Your last company was backed by Sequoia. What was it like getting the that funding?
The entire experience of growing a business from just one desk and a phone to receiving millions of dollars of investment from Sequoia Capital was indeed quite a run.
I am an architect by training, not a businessman or entrepreneur. I did my best to grow this company from scratch using common sense, determination, and a whole lotta grit. I initially knew nothing about fundraising and had never heard of any of the VCs in Silicon Valley.
When we were first starting out, I went to a few family friends who I knew were real estate investors to pitch my idea. I remember printing the business plan on architectural plot paper and when the meeting started, unrolling the plot paper across three table tops to show the investors the entire plan (it was over 9 feet long end-to-end!). Within a month, we received our first $200,000 and we were off and running.
I was also fortunate to have been introduced to someone at Madison Park Group, who had a unique specialty in raising capital for CAD businesses. I spoke to one of the partners over the phone and agreed to meet him in Chicago during a layover he had while traveling from Los Angeles to New York. Within 30 minutes, we had signed a deal and I had given him a check to work with us. Forty-five days later, we received 10 term sheets from tier 1 investors including Sequoia. It was an amazing rocket ride to the top.
Don’t get me wrong -- we didn’t always have funding. It was hard work and there were times we couldn’t pay staff. I actually had an instance where employees petitioned management to stop paying late. It was rough and definitely took a lot of hard work.
What happened to that company?
The company, Satellier, was absorbed by a larger engineering firm, which essentially took our team and turned it into an internal division that focused on international work.
When it came to leaving that company, I was ready to go. I felt we had already reached our peak and I was a little frustrated towards the end because I had been providing services with someone else’s technology and I wanted to develop the technology on its own.
Did you always imagine yourself as a founder?
I went to Yale for undergrad and Cambridge for architecture. At school, I was the anti-technology guy; all of the work was done in pastels and watercolors, and I imagined I would pursue the path of a traditional architect.
My first memory of being intrigued by computer aided design technology goes back to an experience I had at Cambridge in 1989. The second-year architects were tasked with producing a scheme for a new library in Cambridge. We all presented using the usual chalk pastels pencils watercolors. Matthew, my somewhat eccentric classmate and the only technophile in the entire studio, presented his project using a computer monitor. We all gasped when we saw his design. That that particular episode was one of the foundational stones for my ideas today -- to use tools and information to make design better. It’s 2019 now, and I am finally realizing that vision for other architects everywhere.
Has being an architect helped or harmed you as an entrepreneur?
That’s almost an unanswerable question, I have to say. For the pros, given the business I’m in, I’m able to make a strong connection to the end user. I am the end user. That’s a massive benefit of the business -- I’ve been there and understand the process. I also know how to help the client think through the project possibilities because I am the client myself.
On the negative side, an architect is a right and left brainer. There’s this constant, ongoing battle between those two sides in me. As an architect, I believe in the power of design to transform the lives of people everywhere. Companies like Apple understand that too. The success of Smart World will lie not only in the extensibility and robustness of the data backend, but it will equally lie in the genius, beauty, and elegance of the user experience and journey on the front end, too. That is where my being an architect really matters.
At the same time, the businessman in me is every bit interested in building a business. I loved scaling my last company, and I look forward to doing it again. I guess having a startup is also a building process, and if you understand how buildings are made, you can imagine that companies are made the same way, with plans, foundation, good right materials, and from the bottom up.
Has anything surprised you when launching the business about yourself as a leader?
When I first launched Cityzenith, I had the foundation as an entrepreneur and an architect, but I had no foundation in tech. I literally had to learn, so I got experts to sit with me and teach me what to do. That was a challenge and it took more time than expected.
My team was very helpful. I did a lot of reading -- articles, books, blogs, etc. I attended seminars as much as possible to learn. Whatever I was missing, whether that was civic data, IoT, or AI, I tried to learn and digest it all. The lesson here was that the ability to set a self educate remains one of the most important skills any business leader needs.
I also have no real background in management. It’s something that I had to learn on the job in my previous businesses. When Satellier really began to scale, the board invested in executive coaches to teach me the many fine points of next-level management. At the time I was in my mid-30s and I must credit my coaches, both of which I have to this day.
Describe the Cityzenith team culture -- what’s your office like?
Our team is located around the world. Most of the team is in Chicago, but we also have people in London and New Delhi. We are a “tribe of experts” and super dedicated to the work. Our structure is very flat; I run things completely merit-based and results driven. That’s helped remove any politics from the office and create this certain kind of family vibe.
What has been one of the hardest challenges when launching Cityzenith?
The hardest thing has been not being able to have commercial success until the baseline product was ready to go. It was incredibly difficult to build that baseline and we had to continually source investor money. We needed to sell investors knowing that there’s a chance the next version might fall apart. This involves creating a new story every time we have a failure.
We also had to build our team around these baselines. Every time we had a product fail we basically lost a team. We had to constantly test, rebuild, and go back to what feels like zero in order to grow. That was really hard to do, especially while having keeping investors, clients, and the team upbeat and positive.
What’s your superpower?
My superpower is my voice. I find I have a God-given ability to persuade with my voice. It doesn’t need to be in person, it could be over the phone and several countries away. It is my voice ultimately that educates, befriends, convinces, persuades, and seduces. I have always had a natural knack for speaking, but developed my vocal style slowly over time. I used to just talk and try to impress, now I connect with the people to whom I’m talking. When you connect with someone, your voice sounds different, and when you can connect with your customer, you get their business.
What’s your kryptonite?
Impatience. It can get the better of me.
Do you have any hobbies?
I have been maintaining a 30 gallon coral reef aquarium for the last two years. When I was 14, I worked in a marine pet store and I had a number of tanks in my house growing up. One day, I was walking home with my daughter and we passed by one. I went in and bought an aquarium and now I’m growing ocean corals, like a garden. It takes constant attention and is very soothing.
What are your favorite gadgets?
I’m not a big gadget guy, but I’m an avid guitar player. I have six guitars and my favorite is a new Paul Reed Smith McCarty 594 electric. Talk about a gadget for guitar lovers. Some of my favorite players play it.
For the last three years I have been studying with local Chicago jazz legend Frank Rumoro, who has been teaching me jazz theory by hook or by crook. I am so grateful to have him and he has made me a better player.
While I was building Satellier I learned that you have to live your life while you build your business. There are no guarantees, ever, and therefore you must always keep living. We CEOs are more than our businesses, though most of us get so wrapped up in what we do that we often forget that.
Most startups fail — this is crazy and super hard — what’s your relationship with the risk?
All founders develop a relationship with risk, but mine has changed over the years. I’m less afraid today.
When I started out, I had a lot of early success, so I didn’t really think of failure. When that failure came (which was bound to happen), that was a wake up call and helped me realize that failure is a possibility.
For example, I once tried to launch a furniture design business, called Urban Tribe Design. I put money into it and spent 3 years working out the concept, only to eventually realize it wasn’t going to work. That was the first time I had the feeling “maybe I’m not cut out for this.” I had to change my own mindset to accept that it wasn’t that I was wrong for the job, but I just didn’t approach it the right way. Three years later, I launched the next business that was backed by Sequoia.
The greatest risk is not acting.
You never know where an idea is going to go. Be objective about it. If you act everyday with purpose you are more likely to succeed. If you choose to be overcome with the fear of risk or the unknown, then you aren’t optimizing your efforts and energy to reach success. Fear is the enemy of business, and if you have the attitude that this is the right thing to do and that there is a purpose and reason for this, you won’t be as distracted by fear.