There is a specific set of tenets that guide the ham radio community of operators. According to one very special ham operator, two of these tenets stand out. In fact, he even defined an entire company based on them. Gerald Youngblood, K5SDR, believes these two tenets give amateur radio operators, not only the freedom to advance ham radio, but the duty to.
Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
Gerald Youngblood also happens to be the president, CEO and founder of FlexRadio. The company took a technologically archaic industry and flipped it on its tuner, in a good way. Gerald built and introduced the first true software defined radio (SDR) for the amateur market making it seem as if anything is now possible in the world of ham radio. And the rest of the industry is now following his lead. Gerald Youngblood is, humbly, in the conductor’s seat.
Gerald sat down for a FlexInsider interview this week to discuss the successes of the past year, his life and the future of ham radio.
Q: How has ham radio, in a way, been your life sherpa?
A: I didn’t set out to get into the ham radio industry. I love radio and I love building businesses. So they overlapped. But one thing is for sure, many doors in my life were opened because of ham radio.
I first became interested in electronics in middle school, when I was given a surplus WW2 aircraft transceiver. I was so fascinated by the components inside the radio, that I tore it apart, untwisting the wires with pliers, and separated all the parts into cigar boxes. Some of which are still in my attic. I then acquired an electronics catalogue to help me determine what every single part was.
Shortly thereafter, I had a classmate who owned a ham radio. It was like magic to me. He was able to communicate with other people over the airwaves with Morse code. At those times you had to learn Morse code to get a license. I fell in love with the concept of communicating over the airwaves, making friends. It was truly the first electronic social media. I can still see the radio he owned in my mind.
Eventually I moved to a town where my high school was on a community college campus. I was suddenly on campus with college kids. Being on a college campus made for a better and more challenging academic community. I soon learned the physics professor at the community college was a ham. I got him to train me and help me get set up with a license. I got my first license in my sophomore year of high school. He helped me build my first transmitter – a tube type 6L6 transmitter. I got on the air and talked to people all over the world.
I was fascinated with electronics and ham radio. I decided around that time to become an electrical engineer. That turned the direction of my career and my life. I went to Mississippi State to get an electrical engineering degree. I studied hard to do that.
While in community college, I discovered I was really interested in broadcast engineering. My freshman year, a few of us got together to build a campus broadcast FM station. We scraped together some money and equipment and started the first FM broadcast station on campus, WWCL. The antenna and tower are still standing today. They don’t use it anymore but it’s still there.
During my sophomore year, I connected with a ham who had just become chief engineer of a new UHF television station, WAPT-16, in Jackson, Mississippi. My ham radio connection got me an engineering co-op position with the TV station to help to build it from the ground up. What a great experience that was.
My senior year in college I was still co-oping with the TV station when I got an offer from then, the largest AM/FM station in Jackson, Mississippi. I took the job before I even graduated. I I was nine credits short and had to finish up my degree while working the following year. I ended up meeting my wife shortly after taking the new job.
After that, I left and started a printed circuit board manufacturing company. We made the raw green circuit boards. That was my first start-up. I kind of put ham radio on the back burner at this point. The business did well until it unfortunately burned down. We couldn’t afford to rebuild so we had to systematically shut down. I made my investment back in education and experience on that one. Actually, I finally got my money back 30 years later when my first partner wrote me a check from what was left in the bank account.
Three other partners and I started another tech business called SunRiver, that the venture capital investors eventually moved from Mississippi to Austin. I left the business in ‘96 after taking it public in ‘94 to join the dot-com boom. I started doing angel investing and helping companies raise capital. During the dot-com boom, we helped numerous companies get through the funding process. I also started to get back into ham radio with my son. I realized the technology had advanced, but still incredibly antiquated compared to other industries. That’s when I decided to build my first software defined radio prototype. And that’s also when the dot-com bubble burst. Given the fact that the dot-com industry was in chaos and my prototype worked better than expected, I left the industry and started FlexRadio.
Q: Why did you start FlexRadio and what was that experience like?
A: I had already started getting back into ham radio with my son around the time the dot-com bubble burst. I had gotten back on the air and involved, and started seeing the new technology. It made me remember a theory I had in college – I thought it would eventually be possible to build a radio with computer technology, creating a software defined radio.
Nobody had applied this kind of computer tech to ham radio. So I took the technology and the theory and did it. It took me about three years to build the SDR-1000. I finished it in 2002. I basically had to put myself through engineering school again to do it.
I built 10 units and vetted the first owners. I gave the readers of my international publication first shot at it. I ended up getting 50 orders instead of 10 and sold 500 the first year. It was way more successful than I expected.
However, I didn’t want investors so I decided to bootstrap the business myself. I wanted to be flexible and build a culture like I wanted to build. I had more ability to do that without investors. You have to make hard choices with trade-offs when you don’t have investors. But the experience is priceless.
Q: What’s the best part of owning and running FlexRadio?
A: The people. I would definitely say the best part of it is the people. I’ve been able to work with some really smart people who are passionate about everything they do and really care about each other. That’s not to say we’ve always done it perfectly. But it’s really great to be able to work with people and create something better than you thought you could create.
And I’ve really enjoyed all the interesting people I’ve met because ham radio is a big fraternity that cuts across all of sectors of the population worldwide. All the people that have aided us along the way and have become friends have been really big supporters.
Q: What’s the most challenging?
A: Breaking into an established industry where the mindset exists that there’s only one way to do it. A lot of the existing improvements were incremented on old technology. We’ve had to break old school tech, methods and mindsets. Nobody was doing what we were and people were apprehensive. But that slowly changed as hams started seeing the possibilities.
A big challenge is to constantly reinvent yourself. The first products weren’t capable of bringing us to where we are today. Multiple times we’ve had to cannibalize our entire product line in order to position ourselves for the future. Three times I believe. One time we completely started over with new hardware and software. It’s effectively like starting a new company. Our customers were so amazing and loyal, they helped to crowd fund it.
Another challenge is that we’re in a direct-to-consumer model, we know our customers well because we deal directly with them. But there are as many types of customers as there are types of people. We’re harder on ourselves than anyone so when we fall short of expectations it hurts. We want to meet everyone’s expectations but accepting that you can’t is difficult. There are so many use-cases, scenarios in life, that it’s hard to test and think of everything, so that makes for a big challenge. We try to be ahead of everything but sometimes it’s difficult.
We’re fortunate to have a great customer base to carry us through all the business cycles and to be our sales force. When a customer comes up to me or sends me an email to say how much our product has brought them joy, it’s a really rewarding and enjoyable moment.
Q: What are FlexRadio’s defining moments of 2019?
A: MultiFLEXTM – It’s never been done before. We created the first ever multi-client radio. It’s a first in radioing – never before have multiple users been able to use the same radio at one time and from anywhere there’s an internet connection.
SmartControlTM – We were really happy to release SmartControl which allows the MaestroTM to control SmartSDRTM.
Sponsoring the Pitcairn DXpedition, VP6R – a major success. FlexRadio provided 9 FLEX-6700 / Maestro stations for operation. They made over 82,000 QSOs on all bands, 160 through 6 meters with 21% of their QSOs coming from Europe, a very difficult path from the South Pacific. They also made nearly 900 QSOs on 60 meters and 36 EME QSOs on 6 meters; both were firsts from Pitcairn.
Major contest stations (D4C, TI7W) are setting new records because of FlexRadio’s superior operation. D4C took 1st and TI7W 2nd at CQ Worldwide. Over 20 million points and over 19 million points. They were both operating FLEX- 6600 radios. That was really exciting news to get.
We’ve also been able to contribute to our nation through what we do. Our products have been incorporated into some important applications to protect our country. We’ve been able to help our nation, which helps our company, and in turn, helps the ham community.
We’re excited about our new product manufacturing process. We build 32 different configurations of our radios. Our new product manufacturing process will allow us to configure to order any of the 32 configurations on a single line. We expect the new process to be fully up to speed over the next couple of months.
But the biggest milestone of the year is the US Airforce contract we won in partnership with Raytheon. Over the past six months we’ve doubled our staff and are continuing to hire. We’ve added 150% additional square footage. We’re adding significant laboratory equipment, as well, a team of software and hardware engineers. All are major increases in our capabilities and resources for our team that we wouldn’t normally have. It makes us a better company. It brings respect and credibility to FlexRadio. It’s a chance to help our nation. And most importantly, we’re excited about all the great technology and advancements we’re going to be able to bring to the ham radio community because of this growth. The FLEX-6000 series and SmartSDR were both brought about because of a similar situation, and we know new technologies and advancements will also come out of this.
Q: What are FlexRadio’s next big plans?
A: We’ve seen a symbiotic relationship between ham radio and professional applications. The companies and the government funded projects that need better HF technology, we create that technology. Then that technology makes its way back to the ham radio community.
In the early days of FlexRadio, one of the first people to call me was someone who worked in the signal intelligence community. And the government ended up funding our first project. We ended up building software and hardware that helped protect the country. The experience enhanced both our financial position and skill set, enabling us to create the FLEX-6000 line of radios and SmartSDR, which in turn, led to the Raytheon contract, which will increase our human resource, research capital, and again come back to the ham radio world.
HF is back and HF is important. We get calls everyday from companies. We’re going to make some major investments into HF.
FlexRadio will continue to reinvent itself and impact the industry in a positive way in any way we can.
Q: Where do you see ham radio in the future?
A: Ham radio has its place in society today just like it did in the past because continue to exhibit the tenets of amateur radio. They live them and find their lives guided by them. Dr. Joe Taylor was a ham when he was young, got a physics degree and became a professor of physics at Princeton and has a Nobel Laureate. When he retired from Princeton he used his skills form radio astronomy to revolutionize digital communications over ham radio. It’s still the circle between ham radio, career and ham radio.
I think that we’ll continue to see the things that are happening in the technology world are now affecting the ham radio world. The component costs are coming down and are allowing us to do things on a radio we could never do before. The software gives us computational power and information processing power. It gives us more and more of things that we could never do before. And we don’t need regulatory permission to operate. We can implement the technology now.
As a total body, licensed hams won’t increase exponentially. But it will continue to grow as it is today. It’s a niche market, but there’s definitely the opportunity to introduce it to younger people. The technology now is familiar to them, they just don’t know it. Smartphones are a software defined radio. We’ll continue to see innovations that will benefit the government sector and civilian sector.
I’m more encouraged about ham radio today than I was when I started the company.