I have noticed this strange phenomenon – in the past nine months the CEOs of what I consider three of the more promising IoT companies I know have been ousted by their boards. What makes this even odder is that all three companies were doing relatively well – winning customers, signing major partnerships, hitting their engineering milestones. And I should also emphasize that these companies are all targeting some aspect of the Internet of Things (IoT). One CEO ousting we could chalk up to a freak board. Two is an odd coincidence. But three? That is starting to look like a trend. Moreover, in my analysis of IoT I see a lot of other red flags out in the marketplace which make me cautious about the whole state of IoT today.
To be clear, I am a big believer that someday we are going to link all (most) of our mechanical systems and sensors to the global data network. For the sake of brevity, I will call this IoT, but there are good reasons to warn that “There is No such Thing as the Internet of Things”. IoT is going to be fragmented. Every industry is going to have a different way of deploying its IoT systems. That will make it hard for any one company or consortium to build a single Operating Systems (OS) for the entire IoT. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that IoT build-outs are going to be complicated. There is going to be a lot of trial and error, and technical dead-ends.
I have written before that many component companies, searching for growth beyond smartphones, have bet their future on some IoT strategies. This strikes me as a highly risky proposition. Everyone needs to be dipping their toes in these waters, but the focus should be on experimentation not on long-term positions. This is true for both hardware and software makers.
The risk is that by going too strong after one approach a company may become stranded on a lonely island with nothing little to eat but consulting fees and NREs. For large companies, this reality has not set in yet. No one truly has an IoT business at scale, so boards are still forgiving about timelines for IoT business. However, for small start-ups, boards appear to be far less forgiving. I sense a growing anxiety among small companies about IoT. It is clearly taking longer than many expected to build scale IoT businesses. At the same time, there is huge appetite among private equity buyers for IoT companies, creating the impression of missed opportunities.
My interpretation of all this C-suite turmoil is that Boards are getting a lot of mixed signals about IoT creating ample room for serious dissent about strategy and timing. For those not up against the coal seam of day-to-day business, it feels like IoT is moving very fast. But for those in the tunnels, it is clear that is not the case. IoT is going to remain small for many years. Apparently that is not a story that boards want to hear.
This is going to affect more than just CEOs – sales and engineering teams are going to come under a lot of pressure, the former to sign more deals and the latter to broaden their product offering. I would caution anyone about to join an IoT project, at any level, to get a clear understanding of management’s and the board’s time horizons. There is room for go-fast and flip the company models, and room for go-long and build for the five or ten-year opportunity, but everyone has to be aligned on those time frames.
I imagine we will see a lot more IoT-related management turmoil in coming years. This is a shame. In all three cases above, the companies that ousted their founding CEOs are now foundering as they search for new directions, changing course midstream.
For my part, I think IoT is real, just know what you are getting into.