Gene Wang (pronounced Wong), CEO and Co-Founder of People Power Company
Learn how Gene Wang’s vision for home monitoring and energy efficiency uncovered new opportunities in senior care and combating loneliness.
Sadie: Hello. Welcome to this edition of Scotch with Sadie. I’m Sadie Scotch. A Business Growth Strategist here at Responsify and yes, my real last name is Scotch. And here with me is Gene Wang, the Founder and CEO of People Power Co. He is my special guest today. Welcome, Gene.
Gene: Thank you, Sadie, it’s great to be enjoying some scotch with you today.
Sadie: Absolutely. That’s the major reason why we’re here today. And I heard you’re leaving on a business trip. Is it to Taiwan tomorrow?
Gene: I am leaving tonight for Taiwan for a week and also heading over to Hong Kong. I think the riots on the streets are still on. I’ll give them some scotch!
Sadie: Maybe that’s the key to world peace. In fact, the major aim of this podcast is peace through scotch! OK, great. So, before we jump into the questions that I’ve prepared about your company, like I said, the major reason that we’re speaking today is to briefly talk about scotch. So I’ll let you kick this off. What is your favorite scotch? How did you get into it? And what are you drinking today?
Gene: So actually, my favorite scotch is probably called Benrinnes. And I got into it because my co-founder [David Moss] of People Power actually is a hardcore scotch drinker. He and his family tried a hundred different types of scotch in a scotch tasting marathon. They picked Benrinnes as the best bottle. And David actually gave me a bottle. I finished that bottle a while ago and I don’t know where to get it! So, I actually just bought, because you invited me to drink scotch with you, this very fine bottle of Oban 14 Year old scotch, which is really awesome. Very smooth. And I highly recommend it.
Sadie: Excellent. I myself am drinking a tiny airplane sized Dewar’s white label that I got on my trip to Rome recently on the airplane. The flight attendant gave it to me. So I believe this scotch kind of falls right in the middle of quality scotches. It’s not the bottom of the scale, but it’s falling around kind of where Johnnie Walker scotches would fall in terms of respectability. But the first question I want to ask you, Gene, before I even pour my scotch, is when is it okay to add ice to your scotch? Basic conventions in terms of if it’s blended or single malt? And when is it most appropriate to drink scotch neat?
Gene: Well, I usually always drink my scotch neat. I think for the higher strains of scotches, it can be appropriate to add a tiny drop or two of water. Or maybe it’s one small ice cube. I never do that myself. It does kind of blunt the attack of the high alcohol content scotches. And I’ll also just tell you a little story, which is my family went to Ireland this summer for a family vacation. My son, who’s 19, basically on the last day of the trip, we’re staying at a hotel, and he’s 19. So you can’t buy legally there. But he goes, Dad, let’s go to the bar. And I go, really? Fine. So we go up to the bar. And Andrew is his name. First the bartender says, so do you want it neat or with ice on the rocks? And Andrew immediately goes, Neat! And literally, he had just found out what that meant. Yeah. Well, he was such a pro. And he basically grabbed the glass, looked at me and just shrugged. With one very smooth kind of a jerk of the hand it just all went down his throat and he didn’t even grimace or anything. It was very impressive. One of the highlights of our trip.
Sadie: And of fatherhood! So I brought two glasses, one with ice and one without. I’m going to put the ice away and I’m just going to drink my scotch neat. Like your son.
Gene: You don’t have to. You can skip it, by the way. Yes.
Sadie: Great. Then to jump into the second part of the questions, we’re going to talk about Gene and obviously People Power, which is really innovative. I’m looking at your website and also your LinkedIn profile, and I can see that you’ve had a very successful history. You’ve founded other companies. You’ve worked for major companies in robotics, A.I., you’ve exited. So you’re definitely someone that young entrepreneurs would want to look up to. So just to begin, I wanted to ask you, what inspired you 10 years ago? What led you to found People Power and how did your prior experiences lead into that?
Gene: Yeah, well, I have been in five startups now. I’m a four time CEO and I have had successful exits with my last three companies. And so because, for example, my last company Bitfone was sold to HP. I also worked for some of the largest companies like HP in the tech field. And that’s how I know that startups are much better to work with. It’s more fun and you can do so much more. And I highly recommend startups to any would-be entrepreneur. Really, it’s the best way to make a difference. My current company, People Power, is really formed by the assembling of the core technical team from my last company, Bitfone. We did have to sign a two year Golden Handcuffs Agreement where pretty much everybody except for me stuck it through two full years so they could get their big bonuses at the end. That’s called a Golden Handcuffs Agreement. I kind of thought, I can’t stay around that long. But it took exactly two years and a little bit to startup People Power by assembling people like my co-founder David Moss, as well as others, many others. David Moon our V.P. of Engineering, Jason Caslavka, our Chief Experience Officer, also Greg Foley, the VP of Quality Assurance, and Harri Okkonen, our CFO. And basically we wanted to do something not only that was going to be valuable, but also that was really going to be good for the planet. So we started People Power as a way to help combat climate change and allow people to live more sustainably by using these smart home devices to turn stuff off stuff when they’re sleeping or when they’re gone from home.
Gene: And we still do that today. So we haven’t pivoted exactly. But we did find out in this journey that saving energy alone is not a strong enough value proposition for end users. And so that’s why we’ve really focused much harder on one of the largest problems facing humanity, in my opinion, and that is how can we care for the people who cared for us when we were growing up? And, you know, how can we allow them to live comfortably in their own homes even when they’re getting to the age where they may be falling? They may be forgetting. And so that’s what we’ve been oriented to lately. We won a $4.5M grant from the government, from the National Institutes of Health to work with UC Berkeley and build a system which helps monitor for falls, monitor for wandering and monitor for taking your medicine on time. But also that brings people closer together so that we can combat an even more dangerous problem, which is loneliness. And so our system today is not only used for saving energy, but also saving lives of people who want to age in place in the comfort of their own home.
Sadie: Right. And let me ask, when did you notice that your product, the Presence app, was being used in that way? You know, not necessarily a pivot, but more like an addition, a new vision to be more oriented around elderly care. What was that process like?
Gene: Well, you know, as you said, Sadie, we actually tried to break through one of the barriers in this industry, the so-called Internet of Things. And one of the barriers is you have to start out with things! And you usually buy these things and people may not want to buy anything to begin with. So, three years ago, we actually created an app that now has over 2 million downloads and we delivered over two hundred and fifty million video alerts. And it’s an app called Presence and Presence turns your old phone into a free Wi-Fi video camera with built-in motion detection and video alerts. So many of us, we buy a new phone and we can’t give up our old phone because it means something, it’s got all our photos in it.
Sadie: It costs so much money!
Gene: It just feels uncomfortable to trade it in or something like that. So as a result, there have been hundreds of millions of old phones in sock drawers and kitchen cabinets and so on. And so what we said is, look, we’re going to turn that old phone, which is actually a powerful little computer, even if it’s old, into a video camera with motion detection and video alerts. And again, we’ve delivered over two hundred and fifty million video alerts and still growing. Now, it turns out that a lot of people were using it for watching over their parents or grandparents. You know, we’ve stopped burglaries. We literally caught a fox raiding a chicken coop! And so people use it for all kinds of things. But one of the use cases that people really resonate with is, you know, for example, people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, they may wander out of the house at night and then not be able to find their way back. This type of thing happens and we can help.
Gene: And we have another use case at play. I forget the guy’s name now, but he actually lived in a nursing home and he was convinced that the people working there were stealing from him. And so he actually set up Presence. And sure enough, he was…right. He actually found somebody who is basically stealing from him. And he caught them. Jerome. His name was Jerome. Yeah, he was always giving us ideas and suggestions. And really, though, the big thing is my mother is angry and she’s fallen three times. And I love my mother so much, but I actually don’t want her to move in with me to my house. So we actually built something called Presence Family, which builds on Presence, but it adds on some very low cost sensors. Gateway entry sets in motion sensors where we can actually make sure that my mom is OK. And I can do that from my phone once it’s set up in her house, which is a very simple and inexpensive thing to do.
Sadie: Great. And I’m sure Jerome’s biggest win in all of that was to prove to people that he wasn’t crazy! That’s how I thought this story was going to end!
Gene: And frankly, I think he was a little crazy, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.
Sadie: That’s true. You can be both at the same time after all. So let me ask you, what really differentiates you and makes you stand out from, say, other home monitoring systems that exist already?
Gene: That’s a really good question. So Presence is a free app that you can just get on the App Store or Google Play and download it for free. Presence Family is brand new. We’ve been working on it for like ten years. We just released it on October 8 . So Presence Family includes a whole new, next generation Presence release with all kinds of improvements. It’s really built for family situations where, for example, in my case, I’m like the sandwich generation. I have kids and, you know, I love them. I helped take care of them as best I can. And I have parents and I also love taking care of them the best I can. All of this I can do from my phone so I can see what time my mom gets up, whether she got up as normal. You know, if she’s not up by 9:00 a.m., something is wrong because usually gets up by 7.30. So I can track all of these things. So we also serve a lot of caregiver agencies. And I was just talking to my good friend Greg McCarthy, who runs I think the largest independent care agency in the Bay Area. And he was just talking about one of his clients who fell on a Friday night and was not found until Sunday. So he lay there in pain and no food for two days. And that just cannot happen. You know, that is the kind of stuff we really help watch over. But we aren’t just focusing on those fall kind of things, which we do focus on, but Presence also focuses on an even bigger problem, which is loneliness. You know, loneliness happens because of isolation, you know, people feel loneliness, that leads to depression and depression actually leads to early death. So it’s actually something that UC Berkeley folks, Professor Bob Levenson, who we worked with closely, has demonstrated that loneliness and depression can kill. They can knock out a year or more off the life of not just the person with dementia, which is what we’re studying in this UC Berkeley grant, but also the caregiver. The caregiver gets stressed out, gets isolated, and they, too, suffer from the whole journey.
Sadie: So how does Presence help solve loneliness? Is it because the older person in the family has a better mechanism to reach out to their family members? Can you explain that a little bit more detail?
Gene: Absolutely. So first of all, we are working with one of the greatest psychologists researching caregiving in the US. Professor Levenson from Berkeley. And he has done a lot of studies showing these types of impacts. So now basically with Presence Care, we are able to, first of all, define a trusted circle of family and friends. And that elevates to professional emergency response. So, within that trusted circle of family and friends, for example, with my mother, it could be me, my brother, my sister, her friend Margaret, her friend Pat, we could be automatically reminded. So one of us every day is reminded to reach out and connect to my mom.
Sadie: Just to stay in touch.
Gene: And it not only reminds you to reach out, but it can tell when my mom might be sleeping, which is a bad time to reach out. I want to make sure she’s home and awake. And then the other thing is that our system really enables the sharing of digital content. But in a way that does not require my mom to do any work at all. So you can kind of think of it as an Instagram for seniors. And I was just visiting my mom yesterday and my brother was up from Santa Barbara and we took a picture. All three of us together. And I uploaded it using the Presence Care application. And about a minute later it showed up on her i-Pad, which we’ve turned into a digital picture frame. And it does not require my mom to be at all technical. Now she loves that feature because it just keeps on improving, every day or two she gets new pictures or new videos and she doesn’t have to do anything. Now, this is a woman who’s very smart, but she doesn’t know how to download the book on a Kindle! So you really keep it super, super simple. It works in the background and it brings the family back together.
Sadie: Great. So if we if we broaden this conversation for people who are interested in IoT or, the Internet of everything, I think as your website classifies it. And since you’ve seen some changes from your original vision of energy efficiency to loneliness, to seniors. Well, what would you say are future applications of IoT, that might also be socially beneficial? Do you think there are still other opportunities to investigate?
Gene: I think there are so many possible applications that’s why we’ve architected our People Power platform in a way that you can just add new applications into the smart home, just like you can add a new app into your smartphone. So I think the sky’s the limit. We’re really moving into a new era of innovation. The era that we’re in now is the mobile era. But the mobile era is really coming to an end. And it’s because we all have smartphones already. So what we don’t have is we don’t have smart homes. We don’t have smart buildings. And in order to usher in that next era, which I think is the Internet of Things, what we need is a new generation of entrepreneurs who can add new micro services. We chose the language Python because it is easy to program and with our People Power platform in the cloud, you can upload these Python micro services and then install them just like you can install an app into your smartphone. I think in healthcare there is going to be a gigantic opportunity because healthcare needs disruption. It is one of the biggest industries that we have. And also, everybody would like to live forever, but you can’t do that. Yet.
Gene: Now, I read a book called Lifespan, by David Sinclair. I only read the first part of it so I still have to get through the rest. But he’s saying that we don’t have to die. We can keep living. And he lays out all these ways that we can actually improve our bodies to kind of dodge the bullet. And it seems like I’m reading about the fountain of youth! Now, that is going to require tremendous advances in healthcare from senior care – like what we’re doing. And People Power and senior care itself is this incredibly broad set of issues which should have, you know, hundreds or thousands of applications in and of itself. But there are many, many other areas, such as how People Power originally started in CleanTech, the whole climate change initiative. You know, I think under a President who believes in science, we may be able to really start addressing some of these tremendous issues. And part of that is going to be having buildings that are more intelligent, that stuff off automatically, that optimize the use of energy in ways never, never thought of. Or at least never really implemented at scale.
Gene: So I think that is another huge idea and area of potential. And then, you know, I think in terms of just one of my own personal passions, is music. I think there are tremendous opportunities in music. I actually just went to the Pumpkin Festival last weekend. It was in Half Moon Bay in California right on the ocean. And it was this tremendous big pumpkin festival. And I saw a guy playing this thing called the Chapman Stick, which is like playing this 12-string instrument. And as soon as you press one of these guitar-like kind of strings, it is the note. You don’t have to strum it. You just press it like a note. And so that’s the left six strings. Then there are the right six strings, which are the bass line. And in the end, it was fantastic. And this is it. I thought that I had really seen many things in music. It’s like it just goes to show you there’s just so much innovation. You know, innovation is at the heart of what we need here on this planet to solve some big problems, but also to continue to create. So I’m very optimistic about the future.
Sadie: Very good to hear! So I want to come back to music in one minute, but before I do that, just sort of a final question to wrap up the business topics. What advice would you give to two people. One is, other entrepreneurs who are interested in these socially driven innovations as well as IoT as we discussed. But the second person is you! What advice would you give yourself if you were looking back just 10 years ago? Around the time when you founded People Power knowing where it is today. What advice would you give to both of them?
Gene: Mm hmm. OK. Well, I’m very interested in in helping and mentoring entrepreneurs. In fact, I’ve been serving on various things where I was chairman of the Entrepreneurship Center at one of my daughter’s colleges. She’s graduated. Maybe I’ll be on that committee at my son’s school or something. But I think that the important thing for young entrepreneurs is that they just don’t give up. You know something like nine out of 10 startups fail. And the reason that is is because people don’t realize how difficult it is to see a startup go all the way to the finish line only with incredible persistence and clarity of purpose and kind of that never, never give up attitude. There’s always another move there’s always another way you can make your company a huge success. I read another great book written by my friend Marc Randolph called, That Will Never Work. And. Mark was the first CEO of Netflix and I actually used to work with him closely at Borland. Of course he started Netflix way after this. But it’s a fantastic book and Marc’s two big failures were actually two of the greatest successes for Netflix. First, they tried to sell their company to Amazon and they only wanted to give them eight million dollars for Netflix. So he said no. It failed. Good thing, right? And then later they tried to sell Netflix to Blockbuster. That also didn’t go through. Fortunately, because I think Netflix is worth like one hundred and twenty billion dollars. Of course you know our life takes many paths and so on. But I think persistence and clarity of purpose and having a great team who can really work together effectively as a team are the main things that I would pass on to other people. And you should read a lot. Talk to a lot of people and just find that optimal path.
And it’s almost never your first idea. You know, when I say be persistent, I don’t mean just bang your head on the wall against an idea that you know is wrong. I mean be persistent in terms of keeping things going. Optimizing continuously through a process that we’re using something called OKRs, objectives and key results, which is a really good process for running a startup.
Gene: As it relates to me, ten years ago, what I would have told myself. I would have said, Gene, raise more money!
Now I know I’ve done a number of startups and I kind of vacillate between raising too much money and raising too little money. You know we raised like 60 million dollars at Bitfone. And that was really too much money. And when we sold to HP for 160 million dollars I wish I hadn’t raised that last round because we ended raising too much. We raised all of that money and it was still in the bank and then some. And so that was just wasted dilution.
And so with People Power, we’ve really done everything as low budget as possible and we’ve got amazing stuff done. We have an amazing product. But we’ve only raised 14 million dollars and I think we could use another 14 at least.
Sadie: It would be nice to strike a balance between these last two experiences that were a bit different in that sense. Exactly. Great. So like I said I want to come back to the topic of music and that’s the last topic that I want to speak with you today before we finish.
I almost finished my whiskey, it’s almost out – but you have a lot more to go. You’re on your third glass! I’ll have to go to the corner store after this to catch up.
People Power has a band! I’ve heard of colleagues having a band outside of work but this seems like a really integral part of your company. So I want to know, when you post a job for a software person, do you have all these requirements that they must be a successful musician? Do you need to play a certain instrument that you don’t have on your band, yet? Is that a hiring requirement?
So tell me a little bit about this band. And actually I’m going to try to play some in the background…
Gene: Yeah. So you’re right. I actually have had bands in many of my startups. I actually learned this habit from my old boss Philippe Kahn who was the CEO of Borland International. And at Borland I actually helped create the world’s best selling C++ programming languages. And we had a product called Turbo C++. We also had a product called Turbo Pascal. And so we had the Turbo jazz band! We actually went with the Turbo jazz band into the heart of Microsoft which was the big enemy at the time, and played at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference.
And we just stole the show. So I learned that bands can be not only a lot of fun but also a marketing play. And so at Power, we have the People Power band. We’re a 10 piece band. I play the saxophone. My co-founder David plays the trumpet. We did hire my assistant Joyce, and one of the reasons why is because she is a great singer! So yeah, it was not a hiring requirement but it sure helped a lot. And Professor Bob Levenson, who is the professor at UC Berkeley, he plays baritone sax in the band.
We’re actually performing on December 8th for a holiday party for the American Association of University Women and we’ve been playing for the last 10 years for Earth Day. Yeah. So it’s a way to build culture and have people work together with a sense of mission and having fun. And I think you were just playing, Don’t You Worry About a Thing, and a lot of People Power people are just partying it up and having a great time – even if they don’t play.
So there’s all kinds of ways to participate and everything. Everybody likes music so that’s great.
Sadie: If I worked at People Power I would play the triangle.
Well on that note I have just a drop left. You have an entire bottle to go. How can people learn more about People Power or what’s the best way that people should bring this kind of conversation up with their loved ones?
Gene: Yeah. So you can find out more at PeoplePowerCo.com. And then you can find out more about our brand new product. And you can actually even buy one if you feel like it. And then in terms of the People Power band we have a YouTube channel. And so if you just go to YouTube and you search for People Power band, those three words, you should be able to find our YouTube channel and we are also available on iTunes now.
My personal email is Gene@PeoplePowerCo.com. So if anyone wants to reach out and say hi, I’d be happy to respond.
Sadie: OK Gene, thank you so much that concludes this episode of Scotch with Sadie with our special guest, Gene Wang at People Power. No more Scotch for me! Apparently a lot more for Gene! Safe travels tonight. And thank you so much for sharing this part of your story with us.
Gene: Thank you so much. We appreciate it.