: That’s during the recession.

Bob Witter: That’s right. We were able to keep our employees employed during that period of time and we were able to pay them back for that in 2010. It’s always been our approach. It sounds risky but frankly, we believe that we could have grown a lot faster than we did. We do take a conservative approach so that we do keep people employed around here. When we’re able to, we do take a chance on some other startups.

Sramana Mitra: What is it like to hire people in your geography? You’re in central New York, right?

Bob Witter: No, that’s where I grew up. We are just outside of the Research Triangle Park here in North Carolina.

Sramana Mitra: That’s full of good universities and has quite a big technical workforce, right?

Bob Witter: That’s right. This was a hub of telemetry for many years. Because a lot of them have come and gone, they’ve left a lot of very talented engineers around here.

Sramana Mitra: Motorola was there too, right?

Bob Witter: Motorola has a small presence here but HTC, Sony Ericsson, and Nortel had big outfits here. Believe it or not, we built this business on people we knew, and we’ve known many of them for over 25 years.

Sramana Mitra: They were part of that industry that is no longer hot. They all had jobs in these larger companies. Interesting. Anything else that is interesting in your strategic manoeuvring that has helped you preserve a profitable company growing at a decent pace? Your discussion of the gas industry was very interesting.

Bob Witter: I think a lot of what has made us successful is our persistence. We operate on the philosophy of constant follow-up and being very authentic and open about who we are and what’s going on with the projects. We have a lot of repeat work from our customers. They appreciate the way we work. From the minute we meet them, we start talking about, not a client-vendor relationship, but a partnership. I think that has been key to our success.

We focus on delivering on time and delivering to the budget that we say that we’re going to, and to deliver the quality that the customer is looking for. That’s not always the best quality. Sometimes, they want a really dirt cheap price and they’re willing to sacrifice performance for that. That’s another important part of what we do. We listen to what they say and what they want. It’s hard for engineers. We want to build the best we can and that’s not always the right thing.

Sramana Mitra: Very good. Thank you very much.

This segment is part 5 in the series : Bootstrapping an IoT Company from North Carolina: Bob Witter, CEO of Device Solutions
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