Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA), Inc.

Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA), Inc.

Members Articles

What amateur radio taught me about mentorship, innovation, and building community

By: J. Angelo Racoma (@N2RAC / DW1ZDK)

Innovations in telecommunications tech have come a long way, but the lessons and practical advice from legacy tech will still apply

Growing as a kid in the 1980s, I had been fascinated about radio communications since I first encountered amateur radio rigs. The very idea of being able to communicate with other people on-the-air and without wires was magical, especially considering that cellular phones were still a luxury back then, and even through much of the early 1990s.

Mainstream internet was still in its nascent stages, and Wi-Fi was but a glimmer in some engineer’s eye. But did you know that amateur radio operators had been exchanging text messages in the 1980s through packet radio, as well as talking to people halfway around the world by bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere?

My interest in amateur radio had a renaissance in the past couple of years, and I finally got myself licensed with both the Philippines’ National Telecommunications Commission (callsign DW1ZDK) and the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (callsign N2RAC). Having these licenses allow me to experiment with different kinds of equipment in different bands, ranging from high-frequency (below 50Mhz), to VHF, to UHF, and beyond.

But beyond the technical capability, one other fascinating experience I have had with radio communications is community. Amateur enthusiasts form clubs and groups around certain interests, and we also network with each other. People are generally helpful, and the more experienced amateurs would often act as mentors or “elmers” to the younger generations or the beginners.

What does this have to do with startups, you may ask (e27 being a publication for startups)? There are a lot of parallels! It boils down to community, mentorship, innovation, and how the fundamentals behind the technology are essential.

Community

via GIPHY

When you think of radio communications, you probably have in your mind some middle-aged Caucasian male sitting at home drinking beers while tuning in, listening and speaking to the mic. The hobby does attract a lot of moneyed people, especially because good rigs don’t come cheap. However, today, inexpensive radios and accessories have flooded the market. Thus, even if purists would scoff at Chinese or “generic” radio brands, these are still a good gateway into the amateur radio hobby, with many enthusiasts eventually moving up in terms of interest.

This means that the community is growing more diverse by the minute. While the proverbial old “ham” image might still stick, many hams (which is the nomenclature for an amateur radio operator) come from various ages and walks of life. We form interest groups around certain technologies, geographies and interests. For instance, some are into home-brewing their own rigs and antennas. Some like the new digital equipment. Some like portable radios, while some are more into mobile or even larger base stations. Some like bouncing their signals off the moon or through the International Space Station.

It’s the same in the startup community. There is no limit as to who can found a startup, for as long as you have the passion for building a product, seeking support from the ecosystem, and eventually growing or scaling. Not all startups are the same, in terms of impact — some simply want to solve an itch, while some are more visionary and want to change the world.

Sure, while everyone wants to be an Uber, Airbnb, Grab, Tesla or any other big-name startup, there’s nothing wrong with running a small, focused startup as long as you’re passionate about it, and if you’re getting profits.

Author’s 30-year old Kenwood TS-430S HF rig is still running strong — pictured along with a circa-2016 Yaesu FT-2DR portable digital radio

Mentorship

This is another big part of any hobby, trade, profession or study. You need some people to look up to, and who can guide you through your activities. In amateur radio, the so-called “elmers” are the more experienced operators who usually have years of practical knowledge on their belt. Sure, not everyone is an electrical engineer, but many elmers are more adept at electronic principles, practices, procedures, and techniques.

Elmers are usually eager to teach beginners with the tools of the trade. We all love it when the community grows and becomes more active.

It’s the same with the startup community. Mentors are extremely important in providing support, whether in terms of imparting lessons learned, making introductions to potential co-founders or investors, providing a different perspective, and in some cases, helping with funding.

Innovation

via GIPHY

When you think of amateur radio, innovation might be the last thing on your mind, right? Well, the idea of vacuum tubes and old-school transistors might still be interesting to Hams. But amateur operators are actually very disruptive and innovative in our thinking. Hobbyists have actually contributed much to the advancements in wireless telecommunications technology that we know today.

Even before we were emailing and text-messaging, hams of previous decades had been sending text messages and images through APRS or amateur packet radio service since 1978, and other technologies through time.

“Over the past century amateur radio operators have contributed to our understanding of radio communications, devised entirely new radio communication technologies, combined pre-existing technologies in innovative new ways, and developed operational procedures that have largely defined the way in which communication by radio is carried out. Amateur radio has played a fundamental role in the development of radio and telecommunications technology, and it continues to do so today.” – Ram Mohan, National Institute of Amateur Radio Raj, Somajiguda Hyderabad, India

Thus, while “there is no school like old school” for a lot of hams — many operators still use decades-old equipment; I, myself, use a 30-year old Kenwood TS-430S HF transceiver — many are already exploring new technologies, such as digital modes (Yaesu’s C4FM System Fusion, for instance, or more open-technologies like Digital Mobile Radio). Amateur enthusiasts have also established global internet links through Echolink and Yaesu’s WIRES-X network. These enable analog audio to be coursed through the internet.

Startups are, of course, all about disruption and innovation. Most successful startups would find an existing business or business model to disrupt, and then build upon these disruptions to change the way we do things.

In conclusion: It’s still all about the fundamentals

via GIPHY

Even with all these disruptions and innovations, of course, what’s clearly important are the fundamentals behind everything that we do. With amateur radio, it is all about communications. Regardless of the equipment, locale, community and technology, the underpinnings of our interest in the hobby are our interest in communicating with other people — whether locally or around the world.

We can connect with other amateur enthusiasts through voice, data, text or even the century-old Morse code. But what’s essential is one’s ability to modulate using the proper/accepted procedures and standards. While communicating is essentially in plain language, this involves standards like the use of callsigns, waiting for one’s turn (especially because radio communication is either transmit or receive, but usually not “full duplex” like telephones).

With startups or any business, the fundamentals are also important — these include sound business practices. And for startups, the focus these days is more on profitability rather than simply achieving growth milestones. Thus, no matter how disruptive you can be with your business or business model, you might see your enterprise fizzle out eventually if you are not profitable.

Passion plays a big part in both startups and amateur radio. If you have passion in what you do, and you actively pursue your interest, then you will go a long way.


Featured Image Copyright: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo