Jim Xiao learned about building enterprise platforms at Microsoft China. An executive role at a wireless company taught him about manufacturing Android devices. And he saw how hardware wasn’t catching up to software during a 4.5-year stint with Dan Gilbert’s venture capital firm.
All three experiences led Xiao to what is arguably his most exciting adventure yet: leading Seattle startup Mason, which has quietly grown into a fledgling “mobile infrastructure as a service” company that just raised a $25 million investment round.
Coute Management, which just raised a $700 million fund, led the Series A round. GGV Capital also participated, along with Base10.
Mason sells a custom-built mobile hardware and software turn-key solution to pharmaceutical companies, restaurants, and various other customers who can customize their own devices, operating systems, apps, and related services.
The company originally launched out of Detroit in 2015 and graduated from YCombinator in 2016. It relocated to Seattle and has since done work for two publicly-traded companies, four different hospitals, LeBron James’ favorite fitness equipment maker, and several other clients. The use cases vary from helping input a patient’s medical information to ordering food from a kiosk. Its hardware offerings range from wearables to 55-inch touchscreens.
“We’ve been able to take baby steps in our first few years,” Xiao told GeekWire. “Now we’re getting ready to run.”
Xiao, a University of Washington grad, said companies have two options when deciding to build smart products. They can use off-the-shelf tablets from manufacturers that offer limited customization. Or they can try to build something themselves, which can be a risky and error-prone process.
That’s where Mason comes in, taking an idea into proof-of-concept in as little as 48 hours. Speed and flexibility are key advantages for the startup.
Xiao pointed to companies including Peloton, Square, Samsara, and Ring as examples of big businesses built on a “software experience delivered in a very dedicated and controlled hardware vehicle.” He sees the trend continuing for other companies, with the help of a partner such as Mason.
Much like Amazon Web Services has provided the necessary infrastructure for Netflix, Airbnb, Zillow, and countless others, Xiao sees Mason doing something similar for the next generation of tech giants.
“What’s really interesting about Mason is we’re not so much about reinventing the wheel, but creating chariots that will help win the race,” he said.
The company makes money off recurring fees from running device ecosystems and lets customers buy or rent hardware. It saw 6X revenue growth last year and is on pace to crack 8-figure revenue in 2019. The company was profitable last year.
Here’s more about Mason’s philosophy, from a blog post written by Xiao last year:
“If we can wrap hardware around software like how an Iron Man suit fits over Tony Stark, then there can be a hero solution to any problem, ordinary or extraordinary. And that’s what we’ve done at Mason — build a Jarvis-like platform that can deploy mobile Infrastructure as a Service (much like Amazon’s servers as a service 15 years ago) so that a single developer can build an entire Android ecosystem in under two days.
We envision a new world where software can be concocted up as fast as a cocktail and deployed over-the-air faster than you can down a shot of whiskey. Take that for punch drunk love. We plan to make every smart piece of hardware a simple abstraction of what a bit of software needs to solve the real world problems we face in society’s vanity mirror: insufficient healthcare, under-utilized capital assets, retail over consumption, inefficient logistics, unadaptive education, non-sustainable food and housing and more. “
Arielle Zuckerberg, partner at Coatue Ventures and sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, noted that building integrated hardware and software products is “incredibly complex.”
“Businesses can save the time and cost of building, deploying and managing smart hardware while reaping the benefits of capturing data and addressing customer pain points in unprecedented ways,” she said in a statement.
Mason has grown from nine employees at the end of last year to 24 people today, with plans to double headcount. This past May it made a key hire, bringing on Steve Kondik as principal software engineer. Kondik previously co-founded Cyanogen, the Android operating system startup that raised $110 million before shutting down in 2017.
Mason will use the fresh cash to expand its hardware portfolio, expedite its product innovation process, and hire more employees.
“We have a long track record of backing innovation across the enterprise and we’re betting on Mason to be as transformative to smart product innovation as cloud infrastructure was to software development,” Hans Tung, Managing Partner at GGV Capital, said in a statement.
Zuckerberg and her colleague Thomas Laffont joined Mason’s board as a result of the funding. Other backers include Twitch co-founders Justin Kan and Emmett Shear; Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen; and Lookout co-founder Kevin Mahaffey.