10 Questions: Ben Jacobs, CEO and co-founder, WhistleFebruary 19, 2014: 8:00 AM ET
On wearable technology, alternative education and mastering the downward dog pose.
FORTUNE -- Ben Jacobs, 27, grew up in Los Angeles in a family that loved dogs. When he was younger, his German shepherd, Bear, died suddenly at just five years old. The loss that stuck with him, motivating him as an adult to launch the pet health startup Whistle.
It wasn't originally in the plan. Jacobs holds two degrees from Yale University, where he majored in East Asian studies with a focus on China. After living in Beijing for a couple of years -- part of his time there was during the 2008 Olympics -- he worked in consulting and for venture firms. Eventually, he decided to start his own company.
Whistle, which Jacobs founded with Kevin Lloyd and Steven Eidelman in San Francisco, sells a device that attaches to dog collars and tracks the pet's activity throughout the day. The data is transmitted to the dog's owner, who can use the information to tell whether there are any changes in a pet's energy levels and helps them detect any potential problems. The company has assembled a veterinary board of directors to advise it further.
He spoke with Fortune.
1. Which companies do you admire? Why?
Amazon, Apple, and Nest, which is now Google. At our startup, we think about how we provide a magical experience across both hardware and software, and those three are great ones to aspire to. They never let design take a backseat to function.
2. Which technology sector excites you most?
Hardware. I think what's going on in hardware and a lot of what's being covered right now is consumer, and that's obviously very important because that's where Whistle lives. The amount of data you can collect now is truly groundbreaking. Whistle is part of a macro trend of connecting all of the really important emotional aspects of your life into your phone. Whistle is the place where your dog lives on your phone and when you think about companies that focus on monitoring, they're bringing important parts of your life into a digital realm that even two or three years ago wasn't possible.
3. What is the best advice you ever received?
Always be learning. I received that from a number of our investors and advisors, all of whom I respect quite a bit. I just read an article [that said] the best CEOs are learning machines, and I think that's a really important thing. If you're not learning constantly from your team or other partners and investors outside of the company, then you're ultimately going to be slowing down both your progress and the progress of the company.
4. What has been your biggest failure?
When I was at Yale, my friend and I entered into a Yale entrepreneurial competition, and we totally failed. It was a Warby Parker-type company in clothing, and our business plan overall got something like 33 out of 100. So it was a bad outcome for us, but it was a learning experience, and he and I have both stuck with [being entrepreneurs].
5. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I went to a pretty unique high school called Crossroads in L.A. It's very focused on not only academic learning and core curriculum but also on interpersonal skills. So senior year we had a class on mediation, and that definitely stuck with me more so than any class I took at Yale. It focused not only on understanding your own position in a conversation or negotiation but also that of the other party.
6. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I would love to keep working with this extraordinary team. The goal of Whistle is to create not just one product but an entirely new data set and products and services that today don't exist. Pets are so important. There are 80 million dogs -- more dogs than kids -- in the U.S., and so if we can effectively help strengthen the connection between owners and pets in bringing this category to life, then I will be very, very happy.
7. What do you do to live a balanced life?
I do a lot of yoga. It's key to balance, both physically and mentally. I play basketball and volleyball. I surf and travel when I have the time. I like to go anywhere there are waves.
8. What was the last book you read?
I just finished a book by Chuck Klosterman, his latest nonfiction called I Wear the Black Hat. It was about villains both in history and pop culture, but it's really more about how perception and narratives evolve over time. It was a very interesting read, and I think he's a great writer.
9. What was your first job?
I was a surfing instructor. It's still a job that's tough to beat. I taught surfing when I was 14 to 17 every summer in L.A. First I started working through Quiksilver; they sponsored surf camps across the country because basically it was a way for them to get more gear into students' and teachers' hands. But eventually when you already own a couple of boards, you start teaching by the hour, so I ended up doing that as well.
10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?
Within yoga, I've picked up Bikram yoga. It still fascinates me that I voluntarily go into a room for an hour and a half and it's 110 degrees. So it's certainly quirky for anyone who hasn't done it before. But it's an incredible balance of physical and mental relaxation.
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