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Bob Plaschke, CEO, Sonim Technologies

Bob PlaschkeBob Plaschke's timing has been spot on during the last five years.

He was CFO and vice president of business development at e-commerce tool maker Prio when it was sold to InfoSpace at the height of the Internet bubble.

He stayed a year at InfoSpace, but wouldn't move his family from the Bay Area to Seattle, so his friends convinced him to take a job as entrepreneur-in-residence at Sutter Hill Ventures. There he learned the venture business and got a broad perspective of the wireless industry.

And even though the Silicon Valley economy was still recovering, he left the VC business to join Sonim Technologies in 2002. He started as CFO and chief of marketing (an admittedly odd pairing) at the wireless VoIP and push-to-talk specialist and ascended to CEO last year.

During his Sonim tenure, the company has forged partnerships with Ericsson and Nortel, purchased a software development firm in India and positioned itself to take advantage of industry trends. Plaschke recently spoke to internetnews.com about the opportunities.

Q: At Sutter Hill Ventures you had a comfortable spot to wait out the downturn. Why leave before the economy really rebounded?

I missed being in the fight. I was working with Sonim at the time and had become so interested in what they were doing. Sonim was one of three or four companies I had seen with a really outstanding engineering team. They were working on a new voice messaging platform, a new way of communicating.

Q: With so many wireless startups, what stood out about Sonim's target plan?

I'm still excited about voice. I think the cell phone is important and Voice over IP can do it in a way that works both in GSM and CDMA , fixed and wireless, laptop and phone. This was in 2002, two years before Skype emerged. I didn't know exactly where it would go, but thought if we pick a common protocol, SIP , it will enable interesting functionality like push-to-talk and we'd figure out new ways to use it.

Q: Sonim recently made its first acquisition, purchasing Synergy Infotech in Bangalore. What was the thinking behind it?

It was our first acquisition; it won't be our last. We were working with [Synergy Infotech] for the last four years and decided that the only way we could scale our business cost-effectively was to have a direct operation in India. [The decision] was as easy as you could make it; we were buying capacity.

I have a lot of confidence because I failed at this before [at other companies] ... In the previous examples it didn't work because we didn't work on our core products; we did it simply for cost reasons. Communication in a startup context is difficult. The center drifted off, people became disenchanted on both sides and eventually the whole thing fell apart. This time all our engineering, all [engineering] management, is in Bangalore. It will be our hub.

Q: How do you view India and other emerging countries as potential markets?

The "BRIC" countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- will be first, then it'll come back to European and Eastern European countries, Latin America and the last place [push-to-talk over VoIP] will be is in America.

The reason it won't be in America is because Nextel Service is too good here. We know ours would have a little delay because it's over data [spectrum]. But in BRIC countries there are all new networks; the companies have younger management teams ... that are more risk-centric; and there is a lot of competition so all of them are looking for differentiation.

Q: What are some wireless industry trends that you think are significant?

VoIP is a reality and so is fixed-to-mobile convergence, and it's spilling into the carrier space. This will be the thing we'll all talk about in two or three years. People are learning what cheap, high-value messaging looks like. VoIP is getting more momentum in the wireless space.

There is also a tremendous amount of innovation from outside the valley in the wireless sector. In Finland, Korea, China and India, access to capital is lower, good networks are there and the people know more about wireless [than anywhere] from a startup standpoint.