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.s

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.

Competing at GSEA U.S. National Finals

Earlier this week, I represented the City of Dallas at the U.S. National Finals of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) competition. This year, the competition was held at Startup Grind in Redwood City, California.

This is the latest in my long series of competitions, and the competitors seriously made me fight for it. They are the 30 1st place student entrepreneurs from the regional GSEA competitions across the U.S. As the staff liked to note, “This is a room of winners.”

One of my favorite aspects of competitions is the diversity of leaders and businesses that they expose me to. Off the top of my head, I recall businesses involving a Vietnamese coffee brand, incentive awards for undistracted driving, animations for conflict mediation, tech-based company swag, and improved medical IV equipment.

Two entrepreneurs stuck out the most to me: Rachel Zietz of Gladiator Lacrosse (she started her company at 13 and appeared on Shark Tank at 15) and Mandeep Patel of ElecTrip (who went on to win 1st). I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t intimidated at all during the competition.

This competition was unique in that it emphasizes the entrepreneur more than the business. Thus, I had to reflect on my personal journey, challenges, drivers, and goals. It’s not often that I think deeply about myself, so this was a personal learning experience, as well.

At the end of the day, I advanced to top 5 finals and pitched again, taking home 2nd in the U.S. Even better, Mandeep (1st) represented Houston and Austin, so Texas dominated this year. Don’t mess with Texas, y’all.

Act in Days; Think in Decades

This New Year’s post is dedicated to a quote by Bill Gates that has kept me going in even the toughest patches:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

I’m not usually big on quotes, but this one has a profound truth to it. One of which is: humans tend to be incredibly short-sighted.

Most of us think and act only in the now. We get so caught up in the issues of the present that we lose sight of the long-term vision. Therefore, while dealing with today is still important, we fail to optimize for future growth and possibilities.

Let’s break down the quote into its two core components:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year...

Many New Year’s resolutions turn into dust because people lack the commitment to fulfill them. I believe that this is often caused by:

  1. A fixation on living the dreamy end result now, rather than the journey and discipline required to accomplish it. Which leads to…
  2. A set of flawed assumptions and goals for that journey. Which leads to…
  3. A sharp drop in morale when that misalignment becomes apparent.
Easy example: going to the gym. I dread going to the gym at the start of a year (or semester back in college) because it’s always overpacked. However, I always find solace in knowing that the crowd will inevitably shrink within a few months.
Why? Because:
  1. Most new people only focus on the outcome of being ripped now, so…
  2. They expect such results in an unreasonable timeframe and misunderstand the necessary steps to get there, so…
  3. They ultimately become discouraged when the work outweighs the lack of instant gratification.

This leads us to the final part of the quote:

...and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

It’s so much more tempting to quit when we don’t adopt a long-term growth mindset. Those who do adopt one can appreciate that the early stages are full of rough patches and uncertainty.

But they also grasp the concept of compounding returns unlike the quitters, who either think that progress will forever be dismal or are too impatient for the trench of disillusionment. 

Moral of the story: while we act in the now, we must think in the distant future. Imagine where you want to be in the next 10+ years, and THEN trace back to methodically deduce appropriate goals for the next day, week, month, year, and so-on.

You may not look like the Hulk by the end of this year, and that’s not the end of the world. Your actions will continue to build on one another.

In the meantime, what did you learn? How did you grow? Keep taking it one step at a time, and over time you can look back to see your results compound. Now those are rewards that are worth reaping.