School for Startups Podcast

School for Startups Radio’s, Jim Beach, dives deep with Rick on what led him to found Axon and pursue his mission to end killing. It’s a hopeful and meaningful conversation you don’t want to miss. Listen to the full conversation at School for Startups.

I’ve been tasered seven times. There was a cop who once told me that once is curious, twice is stupid. And somehow I made it up to 7 in the early days, when we were doing product development. We’re pretty scrappy, and so some of us were using ourselves as test pilots, or guinea pigs, depending on how you want to put it. And then as we rolled out new products, I used to get hit with each new version of the taser as it came out. Then once I got to seven, I figured, that’s a lucky number. This is getting ridiculous. I’m done. So I stopped at seven.

I can show you studies upon studies until I’m blue in the face, but people don’t have time to read all that. So I can show you a video of me, say, “Look, I’ve done my own research, and I felt secure enough to take it at myself.” It answers the question about safety pretty effectively.

Humanity’s oldest problem is our habit of killing each other. It predates the bullet. Conflict resolution throughout most of human history consisted of, basically game building.

What’s interesting is, it’s actually down dramatically by a little bit. The amount of killing in the world is down by a factor of like, 500 times over the past couple of centuries. So when I first started writing the book, I thought, am I crazy to think that we could eliminate the practice of killing? And then, as I started doing the research on the book, I realized, wow, we’re 99% of the way there; we’ve already made huge progress. If we lived 500 years ago, or even 300 years ago, public executions were just a regular thing. Every society on Earth had incredible levels of violence.

When we think about medieval Europe, it seems nice, but it’s not, it’s the guilty being burned at the stake. It’s Viking raids that used to just destroy villages and plunder. And for the most part, in most of the world, that is not how we live anymore. Now, we still have pockets of violence and the purpose is now to push the envelope and say, “Okay, where is it that we still kill each other? Why do we do it? And how can we come up with other ways for police to protect the public or even for the military to conduct missions that don’t involve killing people?”

I think in terms of what is acceptable killing, it’s things like in police work, where cops, they have a job to do, and they’re dealing with armed people, and most people may not realize this, police are not trained to shoot to kill, they are allowed, and a lot of them shoot only to stop a threat. It just happens today that the only way they can effectively stop a threat is to kill them. But if we had Captain Kirk Star Trek Fazer, there would be no rationale for why police would need to kill people anymore, if they had weapons that were more effective than a gun, and yet non-lethal. And that’s sort of the key thesis of the book, that and we can apply it even to modern military operations, for the types of wars we’re actually embroiled in right now. Killing is counterproductive, we’re not going to kill our way to success in Afghanistan. Because for every person who you kill, you ultimately alienate a family or another clan, and you end up creating more people to go into the resistance against whatever it is we’re fighting for.

My son served in Afghanistan, so I get it. Look, I want him to be safe. And he’s got his M16, and he’s got his combat training. However, the greatest risk factor he’s likely to run into is something like a pregnant woman walking up to a checkpoint, or a 12-year-old boy. There have been situations where suicide bombers like that approach, we need a mechanism, how to stop them. And we want our 18-, 19-year-old kids having to kill civilians because they have no other way to stop them from getting up close to where they might detonate a hidden bomb. Those are the real problems we face in combat today. That’s a far bigger problem for the US military than how we shoot down an enemy fighter. We’ve got the advanced combat systems pretty well figured out. But we haven’t figured out how to deal with the most fundamental—how do we deal with noncombatants that might be dangerous?

Part of what I’m trying to do with this book is to create a rallying cry for my people, like, “Hey, we have work to do, we’re not there yet.” And to start to challenge the way the world thinks more generally. We’ve always just accepted you use lethal force with lethal force. But the fact is, it’s a little bit different, we use the most effective force, which just happens to be lethal. And the minute that the most effective force is no longer lethal, we can separate the act of killing from the act of protecting, which if you think about it, the whole idea of going to protect by killing people, it’s like an oxymoron. But we’ve just accepted that because it’s part of human history. And I think we’re getting to a point where with a little more creativity, and a little more energy, we can break that link, and break the cycle of violence that comes with it.

First, I went to an exchange program at the University of Leuven in Belgium. And while I was living there, I was having a conversation where many Europeans talked about how dangerous the US looked on TV. And one of them asked me if I knew anybody who’d been shot and killed. And it kind of stopped me in my tracks, because I had two high school buddies, who had recently been killed in a road rage incident. And that’s what got me interested in this whole area, and a light bulb went on for me. Wait a minute, forget gun control, whether we should or shouldn’t have guns. Why are bullets still state of the art, it’s hundreds of years old. This area is ripe for technology, innovation. And so out of that, I started a little bit of research.

The taser was actually a branded device, it was already around. In fact, the guy who invented it invented the first version of the taser back in the 1960s. It turned out he lived in Arizona; I was reading articles about him. Before Google, there was this thing where you picked up the phone and hit buttons. And I got his name is Jack Cover, and I just called him out of the blue.

And I said, “Hey man, tell me about whatever happened with this taser thing you invented, it seemed like it was kind of a thing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and then it disappeared.”

And he said, “Hey, come on down and talk to me.”

So I hopped in my car, drove 90 minutes down to Tucson, and knocked on his front door. The next thing I know, it’s literally like something out of a superhero movie. I need this 73-year-old guy who takes me to his house. And it’s like the Batcave. His living room is full of all these prototypes of homemade electric weapons from the 1960s, he even had a cigarette pack version that he called the James Bond version. And he told me about how we’ve been working on this for 20 or 30 years, about 25 years at the time. And he was 73, and kind of frustrated that it hadn’t taken off. I was 23 at the beginning of my career, and I said “Hey, man, why don’t you pass the baton to me? I’ll come down, we’ll work in your garage, and let’s give it another shot like this. This is a good idea. It’s too good of an idea to let it die.”

We have some of the accouterments here. We have a small museum at headquarters where Jack bequeaths to us—he’s now passed away—some of those early prototypes. And I still have his buffalo gun at my house, which is exactly what it sounds like; it is a high powered rifle that’s used for large animal subjects.

What was interesting was my original idea was slightly different. I had gone down to ask him just to learn about the industry, and I was looking at going in a slightly different direction. And then he started pitching me that. But I’ve been at this for 20 years. And we’ve developed two previous companies, and they both did not survive. But the real problem was that the taser was a firearm, if we just got rid of the gunpowder, it would not be a firearm, and therefore, you could sell this to the general public as a self-defense tool, just like pepper spray. And he convinced me to abandon my business plan, and help him launch a new version of the taser, where we just made a minor tweak, to get rid of the gunpowder. Now to do that there were two patents at play that he had, and he licensed those to the company. And then, I think that was magical how we worked together. Jack was a brilliant inventor. He was one of the chief scientists on the Apollo moon landing project back in the ‘60s. But he spent a lot of his time inventing products or inventing devices. As building the company is very different than inventing a device, you’ve got to think about hiring salespeople and marketing and manufacturing and quality systems. And so I think we really married up well together, where we started in the garage building prototypes together. And then I was focusing on building and bringing in a team of folks that can turn this into a functional business.

VCs wouldn’t touch us. They basically looked at us like, “You want to do what?” And ultimately, we didn’t fit into anybody’s niche. We’re not internet, we’re not medical tech. “Hey, we’re going to go build electric guns and make the bullet obsolete!” “Well, it’s a great idea, but it sounds kind of crazy.” So ultimately, the only source of funding that we were able to find was my dad, and we’ve been serial entrepreneurs. And we cleaned him out, literally took him to the edge of insolvency before we finally turned it around. And one of his best friends who was also an entrepreneur who’s done pretty well. Unfortunately, we took both of them to the brink financially before we turned the corner, and then the first penny of outside money we ever raised was in an IPO in 2001. So it came directly from friends and family scrapping, couldn’t pay the light bill to boom public offer. It was pretty a pretty crazy turnaround.

On the day we listed, the main thing we had to do was cash the check. We had about $12 million come in. And I could tell you, I’ve never seen that much money in one place. And all of a sudden to go from where we were millions of dollars in debt to being able to actually pay back some loans to my dad, and know that we weren’t gonna clean my parents out, and know that we had a couple of years of operating capital in the bank was, that was all I needed. That was great.

I’ve hit the point where life is no longer about money. It’s more important how you spend your days, and how you spend your dollars. And by the way, I think that happens too much. Actually, it should happen much earlier than everybody thinks. People think more money makes you happier. And, we’ve seen tons of studies that say once you get out of extreme poverty, to where you can live a reasonable life, there’s no correlation with money and happiness, and I believe it’s only like, $78,000, or something like that. After that, your happiness doesn’t go up. In fact, in a lot of cases, it goes down, because money means more stress. And people find themselves getting on a bigger hamster wheel. So one of the things I like to share with people is, don’t let your life go by because you’re chasing the almighty dollar. Yes, success is great. For the purpose of self-actualization, and for working on problems you care about, but making money for the sake of money, once you’ve gotten to a decent job, like if you have a shitty job because you’re going to go from $80,000 to $100,000 a year. Dude, throw that one out. That’s a bad deal. Your happiness is just not worth it.

Let me tell you the story. We did the taser weapons at the beginning, right. Those exploded between 2000 and 2005. Almost every cop in America started carrying one. You all probably remember, don’t tase me, bro. That was 2007. And all the controversy, tasers have been quite controversial, and there have been legitimate concerns about, “Hey, our cops being abusive with these and overusing them.”

So we pivoted, and we got into the body cameras space figuring, “Hey, what better way to prevent a cop from abusing somebody with a taser than to wear a camera so we can record how they’re using it?” Once we did that, we then realized the real business opportunity here is not selling the cameras, but managing all of the video data that comes off of it. That’s, what we built is the largest cloud data storage on Microsoft Cloud anywhere in the world, we have 50 million gigabytes of police audio and video from all these body cameras. And now that part of the business is bigger than the original taser business, which is a great example of the right attitude, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. All the criticisms about the taser business caused us to go create the body camera, and we call it software business. And now that’s bigger than the original taser.

The one that comes to mind was early in my career, I was struggling with a number of issues at work. And I remember a couple—sometimes you’ve got to be the smartest guy in the room. I remember my dad telling me, you know what, maybe everybody else in the world is wrong, or maybe it’s you. That, to me, was a powerful month. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you gotta be right, you gotta listen and sometimes be open minded. You might just have it wrong. Especially as a younger entrepreneur, I think there’s a little insecurity around that where you feel like you’ve just really got to dig in. And as we’ve grown, and now the company’s a thousand people. I’ve gotten very comfortable. I love nothing better than when people prove me wrong. Because I view it as, “Wow, I sure am glad I got that person.” And they’re smart. And they’ve thought about this much longer and deeper in solving this problem than me. And they prevented me from stepping on a landmine and doing something stupid. So that’s great. So anyways, I’ve learned having people that can prove to you you’re wrong is an incredible blessing. But it’s a hard one to accept, especially early in your career, because you get these insecurities where, “Oh, if I’m not the smartest guy in the room, are people gonna stop listening to me?”

I just signed up for a 10 year, minimum wage comp package where it’s all paid out in stock options. Very similar to Elon Musk’s package, they just did at Tesla. So basically, I’m here for the rest of my career. I’m loving it. I love the company, the missions. Fantastic. I had one point, I was going through a midlife crisis a couple of years ago, thinking about whether I wanted to go do another startup. But I’ve done three startups, I did a taser business, I did a camera business, I did a software business all in one place. And so I’m pretty well set. If we can make the bullet obsolete, I can hang up my hat at the end of my career, and feel like we did something good.

I honestly can’t tell you I have any regrets. I am a big believer in Jeff Bezos, this regret minimization framework. And so I tend to approach life decisions pretty thoughtfully, what am I going to regret? You know, not having taken this risk. And I think that’s where most regrets come from, the path you didn’t take. I typically have used that as a guiding framework as I go into things. I usually end up taking the risk, because I usually come to the conclusion that not trying to pursue the things that excite you, the bigger the greatest risk is because it’s 100% certain that if you don’t do it, then you’ll always question yourself, and you will regret that. So I do find myself in this enviable position. I’m really happy with it, I don’t have any significant regrets in life.

Things that keep me up at night, I was up the other night actually designing a new work pod for my people in the office. Like many people, we have an open office environment. And we’re getting ready to build a new headquarters. And I’ve just been so excited about the creative process that I actually had surgery that day, and I couldn’t go to sleep. I’m doodling on my iPad late into the night. So yeah, things that keep me up tend to be much more on the creative side than the worrying side.

We need more writers like Gene Roddenberry and less like George Orwell, we need more Star Trek and less 1984, because technology is elevating the human condition. We can talk about some things like Facebook, and have some blips and issues. But overall, if we compare what life is like today versus 50 years ago, technology has made it dramatically safer. We’re extending human longevity, we’re seeing much less abject poverty in the world. So I’m an incredible optimist that our generations before us have left us a world that is far superior to what it was a couple of hundred years ago. It’s our job to continue the march. And technology has an important role to play in that. So we shouldn’t get caught up with all this. The government will use every technology to oppress us and exterminate us. Yeah, that makes for interesting movies. But I don’t think it paints an accurate picture of what the future is actually going to look like. Because we’re all building it together. I think most people have really good intentions.

We need people having rational, optimistic voices, because there’s just too much anger and fear in the world today, relative to us making a ton of progress. Yeah, there’s some things that aren’t right. But what I’m sure just seems to be a lot of balkanization, and people getting angry at each other. You know, life is pretty good. And we can make it better. And I don’t think it gets better by just getting angry at each other. We need to think through methodically, what are the problems we need to solve? When the Uber self-driving car killed a lady here in Arizona last year, it got a ton of worldwide attention, right? Since that day, over 1.3 million people have died in automobile crashes driven by human drivers. We can’t lose our minds at the fear of the new stuff, and ignore the perils of not changing. We need to embrace what technology can do for us. Be careful of its perils, but not paralyzed.

In Hollywood, if we can find ways to elevate stories that don’t involve so much killing, I actually think it’d be a good thing to relieve a little bit of our worry. And I’m all for freedom of speech and all that, but I would say I was pretty impressed. Actually, I watched Apple’s event a couple of weeks ago, where they’re launching this new Apple arcade. And I noticed they had done very intentionally towards showcasing a lot of video games that don’t contain gratuitous violence. And I think that just took Apple up another step in my book. It’s easy to create the next first-person shooter game. It’s maybe a little harder to do it without all the violence, but it’s worth thinking about how we entertain ourselves and have conversations that elevate the human condition.