Careers: Interviews
Jill Stelfox: Visionary and Widely-Respected Wireless Authority/Entrepreneur; CEO Defywire

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Jill Stelfox.

As the CEO of Defywire, a high growth mobile software company based in Herndon, Virginia, Jill is truly a driver in the wireless technology revolution. In the highly competitive and crowded wireless software space, her steadfast leadership and aggressive vision have enabled this A-round company to secure eight important customers (including three Fortune 200 companies) and seven million dollars in funding in its first full year of operation.

Before founding Defywire, Jill served as Chief Financial Officer and Director of Mobile and Wireless at Noblestar Systems from 1997 through 2001. Jill led the successful effort to obtain venture capital for the spin-off company, Riverbed Technologies, a developer of mobile and wireless synchronization products. Later, she managed the sale of Riverbed to Aether Systems for nearly $1 billion dollars, with a 3000 percent return for her investors in just eighteen months. Jill spearheaded the expansion of Noblestar’s European presence, and played a critical role in the divestiture of Noblestar Federal Systems (now SI International).

An active entrepreneur in the influential Washington, D.C. technology sector, Jill is frequently quoted in the Washington Post and in such wireless and mobile technology journals as Wireless Week and the Wireless Review. She is often a featured speaker in such academic venues as MIT, the University of Virginia, Georgetown University and at various professional organizations including as a lead presenter in the PDA & Smartphone Track at the Wireless & Mobile WorldExpo held in Toronto.

Jill serves on many community boards, including Inova Health System Foundation, the Medical Care of Children Partnership, and the Women’s Advisory Board for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. Jill is also a member of the Center for Innovation and Technology GAP investment fund.

Discussion:

Q: Jill, with your successful entrepreneurial history in the wireless industry, we thank you for sharing your valuable insights in this interview.

A: It’s always a pleasure to share ideas with others. Thank you.

Q: Defywire is a spin off from Noblestar Systems, that you formed to further develop and market a Noblestar initiated wireless software product. Your Java-based Mobility Suite links applications on corporate networks with wireless devices such as PDAs and Smartphones. With $7 million in initial private funding, you are repeating your success with Riverbed Technologies. What are your current vision, mission, and objectives for this latest venture?

A: Defywire’s mission is to deliver true, real-time communications and information to enterprises – no matter where their workers are – via wireless. It’s the next level of connectivity for mobile workers. Our flagship product, Defywire Mobility Suite, takes mobile connectivity beyond synchronization, pushing the transfer of information both to and from corporate information systems in real-time. Defywire’s software works with any wireless device – including phones, PDAs or laptops – and any technology – including cellular, Wi-Fi, RFID and GPS – and is sold both directly and through reseller channel partnerships. Using Defywire middleware, companies ranging from leading Fortune 200 companies to small startups have effectively mobilized their workforces and reinvented their business processes in just a few weeks or even days. Of course, Defywire is not just about delivering a compelling technology to our customers – we also have a lot of fun.

Q: One of your differentiators is standardized design and speed of implementation--days versus weeks and months. Can you discuss this and the competitive advantages your software and services offer to businesses? Can you profile this through three case studies such as your work with the Fairfax County School District?

A: Case 1:

Fairfax County Public Schools, the twelfth largest school district in the country, is using our software to support its weCare@school program, which is all about making children safer. Drivers of about 1,500 Fairfax County buses, which are on the road daily, now use personal digital assistants and the Defywire Mobility Suite to record the names of students as they enter and exit the buses – information that is then immediately sent to the school to monitor which children are actually on the bus. In addition, our software can be used to access emergency medical information for those students when needed – everything from peanut allergies to bee sting reactions.

Prior to the implementation of this system, emergency medical forms for the children remained in the school office, and that information was not available as the kids were traveling in the buses to and from school or on field trips. Using the Defywire Mobility Suite, the medical information still remains securely locked in the school, but the bus driver can now access it in real-time via secure wireless technology in an emergency. This may not sound like a big deal, but there is at least one medical emergency each week in Fairfax County where a child ends up at the hospital. So having access to that medical history is critical. Thanks to the Defywire Mobility Suite, children can now get better medical care because their medical histories can travel with them.

We are also currently working on extending the application for the school district that will help them reduce truancy.

Case 2:

OMD Corporation used Defywire’s Mobility Suite software to mobilize its OMD Vision software, the top software used by office equipment dealers and service technicians. OMD now offers two new mobile products to customers, one called Service On-The-Go and the other called Sales On-The-Go, that allow service and sales personnel to complete tasks such as looking up the availability of parts or products, closing service requests, identifying parts used and checking inventory and purchase history all while working at the customer site and in real-time. Additional features such as GPS tracking features and bar code scanning are also available.

By relying on Defywire’s Mobility Suite instead of trying to create its own wireless extensions of its product line, OMD was able to cut its time to market and its development costs by more than half.

Case 3:

Corporate Express, a $2 billion supplier of office and computer products with offices across the United States, uses Defywire Mobility Suite to allow its employees to obtain highly secure access to email while out of the office. Corporate Express was particularly attracted to our software suite’s support of open standards – most notably Java – which gives the company the broad flexibility to use many different devices. In fact, company employees currently use three different types of PDAs and six different types of phones to access their email when mobile – all supported by the Defywire Mobility Suite.

Q: From your DM Review article, Enterprise Wireless Strategies: Five Key Things to Consider Before Implementation, summarize your key points?

A: The most important message to take away from that article is the fact that different individuals and departments within your company may need different wireless solutions. One size never fits all. And that makes it critical to approach mobility with a platform-based approach rather than what we call a point solution, which ties your devices directly to your back end. As we illustrated in the Corporate Express example above, using a platform-based approach gives a company the flexibility to deploy different devices across the organization – and also makes it much easier to keep those devices secure.

Q: What have been your top five challenges since 2002? Would your involvement with carriers be in the mix?

A. One of the great things about our platform is that it is technology-agnostic, which means that we give enterprises the freedom to work with any carrier of their choosing. That also means that we don’t need to work directly with carriers, so that is definitely not one of our challenges.

Instead, our challenges mainly relate to the fast-changing nature of the wireless industry. I would say that the first big challenge has been the technology – such as other software programs – that our software has to interface with. For instance, when Defywire was first launched, we had to work with the first version of J2ME – or Java for wireless. Like all early software versions, it needed some improvements before it evolved into the powerful software program that it is today. As one of the pioneers in the industry, Defywire spent a lot of time and resources helping to build the feature set of Java for wireless devices.

And speaking of devices, that’s probably the next biggest challenge we had to face. When we first starting working with clients, wireless devices were severely limited in their processing power capabilities. It’s amazing how much more powerful devices have become in the past few years. In fact, the cell phones that we carry today have more processing power in them than the first computers. That has made things like supporting secure communications much easier.

The third challenge is probably networks. Although I would still consider wireless networks somewhat bandwidth-challenged; broadband wireless networks are now much more readily available than they were just a few years ago. In particular, we’ve witnessed the growth of Wi-Fi, which has expanded the reach of wireless broadband even to places like schools.

The fourth challenge that we used to face was education – and that’s no longer a challenge. People now understand that mobilizing their workforce gives them a competitive advantage. That’s a great change.

And the fifth challenge we faced as a company was the tough venture capital market of 2003. Luckily, we were fortunate in that many in the venture market recognized the uniqueness of Defywire's software quickly and were very eager to invest in its promise. 

Q: Can you provide commentary on the questions that companies should ask before selecting mobile devices?

A. There are many questions that companies should ask themselves when selecting a mobile device, so I’ll cover just a few of the key ones here. First of all – as I already mentioned earlier – one size never fits all. So you need to ask the different divisions of your company about their needs – things like what information they would like to access in the field or what applications they would like to use, how much data they need to enter from the field, the geographic areas they need to cover and how secure their communications need to be. All of these issues can affect your choice of device and network/carrier.  For instance, if your applications are highly complex or require a high level of security, you may need to purchase devices with greater processing power.

Q: What are your five most valuable lessons from your tenure at Noblestar Systems?

A. I learned a lot from my tenure at Noblestar – I worked with a great group of people that provided the highest quality of consulting to their clients. One of the most important lessons I learned there was how to be a leader. The CEO of Noblestar, Paul Opalack, whom I reported to directly, served as a great mentor for me.

While at Noblestar, I also got the opportunity to live in Europe where I was charged with managing the acquisition of several companies in the span of nearly three years. When you do that, people look to you for guidance and the assurance that their lives, their careers and their mortgage payments are not going to be in jeopardy. In this situation, I learned that it’s impossible to keep everyone happy because – as part of any acquisition – you have to change policies. But you can do your best to be fair and lead by example. Then people will respect you and accept your decisions.

As a leader, one of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that of the people that I led at Noblestar, at least a dozen of them are now entrepreneurs themselves. They’re like my kids – they call me when they accomplish something new in their company. And that’s been really rewarding.

Another great thing I learned at Noblestar was the power of loyalty, which is more valuable than an MBA or any degree. Loyal employees are more valuable than gold. Loyal employees work really hard and will do anything that you ask. They are like family. It’s an atmosphere that I’ve really worked hard to create here at Defywire.

Yet another lesson I took away from my tenure at Noblestar is the importance of communications – communicating with employees, with the customer and your investors. It’s critical to communicate with anyone who has a role in making your company a success.

Of course, part of that good communication is setting expectations so that everyone is on the same page. I guess I could list that as my fourth lesson.

And my final lesson is one that I think every successful business person learns in their professional life – that’s the importance of customer service. You have to deliver what a customer wants no matter what it is. If the customer expects you to wear purple on a Friday afternoon and you wear red instead, you did not meet their expectations. And that’s unacceptable.

Q: Your father a respected teacher for 38 years, your sister a nurse, and your training is as a CPA. What are the milestones and events that trigger a Harley Davidson aficionado, formerly at Deloitte & Touche, to become a visionary, entrepreneur, and star in IT?

A: Believe it or not, there is a common theme here. My family taught me that you have to start out with a skill. For my father, it was teaching. For my sister, it was nursing. For me, it was getting trained as a CPA. Then you build from there. As soon as I reach one floor, I try to make it to the next level. You can’t let fear hold you back. You might consider that my mantra in life – I simply do not fear failure.

Overcoming fear is the reason that I ride a Harley Davidson today. My husband asked me to list one thing that I was afraid of failing if I tried it. I told him that I would love to ride a motorcycle, but that I was afraid I would not be able to do it. Within a week, he had purchased lessons for me. And when I was convinced I wouldn’t graduate from the lessons, he brought my kids and cheered me on until I passed. He said that if I’m brave enough to run a company, I should be brave enough to ride a Harley. And now I love it and wonder why I was ever concerned. I think most people would accomplish more if they stopped worrying about failing.

Q: With your successful entrepreneurial insights, you are in an ideal position to provide a look into the future. Provide forecasts in the short, medium, and long term of where this is all heading.

A: At Defywire, we’ve identified five key vertical markets where having access to information while mobile provides a very distinct, very quantifiable competitive advantage in the short term. The first is the transportation market, where package tracking is now expected by clients. The second is warehouse management, where new technologies like RFID are helping companies keep track of their inventory in completely new ways. The third is what we call the “mobile guardian” market, which encompasses everything from applications like our Fairfax County Public Schools application to communications in hospitals. Then there’s the traditional field service/customer relationship management area. Of course, other markets can also benefit from mobility, but these are the vertical markets where we see a strong return on investment today.

In the medium and long-term, however, I really see wireless invading every aspect of our lives. Wireless is just going to be everywhere – at every McDonald’s, at every Starbucks. The idea of having data back at the corporate office will literally be a thing of the past. Even the concept of having a laptop that you carry around will be laughable. Instead, we are going to have small but very intelligent computing devices that are part of everything that we do.

Q: Choose three topics of your choosing and providing commentary.

A:  Topic 1:
First, I’d like to debunk one big myth, and that’s the myth that wireless is not secure. Of all the advances in the last few years, security is a big one. We can now deliver highly secure information to wireless devices. In fact, security and encryption software is readily available and easy to use.

Topic 2:
The second thing I’d like to point out is that companies should not try to wirelessly enable their systems themselves. It is critical to understand the intricacies of wireless – things such as latency and bandwidth – in order to create easy-to-use and highly efficient wireless extensions of your business systems. It is not enough just to understand the applications that your company needs. For example, we just met with a large cruise line company that wanted to wirelessly enable its food and beverage tracking system using the Wi-Fi networks that were already on their ships. Well, they built the application, but they kept losing the orders when they transferred them to the kitchen due to the quirks of the Wi-Fi network. The bottom line is that it’s not necessary for your IT department to learn the intricacies of the various wireless systems – and it’s not a good use of their time. There are tools that can help them wirelessly enable their systems without all of the headaches.

Topic 3:
The third item that I’d like to address is privacy, which is a big hot button issue right now for companies – particularly given the fact that tracking technology is now readily available for wireless devices. This is an issue that we are going to have to address in the future. For instance, on the consumer side of the equation, I want to be able to track my child’s whereabouts, but I certainly don’t want someone else to be able to do it. On the enterprise side, we actually had a client that was forced to turn off its tracking capabilities by the workers union because they found out that drivers were crossing state lines when they weren’t supposed to and were often not where they should be – and were terminating individuals based on that knowledge. As a society, we have to make the decision of how much is too much.

Q: There are repeated requests for this … If you were doing this interview, what questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?

A: Q1) What is the greatest challenge facing IT departments today?
A1) I would say the need to understand how to most effectively implement wireless in their companies is a huge challenge. As I mentioned before, many IT departments feel the need to try to go it alone – and create a wireless solution for their companies from scratch. They already have enough on their plates with managing the complexity of their computing networks. They need some help when it comes to wireless.

Q2) What does Defywire mean when it uses the term “real-time” communications?
A2) I’ve listed this question because there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace about what the term “real-time” actually means. A lot of wireless solutions – like a lot of the handheld wireless email devices that are so popular today – use sync technology, which is not really real-time. Defywire’s solution is truly real-time in that it can deliver information in two ways – both sending data to and receiving data from the enterprise system – without having to refresh a screen and without creating extra network traffic. In a true real-time system, you can see that the guy in the next territory just sold the last available part in the warehouse – and let your customer know and order another part immediately. With sync, that data wouldn’t be available until the other guy went back to the office because he couldn’t update the server in real-time from the field.

Q: Can you discuss your involvement with the: Inova Health System Foundation; Medical Care of Children Partnership; Women’s Advisory Board for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital; and Center for Innovation and Technology GAP investment fund?

A: The Center for Innovation and Technology is an initiative by the state of Virginia that invests $100,000 in seed stage companies – people working out of their garages. I do that because I really enjoy helping other entrepreneurs become successful – and I find their ideas fascinating.

The rest of my involvement is all about kids – keeping them healthy and encouraging them to go far in life. In Girl Scouts, my goal is to encourage girls to become leaders in technology. Back in 2003, when we raised our first $7 million for Defywire, I discovered that our financing was the fourth largest deal run by a woman in the nation. That’s just crazy. Until recently, I didn’t realized how few women played in the venture game. In the whole D.C. region, there are less than a dozen female venture capitalists. Working with Girl Scouts is one way to change statistics like that.

Q: Jill, thank you for taking the time to do this interview and sharing your highly regarded experiences and valued wisdom with our audience.

A: Thank you once again for asking me.

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