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How does an idea become a business that repays its investors multiple times over? The man behind multiple Silicon Valley success stories, Aurangzeb Khan has consistently predicted the technology we will need and then spearheaded high performance teams to make them a reality. Now Senior Vice President of Intelligent Vision Systems at Jabra, he is a leading expert in computing and artificial intelligence.
Having brought the world many firsts in chip set and camera technology, Aurangzeb is a leading expert in computing and AI, and has founded and led numerous startups that have either gone public or been acquired. Today we’ll be talking about what it takes to build and scale a company, the evolution of Silicon Valley and how collaboration and innovation will change the future of work.
Paul Sephton: Aurangzeb great to see you again today, and particularly excited for this conversation because I think we’ll get to uncover a lot of your past and your experience, which is vast. In a place like Silicon Valley with a range of different startups that you have either built, developed, led or seen successfully to a point of acquisition or exit. So I think for me the interesting thing is you have a wealth of educational experience, partly split across Lahore in Pakistan and then also bridging to when you moved to the US and ended up doing degrees at Berkeley and Stanford. So can you tell me a little bit about that transition and what perhaps you think you learned from the diversity of your background and educational experiences?
Aurangzeb Khan: I grew up in, was fortunate to go to some very good schools in, Pakistan. So I attended the top university. The city has produced five Nobel laureates. It’s a very well regarded school and the area in general is quite academic. So I had a lot of good choices for studies abroad. We had previously studied primarily in the UK. I loved physics and I loved engineering, and I mainly applied to the US universities and really like Berkeley’s has a phenomenal pedigree in physics. And I was fortunate to get in. So I came to the US quite a long time ago. I was 19 at the time. I came to Berkeley, really loved the place. It was quite challenging academically, also intellectually very different, very diverse, very welcoming of all kinds of views, and I had a chance to learn from the best folks in semiconductor design and physics.
I did a double major with nuclear engineering, so people who were pioneering in the field. And for me that was quite inspiring. And Silicon Valley was just starting out at the time. And I had studied a bit about semiconductors growing up and in Lahore in Pakistan. And so I was quite familiar with the companies like Fairchild and Intel and others that had pioneered that space. And they were just an hour’s drive away from where I was at Berkeley, so I had a chance to engage with them very early. And it just inspired me to live and work in Silicon Valley, and I’ve really enjoyed it very much. It’s a unique place in the world and a phenomenal place if you like technology and advanced engineering.
Paul Sephton: Do you think that if you’d ended up at a different institution like the UK for instance, somewhere studying, or even elsewhere in the US, that you would have been on the same trajectory in terms of where you ended up?
Aurangzeb Khan: It’s kind of hard to know, because it’s the path not taken. But I very deliberately chose Berkeley and to be near Silicon Valley, because I thought, and it turned out that way, that this would give me a unique opportunity to pioneer and drive new technologies. And later on in my life I became very interested in the whole idea of building new companies. I did some work at Stanford and took a class in entrepreneurship that was quite life changing for me. I’d been on a trajectory to probably do a PhD in EE, but that changed my orientation. I did a business degree and I started to focus more on this magic of how do you take innovation and ideas, and build companies using that.
I did a business degree and I started to focus more on this magic of how do you take innovation and ideas, and build companies using that.
Paul Sephton: And what do you think it was about the entrepreneurship degree which sort of fundamentally flipped the light switch for you?
Aurangzeb Khan: Yeah, it was just phenomenal. The class was taught in the Stanford graduate school of business by Pat Johnson, who was a very early VC in Silicon Valley. And over the course of 10 weeks, he invited people who had built very successful companies of that day. He’d give us their business case and basically say, analyze this and figure out if you would fund this company. Sometimes he’d disguise the name of the business case, but generally, you were asked to read this plan and figure out would you put money behind it, would you fund that company? And then later on during the class itself, the founder or the CEO, the folks who put that company together came and talked to us and told us about their entrepreneurial journey.
And for me at that stage, that was all brand new learning. It’s something I hadn’t really experienced before. I’d grown up in a country where businesses, as in Europe in many cases, had been around for very, very many decades and had grown accretively over that time. So the idea that in one lifetime you could start something and have it scaled phenomenally, and create wealth for a lot of people as well as change the world, change industries, change technologies was very, very exciting. And it made it practical. It made it real. I could kind of understand the frameworks and the nuts and bolts of how to do it.
So the idea that in one lifetime you could start something and have it scaled phenomenally, and create wealth for a lot of people as well as change the world, change industries, change technologies was very, very exciting
Paul Sephton: And were you then seeking out an opportunity to start a business, or were you sort of trying to gain experience before trying to get that idea?
Aurangzeb Khan: The thing about being in the Valley is that you’re always surrounded, you’re in a constant flux of ideas and bright people, very, very intense, hardworking, forward looking people. And the competition is not as much against each other as it is about innovation and driving forward on your own journey. So I’d had many opportunities to actually do startups or be part of startups, and so on. Early part of my career I worked at just three companies for quite some time. And I worked for what were in those days the hardest problems of their time technically, in semiconductor design, advanced high-speed silicon in a massively parallel computer systems, mission critical applications, things of that kind. And did that very deliberately because I wanted to validate and build out my technical skills.
The thing about being in the Valley is that you’re always surrounded, you’re in a constant flux of ideas and bright people, very, very intense, hardworking, forward looking people
And then by the time I took this class then, I’d had the experience of launching several products that had generated sort of hundreds of millions to a billion dollars plus in revenues annually. And felt like I understood now a bit more about not just the core technology and how to build products, but also how markets evaluated products, how customers selected products. The whole notion that Jeffrey Moore talks about, crossing the chasm, the technology enthusiasts who pick you and seek you out and how you grow with them and extend forward over time to the early majority. So a lot of the ideas around not just technology, but also business formation, were starting to come together.
Paul Sephton: What was the tipping point for you when you felt like you had gathered that wealth of experience, and then got to a point where you thought you had enough traction with an idea, or a good enough group of people around you, to be able to actually incubate or start something yourself?
Aurangzeb Khan: So in ’97, we launched a unique chip in the industry. It was a first of its kind system on a chip for magnetic hard disc drives where we integrated five discreet chips into one. It was technically very difficult. A number of companies had tried. We were the first ones to make it work. It was also financially very powerful. They generated a lot of revenue for the business that I was a part of, which was Service Logic Mass Storage. And along the way I had worked with Kenji Yoshida, who was supplying some technology to us, who was based in Japan.
And then I had former team members from an earlier time, who had been with me at Tandem Computers, building these very high end computers systems. All of us at the time thought we had an idea for building a new company, and we all had great careers. I was the vice president of engineering, clearly good trajectory ahead and so on. But we wanted to do our own thing, and in that moment it felt like this was it. And we ventured towards and it turned out to be a great success.
Paul Sephton: What were some of the first lessons you learned, or the sort of rollercoaster ride which you had taken on at that point with your first company?
Aurangzeb Khan: So by that time, for example, I’d figured out how to put a pitch deck together, how to get your value prop understood, how to present yourself to the investors. And the folks we raised money from were themselves very successful businessmen, some in the US some in Japan, very well known and very well respected. We pitched a company that we valued at six million and at that time the company really was a piece of paper, or a business plan, more than what one piece of paper, and really the track record of the four founders. We had an extended team of another four behind us. And so we could demonstrate credibly that we could fulfill the ambition we felt would generate a high value business, and really presented that, and were fortunate to be heard and the idea to be well received. And so we raised our first three million essentially as our series A round now that would be called more a seed round.
Paul Sephton: And was it quite a different landscape at that point in Silicon Valley in terms of how people were doing it? Or is it just something which has gathered in speed today?
Aurangzeb Khan: I mean, there are so many different ways of building companies. My model for building companies has always been that you solve a technically very hard problem that you bet will become relevant three years out. And if that’s true then you can have a very good success with the venture often. And so indeed that’s what we did. And the net of it was that we ended up becoming a chip design company, doing a very high end design service for a handful of global customers, as well as innovating new design technology that became software products that many companies have used since to design their chips.
My model for building companies has always been that you solve a technically very hard problem that you bet will become relevant three years out. And if that’s true then you can have a very good success with the venture often.
Paul Sephton: Is that quite a different landscape, even though it’s still a startup, from a lot of the startups we see today, which are perhaps more direct to consumer , or offering services, which are for kind of where-
Aurangzeb Khan: Yes. It was, very much so. And again I should say, look, even in those days there were people building consumer oriented companies. There were people starting to build software as a service. It was just starting out. But we were building hardware systems and technically very complex systems that were hard to make work. But if you could make them work, had immediate value in the market.
Paul Sephton: And did you see at the time quite a bit of value in having such a diverse set of founders? Four of them firstly, but then also just from different places.
Aurangzeb Khan: Different places. That’s one of the things I love about Silicon Valley. Every company I’ve done, the first 20 people are from at least 10 different countries. And so it’s this magical place which attracts high performing people, high ambition people who are self-driven, and who choose to play in that area, who choose to be in that area. The density of MS and EE or PhD students and so on is very, very high in Silicon Valley. But equally important is the culture of risk taking, and the desire to take risks, and understand that not all risks pan out. Some do, some don’t.
But equally important is the culture of risk taking, and the desire to take risks, and understand that not all risks pan out. Some do, some don’t.
Paul Sephton: Do you think that, because it’s interesting and I’m sure you would’ve seen it here, especially if you contrast Europe or even Denmark to Silicon Valley. The whole idea about failing. In the US it’s probably got one of the most celebrated associations, where it’s just okay to fail, or it’s acceptable and it’s not a bad thing. Whereas perhaps elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world, it can be quite stigmatized. Do you think that shuts down a lot of innovation and business potential in other continents?
Aurangzeb Khan: I think so. And as you said, exactly so, I think many countries, there’s this myth of a linear progression through life and success. Probability and chance play a really crucial role in all aspects of life. And especially if you’re at the ragged edge of knowledge, right? There’s real risk. You don’t know that you can make it work. You’ve committed to achieving an outcome that you believe you have a higher potential of achieving, but you don’t know for sure. But that’s also where the biggest rewards are. And so, yeah, I think many of us through our working lives have seen success and failure and not letting that shut you down is a crucial scale.
I think many countries, there’s this myth of a linear progression through life and success. Probability and chance play a really crucial role in all aspects of life.
Paul Sephton: How do you go into something like that with the, what do you think the nuts and bolts of that mentality are, where you’re accepting of potential failure but still resilient enough to be able to bounce back from it?
Aurangzeb Khan: I think part of, for example, being at one of the top educational institutions and working on innovation is indeed, for example, many of us were doing master’s theses and so on, where getting the thesis to work was not trivial. And many of us through time had to reset, regroup, go to plan B, figure out a different way to get there and then sometimes not get there. So I don’t know how, I’m not really clear on that. It’s a great question. How to become comfortable with risk taking and failure. I guess part of it is also you’re in an environment where you’re not the only one. You see people who are incredibly bright who stumble, and that’s very humanizing.
How to become comfortable with risk taking and failure. I guess part of it is also you’re in an environment where you’re not the only one. You see people who are incredibly bright who stumble, and that’s very humanizing.
Paul Sephton: But I think speaking of myths with co-founders or founders in the Valley, they’re often very glorified globally because they’ve built completely groundbreaking products, or created things which are really innovative. And what we’ll often do is see, particularly in the media, snippets of success stories and what those people have done to get there. But like you’ve mentioned so far, it’s something where backgrounds are so diverse. People’s stories are all completely individual. If you were looking today at investing in a company, what do you think, because there’s no cookie cutter type of framework, you would look for in a candidate or a company to be able to have an early temperature check on its success or potential risks?
Aurangzeb Khan: A couple of things. The first, and by the way, different investors have different investment theses. And so there’s no one answer to this question. But in my own case, I tend to look for folks who are deeply competent at some aspect of the technology that they’re trying to bring to market, and then who also have the ability to teams. And then many of the folks we’ve seen who’ve done brilliantly have had adversity in their life. Either some quite serious levels of adversity, and they’ve overcome it and come through it. And many of the founders at some level have gone through this at some part of their life. Though a big part of being on a high performance startup is a sense of a mission and a purpose, you’re out to get something done. You know it’s hard, in fact, many times we had people literally say to us, “That’ll never work. This can’t be done.” Things of that kind. A sane person might walk away. Some people don’t. You just say, “Look, thank you for your input and your opinion. We think we can do it and we’re going to keep trying.”
You know it’s hard, in fact, many times we had people literally say to us, “That’ll never work. This can’t be done.” Things of that kind. A sane person might walk away. Some people don’t.
Paul Sephton: And so now you’re into your first venture, if we jump back, and you’ve got your startup and your co-founders, and you’re trying to build all of these elements you’ve just discussed. The company mission, keeping that target insight, and at the same time perhaps setting a culture, having to work on leadership, that sort of thing. What do you think the key takeaways you have from that stage are in terms of the biggest lessons to keep the momentum on the company? Very often you’ll see a company which has a phenomenal 6, 12, 18, maybe 24 months of growth, and then something doesn’t click in the scaling process. So when it comes to scaling and keeping the momentum with that company, what do you think separates those which have from an entrepreneurial side survived those initial hurdles?
Aurangzeb Khan: Just so many different ways to do this. I’ll just give you our take and how we’ve done it. You said it correctly, the founders create a certain DNA, a certain cultural imprint for the company. And for us, for example, it was leading by doing and working at least as hard as everybody else on the company and making sure that people were focused on the goal, right? So if you can keep your eyes on the horizon, what you’re trying to get done. And then many startups are quite intense. Just the amount of hours you spend, and how much time you spend together. So naturally communicating and being connected, and enjoying the highs but also being together when you go through the lows, when life hangs by a thread. In our case, the kind of products we were trying to build, we had certain milestones to meet, certain technical outcomes to achieve.
We set our goal to that. We devised an approach to getting there, and we stumbled. We hit many, many blind alleys and so on, but being very rapid to communicate and to share knowledge and to recover.
And we set our goal to that. We devised an approach to getting there, and we stumbled. We hit many, many blind alleys and so on, but being very rapid to communicate and to share knowledge and to recover. And the notion that we were all in the same boat, that we were all rowing in the same direction, that we would all make it or none of us would make it. That’s a very powerful glue that can bind high performing teams together.
Paul Sephton: And then what happened with that company?
Aurangzeb Khan: Let’s see, we started in ’99. I think in our first year we were at a 15 million revenue run rate, so we were just super fast growth. We were doing very high in chip design for companies like Sony Computer Entertainment. So we had a chance to build what was in the year 2000 the biggest chip in the industry. In our business, in semiconductors, having a chance to showcase your work through a paper at the International Solid State Circuits Conference is kind of the pinnacle place to showcase that work.
And our paper got accepted. We presented it there. More importantly, Sony built a great supercomputer for advanced graphics for movie making, and it resulted in a phenomenal business success for them. We ended up doing multiple chips for Kutaragi-san and Sony Computer Entertainment, including a version of the PlayStation 2 graphics chip. And then my friend’s startup continued forward working with those, guys as well as other major companies in the Valley like Cisco and others. So the chance to innovate with those leading edge partners.
And then we invented a new way of modeling the physics of signal propagation and lossy media that became the standard for a new generation of products from the major EDA companies. So we had a phenomenal IPO. We opened a 300 million doubler opening day and were eventually acquired by Cadence. Then I run the services business there as a GM. So it’s just a great journey, and financially and professionally everybody from the team ended up doing really well.
Paul Sephton: And then were you hungry for something new? Did you want a bit of a break at one point? Because generally people are serial entrepreneurs, you don’t stop at one.
Aurangzeb Khan: Yes, that’s true. And I guess I’m no different. If you’re engaged and you like what’s you’re doing, time just flies. And so I ran the services, BU at Cadence for many years, and ended up eventually starting out a second company called Everspin. Everspin was a company we spun out free scale with a $30 million investment. It’s doing very well. It had an IPO about two years back for about a hundred million. It’s the only company supplying that kind of technology. And again, what attracted me to the team was deep knowledge in the domain, and the fact that it’s a very hard problem to solve, and they had solved it.
It’s the notion that you’re in the middle of this flux, this ferment of ideas and capital, and bright people who want to make a difference, who want to go transform the world and then how the world lives and works.
And we then started to look at what are the business use cases where this technology can make a fundamental difference to the performance of a product? It’s the only time I’ve actually worked outside Silicon Valley. So I was commuting, I was flying back and forth from the Valley to Phoenix. Out Monday, back Friday, and did that for about a year and a half. And realized that I really wanted to keep in the Valley, and ended up coming back. And since starting the current company that came into Jabra.
Paul Sephton: And that’s a good example in terms of the back and forth and realizing you wanted to stay in the Valley. I think for a lot of people you haven’t necessarily spent time there or work there, it’s a very mythical, haloed type of place. So what did you realize in that commuting, which was most absent for you in Phoenix, which you wanted to get back to around the Valley?
Aurangzeb Khan: It’s a bit of what we touched on earlier. It’s the notion that you’re in the middle of this flux, this ferment of ideas and capital, and bright people who want to make a difference, who want to go transform the world and then how the world lives and works.
Paul Sephton: And do you have any personal hacks which you’ve developed in terms of your own style? You travel a huge amount, you’ve been working a huge amount and clearly you had your time split across things like mentoring, and running numerous businesses. Along the way, in terms of your personal time management skills, are there some things you’ve learned to say yes or no to, or that you’ve perhaps adopted as frameworks?
Aurangzeb Khan: Well, what is… I’ve tried and this becomes hard when you travel all the time, but just stay physically strong and fit. I find that phenomenally powerful, because not only physically, but it also clears up your mind. And then to your point about I’m happy to engage with folks at all different level, but often, to build a venture scale business, you have to have an idea that can scale up. That can make a huge impact in a market over ideally a five year horizon, maybe a seven year horizon, outside on a 10 year horizon. And so building a venture scale company is very different than building a lifestyle company for example.
Just stay physically strong and fit. I find that phenomenally powerful, because not only physically, but it also clears up your mind.
Perfectly good thing to do. You can have a great life building company that you know is your baby, and it’s something you’re going to take forward perhaps through your whole life. I’m much more interested in the venture scale kinds of companies. And there I look for, is the founding group capable to solve the early hard problems that they’re going to have to solve? Or are they connected in the network strongly enough that the network can help jump in and help them address that? And then as I said earlier, that marker about have they dealt with adversity and what happened when they ran into a brick wall?
Is the founding group capable to solve the early hard problems that they’re going to have to solve?
Paul Sephton: Because now we have this complete density and influx of capital into the Valley. And I think when you see headlines the entire time, the amount which is being raised for a series A or series B can be hundreds of millions easily. And then you quickly have these companies which get unicorn status, and it gives the sense that it’s fairly simple when I think it’s a very complex process to raise that money.
Aurangzeb Khan: It is. Yeah. And I should say on that, I maybe have a more old fashioned view on it. Every company I’ve built, I’ve tried to build as frugally as possible. A startup is about placing a bet. It’s a laser-focused bet. If it works, it has an exponential outcome. If it doesn’t work, you get nothing. And I think sometimes folks confused by if you have a lot of capital, you’ll start placing lots of bets, or just not really clearly thinking through what is the one vector what gives you a meaningful outcome? In the beginning, time, and sort of this intellectual capacity and focus can be easily dissipated if you’re trying to run into too many different directions. So I know there’s this whole school of blitz scaling, and raising capital to outrun everybody by scaling up very fast. Now, I guess we’ll see how it all pans out. I’m not clear if that’s the best approach. Certainly not the approach I’ve used.
I maybe have a more old fashioned view on it. Every company I’ve built, I’ve tried to build as frugally as possible. A startup is about placing a bet. It’s a laser-focused bet.
Paul Sephton: And when it comes to building businesses, you’ve also got the dual experience of having taken companies public and having sold privately. What do you think the big differences are there? How do you even begin to decide whether you’re going to IPO a company or whether you’re going to seek an acquisition?
Aurangzeb Khan: So a marker of success for high technology companies is that it has other companies interested to acquire it. It’s a good thing. It means it validates your mission and the vision you’re building your company forward. Now for me, and I think for a lot of entrepreneurs, you’re building this really high performance team with a purpose and a mission. And the teams, if you do it right, will stay together for a long time. And so for the M&A to work that cultural imprint, your DNA, what you’re trying to do has to align with the DNA of the company that wants to acquire you. And you have to have some understanding of how will life be after that event happens? Somebody acquiring is actually as interested in the people, because technology is a living thing. It doesn’t end with the physical product. It keeps going.
So a marker of success for high technology companies is that it has other companies interested to acquire it. It’s a good thing. It means it validates your mission and the vision you’re building your company forward.
Paul Sephton: And that brings us to Altia systems. I think if we jump forward, because now you’re in a state post M&A of a being with GNA and Jabra, and I’m interested to jump back to the point at which you founded Altia Systems, with conversations we’ve had previously around the PanaCast camera, around video collaboration solutions, edge AI, cloud AI, and all of these kinds of things which are ingredients in the cooking pot that have led to what is now the PanaCast camera. Where did that start and then what do you think the factors are, the circumstances which have led to it being as important as it is today for enterprise businesses, or any business?
Aurangzeb Khan: Right. Look, I think obviously, luck plays a role, but we in some sense anticipated the rise of modern collaboration. The fact that millennial workers really are very comfortable with video and text, much more so than just audio, and that because people are working in dense urban spaces, physical spaces is at a premium. And the whole notion through HL software for huddle sessions and scrum sessions. So the notion that people get together daily and they talk about what they’re doing and what to do next and so on.
Our device really even today uniquely addresses that whole huddle room environment and our global customers like Uber and Indeed have deployed them by the thousands now around the world. And so it’s just been incredibly gratifying that when you place that bet, back in 2012, video conferencing was a proprietary hardware and software, very expensive kinds of things. But we had the early beginnings of what now Zoom has become a phenomenon. You know, it works. It works because all the cues that I need as a person to be able to read the room and so on, I get through the PanaCast device.
Paul Sephton: And what do you think, if you look at that, that was 2012 like you mentioned, eight years ago now. Time flies. But if you’re looking at the next five, maybe 10 years, what do you think based off of those predictions the future of our workspaces will look like with remote work, and then just perhaps the ways in which we work.
Aurangzeb Khan: I mean, we’re living through this incredibly exciting time of the complete transformation of work. I love the phrase, “Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to.” And so indeed the technology enables us to do that very well. And I think with GN’s technology where you get a phenomenal experience, audio and video, and then with the rise of the video devices providing data and information, and of course with audio now being a source of intelligence, the ability to optimize and tune that experience so that you don’t have to manually do things. The systems are intelligent enough to do the right thing. This is just starting as we look ahead. People detection and counting, and therefore being able to frame the shot correctly, it’s just essentially the hello world. The first step of this whole journey. Using data to automate workflows to reduce our carbon footprint, to make buildings intelligent, to make our environments intelligent and responsive. I can easily see this journey taking us over the next many decades.
We’re living through this incredibly exciting time of the complete transformation of work. I love the phrase, “Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to.” And so indeed the technology enables us to do that very well.
Paul Sephton: And so when it comes to what you’re going to be doing next, should we expect to see another company, do you think, in the future? Or is this a technology which you are very enchanted by still at the moment, or what?
Aurangzeb Khan: Well, for sure right now I want to see this thing scale. We’ve built some phenomenal technology, and GN is a great company. The culture is outstanding. It’s been a phenomenally successful company, and it’s done a great job with our team. The folks are all here building a new generation of products and experiences, and I’m very keen to now scale this forward and grow it as a business.
Paul Sephton: Be exciting to see what happens there. Do you think we will see any major changes in the Valley in the next few years in terms of your predictions?
Aurangzeb Khan: For sure. I can’t even tell you what they are, but yes. I mean just look at the whole phenomenon starting with autonomous mobility, and how that’s going, and how it’s completely transforming urban and semi-urban landscapes. I think the whole social media wave continues. In fact, it’s starting to deal with some of the stresses created by that, in terms of people using it well and and maybe not so well. And then in core technology, just close to home with imaging, audio and AI, there are just layers of new information that we can glean and learn. So lots of the underlying foundation keeps getting better for us to deliver our experiences at scale around the world.
Paul Sephton: And with the overview of all of the technologies at play and what things are like in that startup world, what do you think the biggest impacted segments in industry will be? Or what would you like to see changing Fundamentally?
Aurangzeb Khan: Think about buildings becoming autonomous and more efficient. The environment around you being responsive to you without you even physically touching something, or necessarily interacting physically with the technology. These will make for, as the stress in our life goes up, these are actually stress reducers. They make life simpler.
Paul Sephton: Well thank you very much. I think we’re out of time, but really appreciate the time to talk today.
Aurangzeb Khan: Thanks very much, Paul. Great catching up.