Jolla CEO Marc Dillon: “Tune the system, instead of managing the people”

How Jolla wants to build a successor to the Nokia N9 - without Nokia's marketing firepower

Jolla is a small band of daredevils in Helsinki who are trying to rock the mobile world (estimated at 800 million devices) with a brand new operating system and – ultimate hubris – a homegrown smartphone.

What are they thinking? The smartphone business is dominated by multibillion dollar brands like Apple, Samsung and a slew of other players who are “small” players – you know, obscure companies like Sony, Nokia, LG and Huawei.

Marc Dillon, Jolla’s CEO, came to Helsinki 11 years ago to work at Nokia because he believed that the future would be in open source operating systems. At Nokia, he could work on Osso (which later evolved into MeeGo). Dillon was part of a team that created 8 products, he tells Whiteboard: the N9, the iconic N900, and six internet tablets.

Today, he’s the first time CEO of a hugely ambitious undertaking: to create a worthy successor to the Nokia N9 – without Nokia’s marketing firepower behind it.

Jolla: how it began

Here’s how Jolla began. In 2011, Nokia abruptly changed direction with the by now infamous “burning platform” memo. It was also the end of the line for MeeGo, the project that he and most of his colleagues had been working on, says Dillon.

Dillon: “Something that we had put a lot of heart and soul into, not to mention blood, sweat and tears. But we gathered that with our background, we could form a company – my own background was in creating products, and we had people with a great pedigree and the experience of working on dozens of products. So we said: let’s just form a company and make our own.”

“We set out to write a business plan, and through a friend we met Antti (Saarnio, ed.), our chairman. That was the missing piece. With the combined experience of all these people who had been freed up from working at Nokia, we really felt that we could do this.”

Jolla wasn’t the only band of Nokia veterans striking out on their own, as we wrote earlier – about 200 startups sprung up in the wake of Nokia’s deep cuts in its organization (Nokia fired forty percent of its workforce in Finland).

Dillon: “In the early parts of 2011, when Nokia was downsizing, a lot of us were worried about the Finnish tech sector. But when we launched our user interface at Slush 2012, that fear kind of evaporated. In the last year, 150 startups or so have been created, a lot of them by people who had been a part of Nokia – who probably would have been there their whole lives. Now they suddenly had an opportunity to create their own business in technology and innovations that they had been thinking of, but that might never have seen the daylight inside Nokia. There’s really an explosion of startups in Finland right now.”

“Everybody is getting squeezed”

Jolla planned to make a device from the very beginning, says Dillon. “I’ll tell you why. When I landed at the Mobile World Congress last week, I stepped off the airplane and I saw a large billboard from a company that said: “we reinvented mobile”. And they’re making the exact same Android as everyone else. We’re at a point in the ecosystem game where there’s very little differentiation, very little innovation.”

“I think there’s a kind of perfect storm that allows us to take a shot here. Over the years, the operators have been squeezed to the point where they can’t do any service integrations themselves (they have no control and don’t make money off the ecosystem app stores, ed.)”

“The OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) have been squeezed because they’re all making the same Androids, with very little room for innovation. And even the app developers are squeezed. Getting an app into the app store – and making money with it – has become something like winning the lottery. Those three things create a perfect storm. And we have a Jolla boat (laughs).”

“So we knew that the timing was right to create a new OS – but our experience also told us that we would need a flagship device. Because that’s how you get interest for the OS.”

Jolla is not necessarily aiming to take a huge piece of the market, says Dillon. “The smartphone market is a 800 million devices market globally. We don’t have to have a high share of that to be very successful and self sustaining. At Mobile World, we realised that we have a huge asset, because we have a completely new way of working, a very easy to use, powerful, elegant OS. And it’s different from anything you can get from another manufacturer.”

Jolla set out to make a device and an OS, basically from (close to) scratch. It’s hard to believe there were never any moments that the team thought it had bitten off more than it could chew, I suggest.

Dillon: “Eh, there was a point where we were thinking that we would have to start doing end game planning. It was in May 2012, I think. We had started hiring and executing in January, but our first round of financing hit a delay. We figured the big money just might not come in. But that period was mercifully short: as soon as the first investor signed, a full set of investors closed. And we were off to the races, we started building software and hardware planning.”

“I want people to ask: what does it do?”

“After that, I think the most difficult part was what came next – we were a secret project, but at the same time we were trying to convince a few big players to free up developers for us, so we had to make sure that we were credible enough for them to do that.”

“I think what helped us was that we do have some of the best people in the world in this field. We just took some hardware and put our OS on top of it, to show that we could pull it off. And that worked. We were in the ST Ericsson booth at the Mobile World Congress – that was based on us showing them that we could very quickly port Sailfish to their devices. That showed them that we could do it.”

“And I think ST Ericsson were very happy to have us there. I mean, they had this entire wall of Android devices, and at the end there was a Sailfish one, and it was just completely different.”

For the moment, Jolla certainly can’t complain about the attention it’s been getting, I say. Dillon agrees. “We came out of the harbor with a simple tweet, and in a very short time we amassed 10 000 followers – a lot of them former community members from Maemo and Meego. Considering our size, that was very good.”

The next big step came at the Slush conference in the fall of 2012, where Jolla secured a spot on the stage thanks to some friends at Rovio and Supercell. “That was a huge step for us. It was a great opportunity to launch and show what we’re capable of. The video we released there reached half a million views on YouTube relatively quickly.”

See the Jolla video:

Last week, Tomi Ahonen suggested in a Whiteboard interview that Jolla should try to become the ‘Aston Martin’ of the smartphones. Positioning itself even higher than the iPhone (in Ahonen’s analogy: the “Porsche” in the market),. As Ahonen put it: “Make it something that, if you take it out in a meeting makes people say: is that the Jolla?”.

Dillon: “My perspective is this: the reason specs are important in Android is because that’s the only thing that you can use to differentiate: the color, the size of the display, and the processor speed. But I don’t think that will be as important for us.” The Jolla, Dillon implies, will just be different, instead of trying to highlight differences. “It’s just because we’ve been working on it, making our own choices. The model that I’ve been demoing is on a device that’s three years old, a 1 gigabyte single core device. It’s smoother and faster than what I’ve seen on other devices.”

“As for making a gorgeous device, I’m would rather have people ask you to show them what it does. We can make a Lamborghini, sure, but it’s more about this multitasking, that no other OS has gotten right yet. There’s always something that seems to get in the way on other phones. I would rather have people asking about that, and about Ambience (see below video, ed.).”

Jolla is getting great feedback from developers, says Dillon. Somehow, it seems, people are rooting for Jolla. “When we released our SDK (software development kit), the first app was created 20 minutes later. People were porting apps from different operating systems. We were really pleased with the interest and feedback.”

I ask whether Jolla’s success is partly due to people rooting for the “old” Nokia. He’s cautious when he answers, blocking a follow up about Elop’s strategic choice for Windows Phone out of the gate. “Without commenting on Nokia’s strategy – I wish them the best. I have a lot of friends there. But I think that people were looking for something a bit more homegrown than going to a different supplier for part of the device. Also, MeeGo had one of the world’s greatest developer communities – there’s a huge amount of support there.”

“Another thing might be that we’re just being ourselves. We didn’t hire ad agencies to create images or these things. We’re telling our story, and doing the best we can. I think people see the honesty. I hope we can always be like this.”

Is Jolla a temporary spin out, waiting to return to the mothership?

I lay out a scenario for him. Suppose a group of Nokia engineers was not so happy with the direction the mothership was taking. They spin out to make the device they were planning to make anyway – in the hope that one day, Nokia HQ comes to its senses about Windows Phone and buys them back. Such a scenario would explain the huge risk that Jolla is taking right now.

Dillon: “I would not say it’s part of our strategy. When I started at Nokia in 2001, there was a very entrepreneurial spirit at the company. I have not seen that for a while. Companies change, and Nokia has a long history of reinventing itself – but we saw an opportunity to do this. Not just create a business, but to make something that we think is great for what it is. For the work you’re doing: you want to come to work, because you share a vision and you can work with the best talent in the wolrd. A spin off/spin in is not our intention.”

“As a CEO, you only really need one book”

Dillon wasn’t the CEO of Jolla from the beginning – he took over from Jussi Hurmola along the way. “Yes, we changed around a bit,” he says. “We have an open culture towards people changing roles. Jussi did a great job of getting us running, while I had been focused on the company culture and ways of working together. When we started working on the product, it made sense for me to take the role of CEO.”

While he had led development teams and management teams for Nokia products, Jolla is his first gig as a CEO. Some parts come naturally, he says. “This part – the spotlights, telling our story, that comes naturally. It’s part of the job. ”

“The hardest part about the PR is figuring out what I can reveal and what not,” says Dillon. “You want to be honest and transparent at all times. But on the other hand, you have to hold some information to make an impact when you want to unveil your product.”

As to managing, he says he tried to create a system, rather than tools for managing Jolla. “I wanted to create a system that was based on minimal constraints. Which means that you put in some constraints. And then you tune the system – you tweak the constraints – instead of managing the people.”

One of those constraints is that Jolla only has one backlog for the entire company. That way, everybody knows what is needed, and what the rest of the company is working on.

Dillon: “We use a simple tool – Bugzilla. Our pulse is once per month: we assemble everybody together, demo everything that’s created, and then do preplanning to understand where we’re going.” Based on the highest priority needs, teams can self-organise. “It might make sense for the guys who developed the telephony to also do the audio. But sometimes, you might take a designer from another group who is better at a specific task at hand.”

The single backlog is a consequence of the central tenet from ‘The Mythical Man Month’ – that adding more developers to a task is not the solution to speed up development work. “The key principle is: the only way to reduce the schedule is to reduce the scope. So our tuning system is very simple: we have people who look at the backlog, and remove things that are not necessary. Steve Jobs – or one of those guys – said somewhere that what you take out is more important than what you put in. That’s a principle we go by.”

The Mythical Man Month, says Dillon, might be the only book you need to be a tech CEO. That, and ‘Management 3.0’ by Jorgen Appelo and ‘The Valve Employee Handbook’, which treats similar concepts, but ‘reads like a comic book’, says Dillon.

When? “Chinese New Year”

About the timing of the Jolla device, I say. I’ve heard both ‘before summer’ and ‘after summer’. “Let’s say that it’s clear we need to be under the Christmas tree, and ready for the Chinese New Year,” says Dillon. China is, after all, on its way to be the biggest smartphone market in the world, and Jolla is owned for 6 % by a Chinese investor. “So we need to hit shelves in the second half of 2013. I’m really happy with the progress that we’re making.”

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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