Future growth demands wireless ISPs

IT entrepreneur Selina Lo admits that getting wireless networking off the ground may be her biggest challenge yet

Aspiring entrepreneurs can only dream about a track record like Selina Lo's. First there was Centillion, a networking startup that Lo co-founded, and Bay Networks purchased for US$100 million in 1994. Lo's next act was Alteon, a maker of Gigabit Ethernet adapters that Lo joined in 1996 and transformed into Alteon WebSystems, a maker of content-aware switching hardware, before helping to sell Alteon to Nortel at the apex of the dot-com craze in July, 2000, for US$7.8 billion. It was a master stroke of good marketing and good timing that made Lo very wealthy.

With two big wins under her belt, Lo is swinging for the fences with her next company: Ruckus Wireless, which makes hardware for broadcasting voice, video, and data over Wi-Fi connections. In a chat with Paul F. Roberts last week, Lo said that getting wireless networking off the ground in the United States may be her biggest challenge yet.

How'd you start out in IT?

I came to [the United States] as a foreign student and started out as an English major. At that time, I wanted to get a good education and return to Hong Kong to teach in high school. Then my family immigrated to this country, and, all of a sudden, I had to deal with the fact that I might not be going back to Hong Kong. I learned how the U.S. public schools are and, hey, I didn't want to starve, so I moved over to computer science. I figured, "I gotta get my money's worth out of this." My first job out of school was at HP, where I worked from 1985 to 1990. That was a good time to be at HP. There was high growth and lots of stuff happening. But I had always wanted to work for a small company, so I joined NET (Network Equipment Technologies), which at that time was a 2,000 person company in Redwood City, [California]. I was in charge of NET's packet switching engine, and they had a license deal with this little company called Cisco that had just come on the scene, so I was able to watch Cisco grow up from being a very small company that was still being run by its founders.

What did you learn from Cisco?

Back then, Cisco hired incredibly good people. Most companies have a lot of average employees. But in the early days, all the Cisco hires were brilliant people. At that time, they were also very open with their customers who, at that time, were the IT guys in the major universities. These guys all got together and gave Cisco very open feedback. So I learned the value of word of mouth around this community of pretty technical and influential users, what Cisco used to call "the lunatic fringe." It taught me about having customers participate in process and not being too formal about it.

Now you're in the wireless space. How did the idea for Ruckus come about?

After l left Nortel, I was at home and had to have these TVs installed, and there were all these guys running wires and ripping holes in the ceilings and I thought, "Why not do this wirelessly?" At that time, the market for video over IP was small compared to the overall Wi-Fi market. But there was part of me that just said, "You've been pretty successful. You can afford to have a failure." So I funded two engineers I met who were working on a wireless video transmission project and we set up the company.

Do you worry that the complexity of the U.S. telecom market will inhibit your ability to grow?

I do worry about the telecommunications environment, and that's why Ruckus isn't just IPTV. If you look at what's going on in the world, fundamentally, Wi-Fi will eventually blanket the globe. Right now, people like hotspots, but there's no business model there. I think that will change and consumers will get the point where they will pay for Wi-Fi outside their home and work. But the [United States] is so stagnant. If we count on big corporations to do things, forget about it.

You seem to have this ability to adapt what you're doing. Why is that?

Well, I was brought up in Hong Kong, and that's just an incredibly opportunistic business environment where hype is a major aspect of how you do business. People just move from one trend to another. It's part of life -- spotting trends -- and it's something you just absorb as a way of doing business.

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