Product leaders are category creators and world changers. For example, the world of telecommunications used to require a lot of physical dedicated equipment with a lack of flexibility. How did this industry change into the powerhouse it has become today? SignalWire founder and CEO Anthony Minessale shares how telecommunications turned into a software platform, the role it played in remote work, and what to expect for the next generation.
On Completely Transforming Telecommunications
Anthony saw the issue with being tied to a physical location when it came to telecommunications, and he was confident this infrastructure could be transformed. He soon realized some other problems along the way, despite its versatility, and with some work and dedication, it did indeed transform a whole sector.
“The original problem that started everything was that there was no way to do telecommunications, that physical dedicated equipment that was really expensive. You used to have to go and get like Cisco equipment or BroadSoft, or some kind of switch or set up infrastructure and a data center. There was no real flexibility there; you could get a phone circuit and you can make phone calls with it, but you can’t really tie it to anything else. So I spent a lot of time working on transforming some of those things to software by making a software platform that could communicate using the different protocols that were starting to emerge for real-time communication, voice over IP, and those kinds of things. The idea was to convert that to software so that it is much more malleable and easier to build things out.
As we climbed our way through that effort, we started enabling more things. The platform grew and allowed you to basically do anything you can imagine, but it wasn’t exactly simple to use, based on all that power comes a lot of complexity that goes with it. So one of the things that I noticed over the years is that even with our software, which turned impossible into possible, the next step was the DevOps behind it is a nightmare. At least now you can use commodity computer for some of the stuff, but you have to have a pretty decent background in managing all this stuff, many Linux servers, and our software kind of turned any server into a townhouse, which that’s as capable as possible and uses up all the resources on the machine equally. But then most people’s use-cases are way more than whatever any one machine can handle. … When it came time to figure out what to do with this super-powerful, open-source technology we built and how we to make it accessible to more and higher-up-the-stack people who don’t want to concern themselves with how the basement works, we had this goal that if we would put that time in once and spend all that painful time learning how to do all this stuff, we could simplify it.”
On the Pandemic, Remote Work, and the Role of Telecommunications
With all this advanced technology in place, the COVID pandemic hit SignalWire a bit differently than other companies. Ultimately, because the company had some of the predecessors to some of the things the telecommunications platform could eventually do, this sector played a major role in transforming the work environment globally.
“The pandemic hit us differently than most because being a remote company, we didn’t have to change that part of our lifestyle. In fact, we’re really good at doing this in the first place as engineers, but when we started the company, we set out to make everyone remote. That included all of our sales and marketing, product development people, so those things took a little more work. One of the ways we did that was to build a remote office platform just using the tech we had laying around. We use that originally to so that we could manage the employees, you can see what everyone was doing. We built a predecessor to some of the things we wanted to do on the platform, kind of a quick MVP [minimal viable product], to get stuff working and for ourselves.
The way the pandemic kind of hit us was when people came to us on sales calls or other interactions and we hosted the call on our platform, they would say, where’d you get that from? We would say we made it, and then we started getting people trying to use it for stuff right away. They wanted to use it in different ways than we did. The good thing for us was that we plan out ahead because we build everything as APIs. … I’ve been designing APIs all the way from bare-metal C code all the way up to things that you do over the internet with keys and stuff these days. It all kind of falls into one category. We built it in these parts, and then the next step was going to be, after we raised our Series B, we’re gonna start working on building video as product, video communications APIs. But I never kind of rushed us forward.”
On a Few Lessons for PMs for Direction Settings and How to Go to Market
“Product growth is super important, and more than just saying it, learning how to balance it. When you are doing something that is innovative, sometimes you can go too fast. If you don’t iterate through the process that people can follow you as they go, you might lose them, because you could do something too much and then they won’t understand what it’s for, where if they spent the time and went through and lived through it at a slower pace and watched it evolve before their eyes, they can understand more.
The iPhone is a good example because the iPhone started out as an iPod, and the iPod was already kind of good enough of a difference from a Walkman, and then all sudden, I could check my email on it. The next thing I know, it’s like a telephone and a camera. Those things all came in increments. If you just shoved the iPhone 13 in someone’s face in like the ’90s, they probably would be like, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ That’s one of the things you have to be careful with. It’s helpful also because you don’t have to worry about taking on the world with the first version of stuff. Just get something out there it works. Don’t overdo it by trying to anticipate what people want.
There’s a balance, a little bit of your instincts have to kick in there because you might be wanting to nudge them in the right direction. Do a balance between input from the customers and nudge them along with some of your own instincts, so you just bounced it out. That balancing act is like the hardest thing to figure out, but once you do then it gives you the ability to plan stuff. The iPhone is great now, right? They just made purple ones … and that’s enough for everyone to buy it. You don’t have to go crazy and do everything at once. You can iterate through it, and save some of the features for the next one. If you are always releasing, it actually makes the product look more alive. That’s always the trick.”