Many people concerned about gun violence want to alter laws. Rick Smith is focusing on a tech solution.
“Our track record for solving major problems with technology is really good,” said Smith, who is CEO and founder of Axon, formerly called TASER International. He cites the AIDS/HIV epidemic as an example. No one tried to legislate safer sex to prevent the spread and lethality of the disease. Researchers instead created effective treatments and medication to prevent and treat it.
How do you innovate your way out of death by firearm?
“We’re going to make the bullet obsolete,” said Smith. “It will change the world when we do it.”
After all, Smith added, “Why are we shooting people with bullets? It’s nuts. When that technology was invented hundreds of years ago, the world looked very different.”
Smith launched his company in 1993, straight from earning his university degrees, which include two Master’s degrees and a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard University. At age 23, he created what was then TASER International after studying in Belgium for his Master’s degree.
“I learned that some of my European classmates were hesitant to visit the U.S. due to the widespread gun violence that they had seen on TV,” he said. “I had recently lost two high school friends to gun violence, and I thought that there had to be a better way to resolve conflict than shooting shrapnel at one another.”
He connected with Jack Cover, a NASA Apollo scientist and inventor of the original Taser weapon, which used electricity to incapacitate people. Working in a garage in Tucson, Ariz., his startup developed an improved version of the device, which is now standard equipment for the majority of police in North America, and spreading internationally.
Smith believes that law enforcement and military are eager for non-fatal weapons and that they rarely want to shoot to kill. The challenge is that the Taser stunning device sometimes doesn’t make contact with its target and is not yet as effective in the field as it needs to be. But within a decade, Smith predicts that his tasers will outperform a handgun fired in the same range.
To achieve its goal of making the world safer, Axon has expanded from its role as a weapons manufacturer to become a technology company. Seattle is home to its software operations, while company headquarters remain in Scottsdale, Ariz. Beyond Tasers, Axon’s products include body-worn cameras, in-car police cameras, evidence management software, sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) services.
The new products, however, bring controversy.
People worry about privacy and abuses of facial recognition technology. There are fears about the possibility of racial profiling in “predictive policing,” which uses analytics to identify potential criminal activity. This summer, employees at tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft and Google petitioned their employers to reconsider projects being done for immigration agencies and police departments. (The New Yorker recently featured Axon and its expanding product line.)
Smith said that the concerns are legitimate, but that these are important law enforcement tools that they can be used fairly. He suggested that it would actually be easier to identify and correct discriminatory practices in software than it is in people. Smith said the answer is not for technology companies to abandon these areas because the sensitive challenges.
“Policing problems aren’t going to go away because the smartest people ignore them,” he said. “What we’re doing is controversial, but somebody has got to do it, and somebody has got to do it right.”
We caught up with Smith for this Working Geek, and regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: I live in Scottsdale, Ariz., but I split my time between our Scottsdale headquarters and our Seattle office, and often travel to our international offices.
Computer types: I’m a Mac and iPhone guy.
Mobile devices: iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and Oura smart ring. I also recently fell in love with the GoPro Fusion and Oculus Go, which make fantastic 360-video experiences.
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: At work: Quip is a great tool that we use company-wide. Axon has a lot of collaborative teams that are sometimes split up across several countries. It’s great that a country manager in the UK can comment on a document being drafted by an engineer in Vietnam in real time. It’s the best collaboration tool I have seen.
At home: I’m a fan of Apple’s Final Cut Pro (I am a hobbyist video editor, mostly making family memories into music videos so they are entertaining enough that you want to watch them over and over). I also use a fantastic app called 1 Second Everyday or 1SE. 1SE is a tool that reminds you to take at least one second of video every day, with a super simple user interface to select the second that will go into your highlight reel. It’s really light-weight and easy to use compared to the more intensive video editing in Final Cut. I have a running record of 1-second clips since 2013, and it’s pretty amazing to watch my kids growing up over that time.
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Regarding my personal workspace, I don’t have an office or even a specific desk that I sit at. I’ve been paperless since 2013, so I typically work with just a computer screen and a keyboard, which gives me the freedom to work from anywhere in the office and interact with different people in the company on a regular basis. I find it to be more efficient than having a bunch of papers scattered around me, and a lot less stressful. Sometimes I’ll work from home when I want to focus on bigger-picture ideas.
In our HQ, our top floor is a shared workspace with couches and lounges, and our other two floors have desks and Matrix chairs. We provide comfortable, modern, collaborative work spaces but at the same time respect people’s need for quiet time, or as we call it, “maker time,” to get their work done. We give noise-cancelling headphones to every single employee so, when they don their headphones, their colleagues will respect that they are taking maker time and will not interrupt (in theory at least).
All of our workspace designs include various science fictional elements such as Matrix chairs, iris scanners and starship-worthy portal entry ways. We have a big mission, so I think it’s important for everyone at Axon to feel inspired by the future when they come into work. I frequently hear fellow employees tell me the first place they bring out-of-town friends is in to show them the office. That makes my heart sing, to know that we have created such a special place to work that our team can’t wait to show it off to friends.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? I don’t want to be a company that burns people out and ruins their personal lives. I want people to enjoy coming to work. I take an Olympian approach to work/life balance: Olympic athletes train and work incredibly hard but then have stable periods of recovery, which optimizes their performance. That mentality applies to a work environment as well. There are times when we need to work really hard for long hours, but that needs to be balanced with time to unplug and recharge, and that benefits both the employee and the company. I don’t believe that anyone should have to make the choice between family and work.
I realized a long time ago that in order to be a successful leader, I needed to hire great leaders. I spent years building out our core management team so Axon would not be completely dependent on me day-to-day, and I place trust in our leadership team across the globe to keep up business momentum. My advice to other CEOs would be: don’t be the bottleneck in your organization. Hire great leaders and let them lead so your business can continue moving forward.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? Twitter, which I use primarily to share ideas and inspiration with colleagues and customers.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 198. Can’t wait until my silicon-based AI self can handle the inbox so carbon-me can spend more time connecting with people. Of course, there may be some arguments over who has to take the inbox…
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 19. I typically have between 15-20 appointments/meetings in any given week.
How do you run meetings? One of my favorite approaches was when we created a “meeting app” that asks users to rate the performance of the meeting leader. There was huge resistance from the organization at first — everyone was concerned about public shaming, etc. I took the stand that our most senior managers should be at least as accountable as my Uber driver, so we pressed forward with the rating system and made the results available for everyone to see. Ultimately, there was no public shaming and it did help drive more focus from leaders to make their meetings more efficient and effective although the tool itself is a bit manual, so we use it in fits and starts. When we emphasize its use, I do see a marked focus on better meetings.
Everyday work uniform? I’m usually sporting jeans and an Axon-branded t-shirt that says “Win Right,” “Aim Far,” or another one of our six company values.
How do you make time for family? We live in a world where, thanks to technology, we can literally work from anywhere. My family loves to travel so I never miss an opportunity to take them abroad or on a vacation they have been longing for (we recently did a Disney trip with my teenage daughter and 8-year-old twins).
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Taking vacations with my family is my favorite way to unplug, but I also exercise to relieve stress. I typically do high-intensity interval training with weights around 4-5 times a week, and I time those exercises with a stopwatch instead of my phone so that I don’t get distracted by an email or text message during my workout.
What are you listening to? I’m an EDM (electronic dance music) fan. Armin Van Buuren is my go-to guy.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Flipboard and Medium are my favorites.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I listen to audio books for the most part. I spend so much time reading for work, I relax by listening to books. Latest is “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone about Amazon.
Night owl or early riser? I’m not a morning person by nature, but I usually wake up at around 6:30 a.m. to have enough time to work out, eat breakfast with my kids, and have coffee with my wife before heading into the office. I typically try to get eight hours of sleep. I can function on one night of low sleep, but performance drops significantly with two or more.
Where do you get your best ideas? When spending time with customers. I try and spend as much time with customers as possible to hear directly from them what their needs are, how technology is helping them and what we could be doing better. I always walk away from a customer meeting with 100 ideas on how we can bring our technology to the next level for them.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Richard Branson. I have met Sir Richard on several occasions and always come away inspired and amazed. There are some well-known tech leaders whom I believe led unhappy lives and left a trail of burned relationships. As much as I admire their work, I would never want to have lived their lives. But Branson is someone who has changed the world in several industries while living an amazing life, and leaving a trail of happy people and deep, meaningful relationships in his wake. That is truly someone to emulate — accomplishing great things while building people up along the way.