April 12, 2023

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Talking Saga, Marketing, and the Smartphone Future With OSOM's CMO on the Eve of Launch

Wolfgang W. Muller, known simply as “Wolf” by the staff, is OSOM’s CMO, a board member, and a company co-founder. When it comes to creating partnerships and selling smartphones, he has over two decades of experience in the mobile space, and few equals. He’s the rare marketer that understands not just how to sell something but what it is he’s selling, and as we gear up for tomorrow’s launch of the Solana Saga, I had the rare opportunity to pick his brain about the difficulty of commoditization in the market, the future of the smartphone space and, of course, Saga itself. 

You’re one of OSOM’s founders, Wolf, and our Chief Marketing Officer. You’ve wound a path through half the smartphone space to get here. Can you tell me about your history and how you got here? 

I’ve always been in the consumer electronics space since graduating from college. In the 2000s, I worked for a company called HTC, which we all know of. I was there for a little over ten years while they were one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world. In 2010, we actually beat Apple in terms of sales. We were one of the originals, and we even made the first Android handset: the G1.

I was part of that team and worked through many different pieces — sales, marketing, connected products, etc. Then I was asked to join Essential. I was part of the sales and marketing leadership team there as well, and worked with Jason Keats, OSOM’s CEO, who was head of R&D. We had some fun on the PH-1. 

When Essential went away, Jason approached some of us executives and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we kept this thing going?” And I said, “It sure would be. Let me know when you’re ready to do it.” When he was ready, a little after things first got started, I joined the OSOM team, put in some initial bootstrap funding as a co-founder, and the rest is history. 

You have quite a lot of experience in the space. Unlike so many career marketers and sales guys, you actually know the technology — you grok some of the technical details. At the end of the day, when you’re talking to our panthers, you know about the products and how they work, not just how to sell them. That’s a very useful and rare thing in this industry. Without giving away too many of your secrets, what’s the hardest thing about marketing a phone?

It’s such a commoditized product. When smartphones first came out, it was about the technology — who could bring features together in a way that created these watershed moments. Then it became a spec war because that’s easy marketing, comparing numbers. It’s still the spec war at certain price points and in certain markets, but we’ve topped out on what specs can and can’t say about a phone. And consumers are more sophisticated. People now know that a 48MP camera might take much worse photos than a 12MP one, and software features can’t be boiled down to numbers at all. 

The list goes on and on, but it’s so commoditized just two companies really own the market here: Samsung and Apple. (I’d put a tentative rising third in there with Google because the Pixel is coming along lately.) But there is a lot of marketing money being spent now. Every other billboard here in San Francisco is for Apple. It’s tough to compete against billion-dollar ad campaigns unless you have something truly differentiated. 

Companies like us just can’t afford to spend a billion dollars on marketing. We’ve got to be scrappy, and we’ve got to be different. A lot of smartphone companies have failed in the past because they weren’t able to differentiate themselves in a meaningful way — their only claim to fame was being another smartphone on the shelf.

At the end of the day, the biggest challenges are commoditization and the ad spend gap between you and the giants. 

In that same vein, since you’ve pretty well encapsulated the current challenges, how do you see the space changing as the market continues to evolve? What future do you see for smartphones? 

AI baby! AI. Bring it! But you have to do it right, and privacy matters more than ever there. 

So back at Essential, we were working on this project called Ambient OS. Andy had this vision of a privacy-centric AI platform. And it wasn’t just an assistant; this was more like a modern and extensible AI, a little beyond things like Siri or Alexa. Those had been around for a while at that point, and they’re good in terms of practical everyday use, but do they really get you to that next level of assistance? The movie “Her” was something we often commented on as the sort of interaction that was missing.

This is one of those rare watershed moments, and the next generation of smartphones are going to embrace AI in new ways, but privacy is an even bigger issue when it comes to AI. You’re not just trying to keep your data safe from the “old” threats, but the AI systems themselves – the software on your phone. You want the benefits of AI output, but you don’t want to be part of its input. Whoever will get AI right in a safe, pragmatic, privacy-centric way will crush it.

The only way to win now is to change the game with a big differentiator, and developing these new Privacy Centric/AI features into the system and integrating them into the platform (maybe even down to the SoC or edge compute level for an early advantage) will be huge. 

The common refrain I hear in the smartphone space is that “products don’t sell — marketing sells.” It doesn’t matter how good your product is if it’s not marketed. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how mediocre your product is if you market it hard enough. A handful of recent Apple products, like the latest base iPad and some other phones in our space, really highlight that. At the end of the day, marketing means success. 

1000%; it’s such a commoditized space. And that’s why I was so attracted to OSOM and invested so much of my own money into the company. Because we really are doing something different rather than nothing in a flashy way. We are privacy-first, and that’s something we strongly believe in — you might not think it, but our partnership with Solana is all about privacy, and the things we’re doing with them will help there. 

You need to differentiate, and we are differentiated in a meaningful way that people actually care about. We take your privacy into account first and foremost. We want as little of your data as we can get away with, and we don’t want to sell our customers to other companies as products in themselves. We really have something here, and it’s unique. 

Absolutely, and we aren’t just paying lip service to the idea of privacy as companies like Apple do. One of the things I like to champion when people ask about our privacy values is the fact that we don’t have any site analytics. I really wish we had them sometimes — I’d love to know how many people read this very interview! But we respect our customer’s privacy so much that we explicitly don’t want to track them as Apple or Samsung do. 

Exactly. The best form of marketing for any product is word of mouth, and you get that from trust. That trumps any ad spend. When people you trust are talking about something, you pay more attention to it than an advertisement. But when a market is commoditized, you don’t get that word of mouth anywhere near so much. People don’t talk about needing the latest camera, because everyone already has it — all the cameras on all the phones are good. When was the last time Apple talked about something truly unique in one of those plug and play announcements they do ten times a year? There’s nothing. 

The best form of word-of-mouth marketing right now is Tesla. I know, it’s not popular to praise Tesla these days, but Tesla spends zero dollars on marketing — nothing! But two of its four models were the top ten best-selling cars in the ENTIRE WORLD in 2022. [Laughs.] That’s beyond incredible to me! They’re one of the most valuable companies that exists on the planet. Almost no one had heard of them only a decade ago, but more people can recognize a Tesla on the road than a new Toyota or Ford. 

It’s all word of mouth, it’s all organic, it’s all incredible.

If you can deliver something as disruptive and as word-of-mouth appealing in a mobile device, it doesn’t matter how much money Apple or Samsung spend to compete; you will win. And I believe that OSOM will win. 

And our first step is coming. When this interview goes up, Saga will be launching the very next day. Are you excited?

Beyond excited. It’s been such a journey to get here and a lot of hard work from the team, Jason, the software and hardware engineering teams, our partners, and investors that have believed in us. It’s amazing to see how far things have come from a conversation in a cafeteria booth when Essential was closing, through a Series A raise, and now a product launch with Solana, a top-three blockchain partner. 

One last question — and I ask everyone this one. We’ve been “dogfooding” Saga internally, including you, for a while now. Many marketers don’t take the time to get to know the product that well. Using it as long as you have, what’s your favorite feature? 

That’s a great question. Our engineers are known for their design. That’s what Dave Evans brings us. You see some nods and whispers to the PH-1 here, which I truly love. Evolving off of that is beautiful. Everything from the shape, the ceramic, the stainless steel — it’s all gorgeous. The titanium camera bump, the fingerprint sensor on the back. Actually, and this will sound funny, but that might be my favorite feature. 

After Essential, I tried everything in Android: Pixels, Galaxy S phones, OnePlus. But having a fingerprint sensor on the back where it belongs is so nice. I don’t understand why more companies don’t keep it. It’s more secure, it’s faster, it’s more reliable, it’s more intuitive, and so much easier to use.

Yes, I love the dApp Store, the privacy features, Seed Vault, the materials. But hands down, for me: The fingerprint sensor. You touch it a hundred times a day, and it saves so much time. I love it. 

Time saved is time you can spend on something else, and there’s a lot for us to do here. Good thing for Saga, huh? Thanks for telling it like it is, Wolf. 

You know it, brother!