A Business Breakfast With Jeff Pulver.
The star of the latest Like Minds Business Breakfast on June 28th 2017 at 12 Hay Hill was Vonage founder and all round VOIP hero Jeff Pulver. The luxury downstairs bar at the sumptuous Members Club had the air of a boutique Curzon cinema, which was quite fitting for the inspiring and refreshingly vulnerable coming-of-age story narrated by Jeff.
Jeff has spent most of his life interested in the overlap between comms, computing, and AI. He started young: in primary school, he had problems making friends because he would call out his peers when he saw through their fake attitudes. This had predictable results.
It was his Uncle Fred who rescued him. His uncle worked in cable TV and took the young Jeff to the office once day and introduced him to a black box that allowed Fred to talk to people all over the world. This was Jeff’s introduction to Ham Radio. Fred had been repeating “CQ” into the radio in an effort to contact people. This call came from the days of the telegraph: CQ == seek you. It was the call to see if anyone was there and listening. And, of course, this continued into the ICQ of the early net.
This ability to communicate with people with nothing but the basic tools of listening and speaking fascinated the young Jeff. Inevitably, he wanted one of those radios for himself but to become a Ham operator required a license. So, Jeff studied hard and finally won his license just over three years later — at the age of 12 and a half.
By the time he was 14, he had learned that the secret of radio communications — and of successful communication in general — was to listen, connect, share, and engage. During his college years, he was spending between 40 and 60 hours a week on the radio.
In 1995, he discovered voice over the net. It was inevitable that someone would ask Jeff if it was possible to connect a phone to the net. Jeff did it and, in November 1995, set up Free World Dialup — the first global voice over the internet system. In London, this merited a Times back page story about the threat this carried to BT’s dominance. Then, in March 1996, 300 phone companies went to court seeking to end the whole VOIP revolution.
In response, Jeff and over a hundred businesses created the Voice Over Net coalition (VON) — a lobbying group to protect the interests and freedom of VOIP. It’s a coalition that’s still going and still fighting for the freedoms of internet-based communications.
Around the same time, Jeff lost his job on Wall Street and, instead of seeking another job in a financial institution, set up the first VON conference. (In a rather potent aside, Jeff commented how being fired can save your life: over 400 people from the company that sacked him died during the 9/11 attacks.)
Jeff is a believer in letting the magic happen and in following your intuition. Don’t overthink things, he says; more often than not, your first instinct tends to be the correct one. He created VONAGE off the back of that first successful conference in 1996 and, at the prompting of a competitor, sold the company in 2001 — the deal completing on September 10th. When developing VONAGE, he hired programmers who didn’t know what they were trying to do was impossible: if you don’t know something is impossible, it tends to get done.
Looking ahead, Jeff reckons that the next ten years will see the end of apps and web sites. He told the story of trying to book some flights to Prague recently via a site. His list of conditions for choosing a flight was neither long nor unusually demanding and yet trying to navigate traditional sites proved impossible. Asking Amazon’s Alexa would be far easier – take a look at Alexa Silver an update for the more senior amongst us.
Jeff believes the conversational interfaces of today are just the start. (When Jeff is travelling, he misses Alexa. He joked that he often feels like giving ‘her’ a hug when he returns home.) The person we would most trust to buy us a present we wanted is ourselves. After using Alexa for some time, it knows our likes and buying history. So, it should be a no-brainer to say “Alexa, buy me a present. You can spend up to £50.” And be happy with what turns up.
There is a generation of kids growing up who understand touch as the controlling interface for their devices. Jeff sees a UX/UI revolution coming that will both blindside us and leave us with more time on our hands. Touch and conversation drive interactions. In the classic sci-fi films and books he turned to and enjoyed while growing up — even Star Trek and Star Wars — nobody uses email. They speak, prod consoles and use GPS.
Jeff touched on some health issues he had around weight and becoming addicted to exercising in response. This led to seizures on a trip to Israel. The upshot was that he learned the importance of being in the now. Of fully appreciating the present. It was these detours into his personal history that made Jeff’s talk more than a history of a successful technology guru.
This drive to live in the moment also led him to recapture a love of photography. He had been given a camera young but had long put it aside. Now, his passion is photographing stars — the astronomical kind, especially the Milky Way. His latest venture involves a hotel on the Turks & Caicos islands and taking groups of people there for stargazing holidays.
Of course, he has not turned his back on communications. He has a new conference later this year. MONAGE. Messaging on the net rather than just voice. Fall MoNage takes place on October 24-26 in Boston. For more information visit MonNage (and they’re still looking for demos and speakers, if you have something to share.)
At the end of the talk, Jeff spent a long time speaking to interested audience members. I think most of us left feeling we’d been in the presence of someone rather special.
A Special Offer From Jeff.
To confirm this Jeff has kindly waived the attendee fee, for our Like Minds Business Breakfast attendees, to his “Stars, Space and the Future” event in the Turks & Caicos Islands on July 20-24 and August 17-21.
PulverSSF is taking place under the beautiful dark skies of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Their guests, like you, are passionate about life. They have a variety of interests including: astrology, astrophotography, astronomy, technology, yoga, spirituality, stargazing, and wellness.
You are responsible for covering the cost of your transportation. As you will be joining Jeffs’ community of guests, you are expected to stay at the “Conference Hotel”. This accommodation includes 11 meals. Once you confirm your spot, Jeff will send you a link to register.