Helen Thomas is a serial entrepreneur in technology and digital media now connecting us in a more meaningul and collaborative way with a disruptive innovation enabling genuine human connection. CEO and founder of Touchjet, Helen shares her mission, vision, and ups and downs of building a Silicon Valley Unicorn and why her innovative tech will change how we communicate, collaborate and learn.
Melinda Wittstock: Helen, welcome to Wings.
Helen Thomas: Thank you Melinda, thank you for having me today.
Melinda Wittstock: I always love talking to women who are dreaming big and going for that unicorn status and really putting on their wings and flying like a Pegasus. Right? When I really first saw Touchjet, I was blown away by what you build and I want you to start by sharing with everybody, the big mission and explaining all the cool things your technology does.
Helen Thomas: Thank you for the opportunity for talking about Touchjet. To make it short, Touchjet is a hardware, software solution that would enable anyone, anywhere to transform any services for any existing flat screen television, (inaudible 16:40) tablets so that you can collaborate. You can interact in a group. You can stream music or videos basically for entertainment. But more importantly, this is for presentation and education incorporate conference rooms and the classrooms in schools. The technology makes it very destructive because you don't have to spend like 20 thousand dollars or more for such an experience. So if you watch CNN on election night and see John King or they stripe, they advocate, they make it very interesting, make it powerful. Now you can do it. You can do it in your conference room, living room and the teachers can do that in their classroom but it is only hundreds of dollars versus tens of thousands of dollars.
Melinda Wittstock: You can see people using it in the situation rooms of military all around the world and certainly in TV news rooms like you suggest. And TV newsrooms, of course, on election night. What is so cool about this though, is that for hardly any money at all, yeah … like, any surface, even a wall, right?
Helen Thomas: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: … can become a touch screen. How does that work? That is so cool.
Helen Thomas: So, our projector really built in Android system projecting, meaning that you can on any surface, and the texturing technology in one. So it's very compact, you don't need to attach either your smart phones or computers. You turn it on, we use a digital pen we [inaudible 00:18:49 Lily, and your dining room table, or a wall, or a screen, or a canvas would become interactive surface. It's almost like your giant iPad is projected.
So, for example, last week we were at a conference. We brought one giant canvas, we did almost a 30 digital portrait, no paint, no brushes. One canvas, one projector, two digital pens, all done. It's such a virtual world that we enable and we can enable it anywhere we go. And it's built-in battery, too. So that kind of technology, it's really speaks into the future that people are born into a world and that who use touch screen and can pretty much do anything at their fingertips. But how far can we bring everybody together, and do it on a much bigger surface that's also interactive. [inaudible 00:19:58 and our mission is to bring people together in any situation.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I can see how it's disruptive in so many different ways. On one hand, we're all sort of surgically attached to all these devices we have, right? And we're connected, and yet we're more and more disconnected from each other. And then we have clunky things not approximate meeting as companies' teams get more and more virtual and distributed with gig workers all over the world. And then we got the issue with schools and … I mean I can see so many applications for what you do. What do you think is the biggest one? What's in your heart in terms of the way you think this is going to be the most transformational?
Helen Thomas: So, because it is Android and in the future in Windows the benefit is that there are thousands and millions of mobile applications already. You just need to sort of modify it for much a bigger surface. For example, we build Mac apps in a way that it's a competition, it's no longer just one person doing Mac. Your iPad, now two people will stand up and do a competition solving math problem, which will make it more interesting and intriguing.
So you're right, that there's so many possibilities Apple system that would build applications for a much bigger surface would be a dream come true, and that's our mission. For us, though, what we're focusing on is really facilitating presentations, and having a cloud service that will allow people to easily bring up your presentation. You said you don't want to walk in a room, spend 15 minutes just to set it up. What we can enable is, you just … either from your iPad or go to the web, go to the [inaudible 00:22:11, our devices, boom, open the folder.
That's your content, and you can share it across all devices, all locations, whatever devices that the participant is on, and allow them or authorize them to be part of that collaboration experience, either annotation, or notes. And why not? It's all automatically digitally captured and saved onto the cloud.
Melinda Wittstock: It's got my brain sort of racing. I think with something like wings, right? Where we have this kind of growing community of women and masterminds and epic experiences and this and that and online courses and all these things. This is all kind of emanated from this podcast, which I'd started less than a year ago. And I think of all the different women who want to collaborate on different projects. Gosh, like all we need is pretty much this app on our phones or computers. That's it.
Helen Thomas: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: Is that right? That's pretty much it.
Helen Thomas: Yeah, that's pretty much it.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, I'm signing up. I mean, no really.
Helen Thomas: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: It seems revolutionary. You think of all the different kind of clunky, kind of calls and whether it's Zoom or GoToMeeting, right? Every time I've ever done an investor pitch, and you pull out your laptop. You've got to make your Mac fit with the projection software. It's like all that stuff. So you solved all of that first off.
Helen Thomas: Right, so it's almost like SnapChat for professionals. We live in a world we share ideas, we share [inaudible 00:24:09, we share financial reviews, we share all kinds of stuff. [inaudible 00:24:16 and design, architect and all of that. TouchJet would be that unified platform, so that whatever device you are on, at any time, you log into an account and you invite somebody to join you on their device. It'll be easily shared, and then once done, it's done. It's all safe. You don't have to do a thing, you don't have to email again, you don't have to follow-up. You can say that report is automated, and you can go to share.
Melinda Wittstock: So-
Helen Thomas: Thank you for elaborating on that, and I'm very excited about the solution.
Melinda Wittstock: So take us through … for people who are not technology entrepreneurs, or they're not right in the middle of Silicon Valley like you are Helen, what does it take? Talk to me from the moment you have the idea for TouchJet. Cause it's not that long, right? It's a couple years?
Helen Thomas: Yes, a couple of years.
Melinda Wittstock: A couple of years, okay. So for a lot of people-
Helen Thomas: It felt like a decade, but yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, probably feels like a decade, but I mean really, seriously, it's been a couple of years, right? And you're right in the weeds of it, of course. But I just want to say what a magnificent accomplishment, how quickly you've come and how fast you're growing this. It really is a wonderful accomplishment. So take us through that germination, where as entrepreneurs we all have lots of ideas. How did you know that this one was the one, and what were some of the first steps you took when you first had the idea for TouchJet?
Helen Thomas: Right. I don't really … I have to give lots of credits to what I have done, what I did even before TouchJet. I started my career at LeapFrog, which is interactive educational platform, and then there's Livescribe, which is a digital content creation platform, allow people to share news…
Melinda Wittstock: So when-
Helen Thomas: TouchJet came my way, actually I was recruited by some early investors who identified this technology and the prototype. And when I saw the projector, I was like “I'm not really into a so-called hardware business.” At that time, I was actually CEO, president of a 200 million, multi-national, digital media company.
Melinda Wittstock: So-
Helen Thomas: It really took me nine months of doing my own due diligence, and took the device or the technology to different places. I took it to cafes in Palo Alto, I put it in preschool classroom, I give it to friends who didn't know I was looking at the company, and just like “Oh, try it out.” What I noticed was that once you have the interactive content or application, on a much bigger surface, you drew a lot of eyeballs and you get people excited.
All of a sudden, the grandparents are cheering behind the grandkids in the café and they're doing their game, the learning stuff. Learning the names of food by playing FruitNinja. That would never happen if a child, just sitting by him or herself on a couch, sat down on the phone and they're doing it by themself.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, I see. So you were doing your due diligence. You were just kind of like surreptitiously seeing what happened and the meantime, it's intuitive for everybody. For elderly people, young people, kids, all of it. And you see that the technology is bringing them together.
Helen Thomas: Correct. So now you're defined the scene. Kind of this is where we're going, and then just the question you asked. There could be so many implication. What is it? That is so critical and the value added in today's world so it is a profound business versus just a mere munition Florante when you’re editing this and you hear this word can you correct it?. So presentations and there's a pin point that everybody experiences on daily basis with a lack of collaboration tools, especially a unified, affordable platform that works anywhere. That kind of just get us going, and trust me, it's not easy because we basically bootstrapped the company to build as much IT as possible.
Before the funding, so we just [inaudible 00:29:17 were starting series B and it's very exciting though because we have hundreds of corporations and hundreds of schools and school districts. We have school district in California, a school district in Texas, and now in Pittsburgh, picking up our technology as unified solution in their classrooms now. And we have corporations, I'm not going to name all the names, but looking at us as a solution for all their conference rooms around the world.
The scalability, because of the disruptive nature of the technology, as it's so affordable, make it unified, that makes it so exciting.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely, and you don't have to necessarily sell direct to consumers. Of course you can, but you can do these big strategic land and expand within massive corporations. Once you're in there, you're in there. Is that like a really big proportion of your revenue?
Helen Thomas: We're still at the beginning of it, and we're still building up the cyber security and all the other parts of the cyber solutions. That's why we're raising series B, and that's how we met Melinda.
Melinda Wittstock: I had the unique privilege of sitting in on a wonderful meeting with one of your investors as you pitched a few other investors in the room. My gosh, I was blown away. I thought your pitch was amazing. It was just so obvious to me that this is a big company. This is a potentially billion dollar company, so I don't know how people could not see that potential based on what I saw from you.
Helen Thomas: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, seriously. And I mean, there were a lot of women in the room, which is great. And I think everybody saw that, it was awesome.
Helen Thomas: Yeah, we have lots of support and that's great.
Melinda Wittstock: So at this stage, though … So you go and you raise your series B, and I like what you said just a moment back. I just want to really highlight this for people … is that you managed to bootstrap enough to have the technology pretty much in place. Pretty much a completed thought. Yes, there's some things you have to do, but when it came time to raise the money, you're raising the money to grow and scale and put gas in the tank and really fly.
I think a lot of founders often make the mistake, or perhaps they just don't have the wherewithal, but trying to raise money to create the technology to begin with. It's much nicer, isn't it, to be in the position where, actually, it's just money to grow something that already has traction, that already has proof.
Helen Thomas: I think it's great because it's more rewarding down the road, because the return, the efforts we put in and also the return on the investment that investors put in, shareholders put in, would be much bigger, to be honest. So you look at the market post and also the timeframe, the timeline.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, you keep more of your company, too, which is very important. I see so many people get to this point, series A, B, moving on, and gosh, many can end up oozing their companies. I've seen that happen to a lot of women and men.
Helen Thomas: Right. Well I think doing this a third time helps a little bit, as well as being able to do that with focus, so that there are not so many people trying to tell you what to do. You have the absolute focus and I wouldn't say control, but execution focus, to do what you're believing in, and make it great.
Melinda Wittstock: This is a really interesting dynamic though, this thing where because on one hand, a great founder and CEO is necessarily coachable, needs to be coachable, but at the same time, you still need to know where you're going. I see a lot of people get over coached and they kind of lose their focus. How do you find that right balance between all these mentors and investors and everybody, [inaudible 00:34:09 holders to listen to and learn from, and yet at the same time God, just keep really focused on that North Star?
Helen Thomas: I always tell people a couple things, I know I shared that, one is it's all about the facts and the numbers. So if you keep everything there objective, meaning you're focusing on the outcome and agreed upon goals, and to be clear on the mission, what you need to be delivered and focus on the deliverables, and to be absolutely open to critiques, but be very objective. Not emotional.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. Can't-
Helen Thomas: Then it's a lot easier. I can be very … yeah-
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, we really can't take it personally, can we?
Helen Thomas: No, no. It's all about … I always tell people the truth is the truth. You can't change it.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh yeah, numbers are great. Really just know your numbers. That's the other thing that's very impressive about you, by the way, in your presentation and your pitch, you know your numbers. You know where you're going into the story that they're telling, right? And it's amazing to me, even now, how many otherwise experienced people aren't really on top of that story. So it lends so much credibility, but not only that, it's not just a credibility for outside eyes or investors or whatever, it's just a smart way to run a business.
Helen Thomas: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. I mean it's very important that we can stick to whether it's leading by having very objective conversations and I have investors, advisors and I would say I'm very approachable. I think that lots of people found me very approachable because I have very open conversations. And I think that's important because for example, being New York at the Springboard, work dinner, and having this meeting with you and some others, I met one of another women entrepreneurs and she and I are actually working on a collaboration- it's a major collaboration, as what she has done versus what we tried to build, has lots of synergy.
So being out there, being open to collaborate and join forces is important for anybody to be successful in today's world. Because building anything from scratch and building something on your own, takes time, capital and go to market. So, somehow figuring out how to work together and be stronger and bigger together and still have your control of your journey, so that you're not being pushed into different directions, is a balance to have to be successful.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh. It's true. I love what you say about collaboration though and being open to it. It requires a bit of a mindset sort of shift though, to realize just how abundance… there's really space for everybody to do well and I think back to a certain generation of women, because I'm old enough to remember this time where, and even now sometimes I'm the only woman in the room but less so, right? There weren't a lot of female role models and the women who were succeeding, it was almost like they thought they only had to compete with other women to get to this place in the summit where the oxygen was… It feels like that's changing.
It feels like women are really coming into our own and just, I think, when we do collaborate with each other, amazing transformational things are possible. And I think we see opportunities sometimes that dudes miss. And particularly, with the conscious capitalism and evolved enterprise spaces, where actually, building businesses more in that direction actually increases the valuation of them. So I'm actually excited about women right now and I'm excited about our ability to collaborate and to really think outside the box about what is possible but moreover, just think bigger.
Helen Thomas: I definitely think in Silicon Valley, women are more open to collaborate. I think one is- the people who have successes would like to help and mentor the newer generation- the younger generation, because obviously, education and their mentality- they actually have more opportunities to succeed. So, you're right. I think the climate is a lot encouraging for women to collaborate and succeed together in Silicon Valley, for sure.
Melinda Wittstock: So Helen, I have to ask you this, what were you like as a little girl? Did you know you were going to be an entrepreneur?
Helen Thomas: Actually I was born in Beijing. Grew up in China. I finished my college degree in China and then came out for MBA and got my MBA from University Berkeley. When I grew up I had no idea what entrepreneurship is. I worked really hard because I was a copywriter for my grandfather who was a World War II hero. Because his handwriting was not recognizable, after school, after my homework I spent hours, hours, copying what he wrote into very neat copy paper to send to publishers. So, you can call me entrepreneur although I wasn't paid, doing all the work.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay. So you definitely got a work ethic. When was it that you thought, “Okay. You know what? I'm going to go out there and innovate and play big, and swing for the fences.” When was that first inclination in you? Were you feeling that way back in China or was it when you came here? Talk to me a little bit about that.
Helen Thomas: Right. Well, I think a leadership skill is important or was back in China where I grew up, when I was in high school or in college. I was always the President of the Student Association and doing lots of public speaking and all of that but I had no idea about business or entrepreneurship. Once I got my first job and then started my career in Silicon Valley I think it's really about the peer now ownership. It's about being analytical- looking at the business holistically, instead of just doing what you're told to do. And my first opportunity came when I became the founding CEO General Manager of [inaudible 00:43:09 China. So when we started investing in China, I went through the whole planning and execution of the business plan, establishing wholly owned subsidiary in China and then being the leader through that whole process and became the General Manager CEO of the entity in China. So, that's a pretty steep learning curve being the CEO of a public company subsidiary in a whole different country. So, yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my goodness. I mean that's amazing. What an incredible…
Helen Thomas: Opportunity.
Melinda Wittstock: So, I am so intrigued by this because a lot of people can spin their wheels and work really hard and do all sorts of things but not really achieve great things, okay? So you step into this amazing role, in a leadership role at a relatively young age with tremendous responsibility, and what do you credit that to? What is it about you do you think that allowed you to be able to fully step in to embrace and succeed in that role as the CEO, right, of a public company?
Helen Thomas: I still remember some of those days back then in at Leapfrog CEO's office because the guy looked at the CEO of the company and said, “So, she is…” [crosstalk 00:45:38 so I think I'm not saying I'm humble, in terms of- I don't take all the credit but truthfully, it's a build up to that. It takes a lot and the first and the foremost are the people who see the strengths and who see the opportunity that leveraging my strengths and what I can do. So what I'm known for is I make things happen. So some how, I will seek out a way and make it happen. And also to build something from nothing. It's not like anything but something that really I have a vision for and I have a business plan for and I have a strategy, to speak for. But I think it's really early on when I got my first job- that's even before technology arena.
I came to the country. I saw a small printed advertising in San Francisco Chronicle is for a so-called Project Coordinator- entry level job. A company called S & W Finances, which is a 100 year old CPG brand- consumer packaged goods. I applied for it. I had no experience whatsoever. The President of the company, Chet Smethney, one of the best sales people I've ever known and I've learned from and mentored me on my first job. Basically, he told me that, “Helen, you made the journey from Beijing, China, to my office, right? This journey, however you got here, I should give you opportunity.” And that encouragement to a minority- a woman. A person who's immigrant- legally, and seeking education and be given the first job right because of his wisdom. And trust me, I never let him down. The work I put in is probably 100 times more than what I was paid for but that is the start and that took me all the way, right? Because without that, who knows where I would be?
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my goodness. It's so interesting. What we believe of ourselves and what we can visualize for ourselves is such a big predictor of our success right? I mean, I was fortunate enough to learn this lesson as a 10 year old figure skater when everyday I would go out and wipe-out. I would just hurt myself learning triple jumps. So I was trying to learn, one day, this triple sow cow thing, and I kept wiping out- fall, fall, fall, fall, fall, and then finally one night, I had this dream. And in my dream, I could see myself do it and I could feel myself do it and I'll be darned but the next morning I went out on the ice. First thing I did- didn't even warm up, didn't do anything, just landed that thing. It was like the easiest thing ever.
Helen Thomas: Awesome.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay. That lesson at age 10 it was such a divine thing for me because it was like, “Oh, well if you think you can do it, you can do it.” And it sounds so simple and yet so many of us get bogged down in our own heads and you know, what other people tell us about ourselves or, what society tells us about ourselves, or that kind of thing. And so for a woman, do you think it's a little bit harder to think big? Is there a reason why so many women sometimes seems to hold themselves back from their true potential?
Helen Thomas: You know I really can't… I have a daughter, okay? And I can share what you just said and relate to that. She's a ballerina and the [inaudible 00:50:14 thing, the confidence, the hard work- the work ethic as we would say, I think it's really a combination in terms of your mental strengths. Like, know what you want, at the same time be collaborative enough to get the opportunity to make it happen. None of us can really just do everything on our own right? So be given the opportunity also takes some type of skills and open mind to be embraced. So, I think it is the strength and the combination of your collaborative skills and the mindset and the communication- clear communication is so important and to formulate a business plan. It's easy to say, “Oh, I was the CEO of [Leapfrog 00:51:12 China” but the work I put in, the research, the business plan, the courage to present it… I was asked to present the last minutes to the Board meeting instead of my boss. It's like, “What! I'm presenting?”
Melinda Wittstock: But you were ready.
Helen Thomas: Right, being ready. You've got to put being ready.
Melinda Wittstock: I love this. You know I could talk to you for a long time. You're going to have to promise to come back on this podcast because there's so much to talk about. I'd love to be able to geek out with you, endlessly about technology, about… oh my goodness, the mindset that you need to succeed. Helen, I just want to thank you for taking the time to fly with us today.
Helen Thomas: Thank you so much for providing me the wings and letting me fly and such fun time with you Melinda, I'm looking forward to chatting with you again.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. Well you're flying and I know that you have a special offer too for our listeners today. Which I so appreciate and I want everybody to go check out Touchjet and they can get a discount too?
Helen Thomas: Yes, so use CEO20, you get 20% off. The holiday's around the corner… I'm sure you're going to have lots of fun with the magical technology, with your colleagues, with your family. Touchjet is to bring people together in any situation. We're a collaborative platform so it's good for all people. So thank you. Thank you Melinda. Thank you for having me.