Welcome to the first installment of UpRamp’s ‘Meet the Mentors’ series. In this series, we’ll be showcasing the wealth of resources available to Fiterator teams throughout their journeys with UpRamp via the mentors available to them.
Chris Lammers has been COO and EVP at CableLabs since 1997. Previously he worked for Western Communications, where he was CEO before selling the company. In his current role, Chris works closely with the small- and mid-tier members alongside international operators. He has served as a mentor to Fiterator teams Trinity Mobile Networks and DeviceBits.
Leah: Thanks for taking the time to speak to me, Chris. And, of course, thank you so much for your incredible mentorship for UpRamp. I have to ask you first - if you were to become a startup founder overnight, what would your first creation be?
Chris: If I were a founder, I would develop highly-curated audio guides for art museums around the world. I love art history, and often find museum guides to be inconsistent in content, quality or design, at best, or non-existent, at worst. It’s would be a labor-intensive endeavor, but I am convinced that we could develop “living” content by crowdsourcing across art history communities and museums, along with content that allows the audience to better engage with artists and their works and influencers. It could also include alerts on special exhibitions, programs or events featuring artists, periods or styles of interest - the possibilities are virtually endless!
That's a really unique concept - certainly different than what we usually see at CableLabs. You’ve been a mentor for Fiterator cohorts 1 and 2. With your experience, why do you think it’s important for startups to join UpRamp?
Chris: UpRamp, as an integral part of CableLabs, connects startups and cable operators to amplify innovation that improves customer experience with our industry. These technologies can make a difference for our members in ways that would not otherwise be apparent or obvious without the Fiterator.
Right, but the cable industry is massive, and a common concern is that there’s a strong allegiance amongst operators to existing vendors. So what makes it ideal for startups?
Chris: That concern has certainly had its merits, but it is - and has - changed. The industry is committed to developing and implementing innovative technologies that will ensure competitive positioning - a strategy led by CableLabs. That’s where the Fiterator and these startups come in - they haven’t previously worked with the cable industry, allowing us to expose and connect their technology to cable operators.
The industry has reached a point of hyper-competitiveness with multi-generational customer segments, a significant change from ten years ago when operators faced few alternatives to their services and a more monolithic view of customers. MSOs (multi-system operators) are understanding that they need to harness innovation from a variety of sources in order to deliver value to a shifting consumer base and a proliferating set of service alternatives.
So for a startup that decides that their technology is in the right place and wants to enter the industry, what steps should they be taking? What’s the best way in?
Chris: We're assuming that the startup is fairly mature and already has customers and an MVP. From that point, it's a matter of developing their understanding our industry - video, broadband, voice and wireless - and identifying where relationships can be established with our members to get them to listen. The challenge with very large companies is that their investment decisions tend to be fairly routinized and process-driven - a company must be vetted through a defined set of steps, gates and evaluations.
That's where the Fiterator makes a difference: we can short-circuit the process and advance these opportunities by profiling new technologies at an earlier stage with targeted MSO decision-makers, while simultaneously making sure that the technology is right for the industry. We additional value for mid- and smaller-sized operators that don't necessarily have the resources to vet new companies.
So coming back to your question, with an understanding of the business and the application of technologies for the cable industry, startups need to find their champion: an operator that will undertake a PoC and prove out the value of the technology. It may not be one-size-fits-all, but this provides a point of departure for other companies to come onboard. And finding that champion is where it comes back to the Fiterator again - we identify a decision-maker that is willing to give you a shot, someone willing to make the time to mentor the start-up.
What's going on in the connectivity industry right now that excites you?
Chris: I'm really looking forward to seeing how data-related technologies such as analytics, machine learning, and AI allow companies to better understand their customers and improve the customer experience - which is ultimately what creates the long-term relationships that businesses need. I also look forwarding to seeing that these solutions scale down to our mid-market and smaller market members. At the end of the day, customer experience is a differentiator with a decided difference.
I spoke to Trinity Mobile Networks, one of the teams you mentored in 2016, and I was told that on the first day you met them, you arrived with crucial information in hand - information that made their jump into the sales cycle significantly easier. And you hadn’t even heard any of their needs yet.
Chris: Mentors bring different skill sets to the Fiterator. In my case, it’s very much about relationships. My objective is to share my industry relationships and to create introductions to the right executives - that’s the key. Ultimately, what makes a mentor successful is that they take the time to listen, understand, and appreciate the technology and the business environment of the startup. From there, the mentor should be able to identify where there is alignment with the industry - and more significantly with which operators and which stakeholders within those operators.
There is a lot of homework involved in making the journey successful for the company. And if we, as mentors, are not willing to make that commitment - as much as we’re asking from the teams at each startup - then the value that the startup is expecting will not be delivered. You have to be a partner with your company - in every sense of that word.
As a mentor, what kinds of challenges have you faced? Anything that future Fiterator teams can be conscientious of?
Chris: What we’re asking is tough for founders, because many have been successful as serial entrepreneurs in other sectors. Their mindset can sometimes be ‘just give us some information and we’ll take it from there’, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about the mutual dependency and having the trust that if teams work closely with their mentors, they’ll see significant value. It’s a two-way street - in trust, commitment, understanding, and adapting.
You said before that your mentor superpower is your network. How does that extend beyond the end of the in-house Fiterator program?
Chris: I stay in close contact with the teams after they’ve physically left Louisville. Again using Trinity Mobile as an example, I've stayed actively involved in ongoing opportunities with various cable operators and have continued to advise the team.
As a mentor, you have to live the company to deliver maximum value. It's hard - really hard - because we all have day jobs. But it’s all about relationships, opportunities, and connecting the dots alongside staying engaged with the company.
Applications opened this week, and the 2018 cohort will be joining us in just over 6 months at Summer Conference. What is the one line of advice you want them to see before they start?
Chris: Trust us. And the trust needs to go both ways. That covers a myriad of expectations I have for the next cohort.
Last question: French Press or Aeropress?
Chris: AeroPress. Better control over the coffee you produce (granularity of the coffee, faster brewing time, pressure). Great when I want a milder, more well-rounded cup of coffee. BUT I will use a French press when friends (or I) want a more robust, stronger cup of coffee (particularly when I add a bit of Kahlua). You get more of the “stuff” from the coffee beans with the French press.
And this, friends, is why you want Chris Lammers as your mentor.