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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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