The brains behind u-blox

 

It is 1997. Dani Ammann, Andreas Thiel and Jean-Pierre Wyss are postgraduate students involved in an electrical engineering project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In response to interest from the industry, they join forces with their professor, Gerhard Tröster, and entrepreneur and private investor, Hans-Ulrich Müller, to form a company.

You have been working together for over 20 years. Can you tell us how you first met?
JEAN-PIERRE WYSS (JW) – Dani and I met over 30 years ago and both studied Electrical Engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

ANDREAS THIEL (AT) – I’d just come down from Aachen University in Germany and joined Dani and Jean-Pierre just after they’d finished their degrees. We were part of a new research team under a new professor at the ETH.

DANI AMMANN (DA) – Back then we were focusing on research into electronics packaging – a long way from product development – and had no intention of founding a company.

So how did u-blox happen?
JW – We’d developed the world’s smallest GPS receiver as part as a study. One day, Andy was talking to our supervisor, Gerhard Tröster, about the interest in the product from the industry. Then Professor Tröster made the suggestion that changed our lives: “Why don't you start up your own company?” he asked. So we gave up our doctoral studies and founded u-blox in 1997.

Could you tell us a little more about the early days at u-blox?
JW – At the beginning, we were five or six working on the project, and we still had an office at the ETH. The main challenge back then was to turn a PhD thesis into a real product and ramp up production to about 100,000 units annually – which we now do in about eight hours!

DA – On a more romantic note, back in those early days we were more like a family. We’d all meet up on Friday nights for drinks and pizza. We still do it now in Thalwil and elsewhere, and it’s a great way to improve team spirit.

AT – Yes, it was cool. We rented a small flat in Zurich that gave us everything we needed to run the business, but after a year, it was clear we needed something bigger, and that’s when we moved to Thalwil. Since then we have expanded continuously, here and abroad.

What kind of challenges did you face when you started up?
AT – Initially, it seemed pretty easy because we had clients who were interested in our products. The real challenge came when we were forced to recognize that technology wasn’t enough and that we needed more than one big customer if we were going to survive. It meant building up a worldwide sales organization to market our products and providing the support needed to keep our customers happy. That all involved extra financing.

Were there any specific milestones in the u-blox story that made the company such a success?
AT – One of the key turning points was the decision to change our strategy by giving up the idea of making lots of little blocks and by focusing on our own chipsets. It gave our customers added value and made us really successful.

JW – Yes, the GPS technology was vital. And by 2004, we started to show profit, which made it easier to find other investors.

DA – I think if we’re honest with ourselves, one of the most influential factors in our success was luck. We didn’t consciously choose to go down the GPS route. There was simply a demand for it: we had the technology and we were able to package it attractively. And the financial constraints likewise forced us to focus on GPS. Luck was also a major factor in the IPO: we timed it – unwittingly – just a few months before the world financial crisis in 2008. No one had foreseen that, so the timing was brilliant. We managed to get a good price before share prices dropped drastically. We’ve done a lot of things well, but the determining factor was being in the right place at the right time.

AT – It was certainly lucky for us to get good sales people together from the start. We found people who were able to conjure up a sales organization out of nothing. Overall, I think we’ve done a good job of handling growth and getting the right people together. We’ve gone from 70 to 80 employees at the time of the IPO to around 1000 today. We appreciate talented people and I think it’s fair to say that people like working with us.

How would you say u-blox has helped you with your personal development?
JW – When we started out, we were all engineers. Since then, we’ve become entrepreneurs and businessmen and learned how to make big decisions. Speaking personally, I learned an incredible amount from my time as CFO, working with the banks and potential investors, and as Head of Production and Logistics as a fab- less company. The latter involved setting up reliable supply chains from beginning to end.

DA – Another major issue was learning how to delegate. As an engineer, you think you know best and want to be involved in the development process. For me personally, learning to let go of that and entrusting the work to other people who are better than me at what they do was a huge step. I think it was a major realization for all three of us that you can’t always rely on mathematics or physics to make people and markets work the way you want them to.

AT – For me, it was learning how to liaise with so many people working in so many different countries. My own personal ecosystem ranges from Lahore in Pakistan to San Diego, California. These are all people with different mentalities, and it’s interesting working with them all. Even here at our head office in Thalwil, we have around 27 different nationalities and cultures. So apart from all the technological aspects, I think it’s the people aspect of the business that’s so exciting.

Where do you see yourself and u-blox in the next 20 years?
DA – Speaking for myself, I’ll be around as long as the job and the fun of running a business continues to stimulate me,  and as long as our customers continue to make attractive products with our technology.

JW – The same goes for me. As long as there are new challenges – as in the past 20 years – I’ll be happy to carry on. Growth brings all kinds of new questions with it, and it can be quite tough retaining the flexibility we’ve always enjoyed.

AT – It’s all about new challenges. So while we’re working with a great team, making products our customers want, and growing personally in the process, I see no reason for stopping.

What does innovation mean to you?
DA – Survival. The only viable strategy for a company like ours is to take the innovation route. It’s all we want to do, and it’s borne out by the fact that we invest so much in research and development. But we’re also involved in a process of constant reinvention internally.

AT – For me, innovation is a synonym for creativity. We want to make things better, and it’s what drives us forward as a company. Being successful in this business isn’t only about prices. Our customers need to know they’re getting something better and more creative.

JW – Yes, I think it’s important to recognize that we aren’t just innovative on the product side, but also offer a special level of service, how we deal with customers and other partners. It’s important for us to be innovative across the board.