On contextual technology, innovations in hardware, and the sport that keeps him sane.
FORTUNE — Gil Elbaz has always been a numbers guy. His career has ranged from programming for IBM IBM to serving as engineering director for Google GOOG , but his guiding interest has always remained the same: using data to make life easier.
It wasn’t until after college (he’s a California Institute of Technology graduate) that Elbaz realized that he wanted to found his own startup, and he went on to co-found a company called Applied Semantics. (The company was acquired by Google.) He kicked off his latest company, Factual, in 2008.
Based in Los Angeles, Factual specializes in personalizing and contextualizing experiences through the use of data. The company tracks of location data from all around the world, which is then used to make mobile content more relevant for services like Yelp, LivingSocial, and Bing.
Elbaz, 43, spoke with Fortune.
1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?
It’s a hard question to answer because there are so many people that I look up to. A specific trait that I admire is perseverance, so there are people like Elon Musk who build companies against the many preconceived notions that it’s impossible, what he’s doing.
I’ve read Ben Horowitz’ new book, and I’ve spent a lot of time with him, but I have a new sense of appreciation for how much perseverance was required to build his last company.
The unique person that came to mind was Carl Malamud, who has been working for a very long time on being the great liberator of government data. Government data, as long as it doesn’t violate anybody’s privacy, should be open. It’s funded by tax payers, and it should be available to all of us. He’s worked tirelessly on it and democratizing information so that each one of us has the opportunity to innovate and understand the world. He’s the founder of a non-profit called public.resource.org. One of his claims to fame is that he prodded the government into creating EDGAR online. It’s the way that all companies file their public statements.
2. Which area of technology excites you most?
Contextual technology. When we think back a few years from now, it will be hard to think of a time when our devices didn’t understand us and know who we are and what we want. Apps today we will come to see as very clunky, and we’ll have the opportunity to make every product out there as exciting and predictive as Google Now and as easy to work with as a Siri. We can shape mobile technology, and that’s very exciting.
3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
I [recently] got a chance to talk to two groups of entrepreneurs, and I talked about how important it is to plan for the long game. We all hear stories in the media about overnight successes, and it’s easy to decide that that’s what you’re going to become. And certainly everyone should aim high and shoot to become an overnight success, but what I’ve found is if you’re planning for that, it’s likely that you’ll be disappointed. You won’t be mentally and psychologically prepared for the degree of effort that it takes to overcome the many more obstacles than you ever could have imagined are between point A and success. I like to say that you should plan on it being at least a 10-year road, and if you absolutely refuse to give up for an entire decade, the chances that you succeed are extremely high. You have to ignore any one who suggests that you give up.
4. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
One thing that I’m witnessing in the environment is the resurgence of innovation around hardware. The mobile phone is a magical device, and it’s being loaded with sensors. More and more sensors are being added to it all the time. Then we also have other devices like Fitbit or watches that measure various biometrics and movement. I think this is a trend that’s going to continue. The question will be how to aggregate all of these signals, all of this information, and create even more contextual awareness that can be embedded into tools to help you live life. Or simply make your daily goings on flow more nicely.
5. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I went to college at Caltech from ’87 to ’91. Caltech was certainly a place where, no matter what you majored in, you were going to get a lot of math. I liked it, but I didn’t know it would be very valuable. I took a lot of courses across economics and engineering, but a course in probability, in particular, really shaped my worldview. It’s a powerful framework for building technology. It’s the basis of natural language processing and predictive big data algorithms and it has enabled me and my team at Factual to build great products.
6. What is one goal — either personal or professional — that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
It’s no secret that an entrepreneur’s life is sort of wrapped around the company that they’re working on. Our vision at Factual is to be the steward of the world’s information and make sure that good, factual data can be easily accessed by the world. This is no small feat; there’s a lot of bad data on the Internet, and it’s not as if there’s a Consumer Reports of data that’s tracking what sources are good and bad. It’s a difficult, complex minefield. I’d like for it to be easy for any company or any person to access truth over the Internet in data form so that they can have information to make good decisions. The smartest, most analytical person can head in the wrong direction with bad data.
7. What do you do for fun?
The thing that keeps me sane is I have a consistent group of people with whom I’ve been playing full-court basketball two times a week for two hours for about 10 years. That’s where I get all of my cardio. I’m competitive so I knew there was no way I was going to use my cyclical machine at home. Basketball is something that always pulls me in.
8. What was the last book you read?
I was just on a long overseas flight, so I found the time to read Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I’ve spent time with him, and I knew that he was someone that people look up to because of the difficulties that he faced and the challenges he overcame, but I don’t think I realized the degree to which he had to struggle. I think any startup is a rollercoaster, and you face challenges all the time. So when I’m facing a challenge, I can think, well it’s nothing like the time Ben and his team basically had to fire all of their customers. They completely got rid of their revenues and product and had to start from scratch as a public company. Compared to that, it’s easy to wake up and be enthusiastic.
9. What is one piece of technology you can’t live without?
Obvious answer is the smart phone, but I think the more interesting answer than that common answer is “the why.” I’ve always been addicted to looking up information. I remember a time when you had to listen to the radio and wait for the weather report because that way the only way you were going to get it. You’d have to wait at least 24 hours for a sports score. I’d have to make phone calls to get stock quotes. I definitely crave information.
10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?
I realized at some point that I’m not great with faces for some reason, but I’m really good with voices, so I recognize people instantly once they start talking. But I also like to guess where people have lived over the course of their lives. Sometimes it might be annoying, but I like to surprise people when I guess correctly. I also am constantly spinning things, expensive things [like laptops and fine china] on my finger like a basketball.
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