Skyhook CEO Jeff Glass on Growth, Google, & the Glitz of Indoor Location

5/29/13Follow @gthuang

As an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, Jeff Glass has seen his share of challenging companies. Now he faces perhaps his greatest task, as he leads Boston mobile-tech stalwart Skyhook through the perilous world of location technology.

Back in December, Glass took the reins from longtime Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan, the company’s co-founder (who remains on the board). At the time, there was some speculation that Glass was being brought in to turn Skyhook around and sell it. But Glass told me then that “there is absolutely no mandate at all to sell … we’ll continue to invest and grow until it makes sense to do otherwise.”

Translation: We’ll sell when we’re good and ready.

I met up with Glass (pictured) recently to see how things are going after six months on the job. My first impression: he seems more comfortable in the CEO role than as a VC. Glass was previously chief executive at m-Qube, the mobile content-delivery company that was bought by VeriSign in 2006. Most recently, he was a managing director with Bain Capital Ventures for six years, serving on a bunch of boards, including Blip.tv, BuyWithMe, and Linkable Networks.

And long before that, Glass grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he says he got “mugged in elementary school and stabbed in junior high.” His family’s cars were stolen on several occasions and their house was broken into. By comparison, this whole tech-executive thing must be roses.

Skyhook got started in 2003 and became a pioneer in the field of location positioning for mobile devices. The company’s technology uses a combination of GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular signals to determine where a device is, and its software has been deployed in millions of devices, including iPhones.

Things got tough for the company around 2010, when Apple and Google began to push their own in-house location software into new devices. That summer, Skyhook filed a pair of lawsuits against Google alleging patent infringement and anticompetitive business practices. The legal battle is ongoing, with the first patent trial not even set to begin until 2014 at the earliest.

One of the first things Glass did as new CEO was to institute a culture change in the management team: Don’t talk about the Google case. Not with the press, not with partners, not with each other; let the lawyers handle it. “It’s cordoned off. We don’t talk about it. We talk about customers,” he says. “We can’t build the future of location intelligence by fixating on the past.”

The other thing he did, which is typical of incoming CEOs, was go on a world tour to meet all of Skyhook’s customers, competitors, and potential partners. That was necessary to “develop instincts about the business,” he says, which you can’t get by just serving on a board or working with the management team.

A lot of CEO decisions are made on “instinct based on experience,” he says. “It has to be grounded in a base.”

Although Skyhook still has a ways to go, Glass gave a pretty glowing update on the business. “The company is growing really fast again,” he says. He adds that every customer up for renewal in the past six months has renewed, and “a lot of new customers outside of the core mobile device side” have signed up. That includes app developers and enterprise customers, he says. (It sounds like Skyhook is going after more $100K-ish deals on top of its million-dollar deals with big customers.)

At the same time, the company’s core business appears to be growing nicely. “We have a shot at doubling the business this year,” he says.

Skyhook has about 30 employees and is looking to be in the 40s by the end of this year, Glass says. The company has raised about $17 million in venture funding, but none since 2007. Its investors include Bain Capital Ventures, RRE Ventures, Intel Capital, and CommonAngels.

Finally, I asked Glass about one of the hot mobile trends of the day: indoor location. Basically, technology to pinpoint the position of a mobile device when you’re at the office, in a mall, or at home (where GPS doesn’t work). It’s an area of intense interest for both young startups and the Apples and Googles of the world, who want to cash in on applications in retail, mapping, and other markets. But the question seemed to touch a nerve.

“Much of the technology around how you do indoor location was created by Skyhook 10 years ago,” Glass says. “Saying there’s a sector called ‘indoor location’ is a misnomer.”

He continues: “What you care about is context. It matters that you’re at a concert, not that it’s indoors. I think location applications are going to boom indoors. But we should leverage the infrastructure that’s already in place.”

Glass is talking about using existing Wi-Fi signals, which Skyhook incorporates in its technology (along with the known location and density of wireless access points in some cases). He says for the vast majority of use cases, the location resolution from Wi-Fi is good enough to preclude using visible light, infrared, ultrasound, or other positioning methods. “If I can see [something in a room], being more precise is incrementally useful,” he says.

This is all pretty indicative of Skyhook’s place in the mobile world—an early pioneer fighting off challenges from the latest entrants. And still moving forward. “We’re doing work on indoor positioning,” Glass acknowledges, for a number of beta customers.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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