Interview with Alex Hertel, Co-founder and CEO Of Xperiel
Ledge is joined on this episode of the podcast by Alex Hertel, co-founder and CEO of Xperiel. At Xperiel he has helped to create the world’s most user-friendly programming language called ‘Pebbles’, and its goal is to democratize AR and IoT programming in order to push the Internet out into the physical world.
Ledge: Great to have you on. Thanks for joining today.
Alex: Yeah. Thanks for inviting me on the podcast. Pleasure to be here.
Ledge: If you don’t mind, would you give a two or three minute introduction of yourself and your work so the audience can get to know you a little bit?
Alex: Sure. I’m the Co-founder and CEO of Xperiel. We’re a tech company here in Silicon Valley. My brother is actually my co-founder. We built a previous startup together that was called Walleto, and that was the first digital wallet and tap-and-pay on a smartphone. That was acquired by Google. That became Google Wallet.
We started that company right out of grad school. We completed our PhDs in computer science at the University of Toronto – so if you’re detecting a Canadian accent that explains it. We never made use of that PhD research at all in the wallet, but it forms the core technology in what we’ve built here at Xperiel.
The previous acquisition brought us down from Canada to Silicon Valley, we spent some time at Google there, and now we’re building the next one.
First and foremost, I would consider ourselves to be inventors. That’s what is exciting to us. That’s what gets us up out of bed in the morning. In particular, we’re not interested in just making incremental improvements. What attracts us is making big, quantum leaps.
We’re particularly attracted in building powerful new technology, and that’s really what Xperiel is all about. So that’s my background.
Ledge: Wow. There’s a lot to go with there. Very cool.
We’ll skip the story of the acquisition of your original startup, which everyone wants to do. That’s amazing. But let’s jump into the inventor thing and big problems.
So, A) What is the current technology and the big leap that you’re making? Then B) After that I’m wondering, as you do that, the big splash inventions don’t happen every day so how do you keep feeding that need to invent as your identity?
Alex: Xperiel is really aimed at the next big platform shift. It’s a particularly ambitious startup.
If you think about human civilization, we keep going through big platform shifts. First there was print, then there was radio, then there was television, then eventually the PC was invented. That was sort of the big first consumer technology platform. Then came the web and then the social revolution happened, and most recently mobile.
Every time one of these big platform shifts happens, it kind of upsets the whole applecart. In one paradigm, someone becomes king. In the pre-PC era, for instance, IBM was the king. It was the only tech giant on the planet earth. Then the PC happened, and that allowed them to be disrupted. Then a company we’ve all heard of called Microsoft came along, and that allowed them to become king. This happens every few decades, and it’s starting to accelerate too.
So we can all see this next big platform shift coming on the horizon towards these immersive technologies – augmented reality, virtual reality, Internet of Things, machine learning. All of these technologies are starting to converge and on the horizon we can see this coming.
We call this the real world web because it’s going to make the physical world much more digitally interactive.
We see this as being the biggest opportunity in high tech because it’s still totally up for grabs. Nobody has conquered or mastered this technology yet.
So that sets the stage. That’s where Xperiel comes in. That’s the goal and that’s the aim of our company, is to look forward and to invent the foundational technologies underpinning this next platform shift.
As inventors, that’s where we put on our creative hats and we figure out, what are some of the necessary components? What is this platform going to need? That has been 100% of our goal here. Xperiel has been aiming at inventing and patenting and productizing and launching this core foundational technology. Everything from the operating system layer, to the event bus, to the business models, the privacy and security models, the advertising models – we’ve built all of that.
The aim here is just to leapfrog years ahead and own this fundamental technology for owning this next platform shift before anyone else even realizes what’s going on and gets there.
So, like I said, big, ambitious startup but that’s where we’re aiming.
Ledge: Sure. It strikes me as be the Qualcomm more than the Apple – the foundational things necessary for everybody else to build on. Even lower level of abstraction than platform. You’re really talking about the foundation.
Alex: Yeah, and it’s all software. We’re not building any hardware. Usually, the story is that hardware is far ahead of software and software is actually the hard, complicated part that people are bad at. So everything that we’ve been focusing on is sort of the software layer and the tools don’t even really exist.
When we started this adventure we quickly realized, oh well, the tools were made for the previous platform shifts. They weren’t designed for the Internet of Things. They weren’t designed for a multi-device, heterogeneous device world. They weren’t designed with augmented reality in mind.
We quickly realized that we had to create those tools, and that’s what we did. It’s sort of like the HTML for the Internet of Things. There is no World Wide Web for the Internet of Things, so we’ve created that and we’ve created the tools and the HTML for this coming world.
Ledge: Right. So you’re talking about the protocol, the SDKs, all the ways of thinking about stuff that don’t jam with well into existing protocols. We’re going to run out of IP addresses. We’re not going to be able to build the stuff that we need. We can’t carry that much data. But we do it [00:06:27] when we do.
Alex: Exactly. In many cases, when you’re a small startup you never have enough resources. So you have to be very wise and pick your battles. Whenever possible, we try to ride the existing rails and the existing protocols.
For instance, the Internet of Things, it’s all connected to the same network as the traditional internet. It’s all TCP/IP and all these traditional protocols. So we’re not here to change any of that. That’s fine. The network exists. That’s great. What we’re doing is a layer above that.
The analogy here, to compare it with the World Wide Web, the World Wide Web is like an application layer on top of the traditional internet. Then you build apps on top of that application and we call those apps web pages.
We are doing the analog of that for this next platform shift. We’ve created the real world web to be an application layer on top of the Internet of Things, and it’s a much more difficult problem.
If you think about what Tim Berners Lee did with the World Wide Web several decades ago now, he was working with a homogenous set of hardware. It was all desktop computers. Then he very wisely went and he created the right development tools and language for that. He could have written web pages in C++, and if he had done that none of this ever would have got off the ground. He very wisely chose to build a much more user-friendly, much more streamlined language, HTML, dedicated to the task for which it was designed.
That’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve created our platform and an entirely new programming language. We can also get into that. That’s a a whole separate conversation that would be interesting. But that’s the framework that we’re working in.
Ledge: You just kind of tipped off in my brain. I kind of wonder, what’s the Venn Diagram look like? How do you experience between inventor and futurist?
Alex: There’s certainly a gray area between the two. I think that the difference is in terms of how active you’re being about it. There’s a quote that jumps to mind from Alan Kay. He’s this famous Xerox PARC computer scientist. He says that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. I think maybe the difference between a futurist and an inventor, that quote sums it up, is to play a more active role.
It’s really, really, hard to predict what the future is going to hold. That’s anyone’s guess. No one has a crystal ball for this, and everyone who makes predictions in the future is going to be mostly wrong – and the further out they go, the more wrong they’re going to be. But if you’re actually playing an active role in inventing that future, then you get to be part of the conversation and you get to help direct what’s going to happen.
That’s, again, part of what gets us up out of bed in the morning, is being part of that and helping to guide things.
Ledge: How do you differentiate as an inventor and setting the new standards, if you will? The absolute hardest of distribution problems is the re-education of the entire planet on a limited marketing budget. How do you conceptualize that?
Alex: I think it’s hard for anybody to set new standards, even if you have massive resources – and it’s particularly hard for a startup like ours. We’re tiny. We don’t have the resources of a Google or a Microsoft or an Apple or an Amazon.
Part of the answer is a little bit of what I already mentioned where, to whatever extent possible, we want to ride the existing rails and the protocols. If those are good enough, let’s not reinvent the wheel.
Then in terms of where we are deviating and trailblazing, I think what you want to do is tap into this principle that the customer always wins. It doesn’t really matter which tech companies are competing, it doesn’t matter what their technologies are and so on. At the end of the day, it’s the market and it’s all the customers out there that decide who the winner is.
If you keep that in mind, and if you build for the customer and you solve the customer’s problems and you [reduce friction 00:10:58] for them, then that gives you the best shot of your solution winning, and your protocols and your new way of thinking becoming the de facto standard.
So that’s the strategy that we’ve been following. Is to democratize technology, to reduce friction and to solve customer problems.
Ledge: In this case, how do you define the customer then when you’re a low level platform developer with a totally new thinking and paradigm about the world? Are these going to be, oh, yeah, they’re going to be video game companies and… Who knows? There’s a lot of ground to cover just there.
Alex: Sure. Ultimately, our customers are going to be the developers who want to build software for this coming platform shift, for this coming real world web.
This is our core technology, and this is where we’ve applied our PhD research. We’ve invented a new programming language called Pebbles. Pebbles is designed to be the most user-friendly programming language in history. It’s tailor-made, it’s built from the ground up, with tomorrows use cases – the IoT and the AR use cases – in mind.
So, right now, if you want to build a multi-user device application that connects your NEST thermostat with all the other hardware in your home and so on, that’s really hard to do. The languages, the tools, just don’t exist for doing that easily. You can do it, but it’s cumbersome. The tools weren’t built…
Ledge: Or you need a third party API integrator of sorts, but you can’t do it innately.
Alex: Exactly. So what we built here with Pebbles is a language that’s, that’s what it does. That’s the first order variable that we’re concerned about is building AR content. Connecting IoT devices and reducing that friction.
So the strategy here is one of making a programming language that’s so user-friendly that anyone can use it. The way we did that is radically different.
When you look at this programming language, it doesn’t have a grammar, it doesn’t have a syntax. You don’t write your code, you draw your code. This is a programming language that designed for designers. It’s designed for marketers and product managers and regular people who are smart but don’t necessarily come from a technical background.
The idea here is to radically increase the number of people who are empowered to build. Right now it’s only a very small fraction of the population that can write software, and what we want to do is expand that radically and democratize and empower everyone to do that.
It doesn’t even feel really like you’re programming, it feels more like you’re drawing a flowchart of something like that. So it’s just much more accessible and it’s almost like it’s using a different part of the brain. It’s less that analytical and logical part of the brain that makes programming in C++ or Java so difficult for most people, and instead we’re more using almost like visual and spatial part of the brain that makes this much more approachable.
That’s been the strategy here, is to empower people.
Ledge: It reminds me a little bit, I’ve talked to a lot of companies exploring around the edges of the No Code type of revolution. Have you drawn on that and thought about that?
Alex: Well, yes and no. This is a type of No Code in that you’re not typing code. There is no if-then statements or while loops or anything like that.
But the downside of a lot of these has always been that you have to make a tradeoff and you have to sacrifice power. Real pros, when they want to build something powerful they don’t want to cut any corners in terms of the powers and the tools that they have. What we’ve built here has the best of both worlds. It’s both very accessible and it’s very easy to learn and use, but it doesn’t sacrifice any power whatsoever.
Anything you can program in Java or C++ you can program here, only much more easily – and it’s much better at these futuristic use cases and building the software of the future than these old programming languages are.
So you’re definitely thinking in the right direction there, but we didn’t want to make that tradeoff.
Ledge: You must have made some tradeoffs. Any time we reduce complexity, we have unintended consequences. What tradeoffs did you acknowledge and accept on the journey?
Alex: Every type of programming language has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you were trying to build a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel, you probably wouldn’t use Pebbles. That’s not its strike zone. It’s aimed at a different target than that.
But in terms of the actual expressive completeness and power of the language, there we didn’t make any tradeoffs. There I have to maybe get into the PhD research a little bit. It’s all based on this pebbling research from our PhDs.
Pebbling is an interesting sort of freak of nature. Most people have never heard of this, nor should they have. There’s like 20 egghead academics on the planet that care about this, and it was a very ivory tower topic. We never actually thought that our research was going to be useful for anything practical in the real world, but we found a use for it.
What makes pebbling special is that it’s a board game, actually. It’s a single player board game that’s so easy to learn that even a child can understand it. You can give this game to a six-year-old and they’ll be able to understand it. At the same time, it’s a model of computation. It’s expressively complete. You can encode any computation using it.
That’s where we had I think our key insight. Is that we realized that we could build a programming language based on this that was so easy to understand that even children could do it, but which was also expressively complete and you could encode and program any type of computation you wanted to. It took us as a long time to take that idea and turn it into reality, but that’s the basis of it.
I’m the first to admit that this is aimed at a certain target, and that if you’re building certain other things you would choose other programming languages. But we’re tapping into the freak of nature there of pebbling, that it’s simultaneously powerful as well as easy to learn.
Ledge: Talk about that. Where did that come from? What’s the genesis then of such a thing? What does that arise from?
Alex: There wasn’t really an “aha!” moment. There was probably a series of “aha!” moments that we had between my brother and myself. I remember one of them coming in grad school. I remember, he was working on the weekend or in the evening or something like that, with his PhD supervisor and he was over at her house, and she had young children. They were drawing these pebbling diagrams.
One of her kids – I can’t remember exactly how old they were but they were like six or seven years old, something like that – they came over and were like, “Mommy, what are you doing there?” They took an aside from the research they were doing and they explained these pebbling games to the kids.
My brother Phillip was surprised that they could do this. That a six-year-old had no problems moving the pebbles around and figuring out how the game worked and so on. I think that was maybe one of the early insights that we had that, oh, pebbling is a game and it’s fun and that makes it very accessible. That’s kind of the user-friendliness aspect of it. Then, under the hood, there’s all this raw power.
That was the insight early on that helped us realize that there’s no tradeoff necessarily here. Usually there is a tradeoff. Usually when you’re doing something very powerful, like rocket science or nuclear fusion or something like that, you need to know a lot. You need a lot of expertise. You need to study for a decade before you become really, really proficient at this. Here we saw an opportunity through that that you didn’t have that tradeoff.
Ledge: What do you do with an opportunity that big, when you finally can conceptualize it?
I’m reminded of the brain teaser; if you cure cancer in your garage, and you actually did, what do you do next? Nobody’s going to believe you and there’s no paradigm by which to grock that because it’s so outlandish that someone could do such a thing.
Alex: Well, what we did is, as the idea… None of this happened in one day.
Ledge: It happened overnight. I know it did. Everybody’s successful overnight, right?
Alex: Right. Really the thought process was, well, okay we think we’ve got something extremely powerful here. Okay. So, what are we going to do with that, and then how far could we push it?
If you have a nuclear aircraft carrier, you don’t just use it as a tugboat. So we thought, well, we could do this or we could do that. We think, actually, that’s kind of selling the vision short. We think it’s more powerful than that.
So we just kind of kept on getting bigger and bigger until we thought, well, what’s the maximum thing that it could do? We thought, well, there’s this whole big platform shift coming in the next decade with augmented reality and Internet of Things and so on. What if we could use this and this could become the HTML for this new world?
Then we realized, yeah, that’s actually not unreasonable. That’s not unrealistic. It’s powerful enough to pull that off. So that was how the vision started.
When talking to you here, talking about how ambitious the startup is. It obviously is very ambitious but we think we have the technology to backup that dream.
Ledge: So you’re talking to, I don’t know, 20,000 developers right now. No doubt many of them of whom are going to push stop soon and go try to get your SDK or whatever. How do people get involved and start to play with this? Are you at that stage?
Alex: We’re not quite at that stage yet. Right now, we’ve been using our pebbles programming language internally. We have a team that’s been using it to build professional products for NFL teams and NBA teams and so on, and so it’s not quite ready for prime time externally yet. That’s mostly a function of, we just haven’t had the resources and the time yet to make it nice and to make it self-serve.
As user-friendly as it is, if we were to launch it tomorrow and people were to pick it up, they’d still be lost because there’s no instruction manual to it, essentially. All of that still needs to be built.
The hard parts have been built and been proven. Our team has been building really cool experiences with these sports teams and so on, so we’ve convinced ourselves that it works. So the next phase of the company will be aimed at perfecting the platform, making it user-friendly, adding the tutorials and the templates. Then unleashing it to the world and letting everybody out there use it.
I think that the tech enthusiasts will probably be the first ones to pick it up, even just as a curiosity. Your listeners might be interested enough to go and look at it once it’s ready.
But then the real goal here, though, is to go beyond the traditional tech enthusiast and to democratize programming for everybody. Every creative agency, every teenager hacking away in his parent’s basement, we want to empower all of them to become builders.
Ledge: Well, all I can say is I wish good luck, because you wisely know that adoption is the hardest hurdle. Discovery, followed by retention and adoption.
Alex: To any of your listeners out there who really are interested in seeing more of this or maybe participating in building it, we’re always looking for great talent. We’re always hiring. So, yes, send us your resumes.
Ledge: Fantastic. All right. We’ve got to wrap up. I’ve got the lightening round for you. You ready?
Alex: I’m not sure I’m ready, but go ahead and do it anyways.
Ledge: This is critical. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Alex: I’m not against Star Trek, I like Star Trek, but I’m definitely on the Star Wars side.
Ledge: Very [00:24:19] answer of you. Also running for office.
Alex: It’s just a little grittier, and it’s a little more realistic. I’m not sure that the future is going to be the utopian future that Gene Roddenberry first thought. Now, again, I like Star Trek. I love watching Star Trek, I watch all the shows. But at the end of the day, Star Wars.
Ledge: I love the academics that answer that answer these questions. This is always good. What are you reading right now?
Alex: I’m going to bore you with this answer, but it’s really just a bunch of business handbooks.
I didn’t have the benefit of going to business school. I don’t have an MBA, and yet here I am as the CEO of a startup and so there’s this stuff I didn’t learn in school. I’ve picked up a lot of that on the fly, but I’m reading a book right now called the ‘The High Growth Handbook’. I’m sorry, that’s a boring answer but that’s the truth.
Ledge: There’s a lot of that in the developer community. You can’t do everything. The way that our disciplines have been mixed, I went from development to business and then don’t want to lose the other direction. This avenue has been great for me to be able to just stay up on the cusp of that, so I totally resonate. I would have to go back to the beginning programming manuals and white papers at this point.
What can’t you live without?
Alex: The answer, this is the truth I don’t want it to be, but it’s probably my smartphone. I’m certainly guilty of spending far more time on my smartphone than I should, and it’s kind of what connects me to everything. It’s such a convenience that I probably spend much more time looking down. People probably see the top of my head far more than they do my face when I’m walking anywhere.
If you took away my smartphone – or my laptop for that matter – I’d be in trouble.
Ledge: Absolutely. I think a lot of us are in that place now, for better or worse.
What’s the last thing you Googled for work?
Alex: I’m on LinkedIn a lot, so I often search on LinkedIn and I search on Google for business contacts. We have a lot of business meetings and biz dev meetings and so on. Just doing my homework on the folks that I’m going to be meeting tomorrow, that kind of thing.
Ledge: So somebody’s name. I would probably say the same thing.
Okay. I don’t know if you’re an Office fan, The Office, but there’s a classic episode of The Office where Jim is messing with Dwight. You may know Dwight is the sort of office heel and everybody picks on Dwight. He’s sending him faxes from future Dwight, and they pop out of the fax machine.
It got me thinking. I like to ask people, if I give you one sheet of paper and a Sharpie what would right now future Alex be faxing back to past Alex?
Alex: I would be sending back all sorts of tips on how to avoid mistakes and pitfalls. How far back am I going? Am I going all the way back to childhood or am I just going back five years and giving myself tips on how [00:27:26].
Ledge: How about 10 years? Remember, it’s a Sharpie and a paper. You won’t [00:27:30].
Alex: Yeah. I would be giving myself tips on how to avoid all sorts of pitfalls. As you’re building a company, you make mistakes. You make mistakes all the time. No matter how smart you think you are, the world is a complicated place and it’s a complicated landscape. Even building our technology, we’re building something very complicated and there are many places where we fell into a trap and then we had to take the code and throw it away and start it again.
It would be easy for me to send myself all sort of tips, ‘Oh, yeah, don’t try that. That’s not going to work. Do this instead.’ There’s a hundred examples of this so I would probably have to triage. As I’ve got a Sharpie and you can’t write very finely on a piece of paper, I’d have to triage and choose the top 15 of them or something like that.
Ledge: Well, [00:28:24] the numbers.
Alex: You tell me when you’ve got that magical fax machine. There’s a startup idea for you.
Ledge: Right. Well, you know, I keep waiting for the guest that says, “What’s a fax machine?”
Alex: Right. It reminds me of the joke when people ask you to send a fax and you just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t send you a fax because of where I live.” Then they say, “Well, where do you live?” “In the 21st century.”
Ledge: Then they say, “Well, if you want healthcare…”
Ledge: Well, Alex, always enjoyable. I love the big thoughts. This has been super cool to watch, so we’re going to be fans and we’re going to stay onboard. We’ll keep paying attention, and good luck with the broad vision.
Alex: Thank you. Again, thanks for having me on the podcast. It’s been a pleasure.