It’s a Small World
With a goal to get Wiliot’s products to customers around the world and make a big impact on them, Tony Small learned that you can usually move faster than you think possible.
Tony Small has big ambitions for the Internet of Things (IoT). Since July 2021, Small has served as chief business officer of Wiliot, an Israel-based startup, with U.S. headquarters in San Diego, that offers a cloud-based IoT platform with many supply chain applications. The system features tiny, low-cost tags called pixels, equipped with sensors and Bluetooth communications.
Wiliot’s platform can uncover supply chain challenges that companies don’t even realize they face, Small notes.
In a recent conversation, Small discussed his leadership role at Wiliot and explained what’s on his agenda these days.
IL: Before Wiliot, you worked at Microsoft, Amazon, and Zillow, among other companies. Is there a theme to the companies you’ve picked in your career?
I like fast-paced, innovation-oriented companies and environments. Although in the past 15 to 20 years I’ve focused on sales, marketing, and business development, I come from a technology and product background. I minored in computer science, and I’m a programmer. This allows me to better communicate, relate, and empathize with other parts of a company, beyond marketing.
IL: What’s one experience from earlier in your career that helped to shape you as a leader?
Partway through my time at Zillow, when they acquired Trulia, I was in charge of merging the two go-to-market teams for their B2B product. We had to combine 1,000 people across two organizations and four cities, along with the product and infrastructure. That kind of integration usually takes several years, but the CEO gave us six months.
I learned that you can usually move faster than you think possible. You can analyze, predict, and think of as many things as you want, but until you do something, you don’t know the outcome. We had debates about whether A, B, or C would be the top issue, and how to plan for that. We finally made an informed judgment and decided to address A. But the biggest issue turned out to be something entirely different. That process taught me about bias toward action, a value I consider really important.
IL: What keeps your customers awake at night?
They don’t know what they don’t know. For example, we put our tags on crates in which one of our customers was transporting food. Data from the sensors allowed them to see that crates for this product line were significantly delayed, and in an area where the temperature was higher than normal. In the past, there had been nothing to alert them to this problem. We combined data on time plus temperature to find the biggest opportunity to improve the freshness of their food.
IL: What do you most look forward to accomplishing in 2022?
We want to get our product into hundreds of customers’ hands around the world and make a big impact on them. In part, that means building out a successful network of partners who are also engaging customers and making them successful.
IL: What’s your leadership style?
When I give my team instructions or guidance, I try to be empathetic, understanding where they’re coming from, what else is on their plate, and what their challenges and goals are. At the same time, I try to be direct. And I like to give them a lot of autonomy. My team is so talented, I know I can trust them.
IL: What are your daily priorities?
First, to make sure customers are having a good experience and achieving their goals. We hold internal meetings where the person who works directly with each customer reports on what’s going well and what could go better. As we scale up the business, we’ll create a more streamlined, automated feedback process.
Second is checking on inventory levels. There’s a lot of demand for our products, so we need to make sure we allocate the right products to the right customers at the right time.
IL: Do customers ever come to you with unexpected applications for your technology?
They do. In one example, a customer had a pallet of items that was maybe six products deep and 10 products wide—a big rectangle of products. They wanted to be able to tell what’s in the pallet without breaking it up and scanning each item individually. I wasn’t sure this would work, because Bluetooth technology doesn’t always give perfect results in a scenario like that. But as it turned out, the Bluetooth worked incredibly well. We got 100% accuracy with that pallet. We recently had another customer who wanted to do exactly the same thing. Once you hear about a new scenario, it opens up new opportunities.
IL: Is there something you believed strongly when you started your career that you have since changed your mind about?
My first full-time job after college was working on the products and engineering side and designing features for one of Microsoft Outlook’s early versions. Ease of use was not paramount. We thought we’d just get the functionality out and then we’d train people; we’d have documentation and people would figure it out.
Over the past few decades, people have grown less patient. If they don’t get something instantly, they assume it doesn’t work and they won’t use it. I’ve had to adjust to the trend of prioritizing that first out-of-the-box experience.
IL: Have you had a mentor or role model?
Although he wasn’t officially my mentor, Spencer Rascoff, the CEO of Zillow when I worked there, was an important role model. He’s direct, he’s empathetic, and he’s incredibly brilliant and strategic. I like to model my leadership style after him. I don’t know if I’m there yet.
IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I have a family and two teenagers in high school. I travel when I can. I’m not good, but I enjoy playing piano for fun. I also have two dogs. Those things take most of my time.
Scratching the Surface
Plenty of companies track product from factory to warehouse to point of sale. They capture data when items are checked out and when they’re returned. But how many retailers know what goes on with their products inside the walls of a brick-and-mortar store?
“Imagine a store with tens of thousands of items, some in the back room, some out front,” says Tony Small. “If our pixels are attached to all those items, we can show a visual of how products are moving throughout the store.”
Capturing data from tags on an individual shirt, for instance, Wiliot’s system might reveal that many customers brought the item into the fitting room, but no one bought it. That suggests an opportunity for change.
Wiliot has not yet implemented this application, but at least one customer is eager to put this kind of tracking data to use. “It could point to different strategies about how they should pair products or structure the store,” Small says. “We’re just scratching the surface of the possible interesting insights.”