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Ex-Palm CEO Carl Yankowski Out at Ambient Devices

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 19, 2009 07:20 AM

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Chief executive Carl Yankowski has quietly left Ambient Devices, the Cambridge-based consumer device maker, after two years at the helm.

I broke the news in August 2007 (a mere four months before it was officially announced) that Yankowski had joined Ambient as its first outside CEO, replacing co-founder David Rose. It was more than a little surprising to see Yankowski in Ambient's tiny offices, overseeing a team of employees that didn't number in the double-digits: the Dover resident had previously served as president or CEO at companies like Sony Electronics, Reebok, and Palm.

Ambient makes single-use, wirelessly-connected information displays, like a square magnetic device for the refrigerator door that offers a five-day weather forecast, or a small flat-screen monitor for your office that lets you track what's going on with your favorite football team.

Yankowski left the company in late September, and he hasn't yet been replaced. As for the reasons why, I called Yankowski Friday afternoon to inquire. (His LinkedIn profile hadn't yet been updated with the news, but the Wikipedia page about him had.) An executive Yankowski had brought in to handle marketing has also left the company.

"My mission is basically accomplished," he told me. "We re-did all the products, and I got us into the innovation section at Best Buy," the electronics retailer. "One of my goals was to expand the distribution." As for any outlets other than Best Buy that he helped get Ambient's products into, Yankowski said that he couldn't name names, but that "we have others ready to go." Prior to Yankowski's arrival, the company's main retailers had been Brookstone, Sports Authority, and the FrontGate catalog, and the company had also worked with Target and Wal-Mart in the past.

But when I spoke to Yankowski just after he'd joined Ambient, he told me that his goal was to grow Ambient into a $200 million market cap company within five years. By all accounts, it's nowhere close to that today (and it's still privately-held, too.)

Ambient's main investor is Boston-based .406 Ventures, which put about $5 million dollars into the company in 2008. Partner Larry Begley, who serves on Ambient's board, told me that "Carl is obviously an enormously talented guy. He said he'd started thinking that with all the things going on in the economy and otherwise, it probably made sense that he might want to do something else. We were very supportive of that." Later in the call, Begley described Yankowski's departure as "very much a mutual situation" -- a more revealing choice of words that hints at a difference of opinion between the CEO and Ambient's majority shareholder. Begley said that the search for a new CEO is underway.

An executive at the company, who requested anonymity, told me that Yankowski's departure wasn't preceded by "any soap-opera-level drama," but just "a realization that the fit was not perfect," though he credited Yankowski with helping the company, long reliant on small infusions of cash from individual angel investors, attract .406 as a backer. "We come from that sort of boot-strapped, entrepreneurial model," this exec says. "We're not like a Sony that can spend lots of money on brand marketing, so right now we're thinking about how do we employ the capital in the best possible way."

Yankowski told me he is no longer on the Ambient board, but is continuing to advise the company. As for what Yankowski plans to do next, he told me he is still a director of several private companies (including Lincoln-based Avidyne and Telligent Systems in Houston). "I'm contemplating whether I want to be the CEO of a medium or large company, or start something new," he said.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Good luck to Carl. He is one of the very best marketeers I have met.

    Posted by TA October 21, 09 01:45 PM


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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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