1. The Story of Helium (w/ Amir Haleem)
Jul 17th, 2020 by thehotspotpod
Helium co-founder and CEO Amir Haleem guides us through Helium's journey to build a wireless network for low-power sensors.
It's a fascinating story filled with twists and turns, failure and success, and one overarching mission to fill an aching demand in the tech world that, for some reason, nobody has been able to fill until now.
We cover lots of ground here, including the beginnings of the company, fundraising, technology choices, the cryptoeconomic model and visions for the future.
A fair warning, our discussion gets fairly technical at times, but even if you're not technically inclined, I urge you to stick around, especially if you're interested in the grand idea of building a network that's powered and owned by people, not big telcos.
Intro song: Lakey Inspired - Arcade
----- EPISODE TRANSCRIPT -----
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:01:30):
Amir, welcome to the show.
Amir Haleem (00:01:31):
Thanks. Thanks for having me on, Arman. It's a pleasure to be here.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:01:35):
To kick things off, I want to hear your elevator pitch. What is Helium and why should people care about it?
Amir Haleem (00:01:45):
I don't know if this is an elevator version. I haven't perfected the elevator version. That only comes when I'm deep in some fundraising mode or something. The general pitch is that there's two levels of pitch. One is, we need a different type of wireless network for low power things. That's the simple way of thinking about it. A decade ago, people started talking about the Internet of Things and machine to machine communication and the way that life and the world could be improved if we knew more data about the physical world, in the same way that we know lots of data about this digital world and had fads like big data, NoSQL and whatever that have driven all that.
Amir Haleem (00:02:26):
There hasn't really been an equivalent thing in real life. Where are the sensors everywhere that tell us about radiation or particular to the air or humidity or is your food safe? And all that stuff. The goal of Helium really is to enable a new type of wireless network at its core. In our opinion, we need this low power infrastructure, and we don't have it. The second way of thinking about Helium is perhaps a little bit different, which is a community built, people built network, and that's a new concept as well. In the same way that I think Airbnb allowed random people to become hotel operators or Uber allowed people to operate a cab company themselves. Helium is a way for you to monetize your infrastructure.
Amir Haleem (00:03:15):
You've got real estate and internet access, and power and those are all things that you need in order to operate a wireless network basically. The traditional model has been telcos go and acquire those things themselves, like they acquired cell towers and rooftops and whatever else, and Helium is a different model for that. Prior to Helium, there was no way for a random consumer to participate in the telco economic infrastructure and Helium is a way to do that. Two pitches, maybe.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:03:46):
That's great. Yeah, I've definitely found the Airbnb comparison pretty useful when I'm talking to somebody about hosting hotspots.
Amir Haleem (00:03:56):
Yeah. I think Airbnb was super interesting because if you wanted to operate a hotel yourself, you had very little chance of doing that prior to Airbnb and the telco industry is the same, perhaps even worse, because it's even more insidious. You need more than just real estate. You need access to licensed spectrum, and it's like this very closed off boys’ club that the average person is never going to get to infiltrate. Helium is the start of an idea there really. It's like, why wouldn't we build all the wireless networks this way? Today, it's a low power one, but eventually, it could be anything. You could run an LTE or a 5G network or practically any type of wireless network this way. Why wouldn't you do it that way given the chance?
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:04:44):
You've got this really interesting concept of democratizing the creation of a wireless network. It's working so far, seemingly. You've got over 4000 hotspots out there in the wild and that's a tremendous achievement. But I'd love to take a shallow dive into the history of the company, because a majority of companies in the blockchain space were started in the last two to three years and only a handful have been around longer than that. Most people probably don't know that Helium was originally founded in 2013 and had nothing to do with blockchain. What was the initial mission of Helium? How did the team assemble and who was involved?
Amir Haleem (00:05:28):
That's a long story but I'll try and make it sane. Just for a second, my background is in the video game industry. I was a long time ago a pro eSports player in the late '90s. I was literally the best Quake I in Quake III player in the world. That was super interesting. Firstly, there was no one playing games at the scale that they are now. The universe of Quake players was in the hundreds or thousands that were good. And there's a lot of reasons for that. It was inaccessible, you needed to build a PC yourself and you needed some way of getting a fast internet connection and it just wasn't an option in '97 or '98 unless you were a student or worked in an office with a T1.
Amir Haleem (00:06:15):
That introduced me to a lot of things that helped me start my career and I worked at a Swedish startup that ended up building Battlefield 1942. We were acquired by EA and that led me into my video game career. Through that, I met Shawn Fanning, who was the founder of Napster somewhere along the way. We had just stayed in touch and we had a friend circle that all knew each other. I don't know, probably 2012 at some point, really, we had a friend of ours Chris Bruce that was starting a baby monitor company called Sproutling. They were trying to build a baby monitor, it's like an Apple watch for babies basically except the baby obviously wouldn’t look at the watch, it was more like a Fitbit, or something like that.
Amir Haleem (00:07:02):
The problem was that the only way to do anything power efficient in terms of connectivity was use Bluetooth and the problem with Bluetooth was that the range was, as you guys know, feet, dozens of feet, if you're lucky. What he wanted was something different to that. I wanted to just be able to take this thing outside just like I do a cell phone, it should just work wherever it is. I think that was really the start of the conversation that we started having between us and Chris and Shawn are friends and we were all in the same group. That led us to have this conversation about well, what if we could build a wireless network designed for sensors? Why has no one done that?
Amir Haleem (00:07:40):
And there were some interesting new technologies that had just appeared like LoRa had just been born, but back then LoRaWAN wasn’t the thing, but the LoRa technology existed in 2013. Stuff had just generally started to become a lot cheaper and a lot more experimental in nature. Like TI had a bunch of chips that were all of a sudden really interesting for this stuff. That was really the start of the conversation. It was like Shawn and I and, and Chris influenced a little bit. We had a co-founder, this guy, Sean Carey, that came from Basho, which is this distributed system and database company that had built the backend for iMessage and had generally had a pretty good distributed systems background.
Amir Haleem (00:08:21):
That was really the conversation and said that the mission at the start was really, let's build a wireless network. The reason we thought it might work at the time actually was a very different reason than we ended up pursuing, was that TV stations were starting to go digital. All this leftover spectrum that they used to occupy was being unlicensed. They now call this whitespace. This was the whitespace movement where these TV stations were leaving these channels. And we were like, "Maybe this is an opportunity to do something that couldn't have been done prior. These frequencies weren't available before and they are now."
Amir Haleem (00:08:56):
Things took many, many twists and turns, but then the mission was always the same. It was always, how do we build a wireless network that these things can use? And over the years, it just became obvious and apparent to us that trying to do it in a traditional centralized model was never going to work and I think we've seen other companies try and do that over the years whether it is Ingenu, used to be called On-Ramp Wireless or Sigfox, or some of the current guys like MachineQ and Senet. It's a tough business, because you've got to build infrastructure yourself, you got to pay for the hardware, you got to pay for the real estate and electricity and you're talking about sensors that are going to pay cents or dollars a year or something like that to use the network.
Amir Haleem (00:09:36):
It's very difficult to figure out an ROI that makes sense versus something like an LTE network where you've got iPhones on the thing that are $100, $200 a month or something in ROI. It's a very difficult business to make work in the traditional model and that led us down the path of where we ended up today, basically.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:09:59):
That's great. Can you walk us through some of the key iterative points and pivots where you hit a wall and were like, "This is no longer working." I know that, for example, there was at least one version of the Helium hotspot before the current design that I don’t believe was sold to the public ever.
Amir Haleem (00:10:15):
No, we've got lots of different versions. The first thing that we built was this 802.15.4 based protocol. 15.4 is this IEEE standard that is probably most well known for being the physical layer for Zigbee, which is a low power sensor network technology. We had acquired this small company in Colorado that had a lot of 15.4 expertise. One of the guys there was the secretary of the Zigbee standard, and we knew the 15.4, they knew the 15.4 technology deeply. At that time, we were like, "Let's use 15.4. That seems like a good way to at least start this." We had this, the very first version of a hotspot, not even a hotspot, we called it a bridge, was this extraordinarily complicated hardware thing because it had five or six different wireless radios on it.
Amir Haleem (00:11:11):
It was like Bluetooth wireless, 2.4 GHz, sub GHz. The concept was similar; we just didn't have the right incentive or we had no incentive in fact. It was, buy this thing and help us build this network and the result of building this network is that there's going to be this open infrastructure that anyone can use to build products on top of. We went pretty far down that path, and we had hardware, we had the SDKs, and the server side infrastructure. This was pre LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN didn't exist here and arguably, if we had decided to use LoRa instead of 15.4, I'm guessing that LoRaWAN would have been built on top of what we built because it's very, very similar in design. This is 2013, before LoRaWAN had really been conceived.
Amir Haleem (00:12:03):
It was the same notion. Like, you should be this relatively broadcast based network where you could wander around between the different base stations and it should be low power, and it should somehow be low cost. What we just hadn't figured out was how you would do that. What was the incentive for people to build this network other than participants? If you were a company, I remember we worked with companies like Target and funnily enough, Doorbot, which became Ring and all these other companies back then that were trying to do stuff like this. And like in the Ring case, they wouldn't have used it for video, but they would have used it for provisioning, for example.
Amir Haleem (00:12:42):
There were lots of these hybrid cases. The problem was still the same. It's, unless you were an actual device company, there was no reason for the network to exist. There was no reason for a random participant to put one of these bridges up. That led us into a different kind of pivot where it's like, "Well, what if we took this technology and tried to apply it in a very verticalized way?" If you looked at someone like Samsara, or I would call them the best example of doing this well, where they pick the vertical which is fleet monitoring or fleet applications, and they build a complete end to end product and went after that vertical. We dabbled in various verticals like that.
Amir Haleem (00:13:21):
We were in the restaurants for a while and hospitals for a while, even hotels and hospitality. Again, it's just difficult, our DNA as a company was not to do that. Our DNA was a platform company that at its core wanted to build open source technology that was broadly adopted. Trying to emulate what Samsara did was alien for us. It was forcing ourselves to do something that we really didn't want to do. Maybe I'm just speaking for myself and just making it sound like everyone agreed with me, but that was my feeling. Then several years ago, we started just thinking again. It's like, "What if there was a way to incentivize people to do the first idea?" And at that point, Bitcoin had become mainstream.
Amir Haleem (00:14:10):
Maybe not everyone holds Bitcoin, but everyone certainly knows what it is.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:14:14):
Amir Haleem (00:14:15):
And Ethereum was known and Coinbase was succeeding. All of a sudden, it was like coins are a thing now. This notion of tokens and incentive models that are bootstrapping networks was all of a sudden a thing that people understood. We revisited it, one of our engineers wrote what I would consider the very first whitepaper of the current model and that started the path that we're down, which is, let's revisit the original idea. What if we could build a network? What if there was a different way to incentivize it that wasn't really viable or possible back in 2013? Maybe it was we were just too dumb to find it, but we didn't think it was a thing that we could have done back then.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:14:57):
That's really interesting. You started out basically, trying to fulfill different niches and then go from there and expand, is that correct?
Amir Haleem (00:15:08):
The original goal was always very naive. It was, let's just build wireless networks somehow, and then people will use them because there's all these use cases that people should be building. I think there was nothing true about that statement other than how do you actually build the network and we hadn’t figured that out and there was no reason for random consumers or participants to just go buy one of these bridges and help build the network. That was really the whole problem with the thing. The original mission was always that. The look at, or the pivot into, "let's build verticalized applications" was never the goal. That was just a "well, that first idea isn't working properly and we have this technology, what can we apply it to?"
Amir Haleem (00:15:53):
I think somewhere it always felt like unfinished business that we needed to address so I was very excited to get back to it with this blockchain powered version of it.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:16:04):
Your initial idea was to work with restaurants and hotels, as you said, as a means to an end? Was your thinking that if you could get these businesses to deploy networks, that that would be a starting point to figure out some way to get other businesses to deploy networks, or at least get some coverage going?
Amir Haleem (00:16:21):
Yeah, exactly. I think we had this three tiered model in our head with some combination of enthusiasts and users and businesses, but it's hard. You don't really have a reason to do this unless you're building the application yourself, and you're not going to build the application yourself, unless there's broad coverage that you can take advantage of, depending on the use case. You had a very much a chicken egg problem that it was unclear how to solve and so we just said that's not going to work and so we moved away from the broad network idea into, let's build solutions for people that have problems in a specific location, like in a factory, in a restaurant, in a hospital, in a warehouse or whatever. That never felt right.
Amir Haleem (00:17:08):
That never felt like the right thing to do. I am naively a big believer in purpose of companies. I think there was a lot of ways for us to make a lot more money than we've made and I'm sure some of our investors are mad at me for not pursuing those, but that never felt like what we were supposed to do or why we started the business. This feels like a much more natural path for us and still solving an extraordinarily large unsolved problem in the world.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:17:36):
That's really interesting. You started off with the Amazon approach of sell books first, but then you realized that didn't quite fit, you couldn't quite take that model and just copy it and then have it work.
Amir Haleem (00:17:49):
Actually, we started with the sell everything first at the start, the very start. We were just like, let's just build a network and let's build tools and then figure it out and actually, it wasn't terrible. We had a lot of traction and a lot of interest in the early days. The problem was, there was no way to feasibly grow this network. We had I think 200 or 300 beta users in San Francisco, it was probably 2014. There was no way that we could figure out how to turn that into tens of thousands across the country. That's what led us into this vertical approach. We went from the sell everything to sell books back to sell everything approach except this time around with a different incentive model than we did in the first place, which we think makes all the difference.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:18:37):
We'll get to the Helium hotspot itself in a future episode, but I saw on your blog that you've got a couple of iterations, or at least one other iteration of the Helium hotspot that never made it to the public. Why did that never get released? Can you talk more about that?
Amir Haleem (00:18:51):
Yeah. The original vision of Helium was to build a new wireless protocol at the same time. We weren't very satisfied with LoRaWAN or our 802.15.4 protocol that we built for a variety of reasons. We started building a wireless protocol at the start that was called WIPT. The goal there was that it would fix some of the things that we really didn't about LoRaWAN and at the time, those were things like I want fine time stamping of packets without having to spend thousands of dollars on a gateway, and I want to be able to send arbitrary size data and have the protocol, chunk that up for me and not be restricted to certain packet sizes, and stuff like that. That was a lot of our motivation behind why we were building with...
Amir Haleem (00:19:42):
And there was a decent list of reasons. Part of that was we wanted the hardware to be very open, but one of the downsides of LoRa is that it is a closed source, physical layer and a modulation scheme owned by Semtech and we didn't really like that, and I think they're getting better about this. To their credit, they are moving very heavily in the direction of opening this and I would be surprised if they didn't completely open it at some point in the future. They've gotten a lot more diversity in terms of who the manufacturers are, the partners are that they are building more chips.
Amir Haleem (00:20:16):
At the time, it was really just Semtech and I think there was one other Chinese, very untypical type of RF and we wanted it to be possible to use Helium using practically any sub gigahertz radio out there. Part of the way that we were going to do that was to build this hotspot that was a software-defined radio. A very high capacity, SDR. We got pretty far at that. I have one here. You won’t see it that well in this thing because it will get cropped out but it looks similar to the current hotspot except, it's vastly different inside.
Amir Haleem (00:20:50):
This was a very novel software defined architecture inside that was still reasonably cost effective to produce and what it meant was that you would have a hotspot that could listen to practically anything you'd hear over the air and use software to decode it. This was super interesting. The downside of this was that there isn't any off the shelf hardware that looks this. There's a few makery things that you can put together and there are SDRs on a USB stick and there are other ways to do this. What we came to realize over time, and probably everyone is listening to this and being like, "Yeah, that's obvious, you're an idiot." Probably true. Was that latching on to a bigger ecosystem is just better and easier.
Amir Haleem (00:21:40):
If you build something like WIPT or Long-Fi as we ended up calling it, you have to bootstrap the whole thing from scratch. There are no devices, there is no hardware out there on the market that just natively works with this thing. We decided at some point that just switching to both LoRa as a technology was smarter because we could build the gateway much more cheaply than trying to do this SDR thing on our own. There were existing manufacturers in the space already. There's dozens of gateway manufacturers already in the LoRa ecosystem. Then eventually with the switch to LoRaWAN, it's like there's thousands upon thousands of existing sensors in the ecosystem that already work with this protocol.
Amir Haleem (00:22:16):
That's a much easier proposition than let's bootstrap the whole thing like, hardware, device side. Firmware, everything. It just was too much. It was too slow, too painful, deals were getting held up that we were trying to do, because we didn't have downlink support. And I was like, "This is stupid." There's already a protocol that has downloads for, everyone already uses it, we'd have a lot of parts of it, but it's just the lesser of two evils and I think it's helped us go a lot faster, being able to just latch on to an existing thing, rather than try to build it ourselves.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:22:50):
That makes a ton of sense. There are definitely a ton of LoRaWAN devices out there, although not necessarily in the US. According to my own research, there isn't really any widely deployed, or at least definitely not publicly available LoRaWAN network in the US. Although in the EU, it seems actually there are a couple of countries that are completely covered in LoRaWAN from more traditional type carriers.
Amir Haleem (00:23:14):
Yeah, I think that's true. You've got a combination of things. You've got The Things Network, which is an open community built LoRaWAN network, you could say similar in nature to what we're doing, but I think perhaps fundamentally different in a lot of ways. Then you've got the carriers. Traditional telcos who have built large networks themselves, those are guys like Orange in France and KPN in Holland. The problem with those carrier operated networks is that they don't have a great economic structure, right, it's still quite expensive to use those networks.
Amir Haleem (00:23:51):
The coverage is great, because they are sort of piggy backing LoRa gateway locations on top of their LTE infrastructure and LoRa has very good range, but the cost of using those networks, at least in the conversation that we've always had with people has always been prohibitive, so they've never really taken off. And in the States, there's nothing here. I think Senet is probably the largest other operator outside of Helium. Comcast took a shot at this with an initiative called MachineQ and they had hoped to leverage a lot of their existing infrastructure, that doesn't seem to have worked out. It's a tough problem.
Amir Haleem (00:24:29):
If you're going to solve it the traditional way, I think, at least in the States, you're not going to make it because the landmass is just so large that you need such a massive footprint to put a dent in coverage and in this country, we've seen guys like Sigfox try that and then started and then ended up just backing out and leaving. I think they're actually trying to sell their US network right now. Yeah, it's not easy. It's not a criticism of them as much as it's just hard. It's just hard and expensive.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:25:01):
It's definitely a great point on the landmass of the US. We've seen this play out in the traditional cellular carrier market, where T-Mobile has come in with this revolutionary model, at least revolutionary in the US, unlimited data and whatnot and they won huge spectrum auctions, totaling I think tens of billions of dollars and they started to build out this network and then they've been at it for five plus years with this really top notch team, and they're really taking it really seriously and they still have tons of coverage gaps that they need to work on. It's pretty clear that this country is unique, especially given our mass amount of rural square miles that are out there.
Amir Haleem (00:25:44):
Yeah. Those guys have to make an ROI calculation at some point. If they're going to create all of this network coverage in these rural areas, are there enough $100, $200 a month customers there to make it worthwhile? Again, it's just so expensive to do all of this, that approaching this with a completely different model where participants in the network are economically incentivized to do it on their own and act as their own little cell towers, we think is the only sane way to try and build especially the low power networks. Might also be true or we think it's true for things like 5G networks where there are different physics involved and the range of a base station is extremely low.
Amir Haleem (00:26:27):
It's hard to imagine how any carrier even at the size of Verizon or Vodafone, or whatever other entity would ever be able to deploy enough 5G base stations to create anything that looks like full coverage. I think it's highly likely that this model that we are trying here is the way that wireless networks always get built going forward, whether it's Helium or some other thing in the future, it to me, makes sense that you would choose this option versus spending tens or hundreds of billions of dollars trying to build the infrastructure yourself.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:27:00):
It definitely makes a lot of sense. When you look at the Helium pricing model, you'll see that you're pricing yourself probably 10 times lower than any of the carriers in Europe that are offering LoRaWAN at a minimum and this pricing model could simply never be achieved by US telco, if they were building out the traditional fashion, leasing cell tower space and power and fiber and paying for the labor. And the spectrum. Everything that goes into it all these costs versus just using the existing infrastructure of people's homes and businesses which have power or have internet and can operate in unlicensed spectrum for free. You can see why there's a massive difference in the possibility to create a really low cost network there.
Amir Haleem (00:27:48):
Yeah, and I think the thing that's interesting, the thing that enables that, as far as I'm concerned is the crypto economic model. Everyone gets to participate in this model without needing us. We are a sideshow eventually in this whole network. Like today, we are the core maintainers and we launched the thing, but we don’t need to be here long term and arguably, and I think that's an important point. Because it means that you're not joining our network. You're building your own network that happens to be powered by technology that we devised and I don't think that's a concept that any traditional telco would ever get behind.
Amir Haleem (00:28:37):
It just doesn't fit with the model that they've always pursued in the same way that Airbnb didn't fit in Hilton or Hyatt's model until it's way too late. I think it's only possible when you power this thing in this crypto economic way, where the settlement is all decentralized, the physical routing of packets is completely decentralized and there's an incentive for people to start the network in the absence of traffic initially. We're not going to pretend that there's very little traffic at the start of these networks. There's none, right, and you have to create an incentive for people to build the network before it exists.
Amir Haleem (00:29:17):
And in some ways, the cell networks were lucky in the way that they ended up where they ended up and there's that famous McKinsey report that AT&T commissioned, I think it is probably in the '90s. I don’t know if you saw this. They asked McKinsey to report to them, what they believe the total size of the cellular network audience would be in the country, how many subscribers would there be. This, I think is probably mid to late '90s. And McKinsey came back and said that it was in the order of 900,000 people was the maximum addressable market. No one knew what the fuck they were doing. It was dumb luck that they built this network to some degree, and then honestly, that Apple launched the iPhone, blew it into orbit.
Amir Haleem (00:30:03):
Again, it's hard to do some of this stuff, and I think it's going to get harder. Like I said, the 5G range is really, really bad. Millimeter wave 5G, that's the real high bandwidth stuff. When people talk about low latency, gaming and self-driving cars and 4K video streaming, they're talking about the millimeter wave version of 5G, those frequencies are interfered with by humidity. If it's humid one day, you're not going to receive anything and glass certainly is out of the question. It's really-
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:30:36):
Yes, this operates at what? 60 gigahertz? For people who aren't that familiar with radios, the higher the frequency, at some point, it just basically becomes impossible to even get through a brick wall.
Amir Haleem (00:30:48):
Yeah. The stuff that we do is in the 900 megahertz and below in some countries. Those radio waves are longer, they tend to penetrate things better, like brick and trees, and they reflect better and stuff that's in high frequency has much higher bandwidth. You can actually stream 4K video in those high frequencies in the 10s of gigahertz, but you really need a direct line of sight to the thing. You need a line of sight to the base station, basically. It's not going to go around a corner. It's not going to go through a wall. It's not going to go through a window. We're going to see a big shift there as people try and deploy real 5G networks.
Amir Haleem (00:31:30):
What I expect to happen is what AT&T is now doing where they're starting to lie about what 5G is the same way they lied about what 4G was. Now in my iPhone, I have 5GE in the corner of my iPhone. I don't know, 5GE, it's not a thing. It's like-
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:31:47):
It doesn’t even exist.
Amir Haleem (00:31:48):
Right. You just made that up, but it's easier for them to just make it up than to actually deploy a 5G network. Yeah, that'd be fun to watch.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:31:57):
Yeah, it's an interesting distinction between what the carriers are pitching and what the reality is, especially when it comes to IoT devices. If we're talking about an IoT future where there are smart streetlights and sensors everywhere, as you said to record air pollution, which is something I really care about and to record parking spots. These devices need to be insanely small, have basically infinite battery life, be able to last years on a coin cell battery, and be able to reach really long distances to the nearest gateway or hotspot. And the reality of 5G, especially at 60 gigahertz is just so completely opposite of what these devices actually need.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:32:42):
Even cellular networks, I believe devices that connect to them use maybe over 100 times more power than you would want for an IoT device. Really, what's unique about LoRaWAN, which is what the Helium network uses is that is an extremely low power wireless network and there's just nothing out there that exists like this, which is I guess why you guys are doing this.
Amir Haleem (00:33:10):
Yeah. The carriers have been using IoT as fuel for 5G which I think is interesting. Maybe it's disingenuous also, it's not really the case. At least for this low power stuff, and I think that's the other thing that's happened over time is that the definition of IoT has shifted. It used to be these low power things and now people include Tesla as an IoT device and I think, maybe that's fine. It's just different. At the start of all of this, and in 2012 or '11, whenever I first heard the term IoT, I don't think people meant cars, back then. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I can't tell, but the 5G stuff is certainly not targeted at low power things. It's going to be extraordinarily power consumptive because moving massive amounts of data at high speed just takes a lot of power.
Amir Haleem (00:34:03):
It's that simple and the devices are on for longer when they're streaming video and the protocols are much more complicated because... We've seen this with NB-IoT as an example. NB-IoT is a cellular protocol designed for low power things. This was a 3GPP standard. That's the governing body that is responsible for LTE and one of the other cellular protocols. The idea with NB-IoT was that you would have a LoRaWAN competitive. I honestly believe that LoRaWAN was a big driver for them doing this, but it would be a competitive technology that the telcos would be able to add alongside LTE, so it's part of the LTE family. A lot of those cellular base stations are software-defined radios, so it would be a software upgrade rather than a hardware upgrade.
Amir Haleem (00:34:53):
It hasn't really materialized and part of the reason why is, it's complicated to build wireless protocols that have to be very smart. Like, for example, in NB-IoT, it often operates in the same spectrum as LTE. It has to dodge around high bandwidth traffic and that means that the protocol has to be smarter, it means the devices have to be more complicated, the firmware has to be more complicated. There are other versions of NB-IoT where they operate in what they call these guard bands, which is gaps between the LTE spectrum, which should be quiet. Again, it's like, once you start bifurcating NB-IoT into two different things, then you lose some of the economies of scale and you lose some of the ubiquity of the idea.
Amir Haleem (00:35:37):
NB-IoT hasn't really caught on, I don't think the battery life was anywhere close to what they were claiming. I remember reading 25 years of battery life and sort of laughing. That hasn't materialized. We're still back to where we started and even if it did materialize, it's not clear that the economic model would really be correct in the first place. We've certainly seen a lot of companies and customers that we've talked to, who have experimented with NB-IoT, and found it unacceptable for various reasons, whether it was the cost of the hardware, or the cost of the service, or the battery life or some combination of all three.
Amir Haleem (00:36:14):
Then the X Factor there is that you have to certify all these devices with the carriers and if anyone's ever gone through that process, I can confirm that that is an awful process. Again, having this decentralized registration/certification system that built into Helium is also a super interesting thing because it makes it easier for companies to just get stuff up and running and don't have to go through this very heavy, costly and time consuming process.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:36:41):
That's really interesting. Getting back on track here, you were talking about bootstrapping the network, and someone has to build the initial prototype and everything. Big telcos won’t invest in it, because it's just simply not enough immediate revenue for the amount of investment they'd have to make. Yet, as of today, your company has raised Series C with total funding amount of over $54 million. Clearly, you've got some investors to believe in this vision, and you've got some real money behind it to kick this off. Your latest round includes a surprising amount of what I would essentially call household names in the tech investment community, including Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Union Square Ventures, FirstMark, SV Angel.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:37:30):
I've actually never come across another blockchain company where I recognize so many investor names. What I want to know is how did investors react to your pitch in each stage of your funding? Did it get easier, or harder as you transitioned from this very straightforward idea to this crypto economic model?
Amir Haleem (00:37:50):
In the early days, fundraising was very different. The seed round, so back in '13, maybe even '12, when we were starting this, there wasn't any... LoRaWAN didn't even exist. Sigfox was sort of a thing, didn't really exist. The whole notion of building a low power network was very novel in that day. Today, it’s Sigfox, or it's Senet, it's MachineQ or it's NB-IoT. Back then it wasn't true. The whole notion of let's build this low power wireless network was very novel. Investors at that time, it was a much different conversation, but I think everyone realized the problem space that we were tackling, which was that we were supposed to have all these things, even in 2013, this was true.
Amir Haleem (00:38:41):
We still don't have all these things and we think a big reason why we don't have them... When I'm talking about things, I mean the sensors that we're describing. We think a big part of the reason why they don't exist is that there's no infrastructure there to use them. You're not going to build a radiation monitoring sensor, if you can't, if you know there's no network to use it on. It would be pointless. In the early days, that pitch, I think resonated with almost everyone and our Series A was led by Khosla Ventures, and Vinod Khosla himself, he certainly believed in that vision. I think there were still a lot of questions at that time about how we would take it to market and how we would actually make it work as a business and [laughs] arguably we still haven't figured that out.
Amir Haleem (00:39:29):
That was certainly the vision. There should be a network like this and if you built it, there must be billions of applications to take advantage of it. In the Series B round which Google Ventures led, we were in the middle of a half pivot. That was when we were talking about, "let's go after some of these vertical applications". We still don't want to lose the original vision, we still want this broad platform that we think other things can build on top of, but we also think we should be perhaps focusing on some of these verticals like hospitals and restaurants and stuff like that. That really ended up turning out to be a failed strategy. That was wrong. Maybe it wasn't wrong, the way we executed it was wrong, the way Samsara executed it was right.
Amir Haleem (00:40:17):
We did that incorrectly. The B round, we were halfway between the change and then the C round was very much the crypto round. We were deep into the crypto experiment at that point. We had built most of the blockchain, and we had working hotspots. We were very deeply into it by the time we've raised the C round. It's certainly been interesting. I think we have been very fortunate to have, as you said, just a phenomenally talented group of investors, and I think, perhaps what's misunderstood about Silicon Valley VCs is that the good VCs understand the struggle. It's not a straight line up and to the right, unless you're Facebook or something, and even them, they had their struggles a little bit over time.
Amir Haleem (00:41:03):
I think the best VCs help you figure out the struggle part really. Okay, it didn't go exactly as we thought it was going to go, but this is a way for it to get close to where we thought it was going to go or beyond where we thought it was going to go. We've been fortunate that we got really good VCs, really good board members and partners who have helped me navigate this over the years. I think had I not had some of the guidance and advice from people like Vinod and Matt Turck from FirstMark and Andy from Google, it would have been really hard to figure out what the hell we're doing.
Amir Haleem (00:41:39):
Now, in the crypto space having people like Nick Grossman from USV and Tushar and Kyle from Multicoin, it's like that's a world where we are quite frankly novices and without their guidance and advice, we'd equally be at loss. I think picking the right investors or having the right investors pick you, whichever way you want to look at it is just critical. Whether you like it or not, you're stuck with these guys for the lifetime of your company, there's very little we could do to get rid of them at any point. Make good decisions when you decide to take money from people. Then just lastly, it's a lot of money but in the space that we're playing in, it's not a lot of money.
Amir Haleem (00:42:22):
This is a space where $50 million would get you coverage in 1/10th of the city if you were a telco doing this. It feels like a lot and oftentimes I'm like, "Shit, have we really raised and spent that much money?" But relative to what we're trying to accomplish and where we are, it doesn't feel like a lot.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:42:43):
Yeah, definitely in the blockchain space that can seem modest when you look at these ICOs that reached two, three... I think there was one that was over a billion dollars, just absolutely-
Amir Haleem (00:42:52):
Yeah, EOS raised I think four billion dollars so we got a long way to go still.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:42:57):
That's unbelievable. What do you even do when you have that much money? How can you even deploy that in a reasonable way? I think it just makes no sense when all you really need is time and iteration and testing. Buying an audience isn't that expensive. One other thing that I found really interesting about Helium other than its surprisingly mainstream group of investors is the decidedly mainstream approach to the brand. You guys have been running display ads all over the web, all over social media with simple, minimalistic, visually pleasing messaging, which has led to a surprising lack of what I would call crypto people in the community.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:43:39):
Instead, we seem to have lots of hobbyists, and even a fair amount of people who don't necessarily understand tech very well at all, but are enthusiastic and they're actively participating and learning. Was this an intentional decision and how exactly did you target those ads?
Amir Haleem (00:43:56):
Yeah. It certainly was intentional. There was no accident in terms of the approach that we took and I think there's several reasons for this, and I saw someone recently in one of the Helium Telegram channels, say that I need to do a better job of engaging with the crypto community or that I don't know how to do that.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:44:17):
I saw that. I got involved in that little spar there.
Amir Haleem (00:44:20):
Yeah. I thought that was a really interesting comment, and the reason I think we took the approach, I don't want to say that that's incorrect, there's certainly part of it, which is true. I think we do avoid the crypto community largely, but it's because this isn't really for the crypto community. If I were to think about projects like EOS or Ethereum or Solana, all things that I think are great. I don't know much about EOS so maybe it's not great. I hear it's run by a Chinese cartel, was the last I was told. At this point in terms of mining but maybe that's not accurate.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:44:54):
Amir Haleem (00:44:55):
Yeah, I don't know. All of those things and all that DeFi infrastructure you have, stuff like Compound, Maker, and all that stuff, which I think is actually fascinating. I'm illiterate but fascinated in that world.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:45:08):
Amir Haleem (00:45:08):
I don't understand 70% of what I hear but it's interesting. There's something powerful there about democratizing finance and lending and everything else that goes with it. That stuff is really all for the cryptocurrency community. The consumers of DeFi are crypto holders and the creators of dApps are crypto people, and all of this stuff, all of these projects are for...today. I know they have visions, like if I looked at Dfinity or if I looked at Solana, the goal of course is to escape this ecosystem and achieve mainstream reach and some of them will do that. But today, those projects exist to service that universe. So it's of course, critical that they talk to that universe or that's their customer or that's their user in whichever way you want to think about it.
Amir Haleem (00:45:58):
For us, that's not the case. Our network needs geographic reach and that means you've got to go a lot broader on the supply side, on the hotspot side. You've got to go a lot broader than just the crypto community. You got to reach anyone. Anyone has to find this interesting and compelling and I think every decision that we've made all the way from the start, including creating the hotspot, there's an argument to be made about it, like why build the hotspot? There's already LoRa gateways on the market that do exactly the same thing, why would you bother doing this? I think the answer is that the user experience is not correct. You want to make this as easy to use [as possible].
Amir Haleem (00:46:41):
We built the mobile app, and we build all these Bluetooth interfaces and all these subsystems that run inside the hotspot, that are really around how do we make it easy to set the thing up and just do what it's supposed to do? That extends into the marketing and the advertising and really the entire audience that we've gone after. It's anyone. Literally anyone, anywhere should find this interesting, compelling and be able to use it. That means that we haven't cared that much, quite honestly about the crypto community, they just don’t fit that profile, in that it's a relatively small group of people largely concentrated in New York or San Francisco. That's cool. It's just not our audience right now.
Amir Haleem (00:47:19):
Similarly, on the demand side of the network, our users are not engineers writing dApps, they are enterprises Nestle and 3M and Lime, and Conserv and Salesforce and probably other names I'm not even supposed to mention that use the network. These are guys building sensor applications that require network coverage. That's just the difference in this project. We didn't set out to be in the crypto space, we set out to build a wireless network and it just turned out to us that the crypto economic approach was the right way to do it. Much like I would expect someone like Filecoin eventually to have to wander very far away from the crypto roots because their customers are people who want to store files and that needs to be anyone.
Amir Haleem (00:48:10):
That needs to be an S3 customer or a Dropbox user or... It's much broader than that. I think that's why, and that's why we've taken the approach that we've taken. I think it's been okay, and I think we've sold over 11,000 hotspots now. I don't know if that was public knowledge or not. They're basically sold out at all times and we can't make enough of them fast enough at any volume to actually keep any of the things in stock, which sucks. We want to move to a different model where it's much more partnership based than us just being the hotspot manufacturer, but you have to start this.
Amir Haleem (00:48:44):
I think one of the mistakes the crypto community has made is that the user experience is atrocious, of practically every crypto thing, and improving that I think needs to be a very big focus for everyone in the space and that doesn't just mean for consumer focus things, it means for developer tools and everything else. It's too hard. It's too complicated. That's the approach that we've taken and I think it's been reasonably successful for us so far.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:49:12):
I really agree with a lot of that and one of the things that really drew me to Helium was that it really seemed like a solution that already had tons of demand. I think a lot of people got burned in 2017, mainstream people who got involved in crypto, bought at whatever point in the curve when it was going parabolic, and then everything crashed. I remember I was so just gobsmacked at the time. I'm like, "Why is all this stuff going up and to the right? It doesn't do anything." Ethereum was the only thing that did anything really.
Amir Haleem (00:49:51):
Well, I think it's two things there. First thing, I think Ethereum's product market fit was the ICO. That was the thing. The fact that you could create native assets easily, that was a genius move on their part. That was the catalyst for them to be able to then survive, to end up finding things like DeFi or other things organically that will be highly valuable. I think what the ICO boom to me was, it showed this real desire for retail investors to participate in pre public tech companies. That is one of the most unfair marketplaces that exists in the United States as far as I’m concerned.
Amir Haleem (00:50:34):
It's that like you've got this extraordinary wealth creation machine in terms of tech startups, they account for vastly over half of the Fortune 500 companies at this point, and the general public has not been able to participate in that success until after all the money has been made. That's not true. Look at the stock price of Tesla as an example but for the most part, if you wanted to make a lot of money on Uber, you had to be early into it, you had to be investor #4 or whatever, like Jason Calacanis always tells us. No one can do that. Random people, retail investors have no way of doing that. They don't know how to find those deals, they’re not even allowed into them because of the accredited investor laws.
Amir Haleem (00:51:24):
The ICO boom was like, "Shit, I can now join into a tech company in the early days and watch it skyrocket in value over time." The problem with it was multiple fault. You had blatant fraud and scamming on one side. A lot of these projects, I think, never had any intention of delivering anything close to what they're promising. Those guys are just scum and should go to jail or whatever should happen to them. The others were just optimistic. This happens in Silicon Valley too, a lot of us are wildly optimistic in what we're trying to build. It's not fraudulent in nature, it's just, we don't know what we don't know yet and we discovered that we don't know a little bit too late in the process.
Amir Haleem (00:52:04):
Where the accredited investor laws are helpful is that the people participating in companies like us are big boys that can sustain substantial losses and know the game that they're playing. That's the hard part. There's some balance there, where there has to be enough information and public disclosure required by companies before retail investors will participate. That's corrected itself. It's unfortunate that billions of dollars were lost in the process. I don't feel good about that at all, but I'm certain that the next time this craze comes around, and it will, that retail investors will be a hell of a lot smarter than they were the first time. Everyone will have learned from that lesson.
Amir Haleem (00:52:47):
I think to me, that's what it really showed, was that it's unfair that the retail public can’t participate in early stage tech ventures, and that was the pent up demand for that. There was some really horrific... We looked at some of this stuff, I even talked to some of these guys. I think some of it is, like I said, just straight up fraud. There was never an intention to build the thing. Then in other cases, there was of course an intention to build things really hard, like Filecoin, they're way off schedule. But I don't doubt for a second that they are actually trying to deploy and build the thing and they're several testnet iterations in and the problem they're trying to solve is hard. Again, it's just none of this stuff is easy.
Amir Haleem (00:53:31):
I think adding distributed systems with blockchains to it makes it an "infinitely sized problem" as Anatoly from Solana describes it, and that's just too much for almost anyone to navigate through.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:53:45):
Yeah, I think it's a double edged sword. You have these retail investors, normal everyday people who now have this chance to invest in all these crazy futuristic ideas. Then at the same time, as you said, you have these basically copy pasted websites with different logo and a different cool animated background that say, "Smart Contract Platform of the Future, Whitepaper, Investment, Roadmap." And it would take a very technical person to dig into each one of these things and actually truly understand. Even if you're very technical, you can still get confused between what's vaporware, what's actually being worked on. A lot of teams back then were good at feigning what they were actually working on. I think it was a necessary step to just see how wrong this can all go.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:54:32):
We're going to need to move past that and I think we need value created in the ecosystem where normal people can get their hands on it physically. With the Helium hotspot, you can physically get your hands on it. You can physically get a device called Helium Tabs, and you can get a device in your hand and see this talks to this. This provides me value because now I can track my dog or whatever for six months. This is the type of value we need to be creating in the crypto ecosystem. Not just value but dead obvious value, that normal people can invest in and feel they're not going to get burned and feel they're actually participating in something that's worthwhile.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:55:11):
I think that in the future, the crypto projects that succeed, I hope will be the ones that generate actual value because so many normal people have been burned since 2017 that I think they're going to be very cautious in coming back into this space, unless it's just dead obvious that the thing that they're investing in or using is so much better than the centralized version.
Amir Haleem (00:55:35):
Yeah, and even then, it's not obvious. On the one hand, you've got frauds and scams, and those guys ideally they would never succeed. You would look at those things and somehow it would be obvious that it was a scam and you would just avoid it. But even for the stuff that makes it to the light of day, I'm just, I have CoinMarketCap up, I have no idea what the purpose of Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin SV, Litecoin, just going down this list, Stellar, these are all projects that actually work. It's not clear to me what the purpose of them are or why the market caps are $1.7 billion and above. I think there is still a wild mismatch in terms of value and purpose. Again, Stellar, I'm sure it's wonderful. There's some good technology under there.
Amir Haleem (00:56:24):
I don't know what it does or why and why it's worth $1.7 billion. Bitcoin Cash even worse, Bitcoin SV even worse, and Litecoin the worst as far as I’m concerned. What is the point of any of it yet they're at a valuation of $3 billion in total market cap? It's hard to know what's good and bad, because it's not clear why any of it is here, just to some degree. Like Bitcoin is the grandfather of this all and we hope that it replaces fiat currencies in lots of different places over time because I think there was a real purpose of that existing. Ethereum, like I said, I think created the ICO and allowed people to build DeFi applications. You can understand that. The rest of it is highly speculative.
Amir Haleem (00:57:14):
Even when there's real products deployed, I think it's going to be difficult. What I hope you minimally see is that scams get eviscerated and don't see the light of day. But even in venture we're in the VC universe where I think everyone actually does have good... Not everyone, but most companies have good intentions. It's still a 90 plus percent failure rate. Right?
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:57:36):
Amir Haleem (00:57:37):
I think the misconception is that good VCs pick more winners than losers and that's actually not it. The good VCs pick the biggest winners, it's that the good VCs have picked Facebook and Uber and Airbnb. It's not a game of averages, it’s a game of massive hits and that is a long game that takes deep pockets and patience. I don't know if that's a good fit for a typical retail investor usually. People should be allowed to decide that on their own.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:58:09):
A lot of these big coins that you're talking about that have huge valuations, to me, it seems the reason that that's true, is just the sheer network effect of a lot of people having tried them early on, because they were all was there, and the network effect of being listed on the biggest exchanges. Why is Litecoin on Coinbase? I don't know. But it is. And that's huge. You see this constantly when coin gets listed on a new exchange, it just gets bumped up by 20%, because that's like some form of approval. I want the audience to really understand the stance that Helium is taking towards listing and exchanges because you guys have publicly stated that you're not participating exchange listings, you strictly ban discourse about trading or exchanges in the discord channel.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (00:58:52):
My understanding is that this is due to SEC regulations and the general ambiguity around cryptocurrency laws in the US. Is there anything more you'd like to add there?
Amir Haleem (00:59:03):
It just depends if anyone from the SEC or our counsel is listening. It's complicated. I think the Howey Test is the SEC's, or the legal version of what it is to be a security. For people who aren't familiar with the tension in the cryptocurrency space, it is really entirely around whether the SEC believes these assets are securities or not securities. That's basically, if I were to try and summarize it in that many words, that would be the best I could do. The measure of whether a thing is a security is determined by something called the Howey Test. Howey was an orange farmer who owned an orange grove and sold rights to oranges to people and the SEC in the '40s, '50s or '60s, I forget, determined that that was an investment contract because people weren't actually buying oranges.
Amir Haleem (01:00:01):
They were buying rights to future oranges. That has formed the basis for how everything should be looked at and the four pillars of a security according to the Howey Test are an investment of money in a common enterprise, with the expectation of profit through the efforts of others. You can tell by the fact that I know this off the top of my head that this is a thing that anyone in this space spends a lot of time thinking about. Part of what is annoying about operating in the cryptocurrency space is that it's not exactly clear how to think about any of those things. Like if you look at Ethereum, as far as I'm concerned, there's no question that the ICO originally was a sale of securities. There's no question about that in my mind.
Amir Haleem (01:00:47):
The SEC hasn't really made that clear or made that obvious. They now say it's not a security but did it shift from being a security to not a security over time and what was the trigger for that being true? Our belief has basically been that if you engage with exchanges and you promote speculative behavior, then there's a reasonable chance that someone looking at this is going to believe there's an expectation of profit. That's the way that we think about this. That's not our intention, our purpose is to build a wireless network that has utility and value. That has nothing to do with speculation. We have removed ourselves entirely from any discussion around exchanges and listing and speculation. It's just not what we do and I think that's alien to people.
Amir Haleem (01:01:35):
People come into our Telegram channel, and they start asking about market makers and why aren't you listed on Binance or Coinbase, or whatever. If the community at large including the exchanges decides that they want to list HNT, that's great and to some degree, we are happy to assist with any technical questions that people have around what to do with HNT and the network, but we are not approaching exchanges and we are not having those conversations. We're not paying anyone. We're not doing anything as it relates to actively trying to get HNT to be a more speculative thing. I just think that no one understands that and we've been very cagey about why we're taking that stance and why we're doing it this way.
Amir Haleem (01:02:20):
It's similar to your original question. This isn't a crypto company to some degree. We didn't start this to speculate on crypto assets. We started it to build a wireless network, and we believe that crypto economics are the best way to do that, and I think those are two fundamentally different ideas. As a result of that, whether it ends up in an exchange or not, is less of a driver for us. I don't agree with the SEC about exchanges and the SEC and Kin were recently in court arguing about Kin and one of the points the Kin attorney made was that speculation does not necessarily mean an investment contract. I agree with them, but until that is precisely defined in law, we're just going to err on the side of what we're doing.
Amir Haleem (01:03:10):
We've already seen, I think HNT is listed on two three different exchanges. There's another one forming. We're okay with that happening of course, we can’t stop it. We didn't intend for it to happen, but if it happens organically throughout, without our involvement or our efforts, then I think that's probably the best way for it to occur.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:03:30):
Yeah, I definitely agree and I love the idea of organic listing. Of course, exchanges will want to gain fees, this is their whole business model, is charging you a fee on each trade. They're incentivized to list the most valuable projects that people actually want to trade. I love the idea of coming, sadly, from the more nontraditional-in-the-crypto-space approach, whereas the traditional approach is just get listed on as many exchanges as soon as possible so the price goes up, taking the opposite approach with Helium where listing is basically going to be based on merit. One thing I get frustrated with, I think people don't really understand is that you guys don't have to be the ones to approach the exchanges.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:04:16):
This is a decentralized network, anybody can run a node and if someone wants to get Helium listed on an exchange, they could go be the champion for that themselves. There's nothing stopping anybody from getting a group together to try to get Helium listed on exchange.
Amir Haleem (01:04:34):
Yes. Please do. HeliumEx is this exchange that's launching that basically built around HNT. That's great. We didn’t ask them to do it. They just felt motivated to do it themselves and we're cool with that. To your point about getting listed on a bunch of exchanges and then dumping coins, our non-pre mine model aligns with that. This pre mine thing I think is highly bizarre where the projects just have a bunch of tokens, and then they just dump them and they make a lot of money without having really done a whole lot of work or created a lot of value, I should say. Maybe there was work involved, but it's really about value creation. Our founders' reward style of model, which is at least loosely inspired by Zcash.
Amir Haleem (01:05:27):
I think is a much better way of doing this because it aligns value with creation of it. It happens over time and it requires effort. You should only be in a position to make any money if you've created any value really and these listings with their pops in their dumps, it doesn't seem real.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:05:50):
Yeah, I think the founders' reward is interesting. For people who aren't aware, it's 35% of all the tokens minted, which decreases by I believe about 1% per year, goes to the founders. It's an interesting model, because you guys still... This is how the investors get their return on their $54 million. If the token doesn't succeed, I don't know if they necessarily succeed or you succeed. And you guys still do get a large share of the tokens, but the key difference is that it's not up front and it's not like you've got all these tokens before everyone else. It's more democratic. I don't know if democratic is even the right word, but more equal in that you give other people the opportunity to generate these tokens alongside.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:06:37):
You're like, "Hey, here's this pool for everyone. We get 35%. Everyone else gets 65%. Whoever's first, basically gets the most tokens, whoever builds up the most gets the most tokens." I think that's a fairly thought out and fair way to do that.
Amir Haleem (01:06:54):
We think so too and eventually, if we're not adding any value to the ecosystem, we would expect that the network participants would just fork us out of it. It should only exist if everyone believes that we are providing value in the ecosystem. Today, I think that's certainly true. We intend to do that over time. It's only, the consensus is defined by the majority of people running these nodes and if they decide that they want to change that, they can. We hope they don't, but we also believe that we need to continue to add value into the ecosystem in order for that to be true and we're, of course, comfortable and happy doing that. I hope that anyone involved in the Helium ecosystem sees the amount of work that we put in to try and continue to make this better or to continue to add value, I should say. We'll just see how that goes over time.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:07:54):
Wrapping up about Helium the company, what's the long term more moonshot vision of the company? If I understand correctly the Helium network has been one of the quickest deployments of a wireless network of all time in terms of pure square miles covered, and especially in this distributed fashion, which is, to my understanding, never really been done before. The incentive model has clearly proven itself to work. Do you think that a traditional telco in the future would stand a chance against, say a 5G network or other traditional cellular network whose deployment was incentivized in a similar fashion?
Amir Haleem (01:08:31):
I don't think so, honestly. I mean, there's a lot of hurdles before you can do something like 5G this way. There's the spectrum issue, there's the backhaul speed issue, there's lots of questions that make it much harder than what we're doing today. Like I said, I think if you want to build a 5G millimeter wave network, you're going to need some help. There's no way to do it yourself and I don't know if you remember with these femtocell devices that the carriers made available, where you plug it into your WiFi or Ethernet at home, and-
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:09:07):
Yeah, I wanted one of those.
Amir Haleem (01:09:09):
Yeah, creates a little cell network for you. That's the start of an idea there and the problem is that there's not a real good incentive for you to do that unless you need the coverage yourself. The messaging, I think, is tricky, because Sprint, or whoever or AT&T is saying like, "Our coverage is shit, and the only way for you to use us is to buy one of these devices." That's not a good message and I think the statistics of those femtocell devices is 40, 50% of them never even got turned on when they were sent out.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:09:44):
Amir Haleem (01:09:45):
Yeah. I think that, like I said before, whether it's Helium or a successor to us, or an alternate version of us, it will, I think, become obvious that the only way that a wireless network should be built is this way. There is no need for anyone to really manage and own the thing other than for access to the customer and subscriptions and things like that in the first place, but over time, you could imagine that moving away from that model and be much more decentralized that it is. It's going to take some time. It's going that way. Like I've discovered that the iPhone, and all the Android phones have access to the citizens’ band radio for LTE, which is an unlicensed spectrum we call CBRS.
Amir Haleem (01:10:30):
It's feasible that you could run an LTE network in CBRS and that existing devices would be able to use it. I think in 5G, there's some open spectrum up in the 60 gigahertz range and all the licensed stuff is down in the 20s and 30s and 40s. The spectrum problem is an evolving landscape. I think we'll see a change. Access to the customer is still the key. If I told you there was a Helium 5G network, but you're an AT&T subscriber, how do you make the switch? How do you know about the network? How do you join it? How do you do any of that? Perhaps there's a hybrid model, where the start is that you work with the carriers and augment their existing coverage to start with, and then eventually just try and split away from it.
Amir Haleem (01:11:13):
I don't know. We certainly thought about a lot and had a lot of conversations with some of the carriers, about things like that. I don't know, we'll see. We have a lot of ideas and a lot of plans. I think the problem set in front of us is large enough that we don't need to be thinking about that quite yet. The network is still quite immature. We are very, very focused on helping applications and devices get onto the network. I think that's the key. I think if we can succeed and continue to grow the network, and right now there's 4300, or 4400 hotspots deployed. I would hope that there's 11,000 out there in the next two or three months. Then I think you've got already the telcos and the other LoRa alliance.
Amir Haleem (01:12:06):
LoRaWAN participants have gone from thinking of this as a joke to thinking about this as something that they should partner with or as a threat. To me, that's a little bit Airbnb like. Even I thought Airbnb was a joke and now suddenly it does more gross booking than all the hotel companies combined. It takes some momentum. It's silly until it's not and I think we're quickly getting to the point where it's not.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:12:35):
Well, it's definitely exciting to watch the progress and even as an early believer in this incentive model--I've always dreamed of a wireless decentralized network. And when I found Helium, I was like, "Yeah, this is a really interesting way to build it." But even my expectations were exceeded in just how quickly everything has happened. You guys sold out of each batch of hotspots way ahead of schedule. And of course, you haven't even gotten to Europe. You haven't even gotten to Asia. Yet, although Europe's launching very soon.
Amir Haleem (01:13:03):
Yeah. It's going. We're thrilled. We had no real expectation of what was going to happen. We made 4000 in the first batch and we just had to pick a number out of thin air. The hard part of building hardware is you've got to forecast demand pretty well. I'm not sure that we've done that perfectly well and it's difficult when you're introducing an entirely new product and a new concept into the market and you're resource constrained. But yeah, the demand has been fantastic and the community in general has been fantastic. As you said, very different than the traditional crypto where "sir, when moon" is the typical-
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:13:47):
I like to call it "moon lambo talk". I don't really see any of that.
Amir Haleem (01:13:53):
We don't have much of that and that's interesting and weird for a crypto based thing but also I think testament to the fact that what you said that this is a thing that actually services, at least some amount of demand in the low power network space and so we're not starting from scratch in terms of trying to convince people to do something that they weren't otherwise going to do and it's just the case now, convincing people that this is real, and that Tile should build their next version of a product on this network and blah, blah, blah. It just gets easier and easier as the network gets bigger and the tools get better and everything gets more mature.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:14:31):
I think one of the most shocking things to me, has been that Reddit seems to have not discovered Helium. There's the /r/HeliumNetwork subreddit, but if you look at any of the others--and it's pretty small. There's less than 1000 people, although it is growing nearly exponentially at this point--but if you look at any of the other subreddits like /r/CryptoCurrency or whatever, a Helium thing gets posted months ago and there's just one upvote and no one's there, no one is noticing, which is really interesting to me, because Reddit seems to be a very highly smart community that catches on to things very early, but Helium hasn't reached Reddit yet.
Amir Haleem (01:15:12):
It in a way is good and in a way annoys me. You always wish that you had bigger reach, and that you had a bigger audience than you do. I'm also glad to not have the distraction, at least in the early days. We had so much to do that having to deal with that crowd of purely speculative crypto guys would just have been a lot. To have dodged them while still being able to attract the critical mass, I think has been helpful for us, but over time, I would expect that to change. Something's going to cause a flip there and then we're going to be in full crypto land and-
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:15:57):
Amir Haleem (01:15:59):
...people drawing circles around charts and making shapes and it’s going to be a different universe. I generally have been happy to not participate in it. In the end, the more people that are aware of Helium and buy into it the better. We would just prefer that that's in the form of helping the network grow than draw the shapes on the HNT chart.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:16:24):
Yeah, I think that's really lucky, too. I've been tangentially involved in some other crypto projects that I won't name but if you look at their Reddit communities nowadays, it's really just "coin X is the future, this is why it beats coin Y and this is why I invested all my money in this". Just going absolutely crazy, fanboy mode. It's actually really strange to watch. It's almost dystopian where any dissenting view, or any, even completely valid criticism either gets down voted or just will barely be up voted. It's scary. You don't want that community because that, in my opinion, it's a slippery slope from that to just scam coin territory where even though the project may be legit, if the community surrounding it is toxic, that's really bad for the future of that project.
Amir Haleem (01:17:23):
Yeah, and I think in general there's been a few bumps certainly with our community, but on the whole, I would say everyone's been fantastic and have become great evangelists, including you, have become great evangelists for what we're doing. I love that. It's much more like a traditional open source project than a crypto project and I think that's great. I would love to take all the credit for it, but I don't think I can, it's just some combination of factors that I think has led us to this place and I'm happy to be there. Like I said, our focus at Helium the company is relentless just on applications. That's both coverage and applications. That's what motivates us to keep doing what we're doing.
Amir Haleem (01:18:18):
Whatever value there is to HNT and how the economic ecosystem works out, I think just naturally comes when it's useful. If IoT becomes synonymous with Helium the way Google is synonymous to search, then we don't have to worry about the value of HNT anytime soon. That's the way we think about it and that's all we're focused on.
Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi (01:18:45):
I love that. Well, thanks, Amir. This has been an amazing conversation, and looking forward to more in the future.
Amir Haleem (01:18:52):
Thank you. It's great to be on here and talk to you again soon.