Pook-Ping Yao, CEO of Optigo Networks tells us about highly resilient building network solutions and staying agile throughout the pandemic times.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Pook-Ping Yao: We’ve been very fortunate in Vancouver, Canada, compared to a lot of other places. Of course, we miss seeing family and friends, but my wife, kids, and I are making the most of our time at home. We’ve gotten into playing board games, and when the kids were learning remotely we’d have lunch together every day. Working from home was an adjustment, but I actually spent last summer building my own outdoor office/shed in my backyard. That way I can work uninterrupted and have a short “commute” into the office.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Optigo Networks.
Pook-Ping Yao: I’ve always been interested in technology, and after studying mathematics and engineering at Queen’s University, I ended up going down a path of semiconductor design. I spent 12 years at a company called PMC Sierra, working with networking chips. I got to learn the bits and bytes of networking, and I was fascinated with the idea that the whole world was connected in this digital fabric.
In around 2010, there was a big growth in machine-to-machine technology, which readers might be familiar with as the Internet of Things (IoT). The more I thought about the power of this technology, the more I knew I had to pursue something in this exciting new field. Particularly in the area of smart buildings, there was clear and growing potential. It was incredible to realize that every light, every door, every wall could one day be connected to make the spaces where we spend 80–90% of our time smarter, better, and more comfortable.
From there, I co-founded Optigo Networks with two partners. Our mission was, and is, to simplify complex building networks and accelerate the adoption of smart building technology.
How does Optigo Networks innovate?
Pook-Ping Yao: As I mentioned, Optigo’s mission is to simplify the complex. Our industry is highly technical, so we’re always asking “How can we do it better and simpler?” We keep that front of mind in every product development, every feature, and every business decision.
Of course, under the hood is a different story: there’s a lot of complexity behind how our products work, but for our customers, it’s a simple click of a button to get what they need. I like to use the analogy of a duck: it looks like the duck is gliding so gracefully on the water, but the duck is actually paddling like crazy. There’s lots of work and innovation and detail behind the product, but to the user, it should always be simple and straightforward.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Pook-Ping Yao: We anticipated that the pandemic would affect our industry, slowing new construction and delaying projects. While we did see a delay in projects, overall the commercial real estate (CRE) industry was not hit as hard as we thought it would be. It’s hard to say what CRE will look like in the years to come, now that remote work is a norm and not an exception. Only time will tell. I think there will be a major shift to a hybrid work environment with part-time in the office, and part-time from home. For those who work in the office, there will be greater investment in commercial real estate technology to help keep folks safe and comfortable.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Pook-Ping Yao: When we realized how serious the pandemic would be, we responded quickly to make sure our staff was taken care of. Out of an abundance of caution, we implemented a temporary furlough where all staff took a 20% pay cut and worked reduced hours. This was a decision we made as an entire company to reduce our risk exposure. I’m very proud to say that, in a year marked by global unemployment and business closures, we did not have to let go of a single employee, and instead grew once the economic uncertainty subsided.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Pook-Ping Yao: Our pre-pandemic customer relationships featured lots of travel, whether for business meetings or conferences. We operate out of Vancouver, Canada, and serve customers throughout the States and internationally.
COVID hit, and we put an immediate halt on travel. We held meetings over video calls and attended virtual conferences instead.
Honestly, I think our relationship with our customers has actually improved through the pandemic. It became less formal, more human. We might hop on a call and be interrupted by our children, or a pet barking in the background. I took some meetings in my laundry room because it was the only room available, or let clients know they might hear the piano in the background because my kid has an exam. Especially in those first few months, there were lots of commiserating, sharing peeks of our home office set-ups, and getting to know one another on a more personal level.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Pook-Ping Yao: We have been very fortunate to get incredible help from local, provincial, and federal governments. From subsidies to deferrals, we’ve felt supported by our government helping to keep us in business.
Your final thoughts?
Pook-Ping Yao: Our world is going to be forever changed by the pandemic. So is Optigo Networks. Now, I’m a realist, but I like to find the silver lining in any situation. The sudden and immediate shift to working from home is one silver lining. Even when the pandemic ends, we’re going to continue to support remote work, with the option to go into the office for those who want to. It’s good for my staff and their work-life balance. It’s good for our growth, so we can hire the best people, wherever they are. With good communication and regular virtual meetings, we’ve managed to stay connected and maintain a great company culture.