The Unassuming Optimizer – The Beginnings of SureCall, Part 1 of 3

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The Decision to Move, the Decision to Leave.

To be in the same room with Hongtao Zhan without knowing his span of experience or the reach of his influence, you would feel quite at ease next to his modest stature and unassuming presence. However, I do have the privilege of knowing how smart and influential he is, so getting the opportunity to sit down with him left me with both palms sweaty and my belly full of butterflies. Hong (as he is known by coworkers and colleagues) is the CEO of SureCall, the innovation leader in cellular signal boosters making mobile connectivity more consistent and accessible than ever.

With all great stories, there is a hero, a quest, a tragedy and a victory. This one is no different. Hong’s story began in his native country of China. Before he came to America, Hong was a teenager attending one of the best schools in the country. After finishing his Master of Science in electrical engineering, Hong decided he wanted to leave China and pursue his Ph.D. in America. In reality, he wanted to pursue an honest living, following a destiny of his choosing.

Hong arrived in the US with $400 in his pocket and the hope that this new home would foster his dreams. When asked what the biggest challenge was coming to America, he said, “Compared to China, everything was a piece of cake. When you start from the bottom of the bottom, you can only go up.”

One of the biggest culture shocks Hong experienced was simply the amount of stuff people had. For instance, when Hong was attending school in China, he was proud of his transportation to and from school on a bicycle his parents bought for him. By today’s standards, the bike would have only cost about $20, but for Hong and his family, it wasn’t easy to obtain. In stark contrast, at his school campus in the States, Hong saw college students in their own cars, scooters, and bikes that would have put his to shame. This was the dream – not cars, but possibility. Although Hong had his own plans for college, opportunity found him a little earlier than he had expected.

In 1997, Hong was two years into his Ph.D. For those unaware, this was the first year of the “Dot-com Bubble.” Hong was recruited to a company where he helped design high-speed data transfer circuitry. He actually began his career designing hardware that was much more complicated in its nature than signal boosters. He was doing what he loved, exploring new ways to make things work.  Having moved to Silicon Valley, Hong felt at home – he felt like he had arrived.  Hong recalls, “I wasn’t born here, but this was my destiny.”

Two years later in 1999, the company Hong was working for sold, making him a millionaire by the time he was 32. Hong sold his stock shortly after the Dot-com Bubble started to burst in 2000, leaving him largely unscathed by the economic crisis. Driven by a desire for accomplishment, he focused on optimizing technology, thus were the beginnings of SureCall in 2001, then called Cellphone-Mate.

With Bill Gates, the internet, and Gates’ fascination with broadband DSL at the time, Hong felt the future of the internet was mobility. Hong began designing and creating a prototype and filed a patent application. The invention is conceptually similar to the modern day femtocell, but designed to enhance more than a single carrier’s signal. He finished his first prototype, but in between the process of obtaining a patent and trying to get funding, Hong was running out of money. With this turn of events, Hong’s journey toward success would look much different than he expected.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on the founding of SureCall.

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