2023 Retrospective

A year ago, I concluded a chapter on what was, arguably, one of the most perplexing years of my life. 2022 was a slow and lonely burn. As the year drew to a close, I predicted that 2023 would be equally as challenging, albeit in new forms and yielding different outcomes. Most notably, I believed that 2023 would culminate as a net positive—contrasting the emptiness I felt in 2022.

Looking back now, it feels as though the last two years have been a period of profound metamorphosis. 2022 kicked off the process when I grappled with the disintegration of my identity and willpower. 2023 continued the journey when I embarked to reclaim my sense of self and reignite my desire to dream and push past tomorrow.

This year, much like its predecessor, tested the bounds of my resilience. Growth often felt laborious when I was constantly flying perilously close to the sun. Each obstacle presented a lesson, each hardship a spark of insight. But compounding rewards over time: I’m firmly convinced that 2023 has been a stronger year for me than 2022—both professionally and personally.

With that, below are my highlights of 2023.

The bad:

  • Work was substantially more arduous than I had anticipated, due to unforeseen circumstances that I can’t discuss here. Let’s just say I was handed my fair share of plot twists this year. Nevertheless, I survived the trials and am now grateful to find myself in a startup again.
  • 26 consecutive weeks of travel. Eventually I adapted and became really efficient, but the novelty wore thin.
  • I struggled a ton this year with avarice. I’ll admit it’s probably my dominant vice of the year. Money is a drug and I’ve been trying to come down from the high. The concept of the hedonic treadmill became a palpable reality in my life.
  • I was constantly anxious about what my next endeavor would entail. I’m not the best ideas person (I’m better at execution), so it felt superficial for me to nonchalantly say “Yeah I’ll just start another company.” Yes, execution is paramount, but compelling ideas are tougher to generate than people realize. And in my experience, brainstorming the right idea is a creative research process that can’t be rushed.

The good:

  • I started a real estate portfolio with 4 rental properties in Texas and Montana. The Montana property, in particular, has been a whirlwind to set up, but it’s a special story that I’ve come to cherish. And it’s a 15-minute drive from breathtaking views in Yellowstone National Park!
  • I fulfilled my childhood dream of buying a house for my grandparents. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about fancy cars or other luxuries, so helping my grandparents retire was the extent of my youthful ambitions. To contextualize this: they lived 6 hours away, spoke limited English, and faced health challenges. This year, after a few years of convincing, they finally agreed to relocate to Dallas. I closed on a spacious home in a new development amidst a large Vietnamese community to help them feel at home. We moved in together, and my parents conveniently live nearby so they’re able to visit and help often. While I occasionally miss my former city and the privacy of living alone, the sacrifice is unquestionably worth it. I ultimately did right by the former kid in me.
  • I became an adjunct professor for my alma mater’s business school, teaching a course called “Startup Launch I.” It’s an advanced entrepreneurship course that emphasizes real-world market validation and critical analysis of student ideas. The first semester was successful overall, despite some expected turbulence from revamping the course so quickly. Growing alongside my students was a privilege, and I’m super excited for the next semester.
  • I’ve completed my estate planning, after much procrastination. Now, at least from a logistical standpoint, I’m prepared for the inevitable.
  • My second startup is in full force. This time, I’ve added a new co-founder as CTO while my returning co-founder is CPO. And wow—I’m amazed by the synergy and efficiency of our trio. I won’t divulge details yet since our startup is still in stealth, but I can confirm that we’ve progressed much faster than planned. Work is as demanding as ever, but returning to the startup world makes me feel alive again.

The interesting:

  • After my first international (not counting resorts in Mexico) and solo trip to Japan in 2022, I continued my travel pursuits this year with South Korea and Taiwan. All three were unique experiences that further opened my eyes to the world and myself. I constantly yearn for returning to Japan, but new countries will take priority for next year. So many places to see and cultures to immerse myself in.
  • Concluding my entrepreneurship class this semester felt more bittersweet than anticipated. While I was moping about it, my co-founder eloquently expressed: “Tough love is still love.” Sighing, I realized how much I miss my students. It made me wonder, is this what it feels like for a parent to watch their children grow up and move on?
  • Recently, I find myself frequently daydreaming about watering plants in my retirement.
  •  I’ve started my half-body suit tattoo in Los Angeles. With about 65 hours of excruciating pain endured so far, I think I’m just over halfway done. The artwork itself isn’t inherently meaningful—I just like the aesthetic. Think Japanese, grayscale, abstract, and floral. The true significance for me lies in the deliberate decision to get a tattoo, which also happens to envelop half of my body. Choosing to get a large tattoo represents an open statement of my defiance against societal norms. And designing it to encompass specifically half of my body symbolizes the balance between my rebellion and upbringing. Plus, it’s interesting to face a trial of physical pain for once as opposed to a purely mental tribulation. Oh, and neither my artist nor I knew what the final result would look like (we still don’t). We winged it by picking and piecing together various elements one by one. That required a huge leap of faith to surrender to my artist and her creative process. But we’re enamored with the progress so far.
  • I’ve started exploring my relationship with spirituality, which ironically started because of capitalism. It’s through my entrepreneurial journey that I’ve experienced my most profound hardships, emotions, epiphanies, and growth. To the extent that it unironically feels as though I was born to be a founder. After reflecting on patterns throughout the years, I’ve become more receptive to the notion of a higher entity. I don’t know what that entails yet, but I’ve begun to dabble in religions from Christianity to Hinduism. No rush—I may not have an answer for years.

As predicted, 2023 aggressively challenged my limits, but I overcame the trials and turned the year into a net positive. While I wouldn’t call it an extraordinary year, it feels like a pivotal stepping stone towards one. As though the purpose of this year was to set the stage for 2024.

Looking forward, I predict that 2024 will conclude this metamorphosis. 2022 shattered me to pieces, and then 2023 started to pick them up and establish a new foundation. 2024 will be my time to launch from it and soar once again. I’ve never been more optimistic for a new year.

Cheers to whatever comes next. I’m ready for it.

My first class after they finished their final presentations. Onto the next!

Two Year Update

With my post-acquisition term complete, I’m progressing onto my next chapter in life.

I’ve come a long way in the last two years—personally and professionally. And now I feel more optimistic than ever before. As I’ve told some people, when I look back on my career decades from now, my goal is for SURVIVR to look like a warm-up. And I have total conviction that I will make it there.

Now I’m taking my first step as a part-time Adjunct Instructor for The University of Texas at Dallas, teaching students how to validate ideas and launch companies in the Startup Launch course.

To everyone who has accompanied me on this wild journey, thank you for your support. Get ready for a wild ride.

Corporate Culture

Reflecting upon my experiences as CEO of a startup and VP of a 200-300 employee corporation, I’ve found that while the scopes of my roles differ substantially, they share one critical responsibility: fostering a successful culture.

I always preach that an organization is no better than the people driving it. Behind the corporate facade is simply a group of humans who are bound by contracts. So it surprises me to see how often people approach management so poorly (from being oblivious or apathetic to outright antagonistic). Let’s make management more human, yes?

The first concept to understand is that culture comes from the top. Nobody likes a shitty manager. Furthermore, nobody likes an executive who enables the shitty manager to continue being shitty. It is ultimately the CEO who is responsible for defining, building, and maintaining a positive and productive proper culture.

That said, what does a “good” culture look like? This can be tricky to measure since many employees hesitate to provide honest feedback (even anonymously). My quick answer is that it’s a work environment in which employees simultaneously are satisfied and meet business goals defined by leadership.

More specifically, the observation that I make is how aligned frontline employees are with management. Do the employees believe in the mission, strategic direction, and goals set by management? Do the employees feel equipped and empowered to succeed? Do they actually succeed? Do the employees feel sufficiently heard and valued by management? Read the room to gauge morale and the factors that affect it. You can also submit surveys (take the positive responses with a grain of salt), track trends in business (e.g. revenue, customer retention) and workforce (e.g. retention, referrals) metrics, and conduct exit interviews to gain further insights into your culture.

How can a leader build a strong culture? Put the people first. That doesn’t mean provide ping pong tables and t-shirts. It means instilling and consistently enforcing appropriate values. It means communicating transparently with the team and staying aligned. It means checking in on how the employees are doing, actively listening (as in, shut up and seriously listen) to their concerns, taking action on those concerns as appropriate, and following up with the employees.

This responsibility isn’t as straightforward as most people think. This is why emotional intelligence and communication skills become more important the higher up you climb. You have to actively keep a pulse on your team and lead by example. One misstep and you risk compromising the values that you’ve preached. And trust me, people are tired of managers who say one thing and do something completely different. Put your money where your mouth is.

One example is recognizing toxicity. To clarify: honest, objective feedback isn’t an issue. However, words and actions with the intent to hurt are. There are different levels of severity here, and you have to decide where to draw the line of no return. As in, once an employee crosses that line, the result is immediate termination. Mine is egregious verbal attacks. If you malignantly cuss out someone in my organization, you’re done. No exceptions.

Anything past that line (e.g. sexual harassment, physical attacks) obviously qualifies as well. But anything before that line is more nuanced, such as passive-aggressive behavior. I wouldn’t jump to instant termination for that, but it’s still important to quickly put down your foot. Explain very clearly why that behavior isn’t acceptable and what will happen if it continues. Then ensure that the employee acknowledges this.

An important point to understand here is that inaction is still very much an action. You are consciously making a decision to allow continued behavior despite possessing negative data. Your employees will perceive that loud and clear. And their respect for you will drop before you know it. Now you have trust issues weakening the foundation of your business.

Part of a leader’s job is to make the right decisions, especially tough ones. It’s tempting to punt a termination. To simply give another chance and move onto the next task. Or maybe the offender is a high performer and losing them would harm the business. Don’t be tunnel visioned. A-players aren’t worth keeping if they’re assholes. That will always bite you in the long run.

Happy and aligned employees will stay with you longer and hit your business goals. They will treat one another and your customers well. They will support when you need them the most. The impact of your culture on productivity, growth, and retention can’t be overstated.

So don’t treat your people like an afterthought. Step out of your office and engage with your employees. Memorize their names and take action on their feedback. Prove that you are working for them as much as, if not more than, they are working for you.

People quit people, not companies. So don’t be a leader worth giving up on.

One Year Update

Today marks exactly one year since SURVIVR was acquired. My life and worldview have ebbed and flowed profoundly since then. Frankly, I’ve been at a loss of ideas to post. But I felt that an anniversary is symbolic enough for some introspection. 

To be clear, the purpose of this post isn’t to make any dismal implications or source pity. I just thought it would be nice to take a brief break from my usual business-oriented content. I believe that much of what we see online is a facade, and that everyone has demons that they face deep down. This is an authentic glimpse into mine, in the spirit of transparency.

Starting with the positives. I feel that I’ve attained a new lifestyle that I never had the luxury of experiencing prior. In a world where 70-90% of startups fail, we defied the odds enough to find the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Despite starting at 19. Despite this being my first startup and full-time job. Despite pivoting multiple times in 5 years. Despite not being a tech or public safety expert. Despite the doubters. 

I was blessed to have a team that powered through our obstacles. To have an acquisition under my belt has substantially impacted my ability to support my family and fuel my future career. I’m perpetually grateful to everyone who played a part.

Now for the rest. Once the acquisition closed and I had fulfilled my duty to my team and family, I was free to prioritize myself for the first time in my life. I could be shamelessly selfish and think about privileges like the meaning of happiness. I didn’t know where to begin—it felt exhilarating at first. But then I quickly became blindsided by a torrent of questions and feelings that I had never experienced.

Perplexingly, this past year has raised more questions than answers. My sense of self dissipated post-acquisition, and after a few weeks of frustration, I realized that I had grounded my self-identity in my company. Once the company was sold, my sense of self was in the air. Before, I was Brian the founder, a label that I held with pride. After, I couldn’t even introduce myself to myself. 

I didn’t know who I was, why I’m here, what I want, and whether anything truly matters in the end. Everything felt numb, and the more I pondered the answers, the most lost I became—like struggling in quicksand. Will starting more companies make a difference? Will having a bigger garage make me feel better? Who knows. (Although starting more companies is guaranteed. Nothing else is remotely as fun to me.)

One discovery, for better or worse, was that I no longer fear death. If I run out of cards sooner than expected, I would accept it. Despite my challenges, I’ve lived an extraordinary life with the time I’ve had so far. It genuinely feels like a lifetime already. If this is truly my final act, and lowering the curtains will finally absolve me of all suffering, then so be it. 

Honestly, I thought that I’d feel on top of the world by now. That I could finally release my anxieties and be satisfied with myself and life in general. But evidently, my mind doesn’t work that way. There’s always something more that I must chase.

I still don’t have the answers. They’re as elusive as ever. I still wonder to what extent life is insignificant in the end. After all, we’ll all end up the same way.

However, while I’m anxious, I think I’ll find the answers. No matter how many years it takes—this is the long game. In the meantime, I want to explore life more freely. I’m unafraid of taking bigger risks, treating others and myself more generously, and unapologetically being myself. Forget fear and stifling conformity. I want to believe, with all that I am, that life is meant for so much more than that. That there is meaning in what I do until the very last breath. Time will tell if I accept that as my answer. 

On the penultimate day of a recent vacation, I lucked out and found a solitary lounge chair on the beach away from all of the noise. The otherwise pitch black ocean was faintly illuminated by the full moon. The only sounds were of the gentle wind, insouciant waves, and rustling palm trees to my right. As I stared into the vast night sky and contemplated the smallness of life, I saw my first ever shooting star (yes, yes, I need to get out more). Once the shock subsided, I rushed to figure out an ask, as if the star’s efficacy would expire in seconds. And for the first time since longer than I can remember, I didn’t want to wish for happiness. There will come a time for that, but I wasn’t ready yet.

“Clarity,” I decided. That is what my current chapter is dedicated to pursuing.

SURVIVR Acquired By InVeris Training Solutions

SURVIVR has been acquired by InVeris Training Solutions. Here is the official press release.

We believe that this strategic partnership will open countless doors to new markets and accelerated growth. Our teams could not be better aligned and are excited to continue impacting public safety together. As emphasized in the press release, we exist and are joining forces because of one core belief: Good training saves lives.

Thank you for joining us on our journey. Whether you are a co-founder, employee, investor, advisor, mentor, family member, or friend—your support has meant more than I can express in words.

SURVIVR awarded SBIR Phase III contract to provide Virtual Reality training to US Air Force

Among other recent wins, I’m excited to announce that SURVIVR has gained its next military contract. Our team has been working hard to secure this deal and I can’t be any prouder of them. We appreciate the Air Force’s dedication to innovative training solutions.

“The contract began on August 25, 2020, with an initial award amount of USD $229,500. The end date of the contract has the potential to continue on until August 2025, with a full potential award amount of just over USD $2 million.”

See the full article here.

2020 NTX Inno on Fire Virtual Awards Celebration

SURVIVR was recently named the #1 hottest virtual reality startup in North Texas. As part of the awards celebration, I appeared on a virtual panel with 3 other awardees to discuss our police training, experiences with startup accelerators, responses to COVID-19, and fundraising dynamics.

Check out the panel here:

SURVIVR’s Appearance in the Wall Street Journal

Today, the Wall Street Journal’s ‘The Future of Everything’ podcast released their latest episode called “Technology Helps Train Police Officers.” In this 25-minute episode, producer Janet Babin explores the latest developments in police training, especially in the context of recent police incidents and protests. 

You’ll hear expert voices from places such as LAPD, Axon, and Colleyville PD on how and why technologies such as VR are being implemented into police training. And, as this post’s title implies, you’ll also hear SURVIVR featured as one of the more advanced VR companies in this space – starting at the 6:38 mark.

Feel free to access the full episode here.

On the Passing of George Floyd – A Heavy Path to Tread

It has been a tragic week with the passing of George Floyd. I am saddened by the actions of the officers involved and the resulting chaos nationwide.

People are furious. We all want accountability, reasonable practices, and equal treatment from our law enforcement. No personal characteristics or intrinsic traits, including race, should sway the manner at which law enforcement responds to a call for service.

We all want justice for George Floyd and the victims before him. This rage has been made apparent by the recent protests and riots. Now, I’ve given the violent riots a lot of thought, and while I generally don’t condone them on a high level, I’ve decided to open my mind and refrain from condemning them in this context. It’s true that I’ve been a longtime supporter of law enforcement, and I still insist that honorable officers don’t have nearly the same level of exposure from the media as those who have done wrong. However, I also realize that these riots come after multiple peaceful attempts at advocating for justice and change. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” as Martin Luther King Jr. stated.

Furthermore, I see that this fight transcends individual officers. Evil and wrongdoing exist within every profession and demographic, including law enforcement. But even with our honorable officers working hard to protect and serve their communities, this will not be sufficient until we see change at an institutional scope. This is why communities are rallying against “systemic” policies, actions, and cultures that are fundamentally biased and broken.

All that said, I hope that these protests are a first step towards unity, not widened division. We need to increase transparent communication and collaboration between us, our police, and our government leaders. We need to push for better standards and consistency in law enforcement recruiting, training, performance evaluations, accountability, and leadership. This will require all sides to approach one another with an open mind. Law enforcement, governments, and even the justice system must be willing to embrace real progress instead of hanging onto a sunk cost fallacy. Only then can we begin to see change and slowly mend the everlasting broken trust in our communities.

Is this going to happen overnight? I doubt it, although the widespread protests have served as a highly effective wake-up call to law enforcement. I am also encouraged by the exemplary police officers and leaders whom I’ve met and worked with during my time at SURVIVR. These officers truly strive to make their communities safer and more prosperous from the day that they took their Law Enforcement Oath of Honor. These are the officers who set such a high standard of altruistic law enforcement and community policing that deserves to be followed by the industry. 

We have yet another long and emotional road ahead of us. I look forward to the day that our communities can stand with their police not as enemies, but as allies. There is much listening and action that must be done to get there, but I am grateful to be on the forefront of public safety solutions with SURVIVR.

Our Techstars Experience

Words cannot describe how much Techstars Austin has changed my life.

Since December 2, I’ve drank from the biggest firehose that I’ve ever experienced. The phenomenal staff and mentors took everything that I thought I knew going in, tore it apart (along with my soul), and reconstructed it into a completely new perspective of building a company.

On a super high level, the program consisted of 3 thematic months: KPIs (key performance indicators), execution, and pitching.

The first month taught me how to build a data-driven company. Techstars’ world-class workshops drilled into me advanced enterprise metrics, product-market fit, and financial modeling, especially how all of those topics are inherently interwoven. Then they threw me into a 2-week ‘Mentor Madness’ where I had about 20 back-to-back mentor meetings each day. I had never been more exhausted, yet enlightened and inspired, from speed mentoring.

Following a much-needed winter “break,” the second month consisted of more heads-down work. Each of the 10 companies focused on executing their goals using their newfound knowledge and mentors. Our top priority was rebuilding and accelerating our sales operations, so there was a fair amount of travel during this time.

Finally, the third month shifted to preparing for Demo Day, where the 10 companies deliver a 3-4 minute pitch to hundreds of supporters and investors. Everyone’s pitch changed dramatically several times each week, which the staff guaranteed would be incredibly frustrating (they were correct).

After weeks of agonizing stress, we finally emerged. On March 4, we concluded the Techstars program with our Demo Day pitch, which you can view here.

Throughout the program, there were some constant themes. Mentorship was always emphasized, and the staff blew it out of the park with their selection of mentors this year. 

Cohort bonding was also huge. Unlike with other major accelerators, there are only 10 companies per Techstars cohort. Each of our needs are understood intimately by the staff and one another. As we held weekly standups, workshops, working sessions, happy hours, city outings, and dinners, we became more than just a cohort. We became a family.

After Demo Day, we celebrated at a karaoke bar all night. It was probably the closest I’ve ever been to losing my voice! The following week, we engaged in Investor Week: a bunch of speed-pitching with curated investors from across the nation. Then, that was it.

It was a bittersweet ending to one of the most impactful periods of my entire life. I miss everyone and the daily banter, struggles, and ferocity that we shared in the trenches. Just reminiscing upon those times makes me yearn to relive the past.

Now, with that said, once you get into Techstars, you become a Techstars founder/alum for life. I still keep in touch with everyone weekly, even with remote happy hours (we’ll take any excuse to drink together).

To my Techstars friends, mentors, and colleagues, thank you for pushing me past my limits. I had the time of my life and improved my ability to run a company by orders of magnitude. I can’t wait until the day that we reunite in person, and reengage the Techstars ecosystem as the next wave of mentors.