Jed Ayres joined IGEL Technology as CEO for North America in 2016. The following year, Jed created an event at Phantasialand theme park in Germany for the Company Kickoff, a high-powered event called ARE YOU READY.
At that event, Jed gave a presentation to IGEL’s employees on what he saw was needed to take the company in a brand-new direction. He flew home to the US, but his talk had inspired his German colleagues so much that one week later he was asked to fly back to Germany and present a similar story to IGEL’s distributors.
After landing, he traveled to IGEL’s offices to give a smaller, more low-key version of his theme park presentation. By the time he returned to Germany later in the year, he was ready to present a new concept, DISRUPT – an independent end-user computing event hosted by IGEL for all of its partners and customers, not just its distributors.
The event was to be held at the same location as IGEL’s kickoff, immediately afterwards. Jed’s bold plan was that in January 2018, DISRUPT would run for two days with speakers from other vendors such as Citrix and VMware flying in from all over the world. The event would put IGEL on the map.
“Independent events in the end-user computing space were few and far between,” Jed recalls. “Each major vendor had their own event, but no-one seemed to offer anything that brought everyone together on the same stage.”
Jed was told his idea would never work; that the customers wouldn’t come, that the partners wouldn’t be interested, and that other vendors wouldn’t want to know. But he pushed ahead anyway and proved the naysayers wrong.
We have 150 developers who are pumping innovation into that os. Every 12 weeks, and sometimes even faster than 12 weeks, we’re coming out with new releases.
In 2018, DISRUPT was born in both North America and Europe with more than 500 people from the end-user computing space in attendance. Since then, DISRUPT EUC has become a brand in its own right, and in early 2020, IGEL took DISRUPT to Nashville and Munich, with 2,000-plus attendees and more than 30 vendors, including Microsoft and Amazon, sponsoring.
Disruption has come to define the ethos of IGEL, which was founded in Bremen, Germany, in 2001. Its OS, which is a derivative of Linux, works on just about any device and therefore allows large organizations to avoid buying enormous amounts of new computers and other hardware when they need to update their systems.
Whereas some companies have sought to constantly push customers into buying new devices, IGEL’s software allows those customers to be up-to-date while keeping the same hardware. “One of the most valuable things about this OS is we can put it on old hardware,” Jed reveals.
“We can make old hardware essentially work for much longer. I just got off the phone with a giant bank in Canada – it’s saving millions of dollars by taking this really light, purpose-built, hypertuned OS and putting it on an old laptop and connecting it to its cloud-delivered solution. That is kind of antithetical to what the leaders in this space do. Their job is to keep the factory going full tilt. Part of the story for IGEL is we’re actually creating a new category.”
A beautiful partnership
Most of the demand for IGEL’s software comes from regulated industries – organizations that manage a lot of sensitive data, like medical records or bank details. Retail, health care, finance, insurance and government are the company’s key verticals.
“It’s usually places that have tens of thousands of devices, where managing all of those and securing them is very costly and complicated,” Jed says. “We can drastically reduce the complexity and the cost with an IGEL OS solution.”
IGEL is doing far more than just taking bites out of the revenue sources of industry giants. Jed sees the company as a key partner to those companies too and says it is becoming an integral part of the ecosystem.
Perhaps the best demonstration of that is the company’s partnership with Microsoft, which came about only after he built a “very robust technical business team in the US that went and started having conversations with VMware, Citrix, Microsoft and Amazon”.
At first, those efforts, like previous bids by the firm to make a mark in the US, seemed to lead nowhere. “We parked top-level executives on the doorsteps of all four of those companies. For a long time, the Microsoft conversation was really boring and not very fruitful. Virtualizing desktops was not a priority for them,” Jed says.
Then one day, the team got through to the man who was working on Windows Virtual Desktop. He saw the potential of the software and helped convince Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, to work with IGEL.
“We called up and we had a conversation with the guy who was basically building the spaceship in the barn. He had become aware of how important Linux was, and he went to Satya and said, ‘Hey, I want to build this product.’ He showed them that at least 20–25% of the endpoints that may be on the other end of this product will be Linux, and he said, ‘This is the leader in Linux. We should be working with them.’”
In 2019, Microsoft announced that IGEL OS would support Windows Virtual Desktop at Ignite, its annual gathering of tech leaders. “It was a very strange moment for me to be standing in front of 30,000 people at Ignite, on the stage with Microsoft and Coca-Cola, which was actually our first customer that deployed IGEL OS in Florida in its bottling plants,” Jed recalls.
“It’s this new era. I was looking down into the front row and you have the top executives from Citrix and VMware, and they all of a sudden see IGEL on the stage standing next to Microsoft. It felt like we had arrived.”
He believes one reason the relationship was able to happen was that “Microsoft has a very open strategy around the ecosystem”. “If IGEL and a good, functioning Linux OS on the edge will drive more consumption of this product out of Azure, they’re going to work with us.
I think they loved it because they saw that customers were getting a lot of value from IGEL, that we had a lot of intellect, that we were showing them how to make things work with Linux. So it became a very beautiful partnership – an unlikely one, but this is the new era.”
Trapped in the box
Besides the culture and team that have developed under his leadership, Jed counts IGEL’s customer outcomes among his proudest achievements so far. “We just had a deal where a customer was about to buy 12,300 brand-new devices because they couldn’t connect their devices to Citrix to run this logistics software,” he says.
“So we put our OS on there and it was able to keep those 12,300 devices, which would have ended up among the 50 million pounds of e-waste that gets thrown out every year.
“It’s funny – we go in and talk to these guys who have actually made careers out of perfecting that reflex to push new hardware at scale. You show them the product and at first I think it’s almost scary to them. But then when they go show it to their CFO and their CEO, and they realize the implications, this to me is probably the most fulfilling part of this job.”
For all his unbounded enthusiasm, Jed originally said no when IGEL phoned to offer him the role as CEO while he was on his early morning commute into Silicon Valley.
“I got a call at like four o’clock in the morning from a UK-based number. It was this guy named Simon Richards who was looking after the US for IGEL. They had been looking for a CEO to run the US operations. They had tried, unsuccessfully, about three times to come into the US.”
The company he was working for was about to be sold, and Jed was thinking about his next move. But the IGEL offer didn’t appeal to him. “I thought to myself, there’s no way I would go work for what essentially is a dumb terminal, thin-client hardware company, let alone one that isn’t even in the US. So I kind of scoffed at it. I was trying to be polite: ‘Thank you for calling me, but I don’t really think that’s what I’m looking for in terms of my next career move.’”
However, Simon convinced him to at least fly to London to have dinner with IGEL’s founder, Heiko Gloge. It was during that dinner that he realized the company’s potential. “You had this German founder who was sitting on this magnificent software IP, this Linux OS,” Jed says.
He had dismissed IGEL as a mere hardware company because it was known for selling its OS embedded in a piece of its own hardware, but it had begun converting its product into software that could work on any hardware. “It was trapped inside this little plastic box that is more or less a commodity – anyone can build a thin client,” Jed says.
The other reason the IGEL OS had yet to realize its potential was that “it was all trapped in the German language”, he adds. “Germans tend to be very technically oriented. They’re very precise and engineering- and spec-oriented, so the marketing that was available was very technical. It didn’t really describe what this beautiful piece of software could do.”
Interview with IGEL Founder Heiko Gloge
What has been your proudest moment since you founded IGEL?
There are some points in the IGEL story that were very moving, but the shooting of our film Believe: The Story of IGEL Technology made me really proud. The weeks of intensive reflection on everything that has happened at IGEL in the past 20 years really opened my eyes. So many great people, employees, customers, partners, suppliers and others have contributed to building this wonderful company. The film is thanks to everyone involved.
What do you hope to see IGEL achieve over the next 20 years?
IGEL will have to question itself again and again in the future in order to further develop our innovative strength and to take on responsibility. May our corporate values always be a good companion in shaping a sustainable future.
If you could travel back 20 years and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I wouldn’t want to change anything in the past as everything had a reason in its time. But I would stick to one guiding principle: see yourself as an employee of the company and treat yourself as you treat your employees – always with respect, honesty and appreciation.
The path to a billion
Jed is the quintessential Silicon Valley executive: brimming with optimism, passionate and apparently fearless. So when he came into a company full of staid German developers, the culture clash was immediately obvious.
In February 2020, the company held a symbolic handover ceremony as Jed took over from Heiko as global CEO. The set piece of the event involved Heiko passing Jed a flaming Olympic-style torch.
“It was this really remarkable moment where the German is passing the flaming torch to the American, and I’m trying to give these people some assurances that the crazy American isn’t going to change the company too much, that we’re going to respect a lot of the things that have made the company so successful,” Jed remembers.
As it turns out, the marriage of the two cultures has become one of IGEL’s greatest assets. “Germans are more process-oriented and want to make everything perfect while Americans are a little more like, if we get it to 80%, we’ll just get it out into the market,” he laughs.
“If you take the two together, you actually end up with something that’s quite extraordinary. But it takes underlying respect to make that actually work.” When Jed arrived at IGEL in 2016, turnover was around €60 million (US$72.9 million). By 2020, the company was on its way to hitting €200 million (US$243 million).
Innovation is the lifeblood of any software company, so having a product that’s alive and constantly evolving and innovative is a key piece of it.
“I think less than 5% of software companies ever even make it past €100 million (US$121.5 million). So we’re already kind of rare for crossing that threshold two years ago,” he tells.
If it weren’t for that momentum, which many in the company say they once would not have thought possible, then Jed’s ambition of reaching €1 billion (US$1.2 million) in sales would be easier to dismiss as overzealous.
“I think everybody needs to have an audacious goal out there. You need to have these 10 times-type goals to help people understand the opportunity that’s in front of us,” he says. To get to that goal, Jed adds, the most important thing is to get the basics right: “First of all, it comes down to people. You get the right people in the right places.
You build the right plan – this is something that I think Germans are really good at. When we set out to do something, we build very sturdy, well-thought-out plans. We measure ourselves and we iterate on those,” he explains.
“Then, obviously, it’s about the product. Innovation is the lifeblood of any software company, so having a product that’s alive and constantly evolving and innovative is a key piece of it. We have 150 developers who are pumping innovation into that OS. Every 12 weeks, and sometimes even faster than 12 weeks, we’re coming out with new releases.”
Beyond that, Jed says, it’s about mindset. “You have to have people who really believe we’re on a mission to do something that’s bigger than any one of us. And so you have people for whom this becomes a lifelong path. It’s a passion – they believe this company has a place in the history of technology, that it will come out of nowhere and surprise everyone.”