Why diners are the most important places on earth: Jeff Pulver’s day in the life

Without Jeff Pulver there’d arguably be no Skype, Snapchat or Facetime. Without the Pulver Order anyway. In 2004 Jeff was the chief writer of the Pulver Order, a US ruling that meant internet voice communications (VoIP) would not be subject to strict telecoms regulations.
Ever since a childhood spent speaking to people all over the world on his amateur radio, Jeff has loved to communicate. While working on Wall Street in the mid-90s, he founded VoIP startup Free World Dialup before losing his job. More successful startups followed – Zula; Vonage – and he’s now set to run a set of conferences across the US called How we Communicate.

I start my days by checking Instagram. I actually check Instagram before I check email. I find it pleasant to start my day with an image that makes me smile and brings light. I think I was catching up on Instagram between 5.30am and 6am this morning.

Not only do I share moments, but when I can I try to engage in conversation. I think that it’s about listening, connecting, sharing and engaging, regardless of the medium that we’re on. At any moment of time, I always have open loops of channels. I’m constantly trying to check if I let the ball drop somewhere.

Finding amazing new people to communicate with

When I go through my emails, a lot of them are from people I don’t know looking for my time. So I try to figure out who seems genuine and real – who’s not just cutting and pasting, but who’s actually trying to embrace and start a conversation. If people are bold enough to reach out and ask questions that I can respond to in the spur of the moment, I connect with them sometimes.

Every once and awhile, I meet amazing people.

I get pinged on a regular basis by startups that either I’ve invested in in the past or those that are looking for money now. I tend to find I rather work with people who appreciate that time is sometimes more valuable than just money to invest.

My Dad, Howard, used to have this phrase I loved, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is no.’ Don’t assume that someone doesn’t want to deal with you before you even speak to them. My Dad taught me so much by just doing certain things.

He taught me that you have to put yourself in the moment if you want to have a chance to be in that moment. If you walk out that door tomorrow, you could put yourself in luck’s way, harm’s way or no way. Say you want to do business in Silicon Valley: well, it’s much likelier you’ll do business there if you actually go there rather than just stay inside and insulate yourself.

Tuning into amateur radio for the first time

It was my Dad who really got me into amateur radio as a kid. I remember him taking me to my uncle Fred’s office. Fred gave me a demonstration, and I saw that amateur radio was a cure for my loneliness. You can feel lonely in crowds; you can feel lonely when you’re with someone; when you’re by yourself, and there are different degrees of loneliness.

Sometimes you’re lonely because you don’t fit in, or you think you don’t fit in. Sometimes you’re lonely because you have a voice and you want to be heard.

With the radio, it wasn’t like I took on a personality that wasn’t me, but it gave me a chance to always find a friend. It gave me the chance to have conversations, even if it was just a, ‘Hello, how are you?’ It was the acknowledgement of existence; the acknowledgement that you matter.

Jeff is based in Great Neck, New York

Amateur radio gave me a chance to grow up and a chance to become myself. Later, it was my childhood dedication to amateur radio that gave me the ability to see what VoIP could do.

Free World Dialup happened because of one simple question.

I was managing a mailing list at Cantor Fitzgerald on Wall Street when someone asked: ‘Is it possible to interconnect a telephone and a computer?’ There was a flashback in my mind.

It brought me back to the days when I used to use phone patches, where I would connect my radio to a telephone. I realised I could do that with a computer.

I was finding corporate life challenging. I wasn’t having fun, and I needed a place to communicate. So some of the very same factors that drove me to ham radio drove me to VoIP.

I lost my job at Cantor soon after. I had never been fired. It took me a long time to really feel the impact of ‘what do I do now?’ I’d never considered the possibility of not having something to do. But I had absolute faith and confidence in myself, and I didn’t start looking for another day job. I just decided to follow up on what I believed in, so I started running conferences.

You gotta know when to hold ‘em

For the first year and a half of running that business, it was very much like being in a casino, and always putting everything down and hoping that my colour came in. I was betting everything, every time.

It took about three events in a row in order to have enough cash for working capital to run the company because I had no investors. The only investor was me.

I was constantly reinvesting time and money over and over again and slowly building a team and bringing people together that, in some cases, stayed together for a very long time.

I’m very happy it worked out the way it did.

Jeff tells Web Summit’s Code Stage audience to “remember to breathe” – nothing’s more important

I used to have a large staff. For years I did. These days I’m basically my own boss. The Great Neck Diner on Long Island is where I do most of my meetings.

I like to try to go to the gym at least twice if not three times a week. Once I’m done there, I’ll think about who I’m meeting that day and what’s the best way to connect with them.

“For a very long time, I’ve found that some of my most meaningful meetings happen in diners.”

I like to keep it casual and have a warm conversation.

When I can actually reflect back, what I do miss sometimes is the engagement of a big team. There are times when I need another person next to me to bounce ideas off and to help me see things I can’t see on my own.

These days when I get back home from a day of meetings, I may have the TV on in the background, just to have it on. But I wouldn’t focus on it.

My Instagram processes might be running in the background, too. I might be thinking, ‘What can I share right now?’ There are days I’m so damn busy I have no choice other than to share a moment from the past, or share a message just to try to help others.

Not every day can be a great day. I get that; I understand that. Sometimes it can just be overwhelming and overloading.

There are other times when things just work out.

The constellations are some of Jeff’s favourite subjects

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