Jon Mills: The Man Behind Motionloft Sitting on a concrete slab bench just outside the office of Motionloft in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a discouragingly bleak economy could produce such young, hopeful entrepreneurs. In a city so full of life and creativity, an arduous recession is not enough to stifle the flow of ideas and innovations. Perhaps we’re in our own little bubble here in the Silicon Valley, but it is impressing to see how rapidly these ideas are developing and businesses are growing. It wasn’t until a butt naked old man sporting a trendy sailor cap casually cruised by on his bicycle, that I fully grasped San Francisco’s truly colorful com-
ination of character and vitality. Maybe I was over analyzing the importance of this random nude bicyclist, but it seemed to me that he showcased the city’s fearlessly fervent approach towards innovation. The moment I met Jon Mills, what stood out to me was the tremendous drive and passion he had for his work. He’s interested in something called ‘real world analytics,’ which is the core of what Motionloft does. The company produces small fiveby-five inch nondescript sensors that can track data in real time. The possibilities are endless for the uses of Motionloft’s valuable data. The device could be helpful to restau-
rants hoping to maximize profits during peak hours and could even go as far as keeping track of people in the event of a natural disaster. Up until now, there has been no definitive way to know exactly how many people and vehicles are passing through at any given moment. The fact that we can actually put a number on that from these sensors being put in various locations of major cities is what makes Motionloft such a cutting-edge company. Behind every great idea, there’s the person whose ambition and initiative made it all happen. Jon is the driving force behind the company’s growing success and is
determined to continue to grow and expand the business. He’s truly fascinated by numbers and how this data can be used to give a new insight about the way people move in different cities. Motionloft already
has sensors up in Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Miami, New York, and San Francisco, but they hope other cities are added soon so they can start analyzing the numbers: “So far we’ve seen some crazy things from our data that I don’t think anyone has actually known before” (Mills). Upon our first meeting, I had no clue what to expect. He was Jon Mills, CEO of Motionloft, and that was enough to make for a frantic car ride up to San Francisco. I stood outside the glass doors of 550 15th street, struggling to hold on to numerous cameras and lighting equipment while anxiously awaiting the descending elevator. Out came Jon, your average young techie looking guy wearing dark blue jeans and a gray zip-up, reminiscent of the familiar Silicon Valley “googlites” here in Mountain View. Definitely not the image most people would visualize as a CEO of an up and coming startup company. I was greeted with a friendly stubbled smile as I awkwardly reached out to shake
with the wrong hand. We entered a spacious building with desktops of computers at every corner and boxes filled with top secret software parts. Despite the fancy Macs and high tech equipment, this was not
your run of the mill workplace. It looked more like a chill out space decked out with artsy posters and a flat screen T.V. “Oh we’re just hangin’ out,” Jon said when I asked what he was up to. Sure enough, I could hear Chris Rock stand-up emanating in the next room with Jon’s friends kicked back on the couch, red plastic cups scattered on the coffee table as evidence of the night before. Jon takes pride in the fact that his team can be both laid back and
productive: “It’s great to be excited about [the job] but you really have to dig your head in. Most of our people wear headphones like half the day because they’re working and concentrating on something so hard that once 6 o’clock comes around, everyone’s relieved that they got that much done” (Mills). There’s something to be said about the way Jon chooses to organize his business. Being CEO, he doesn’t think of himself as being in charge of everyone: “I think of the people here as more of a team then a leadership, we don’t really have a big hierarchy...we try to keep it pretty flat, it keeps everyone working together and moving forward instead of politics becoming the main problem” (Mills). This style of business management isn’t new to the Bay Area, but it is certainly an unexplored approach for many businesses in other parts of the country. Jon feels that the best way to build a strong team is to actually be a part of it himself. He isn’t in some separate office away from the rest of the team. He literally sits side by side with them, making himself completely open to any ideas as well as some occasional light hearted joking around. In a world where it’s typical for employees to never even see the CEO they’re working for, much less
pass ideas through them, it’s interesting to observe Jon’s unique framework. Everyone has their own idea of how a business should be run, but this casual approach is becoming increasingly popular in companies like Motionloft that strive for creativity and innovation at its fullest extent. “People feel more comfortable in opening up about ideas that they have, and they’re more energetic in the way that they think. They think outside the box if they’re not told to conform in some way” (Mills). The struggle to keep the balance between having fun and taking work seriously is something Jon has to deal with when recruiting new members. Its true that people in a more laid back environment tend to not take things as seriously as they should, “But that’s not all that bad,” Jon says, “we can fix that with a couple strongly worded e-mails.” Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Jon always felt so limited in what he could do. He claimed you were either too young to be taken seriously or no one understood what you were really trying to do. He hopes this lack of advanced technological activity will eventually change for small towns like the one he grew up in, but is completely content
with how his journey forward has brought him where he is today: “It takes an atmosphere like San Francisco to kinda be motivated everyday, to know that you’re working on something that everybody else believes in just as much as you do” (Mills). In elementary school, Jon was not like other kids his age. He was intrigued by the world of business, eager to learn about the dynamics and technicality of the economy. Jon distinctly remembers doing a stock market report in second grade, “I was the biggest nerd ever...I was learning to trade stock at like 8 years old” (Mills) When every other kid was preoccupied with
Legos and video games, Jon was immersed in the world of business and technology. In high school, he found a strong connection with his computer teacher. She encouraged him to pursue his real interests and not be afraid to let them show, regardless of what other students may think. Jon remembers his name always being called on the intercom between classes to “report to the computer room immediately” and having to help fix any computer problems. He even recalls a picture in his yearbook which shows him smiling next to a computer and inserting a CD that reads ‘Jon to the Rescue.’ He wouldn’t describe himself as one of the popular kids, but jokingly admits that with a small class of fifty students, there wasn’t much popularity to go around. Jon believes his father is the driving force behind his life and accomplishments. He remembers his dad suddenly becoming very ill and having to stay home everyday as a result. He painstakingly recounts his father’s harmful habits; heavy smoking, drinking, and working more than 40 hours per week. It was inevitable that his deteriorating health would eventually catch up to his fast paced lifestyle. Before Jon’s
dad became ill, he bought and sold businesses. Hence Jon’s early introduction to enterprising. His biggest inspiration for leaving Ohio and moving forward with his interests was the fact that his father had always had a dream for him to not be stuck in Ohio. He wanted the best for Jon and knew that it wouldn’t happen if he stayed behind. The influence of Jon’s father is apparent in his boldness in taking risks with his business. Many people think their ideas all the way through to failure, but Jon trusts his judgment enough to take chances and not give up too easily. “You’re not a failure until you stop,” he says. The meaningful words and advice from his dad still resonate with him to this day. Whether he’s in meetings with future clients or talking to new potential members of the team, he always keeps his father at heart in his decisions. As the Motionloft team gradually expands its network of sensors and develops new, more sophisticated software, the possibilities are endless for how their data can be used. Jon feels the future of his company holds a tremendous amount of potential, “Our data will make people rich, save lives, and disrupt everything” (Mills). Motionloft is disruptive innovation at its finest and fortunately, their efforts will not go unnoticed. Recently, Mayor Ed Lee declared October 2012 as Innovation Month in San Francisco. October Innovation Month celebrates San Francisco as the “Innovation Capital of the World” which boasts a pretty major title. “It’s a reflection of our commitment,” Lee said in an interview with The Chronicle, noting that 1,600 tech companies have added 3,200 jobs in the city this year. “We want these companies to stay and grow here, and we’re doing everything we can to ensure that” (Temple).
In addition, the mayor will soon be like natural disasters alter difannouncing their partnership with ferent cities in different ways. Motionloft, a milestone which Jon What Jon has accomplished is what
and the whole team eagerly await. Not only does this event give them much needed recognition, but it also adds a lot of credibility to their work. Talking to someone like Jon is a motivating experience. The excitement in his eyes and the enthusiasm in his voice when he talks about Motionloft distinguish him as someone who truly loves his work and lives to keep moving forward with it. He wants to be able to accomplish what no one has ever done before and with every new set of data that comes in, he’s excited to see how it can be used. “It’s like in the movie Twister when they put the sensors up in the tornado and they’re freaking out because there’s all this new data coming in, it’s probably unrealistic and stupid, but when I saw that movie I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the feeling I want to have someday’” (Mills). Despite the fact that Jon and his team haven’t quite reached the status of storm chasers, who’s to say they aren’t on their way? Although they’re currently limited to examining how big events or festivals affect a city, Jon is confident that they will soon be able to analyze how things
thousands of other tech start-ups aim for. Collectively, these technologists and entrepreneurs make up the collaborative environment that is the Bay Area. It is time for places outside the Silicon Valley’s innovation hub to start embracing the tech industry’s potential to drive positive change in the local government and community. Step by step, we’re moving past this seemingly harsh economy towards something better, and it’s beginning with people like Jon who simply love what they do, “Being able to see that data coming in and saying that no one has ever seen this before, that’s the way I want to feel about something I do, and I’m there now. It’s a feeling I have every single day” (Mills).