Parked in a Good Space: Zia Yusuf

Parked in a Good Space!

Zia Yusuf
President & CEO, Streetline Inc.

There is much stress on foundation learning and exposure in the early years for children. These experiences play an incredibly important role in the making of their success stories. It is, however, interesting to see what role the school or class actually plays in where life actually takes people. School seems to be quite the assembly line, churning out all its students from one grade to another until they graduate. The one-size fits all formula hardly instills creativity and out-of-the-box-thinking needed to run a business, high-powered or otherwise. Most successful stories today don’t fit the cookie cutter mold assembled in schools – many, in fact, don’t fit in at all and Zia is no exception.

With the benefit of hindsight, there are a few common themes in Zia’s life: First, he treads on the road less traveled by. Whether it was his choice to repeat his 10th Grade at the Karachi Grammar School, or leaving a highly influential and stable job at SAP to later join a startup that only had enough cash to last them two weeks, anyone else would have taken the easier decision. It takes more than just good research and understanding of market dynamics to do that. It takes a different kind of courage to take a sensible leap of faith forward.

Second, Zia doesn’t fit into standard positions; positions form around him. During his interview at The World Bank or his 3-hour conversation with the Founder of SAP Hasso Plattner, organizations have been determined enough to have Zia onboard because they see in him the promise to make a difference. That ability to lead. Despite not knowing where to ‘fit’ him, they want him to join in.  Though Zia has built a career in the technology industry, his experience outside the industry, in banking and international economic development has shaped his thinking and allowed for a broader perspective on solving problems.

His academic background and choices illustrate a multi-faceted approach. He completed Karachi Grammar School in 1987, went on to college at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, followed it with an MS in International Affairs from the famed Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and capped all this with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1998.

His dream was to join the The World Bank and build a career in international development.  After Georgetown, he got the opportunity to spend several years working in healthcare in Southern Africa and structuring project finance deals in South East Asia.  Following his MBA, Zia took a sharp turn in his career and joined Goldman Sachs in New York as an investment banker.  However, he soon realized that though he loved Goldman, he was not enjoying being a banker.  This then led him West to Silicon Valley where he joined SAP and over a distinguished 10-year career quickly moved up the ranks and was ultimately part of SAP’s leadership team as an Executive Vice President.

For many, the very successful career at SAP would have been enough, but Zia wanted to stretch himself further and be CEO of a Silicon Valley startup.  He left SAP at the height of his career and joined two premier venture capital firms, Sutter Hill Ventures and Norwest Venture Partners as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR).  Over the next 8 months, Zia spent time meeting with dozens of companies and had a fresh look at the technology landscape whilst figuring out what he wanted to do.

Most people expected Zia to join an enterprise software startup to leverage his SAP experience, but his choice was jolting: he joined a company called Streetline that was focusing on a problem nobody else was. In fact, nobody else even thought of it as a problem let alone one whose solution had anything to do with technology. Streetline was a smart parking company seeking to use technology to re-think and solve the increasing big problem of parking in an increasingly urbanized world.

In hindsight, this was just another example of his ability to think creatively and see value where others don’t.

From the Top

“Up until Grade 10th, I consistently ranked 31st or 32nd in a class of 33 students – but I really did not care!” starts off Zia. His mother forced him to make a decision about his life and he chose to repeat the grade and change the subjects he was studying. “I switched from Science to Business and Economics, topics which I enjoyed a lot more. That year, I ranked in the top three in a class of 35.  It was a life changing experience.”

From KGS, Zia made his way to Minnesota in the US and studied at Minnesota’s Macalester College on a scholarship.  As with most people, college shaped his view of the world and strengthened his resolve to work in economic development. He was determined to get a PhD in economics but his college economics professor advised him to pursue international affairs and business instead.  This led to him going to Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, which ultimately led to his dream job at the World Bank.

“I have since discovered that I actually like going and doing things that haven’t been done before and finding opportunity for value creation in areas people are ignoring My ‘career planning stage’ was set until The World Bank. Everything that has happened since then was never even a hope, dream or vision.”

Zia went to business school because he wanted to become more involved in the private sector and the IFC, a part of the World Bank Group and his employer at the time, wouldn’t let him without an MBA. “By the time I graduated from Harvard Business School, the US economy was just booming and the World Bank was not able to offer an exciting position. This led me to accept a position as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs.”

A couple of years in, Zia realized that he was no longer excited about banking. He loved Goldman the high energy, teamwork and client focus of the firm, but did not enjoy the financial aspects.  “I really liked the work but just didn’t want to spend my life in spreadsheets, so I had a friend who worked for the founder of SAP Hasso Plattner make an introduction.”

He flew out to San Francisco to meet with Hasso armed with only the basics on SAP and technology. Zia sat with SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, in what was less an interview and more a conversation. “We spoke for almost three hours and there wasn’t a single question about technology. At the end of it, he asked me to come work for him.” SAP didn’t have a position for him, but Hasso promised that if Zia joined, they would figure it out.” Zia called his wife, Paru, from the airport and told her about the offer and they decided to move to Silicon Valley.

In each of those steps, the intuition was partly a desire to always keep learning and to remain inquisitive. With time, people achieve financially stability. Once that happens, the number of interesting things you can do and the impact you can make, matter more. If you have the ability to question the standard and create the new normal, you end up approaching life differently.

“I also feel that beyond a certain point in life, people look at risk all wrong. The confidence to make the leap has to come from you, not from the company you’re in. My answer to the question, ‘what’s the worst case scenario?’ is usually ‘it’s okay’. That just means everything on top is a bonus.” This comes from someone who took an almost 60% pay cut to join a startup. “Intuition,” explains Zia, “comes from soaking in what you can from around you, trusting yourself to have the confidence to manage ambiguity and change.”

In the Valley, it seems that everyone you meet is either starting a business or doing something innovative. That creates a terrific buzz and a great deal of inspiration. Zia was fortunate to be young enough to take the leap and try his hand at being CEO of a company that was revolutionizing an industry.
Being CEO

Many senior executives want to ultimately be a CEO; to be fully responsible for a company and shape its future and Zia was no different. The difference was that he made the move at the pinnacle of his career at SAP and joined a company that only had 2 week of cash. He was also moving into an industry that lacked excitement or dynamism: the parking industry.

More than ‘parking’ itself, Zia’s bet was more about being an early surfer on the emerging and exciting wave of ‘The Internet of Things’.   “I think the Internet of Things is going to be bigger than the Internet itself.  By embedding software into ‘things’ like cars, thermostats, machines, and parking spots, you connect the physical world with the Internet allowing you to reshape how we all work and live.”

Streetline was just in front of the wave with the concept it was working with. Parking, smart or otherwise, was just not on anyone’s radar. Nobody looked at it as a problem. “Streetline has given me opportunity to have the confidence that you can change the world. We’ve been able to take a problem which nobody thought much about and gotten people to acknowledge that it is one of the fundamental challenges in our towns and cities which now has a solution behind it.”

Now at 60 people, Streetline grew from a mere 11.  “Lots of engineers, some in sales, marketing and business development with everyone else in services and support. We design the sensors have them manufactured by a company based in Sunnyvale, California, while the physical deployment is done by Siemens.” Zia’s background in software helped the company tremendously in determining the most effective supply chain.

“A sensor typically lasts up to 5 years on two AA lithium batteries and costs Streetline between $200-220 per parking spot to cover the upfront infrastructure and $15 per space per month software application fee. The basic sensing mechanism is a magnetometer and a light sensor, which detects the metal content and change in ambient light of the car to determine if the space is occupied or not. That data then travels across a multi-hop mesh network. This means each sensor pings to the next sensor regardless of line of sight and every ten sensors there is a battery-powered repeater, which bounces the signal. Every 400 sensors, there is a gateway box containing a Linux box and an AT&T and Verizon wireless data network card. It captures the mesh network signal and from there, it’s just a cellular data call back to our call center.” This is how the data gets generated.
Metering Innovation, Instinct and Risk

Zia joined the company two years into its existence and describes a very typical scenario: “Streetline started off with a great idea and a talented team of technical folks who had no idea how to make a business out of the sensors they were creating.” By the time Zia joined, the company had about two weeks of operational cash left.

Every company, product or service that now excites you, is one that has come up with a way to do something better and faster. Everything is about a new approach to a problem and to serve a solution that is so simple, it will actually make you wonder what you did before it.

Companies in Silicon Valley, even Pakistanis in their own fields of expertise, are constantly reinventing and re-engineering behavior. People are constantly inventing ways to do things better and faster,  what remains unique about the Valley is that people tolerate, or even celebrate business failure. “The Valley encourages risk taking, big goals and ambitious plans. Many times the business failing is not that you have failed. Just that some aspect of the venture did not go as you expected, but as long as you learnt from the experience you will be supported in trying again. This incredible environment is unique to Silicon Valley and the reason why you see so many of the world changing ideas emerge from that area.”

There are many things tangible and relatable that Zia talks about. The one that stands out the most is when he explains, “To be viewed as somebody who is changing the way people work and live through this topic of parking is quite bizarre.”  CNN has called it ‘A silver bullet for urban traffic problems’.

The learning someone with Zia’s background can benefit from at a company like Streetline is phenomenal, and perhaps being a small team that does everything in-house, has a lot to do with that. For a startup, Streetline had a lot happening on its plate from the very beginning. Because they do everything from designing sensors to deploying tools and equipment into mesh networks on the streets; designing, configuring and positioning the middleware that will route massive amounts of data back to the servers and sync everything with hardcore mobile and web apps. And then serve consumers, merchants and cities with custom apps, so the company does a lot.

The decision to join Streetline was scary enough financially for Zia, but what was even scarier was whether he could actually do the job. “Could I raise the money? And could I make this happen in front of investors minus the halo effect of the title and big company name?” Sure Zia had been running multi-million dollar funds but this time, he was on the other side.

Considering Zia’s background is in finance and business and not core tech, it’s incredible how he created success wherever he went. The conservative industry that was completely new to him only made him more determined. “Parking is a very traditional industry. I remember returning from my first Parking Conference completely traumatized. Imagine a conference hall in the middle of the US full of men who run parking lots and garages, there to sell signage and parking meters. And then you had me with experience from Goldman and HBS, with one little table and an iPhone app – it just didn’t make sense to anyone there.” Fast forward to today where Streetline is the poster child for rethinking stuff and companies like Cisco, Siemens and IBM are all reselling it’s solution.

Growing a company isn’t about working harder or knowing what is going on. If you want to be at the top of your industry, says Zia, you have to work hard. There is simply a lot of competition there and if you aren’t out there, someone else is already replacing you. “The absolute worst thing that can happen is you fail, at which point you just get back up and move on.”
A Venture Capitalist had once given Zia some advice as he was starting on his entrepreneurial journey. “I was told, ‘If you’re going to do something and fail, just make sure you fail really big. The worst thing for you to do is to go from this position and fail in obscurity.”

The Art of Re-engineering Behavior

People expect to be able to do interesting things with their computers. Facebook, Instagram and other tools, however people are not as used to interacting with their environment. That’s still very new. Since the time cars have been around, people have spent time on the road getting to their destination, and then spent some more time looking for a place to park. “Even if you figure out how the amount of time it takes to get to a destination, you will never be sure how much time and inconvenience the parking element of the equation will take. So the Streetline app tells you exactly where the empty spot it. And that’s amazing.” For most people who come across Streetline, the company still manages to create a magical reaction because the solution is new and connects the “real world” to your mobile phone.  American Way Magazine said it best: ‘What Streetline is attempting to do is borderline miraculous!’

Streetline changes the way people behave because they are able to interact with their surroundings and create a productive result. And that’s probably one of the reasons why the company has received so much press. It’s not like they rolled out a technology that needs building atop of it – it’s a solution that changes people’s everyday lives. As Zia puts it, “Every city, every customer becomes a new story of how the technology changes people’s everyday lives.”

This issue of parking, or the lack of it, is a global crisis and not something specific to the US. In cities such as Karachi or Delhi, the problem is just as bad.  “For the first time in human history,” starts Zia, “there are more people living in cities than rural areas. There are more cars being bought today than before and their demographic is also changing. With the price of cars as they are today, those who used to have motorbikes can afford a car, but not a driver. And that makes parking a growing problem.”

Even if they solved the approach on how to get people used to the technology, Streetline’s biggest challenge, also its major source of revenue, is selling to cities. Parking is one of the highest revenue earners for a city that has never been optimized. “And selling to cities is a whole different ballgame.”

Streetline has also changed what it means to be parking professional. Now a parking guy can go to the city mayors and CFOs and tell them ‘money can be saved, costs can be reduced and they can solve parking in the district.’ Who wouldn’t want to be part of that press conference?

Parking space is one of the biggest uses of real estate in a city. New York, for example, has ‘13 Central Park-worth of Parking real estate’. The first million dollar parking spot has been sold, also in New York; in Hong Kong parking spots are being sold for $6-800,000. “In Boston, a woman bought two parking spots for $650,000 each. These are not parking lots; just the individual spots.”

Streetline is now getting enough interest on the data itself to help cities that do not do things like Smart Enforcement where they look to our solution to help track where violations are taking place. The ROI is massive.” What makes the returns even higher are the fact that once the system is in place, the technology allows parking garages, for instance, to get creative.

Los Angeles practices dynamic pricing on parking fees. “It’s this kind of model that looks at the economics of a parking spot where rates depend on the occupancy. But its important to understand that parking is not an asset allocation or pricing program. Globally, parking is actually an information problem. That’s the problem we try and solve. “

So solutions like these will work if the basic infrastructure is set. You know, the demarcation lines, policies and space management surrounding parking – and unfortunately, in the developing markets, these fundamental infrastructure elements don’t exist. However, if the governments don’t wake up and understand how big this issue of parking can get, there will be grand mismanagement and it won’t be pretty!
“We are working on a very large deal in Sao Paolo where because of Streetline, authorities are realizing that unless you get the cars into parking spots quickly, you won’t be able to see the impact on what’s happening on the highway with traffic.”

Now that Zia has taken the time to explain all this, it sounds so simple and obvious, but what Streetline is doing, is actually a natural progression in the evolution of navigation. First there was traffic research and modeling around better management of that traffic. Then Turn-by-Turn navigation was big, then traffic data followed until we reached real time parking data. The next big phase has already begun where more value add services are being built around your mobile phone and the ability to interact with the ecosystem as you drive. “Being able to pay for parking, create reservations and make your mobile device more purposeful.”

With greater connectivity comes the need to access information faster and more seamlessly and effortlessly than before. So it makes sense that car companies are beginning on embed Streetline into the in-car navigation.

Everyone’s been talking about the Smart Cities. The problem with these conversations has been is that the larger corporations have looked at the concept of Smart Cities as a big problem. Instead of coming at this problem top-down, Streetline took a very specific slice to solve. Zia views this as a volume consumer type activity, as opposed to a smart city government type of solution. “Our approach is that the solution has to as simple as ordering a cable service. So let’s say a small town wants to have smart parking installed, we give them a date and time, same as any service provider would, and deploy everything and get them up and running.” It typically takes 4-6 minutes to install one sensor and a Siemens crew can deploy 300 sensors in one day. It takes Streetline a day or so to switch on the all the apps, calibrate the network and the system is live.

Smart Parking has enough ROI to deploy a mesh network, however there are a lot of other value additions that can also seek benefit from this. Once the network is in place, sensors could be placed in, let’s say, water hydrants to give Fire Departments real-time reading on water pressure; or pollution sensors on each block to give you data on carbon emissions; sound sensors can be placed to help analyze where gunshots have been fired; And the sensors are not that expensive to put into place now that we have the network available – it’s extracting the meaningful data in real-time. Adding new sensing devices becomes much easier.

“Our partnership with Cisco is extremely fruitful in that sense. When they tried to deploy networks previously, cities were not very open to the idea of mesh networks just for the sake of email and connectivity. However bring in the idea of what a company like Streetline can do with its sensors and enable interaction with the ecosystem, and cities sit up and listen,” says Zia. “We’re allowing cities to give you relevant and real-time information so you can make more informed decisions based on that information.”

Keeping Innovation Innovative and Disruptive

It’s all about the people. “I cannot say that in enough ways. Innovation is all about the people who work together to make the magic happen. Keep asking questions and remain inquisitive. Stay foolish.” That’s why Zia says you must ensure that you surround yourself with people who are not only smarter than you, but also constantly challenge you so you remain grounded and gain from the different perspectives. “If you can find people like this throughout the organization, people who are trying to do the day-to-day ordinary things in an extraordinary way, that’s when you’ll get awesome results.  And let people fail.”

In addition to all his professional activities, Zia is also an Associate Consulting Professor at the Stanford Design School.  ‘The d School’ as it is known, is world renowned for teaching innovation based on a ‘design thinking approach’. According to Zia, a design thinking approach means to be completely user focused, fail quickly, prototype ideas bring people from disparate functions together to solve problems by looking at them differently.  That kind of stuff works.  Zia often quotes Steve Jobs, “The world is built by people just like you and you can change everything that’s around you – nothing should be a given. Then you will look at the world in a completely different way.”

The environment in the Valley surrounds you with success stories and allows you to think big and in a more comprehensive way. “You can take risk here. 8 out of 10 things may never work and here, it’s okay.” Like many others, Zia explains that there are so many regions, across the US who have failed to replicate the Silicon Valley. “It just doesn’t work. I think I would have been laughed out of the room if I sat anywhere else and pitched this idea where I wanted to install sensors and solve parking.” In the Valley, the solution to an unidentified problem showed promise.

Streetline has already proven that it can disrupt the space its in, with incredible quantities of innovation. The question for Streetline is now whether they are going to be the Google of real-time parking searches and sustain the ability to lead the wave, or step into the followers. The competition is starting to grow, so what happens next will be interesting.

On a professional and personal front, Zia says “I look forward to the next 15-20 years, I think the topic of ‘the internet of things’ will be one I am going to be engaged with for a long time. It’s a phenomenon and I foresee it to be incredibly exciting.” How could he not?


To Top