Rick Smith is the founder & CEO, TASER International. He is on a mission to make the bullet obsolete.
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- Taser.com – Taser International’s Website
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- Exponential Organizations – Rick’s Book Recommendation
- @RickTASER – Twitter handle (contact information)
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- Solve a real problem with your business products and services.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [01:12] – Two friends shot and killed in a road rage incident in the US
- [01:22] – That year there were 35,000 people shot and killed
- [01:40] – Struck him as something fundamentally messed up in the world
- [02:00] – Whatever we’re doing isn’t working
- [02:23] – Set out to start a company
- [02:46] – At the age of 23 he looked up the original project “Taser” technology NASA scientist and convinced to give it another shot
- [03:10] – If you draw a gun, you better be prepared to use it
- [03:58] – How do you generate revenue? “Publicly traded company on the NASDAQ. We sell the Taser weapons primarily to law enforcement. We do about 5% of our business to consumers. We sell hardware. We are the largest cloud software company in the law enforcement space. Body cameras”
- [04:48] – The Axon business unit passed the Taser business unit in revenue
- [05:57] – Worst Entrepreneurial moment: Publicity stunt (steering wheel lock) in 1997. It was a prototype to test the market. Spent two years to build and deliver the product and it flopped.
- [10:13] – People vote with their wallets. Period
- [12:08] – Proof of concept
- [10:41] – What do you want to make sure Fire Nation gets from your story: as an entrepreneur don’t do things for money. Do things to solve a problem that matters
- [11:40] – The measure is will people buy it?
- [12:10] – You are obligated to make generate revenue withyour business to keep contributing
- [12:30] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA moment: With our core weapon we finally got it right. In 2004 we were the top performing stock
- [13:30] – There’s so much controversy over our product, but also over law enforcement and that’s what gave them the idea to add cameras to their products
- [14:29] – What is the real problem? How do I solve it, and where is the silver lining?
- [14:50] – Biggest weakness? “My optimism.” when I latch onto an idea that i think is a good idea, I cannot fathom that it will fail
- [15:29] – Biggest strength? “My optimism” when bad things do happen, he can always see the silver lining
- [16:24] – My optimism is dangerous and super useful. Find ways to calibrate it.
- [16:48] – What has Rick most fired up today? The cloud business we are building internally
- [18:08] – Have the opportunity to create this network to serve this niche market
- [20:20] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? “Nothing.” “I want to be like my dad is now” “number one objective i thought was when I get out, I want to find something that I’m fired up about.”
- What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? “Just do it. Take the risk and go pursue an idea you believe in.”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? “Perseverance to continue after something you believe in and getting back up when you get knocked down.”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – Quip
- If you could recommend one book for our listeners, what would it be and why? Exponential Organizations
- [23:50] – Best way to connect with Rick: Twitter @RickTASER
- [23:56] – Parting piece of guidance – if you have that burning idea that you think could really be successful. You may fail. But it is better to fail trying to do something big than to keep plowing through your life
Rick Smith: I don’t know if I can be fully prepared. This sounds like it could be a wild ride.
JLD: Rick is the founder and CEO of Taser International. He’s on a mission to make the bullet obsolete. Rick, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro and give us just a little glimpse of your personal life.
Rick Smith: A couple decades back now, I was in grad school in Belgium when two of my friends were shot and killed in a road rage incident back in the U.S., and right about that time, I happened across an article in the Wall Street Journal that mentioned that that year there were 35,000 people shot and killed. To me, I thought it was a typo, it was such a staggeringly large number, but it’s not. In fact, we still have over 30,000 people being shot and killed in this country every year.
That struck me as something fundamentally messed up with the world and so as I looked it, sort of my background, I grew up near Silicon Valley, in Silicon Valley for part of my high school years, and I looked at this and said, “Geez, maybe – certainly the government’s not been affected by dealing with this, and whether you believe in gun control or not, whatever we’re doing ain’t working.”
And so, I started this crazy idea, I was like, “Well, why don’t we approach this as a technology problem.” Why do people kill each other? Why do they use guns? And wouldn’t there be a better way to defend yourself than firing a lead bullet at someone the same way we fought the British 250 years ago? You’d certainly think technology would have changed.
So, I set out to start a company and it’s been a long, winding path. I found a NASA scientist, actually the guy who was one of the chief scientists on the Apollo project had invented this technology called TASER back in the 1960s, but it didn’t work very well in the beginning and the company had gone bankrupt and he’d retired to Tucson, Arizona as luck would have it, near where my parents lived, and so at the age of 23, I looked him up and convinced him to give it another shot and been doing it for 24 years now.
JLD: Wow! I mean, I can tell you what, Fire Nation. A lot of you listening know that I have quite the military background. I was an officer in the US Army for 8 years, 4 active and 4 in the Reserves, did a 13 month tour of duty in Iraq, and I can tell you one thing. When you’re in Iraq and you’re armed and dangerous, so to speak, and you’re in a situation where you draw a weapon such as a gun, the reality is you better be prepared to use it. That’s what we were always taught and that’s what we found to be a reality as well.
If you draw a gun, you better be prepared to use it. There were so many times when I looked around and I said, “Man, the only real weapon that I have is a gun and I do need to use/draw some form of weapon in this scenario,” and man, it just makes me think back and say, “Wow, what if I had had an alternative? What if my soldiers had an alternative?” What would have been different? Things that may have escalated super quickly maybe have been deescalated or never got to that boiling over point.
So, there’s a lot to think about here and I’m glad we’re bringing you on because I think this is an important issue to talk about, Rick. But first and foremost, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts for the entrepreneurial side, revenue. How do you generate revenue, specially, in your business today?
Rick Smith: Well, today we’re a publically traded company on the NASDAQ so it’s a fairly mature business. We sell the TASER weapons primarily to law enforcement. That’s our sweet spot, although we also do about 5 percent of our business to consumers that buy TASERs as an alternative to a gun. So, we sell hardware, then there’s a whole other side of the business where we’re a software as a service play. We’re the largest cloud software company in the public safety and law enforcement space, which a lot of people raise an eyebrow. They go, “Wait a minute, TASER, the weapon guys, are a cloud software company?”
So, the nexus between the two are body cameras and it turns out that when police use TASERs, there’s a lot of controversy around it, so we started making cameras about 10 years ago and it turns out the camera’s the easy part. It’s how do you manage all the data, all the content, so we launched a cloud services division under the Axon brand, because obviously TASER is such a strong brand, but it means electric gun.
So, our second brand is Axon for this connected ecosystem of cameras and cloud software, and just this quarter, the Axon business unit passed the TASER business unit in revenue bookings.
JLD: Wow, so cool. And I’m sure, Rick, every now and then, you probably roll your eyes because you hear this so often, but a lot of people when they hear the word TASER, they think of that YouTube video, the one that went viral with that kid that said, “Don't tase me, bro. Don’t tase me, bro,” when he was in that courtroom and he was getting really unjustly tasered by people that were in that room as well.
The reality is you can misuse any weapon. That’s just the reality. But I’m sure if you go back to that kid and you say, “Hey, would you rather have been tasered a couple of times, or potentially shot in the back by the weapon that was drawn instead of a TASER.” I think he’d have a pretty quick answer for you there as well.
So, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to this topic and this subject, but what I want to focus on now, Rick, is more your journey as an entrepreneur because it just wasn’t this straight line to success. You’ve had some struggles as well. So, take us to what you consider your worst entrepreneurial moment to date and tell us that story.
Rick Smith: So, the worse moment would have been in 1998. So, we started in ’93 and we raised money from some friends and family. So, as I mentioned, I grew up, my dad had done a startup that was reasonably successful in Silicon Valley and that created some of the money that he invested into TASER and then one of his best friends invested in it. Of course, we originally thought it was gonna take a limited amount of money and it turned out it took a hell of a lot more, took a lot longer than we thought, and as were struggling to survive, to get the revenues up to where the business could sustain itself.
We did this thing actually in 1997. We went to the Consumer Electronics Show and we’d had a couple customers ask if we could rig up a TASER to protect their car, and we were frankly kind of so desperate to find product market fit that we said, “Let’s do a publicity stunt. We’ll make this steering wheel lock.” You remember The Club?
JLD: Oh yeah, very well.
Rick Smith: So, we basically took The Club and we wrapped an electric fence around it, so the idea was if somebody tried to take it out of your car, it would shock them. It was the hit of the Consumer Electronics Show in 1997. Literally, this was the year they introduced DVD. If you saw the front page of the Las Vegas newspaper, DVD was nowhere. Auto Taser was the thing. There was huge crowds of people, Good Morning America on every major press outlet, tons of publicity.
Now the problem with that was we had no idea how we were actually gonna build this thing. It was a prototype that we’d made literally in a two week period leading up to the show as a publicity stunt to test the market. Now, what happened from that is we thought we had the world by the tail. We thought that, my gosh, this is gonna be the biggest business success in history, right? We’re gonna revolutionize the automotive industry. So, we put all of our effort over the next two years into building and delivering this product to meet the demand.
Long story short, after two years of grueling effort and all sorts of fiascos trying to rush this thing to market, it flopped. I remember talking to – we were in Pep Boys, the big automotive stores, and I remember talking to Pep Boys managers and they said, “This is the most exciting product we’ve ever had in the store. People are bringing their friends into Pep Boys to look at this. This is amazing! Your point of purchase display, this is fantastic!” And I said, “That’s great you feel that way. Have you sold any of them?” “No, no, we haven’t sold any of them, but people love them.”
We finally had this realization that we had built the product equivalent of the Bearded Lady at the circus. We built this freak product that every loved to talk about, everybody loved to see, they loved to come to the demos, and they’d have their buddy grab it see them shock them, but people weren’t buying it. Now, at this point, my parents are near bankrupt, my dad’s put everything into this. His best friend has got a lot of money at risk, and I remember my dad coming in and saying, “We gotta talk, son.” We sit down in the conference room and he looks at me and he says, “Shut her down. She’s pumping mud.”
What we had spent two years working on, we realized was a complete distraction. I walked around the parking lot at work that day and there was not one employee using one of these in their car and we’d given everybody one as a Christmas gift. Since times were getting tough, right, you give your employees product as their Christmas bonus. Nobody was using it.
So the epiphany was we had started this company with this mission to protect life, to make the bullet obsolete. When that turned out to be hard, we ran in a different direction trying to make a quick buck. We did this publicity stunt and we thought we were gonna make a bunch of money selling this, frankly, kind of gimmicky car security device, and at that point I was 90 percent sure we could not survive it. It looked like it had put us out of business.
JLD: Fire Nation, if there’s one thing you can take away from this story, people vote with their wallet, period. Don’t take their voices, don’t take their words, don’t do this, don’t do that. Take their dollars up front. Every failure that I’ve had with a product launch has been when I’ve just taken people’s words. “Oh yeah, that’ll be great. People will love. I’ll love it.” Crickets. Every time I’ve said, “Okay, if you really think you love it, then how about putting down some money right now. How about paying for half up front for something that will be created later?”
When people want it that bad, then they’ll pay for something that hasn’t even existed yet, AKA most things on Kickstarter, then you know you have proof of concept. So, think about that. That’s so powerful. Rick, in just one sentence, what do you want to make sure Fire Nation gets from your story?
Rick Smith: As an entrepreneur, don’t do things for money. Do things to solve a problem that matters. The thing that sucked us in is we thought that we were gonna get rich quick doing this, but none of us believed in the concept of that product and it nearly killed us. So, I tell entrepreneurs all the time, if you’re gonna start a business, you need to do something you’re so passionate about that if you fail for the next 5-7 years continuously that you will still stick it out, even when the days are darkest and you think your chance of success is dwindling near zero, but you’re so passionate about the problem you’re solving that you’re gonna stick it out, because ultimately solving big problems is what creates value and that’s what drives revenue and money long-term.
Doing something because you think you’re gonna make a buck, in my estimation, never works out well. You have to do what you’re passionate about, but the measure, ultimately, is will people buy it. So, if people get excited about it, well that’s great, but like the Auto Taser, we thought other people were excited about it. We weren’t passionate about it, but we saw the excitement. Other people’s excitement, that does not necessarily translate into dollars. So, when I see people talking about, “Hey, we were picked as one of the leading innovative products by Time’s Innovative Product,” or “We were CES and we got a bunch of publicity.” My reaction is, “Hey, that’s great. That means that it’s interesting for people to talk about. That has no correlation to commercial success, that people are gonna buy it.”
JLD: A lot of great stuff here, Fire Nation, and what I really do want to just emphasize with everything that Rick is saying is until you’re running a charity, you’re obligated to generate revenue business so you can continue doing that thing that hopefully you’re passionate about, that’s you’re excited about, that’s bringing real value to the world. Now, Rick, tell us the story of one of your greatest “aha!” moments. I mean, you’ve had a few in your day, for sure. You’ll have a few more in the future, no doubt. What’s one of the greatest? Take us to that moment and tell us that story.
Rick Smith: Alright, so from 1998, the Auto Taser crashes and burns. We pivot back to our core and man, did we find success. With our core weapon, we finally got it right and the law enforcement market took off. We went public in 2001. In 2004, we were the top performing stock in the world. It was an amazing run of success.
Then, January 2005 hit. You’ve all seen the controversy about TASER devices. Do they kill or not? Do they injure people or not? The “Don’t tase me, bro,” was he abused or not? And we got hit with a raft of lawsuits and a federal investigation into the safety of our devices that was absolutely miserable. Once again, we’re in this major crisis in 2005. We weren’t sure the company would survive again. We got hit with like 150 lawsuits in less than a year.
And the thing that came out of that, the “aha!” moment was, “Well, wait a minute. There’s all this controversy about not just our product, but around police work. People don’t trust the word of a police officer when they hurt somebody or when there’s a bad outcome.” Because of all of that negative energy, we decided, “You know what we need to do? We need to put cameras on TASERS so that we can record what happens.” So, instead of people arguing about it with their own personal beliefs – and we’d now seen this culminated in the Ferguson incident, the sort of poster child of this incident, where the police officer is saying he’s defending his life, other people are saying that he executed a man with his hands up, and nobody knows the truth, and as a result they burn down the city of Ferguson.
So, that controversy, when that hit us, the “aha!” moment was if we solve this problem, there’s probably a way to make that valuable as well. So, we got into cameras, which got us into cloud software, and that business is not bigger than the core TASER business. It’s a great example of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as long as you sort of identify what is the real problem that’s threatening my life right now and when I solve that, how do I do it in a way that doesn’t only defend me from this risk, but is there an opportunity? Where is the silver lining? If I solve this problem, can I make a business out of it?
JLD: I just love that and the key words there, “real problem,” Fire Nation. Is the problem that you are trying to solve a real problem?
Rick Smith: Now Rick, I want to do a little bit of a shift here and let’s focus on what you consider your biggest weakness and an entrepreneur. Break it down for us.
Rick Smith: My optimism. When I latch onto an idea that I think is a good idea, I cannot fathom that it will fail. It’s inconceivable to me that great ideas will fail. Frankly, going back to that Auto Taser problem, seeing the crowds and the excitement and all that, I never stopped to think what’s our Plan B? Never thought like how do we validate this? How do we really conserve our resources and make sure we’ve got a product people will buy? We just went all in on a losing product.
JLD: What’s your biggest strength?
Rick Smith: My optimism. When bad things do happen, like in 2005, when the company – employees were terrified that the company was gonna burn down amidst all the controversy and right in the middle of all that, I was looking at it saying, “You know, this problem is an opportunity. There’s a silver lining in here somewhere,” and we quickly started pivoting instead of panicking about the ship potentially getting burned down. How do we solve this problem and how do we do it in a way that creates more value?
So, obviously it’s the flip side of the same coin. Optimism can lead you at 100 miles per hour into a brick wall, but without it, you won’t try the crazy things that you need to do as an entrepreneur to always really succeed. So, I think ultimately, for me it’s been finding that self-awareness that having been through a couple major fiascos, I’ve become self-aware that my optimism is dangerous and super useful. So, I need to find ways to calibrate and have some skeptics around me that can beat it up in a way that will help identify my misplaced optimism from the well-placed optimism.
JLD: So, Rick, we’re already talked about a few things that you are rightfully so fired up about, but what’s just the one thing that has you most excited today?
Rick Smith: Well, the thing that has me most excited today, frankly, is the cloud business that we’re building internally because not only are we connecting cameras, our cameras to the cloud, we’re effectively bringing the internet to law enforcement. If you think about all these internet enabled devices that power our personal lives, if you actually go to a police station last year, the NYPD, they put in a million dollar budget line item to replace aging typewriters, and the New York City Council actually passed an ordinance banning typewriters at the NYPD.
Now, I’m not doing this to make light of any agency in particular. It’s just a fact that law enforcement, we see it on T.V. and we think that it’s like the T.V. show “24”, where these guys have satellite tracking devices and all this crazy stuff. The fact is, no, most of our law enforcement agencies still have to deal with forms and carbon paper and triplicate and typewriters and most police do not have a smartphone that they can use for work. They have a personal phone. And when I query our customers, we do surveys all the time, “Where do you have more advanced technology, as a cop or at home in your house?” 90+ percent have more advanced technology at their house.
So, what’s got us fired up now is that we think we’re on the leading edge of not just one business with the camera business, but we have the opportunity to sorta create this – it’s very cliché to say the Apple ecosystem or the Android ecosystem, this connected application/hardware environment to serve this important sort of niche market around public safety and dramatically change everything about the way an officer’s life works, the same way that a smartphone has changed yours and my personal life. That hasn’t come to police work yet.
JLD: Well, Fire Nation, that’s something to be fired up about for sure. I’m fired up about the lightning round. We’re gonna take a quick minute first to thank our sponsors. Rick, are you prepared for the lightning rounds?
Rick Smith: Let’s do it.
JLD: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Rick Smith: Nothing. To be honest, when I was a freshman in high school, my dad moved out from a sort of a cushy job as a middle-level executive in a big company in the East Coast and we went to Silicon Valley, and he took the job as a CEO of a really small startup, and when I saw how fired up he got, he was a different man. He was so excited about what he was doing. We used to sit around the dinner table and the challenges he was running into were so interesting and exciting that I was like, “Geez, why would I ever go get a job? I want to be like my dad is now.”
So, frankly, when I went to college, it was pretty clear. My No. 1 objective, I thought, was when I come out, I want to find something I’m fired up about that I’m gonna go do a startup. I don’t know what it is. So, I was waiting until I saw the opportunity and frankly, unfortunately it was a personal tragedy that got me fired up at this opportunity. But there was – from the age of about 13 or 14, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
JLD: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Rick Smith: Just do it. Take the risk and go pursue an idea you believe in. Everybody has great ideas and we all talk about it. The difference in entrepreneurs is they’re the people who say, “You know what? Screw it. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna quit my job. I’m gonna do it.” You’re not gonna starve. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Take the risk and I guarantee even if it fails, you’ll be able to go get a job somewhere else and you’re more valuable because you’ll have sort of the entrepreneur’s impermata. Even if it’s a failure, there’s always a job you can go get somewhere. But clinging to some job that you hate going to work every day, kill it, man. If you’ve got an idea, go after it.
JLD: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Rick Smith: I would just say perseverance to continue after something you believe in and just getting back up when you get knocked down.
JLD: Can you share an internet resource like Evernote with Fire Nation?
Rick Smith: Quip, Q-U-I-P. It’s fantastic. It’s an app that runs on mobile devices. It’s sort of like Microsoft Word meets Slack. It’s got an integrated messenger and it merges messaging and documents in a way that it’s hard for me to describe how well this has worked for us, but we don’t email press releases or Word documents around anymore.
It’s a collaborative Google Doc-like environment, but they’ve integrated the messenger in such an awesome way that you have these conversations on bullet points within big documents, like our company plan is in Quip. We have 500 people collaborating on this document and there’s all sorts of side conversations happening. It’s probably the No. 1 tool we use to run about an 800 person business now, and it’s been pretty life-changing. We just put it in a couple of years ago.
JLD: If you could recommend one book for our listeners, what would it be and why?
Rick Smith: I think Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail. It’s basically a book about how do you design organizations to take advantage of the fasted moving technology trends today. It’s a fascinating read.
JLD: Rick, I want to end it today on fire with a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Rick Smith: The best way to connect with me, probably on Twitter, I’m @RickTASER.
JLD: And a parting piece of guidance?
Rick Smith: Parting piece of guidance is, you know, if you have that burning idea that you think could really be successful, don’t be put off by my Auto Taser disaster. You may fail, but it is better to fail trying to do something big than to just keep plowing through your life. You don’t want to be that guy that gets to the end of your life, or that gal, that says, “You know, I had this great idea, but I never did it.” Even when I failed, you know, you still feel better about it. You know what? I gave this a shot and you know what, I failed, but I don’t have that regret nagging at me that I should have done it.
JLD: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You’ve been hanging out with RS and JLD today, so keep up the heat and head over to EOFire.com. Just type “Rick” in the search bar, his show on this page will pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today. You name it, we talked about it, it’ll be there, and of course you can find him @RickTASER on Twitter. Rick, I want to thank you, brother, for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you and we’ll catch you on the flipside.
Rick Smith: Sweet! It’s been a lot of fun.
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