From Startups to Tesla: Engineer and Entrepreneur Tom Jensen Talks Leadership

4 days ago by Sam Holland

After heading up three separate startups, Tom Jensen witnessed Tesla's Model S launch after taking on a senior management role in the company's test infrastructure team. Through it all, he learned that the best startups and teams benefit from a great leader.

When Tom Jensen was 10 years old, he spent his afternoons hooking batteries and switches together. Before he was 12, he devoted hours to tinkering with amateur radios, building transmitters and antennas, and communicating with people across the globe. As an eighth-grader, he had already found his community: a circle of friends and acquaintances who were equally as fascinated by electronics as he was. During high school, he built a pulsed ruby laser using parts donated by a mentor at Stanford University.

Jensen carried his passion for electronics into his college career after graduating from high school in the ’70s, working his way through college at San Jose State, and eventually attending the University of Georgia for his undergrad degree in computer science. He then went to work as a senior hardware engineer for Metaphor Computer Systems and eventually moved on to work as a product development engineer and senior engineer for IDEO and Hewlett Packard respectively.

But, what had always ignited his ambition was a passion for start-ups. Jensen co-founded Sports Instruments in 1995 and worked as the company’s vice president of product development for two years, launching health-conscious products like heart-rate monitor watches and bicycle computers, before founding Tom Jensen Design in 1997, where he managed smart product design and worldwide manufacturing for seven years. In February of 2004, he founded PakSense, a smart label development company that he helped lead for years.

It was in those skeleton crews and tight-knit teams that he fostered his talent for leadership and learned just how many hurdles there are in business ownership, all of which helped secure him a role in senior management at Tesla Motors in 2011 for their powertrain firmware validation and test infrastructure team, right before the Model S launched.

The Engineers’ Tribune was recently able to talk with Jensen about his excitement for start-ups and what led him to his time at Tesla, as well as where his passion for electronics will lead him in the coming years.

Jensen at Tesla's Model S launch day in 2012. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

Electronics Point: Throughout your time at these three startups, what was the most difficult task you had to take on?

Tom Jensen: I would say it was launching and growing the company PakSense that was sold in 2016. It began in 2002 with myself and a couple other people talking about the feasibility of the product—that was one early form of what became the PakSense product line.

I was in a position to build prototypes in my basement lab and demonstrate this technology. Basically, it was a smart label. It could go on perishable products that were being transported. I demonstrated the label to the industry, and I was met with a great response, so I founded the company.

The company sold in 2016 to Emerson Electric after a succession of several CEOs. There was ongoing turmoil involving the leadership of the company. I would say that the most difficult aspect was trying to keep the company headed in the right direction and to grow it. I actually left the company as an employee in 2011, five years before it was acquired, to join Tesla Motors.

There’s a lot involved in what led me to ultimately leave my own company, but I did remain on the board until it was sold. It was a challenging company; as it grew, it had quite a difficult teenage phase. It finally matured enough to be viable for acquisition. It was 13 years of toil for me, but it was fruitful in the end.

Jensen's basement lab bench, where many products were developed and where the company PakSense was born. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: That was your third start-up, correct? Tell me a little about your first two start-ups and how they prepared you to found PakSense.

TJ: That’s right. The second start-up was my own design consultancy where I was involved in product design. I had a group of techs and engineers and outside service providers that I worked with in other design houses, and we did smart product design.

Before that, I founded a company with another fellow called Sports Instruments, and that was all about heart rate monitors, altimeters, and cycling computers. I got into smartwatch design primarily because I had an idea for a watchband that could read heart rates from the radial artery on the wrist. That was a long R&D effort, but it was ultimately unsuccessful as a product because it took too much battery life.

In the day, a lot of power was drained, and you couldn’t fit a big enough a battery on a wristwatch. Nowadays, it’s feasible, and it’s actually on the market from companies like Garmin, Apple, and Fitbit. That was in ’95. We were a little bit early.

We did, however, make a bunch of other heart rate monitors. We did the first digital transmission chest band. They were all analogue circuits until then. We went to a digitally encoded format so that multiple people could be in a gym, in a training room, or in a peloton on cycles and not interfere with each other’s transmissions.

Anyway, that company was fun. Sports Instruments was a great little company, and I got to travel to a lot of interesting trade-shows and sporting events to promote the products.

Part of the powertrain team at Tesla, in 2011, prior to the Model S launch. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: You’ve mentioned that the most difficult aspect of entrepreneurship has been people management. What do you think that you’ve learned about taking on both an engineering and leadership role at the same time?

TJ: I did a lot of reading about startup companies over the years, and as I look back on the particular set of management challenges, I realize that there are hard knocks that most startups go through.

Sometimes you have to get hurt—a little bit like going steady and getting dumped. You have to really get to know the people that you’re going to be spending a lot of time with. If you don’t have a team in the first place, it’s an uphill challenge because you’re going to hire strangers to come in and help, and you really don’t know them. That’s the most difficult aspect.

In the early stage, you actually want to build a team for free. Nobody is getting paid by anybody, and you’re all excited to build a prototype or develop the first software for something. That’s going to make the thing go. You have an idea, and you need to demonstrate it. Having that team together early before you go raise the first dollar and pay the first paycheck is a powerful thing to do.

A prototype Model S dashboard and infotainment system under test. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: What advice would you give to other engineers who are wanting to develop that prototype, but they don’t have a team in place yet?

TJ: You have to be really creative about the relationships you have. Some people are going to want to come in and work for equity. Be prepared to not be greedy and cut them at least a memorandum of understanding—or provide part money, part stock, or all stock. Be willing to create a pool of stock for your new team and use it to incentivize them.

They have to have a stake, or they’re not going to stick around—that’s a critical thing. It takes not being greedy to let loose of some stock in the early stages. A general guideline is that 20-25% of the total stock pool will be in the hands of the employees and other people that are helpful to the company, such as advisors and directors.

EP: Before jumping into the fray of entrepreneurship, what is the most important thing for an engineer to learn?

TJ: As a person who was concerned primarily with the technology side of things for many years, getting into business development, trade show preparation, and providing web information is vital. Putting the marketing spin on what you’re trying to move on the market, whatever it is you’re trying to promote, is a crucial skill set to develop.

I got to do a lot of that. The first startup was fantastic. I got to go to trade shows and develop the booth itself and talk to many, many people who were interested—and then follow up with them.  It was lots of socializing, and it was actually really fun for me. It was rewarding because the results came, and we sold a lot of products around those efforts.

I also went to meetings and presenting with a salesperson. We were a tag team that came up often with a great solution to their needs. They got all excited and said, “Let’s do this!” We’d walk out of the meeting bumping high fives and feeling great. It’s a very fun aspect of being in a scrappy startup.

A powertrain component test, circa 2012. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: What advice would you give a designer who has a prototype in mind, but isn’t sure where to start?

TJ: Nowadays, the DIY scene is fantastic. All kinds of kits are out there for building anything you need. There’s a big community that can help round out your early ideas. There’s also online coursework for polishing up on some new development kit or a language that you’re not yet proficient in, such as DSPs, C++ and Java languages, etc. There’s so much information out there that people can really easily ratchet themselves up to the abilities that they need.

Then, as far as building your own hardware, again, there are so many services where people will turnkey circuit board assemblies and such for you. If you’re not an engineer, or if you’re more like a technician, you can hire engineers to answer questions or just go read blogs. Call the Texas Instruments or NXP field engineers, for example; they’re willing to talk with you. It’s just being scrappy and tapping the information that’s free.

Infotainment component testing in 2012. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: Tell me a little more about your time at Tesla and what you think your greatest accomplishment was there.

TJ: I think it was more of an overall accomplishment, and that was my team that put together many new test systems, scores of systems that were actual incarnations of hardware running software that were used all around in development of the cars—and the software for the cars which was revised very, very often.

Every time it was revised, it had to be fully retested. The stuff that we built was used to test powertrain, the central gateway, and all of the signals that were travelling around the car. We were generating the test signals and looking for acknowledgement signals. Basically, the car has data buses going from unit to unit all around the car. They send packets that are broadcast, and the recipient is smart enough to know if it’s for him or not.

Now, when I say him, it means, for example, the charge controller can send messages to the battery management system. The drive unit will not respond but it will still hear all the messages, too. That’s how the car transmits messages. The motor sends messages about 1,000 times per second. This is all to say it was very complicated, so the testers had to do a lot.

It was really cool. I felt like it was a big accomplishment because we started out with practically no testers, and by the time I left there were many, many testers. They’re constantly in critical use for each software build.

Some of the first Model S cars in development. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: What did your leadership positions at your start-ups teach you so that you could take on this impressive position at Tesla?

TJ: I guess I have this trusting management style. I used agile methodologies, combined with Kanban. There were hybrids of those methodologies, along with different other tools for various teams that we applied at Tesla as well. I was able to get a lot done in a somewhat loose way because I trusted the people below me to be faithful to the tasks.

There were many skilled people on my team, so a lot of things did get done without me micro-managing. It was not even possible to micro-manage because there was so much going on in some of the areas that you couldn’t possibly manage it all.

My team started with seven, and it grew to about 33. At Tesla, innovation happens fast, and we had to keep adapting to the changes in the car—all the test results had to change. That was a scramble all the time. We used to describe it as trying to catch the train, but it’s already leaving the station. You run, but it’s getting faster—that’s how it always felt to keep up with the pace there.

It was pretty incredible—an amazing experience overall. It’s almost like I stepped out of a dream or stepped off a merry-go-round when I left. There’s an old adage about hiring people smarter than you. That is for sure the key. I had a great, smart team, and that enabled all of us to get a lot more done. The communication was easier; you didn’t have to hold their hands, you gave them a task, and they would complete it.

Tesla's Model S launch day in 2012. Image courtesy of Tom Jensen.

EP: After that exciting whirlwind, what are you up to now?

TJ: Right now I’m semi-retired, but it’s a very active semi-retired. I do a lot of outdoor activities and have been travelling more with my wife.

I also have my toe in the technology side of things. I’m working on a potential startup, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time just getting things together and working on that. We’re not really ready to get to the seed stage yet, but it’s not super time-critical because it is really unique. I don’t foresee other people doing it before I do.

EP: Is there anything else you want to add, perhaps something you’d like to say to aspiring engineers or their family members?

TJ: For anybody who has young children, feed their curiosities and buy them do-it-yourself kits. Let them get working on their passions because it can really inspire them to go into a field they love—and have a head start.

Thank you, Tom, for letting us get to know your story a little bit better! We, at the Electronics Point, are excited to see what the future holds for you and your next step in the start-up world.