I (just like one of my co-founders, Kevin Nickels) am a start-up junky. I love start-ups and have done many of them over the years. I had joined early start-ups, run start-ups, sold start-ups, and been at start-ups when they went public.
I have also been through a couple that shut down. I just find life more interesting, more challenging, and more fun in a start-up.
What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to start-ups?
I think what people don’t often understand is that timing is everything. It takes many, many different factors for a start-up to succeed, but one major one is timing. Hitting the timing just right means you can have weaknesses and still succeed, but the perfect company can’t succeed without the right timing.
I think the other misconception is that the idea is the most important thing and needs to be protected. Sometimes people, when they start a company, won’t talk to anyone without an NDA for fear that someone will “steal” their idea.
But ideas can come from anywhere, and lots of people have similar ideas. It is all about the execution. The idea is just the seed; without soil, water, and sunshine, it is not going to grow.
You benefit so much from talking to as many people as possible in the early stages of a company; you learn about the space, you get introductions to important people, and you learn to articulate your value proposition. We talked to everyone we could when we started the company – never an NDA unless they wanted it.
What lessons has been an entrepreneur taught you?
How much time do you have?
For this start-up, we decided to do things differently. One example of this is that we decided to have a flat organization with no managers. There are plenty of mentors at the company but no managers. This has taught me the following lessons:
- People work better and much faster when they don’t have to respect a hierarchy or worry about politics
Communication is far better, and a company can move much faster when an organization is flat; you can literally turn on a dime if the market forces change
- Some of the best suggestions come from people not directly involved in the project, so involving everyone in the process is incredibly valuable.
- Decisions made in the open are better and easier for everyone to learn from.
- We don’t make decisions by committee, but everyone is welcome and encouraged to provide input on a decision
- People take way more responsibility when they feel responsible for the company and their own destiny
Learning is bidirectional.
During the Summer of 2020, we held our first internship program, where we had five full-time employees and 17 interns. The lessons we learn every year from our interns are invaluable.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
For this business, I wouldn’t change a thing. For others that I have started or joined, I would say to make sure your goals and your style of running things are aligned with other founders of the co-founders of the company.
Early in my career, I found myself in a company where I was not aligned with the co-founders in the area of ethics, and I should have left the company earlier than I did. In others, I have found that I wasn’t aligned with my ideals of the speed at which the company should execute.
Unfortunately, the labor laws in the US are not set up for this, but it would be so much better if everyone started in a start-up on a trial basis. If you could do two or three months with a company, you could quickly figure out if it was a fit or not.
Culture is super important in an early start-up, and the culture is set not only by the founders but also by those early employees. If you don’t like the culture of a company, it is going to be a very long and miserable ride.
A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?
Yes, balance is really difficult. But I learned at my last start-up (where I was doing a lot of programming) that walking away from the computer was the best way to solve a problem.
Taking a break makes you far more creative, helps you assess the broader picture, and allows that background processing to take place so that the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place.
As a global company that crosses many time zones, it is hard to work only 8 hours a day, so I try to take days off here and there. I also have dogs that need to be walked twice a day, so that is a great opportunity to pause, walk, and enjoy a good audiobook or podcast.
Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?
We are a company that is looking to make radical changes in the online world, and we do everything differently. The company was founded by seasoned executives who believe that data privacy and security is a fundamental right.
The way the internet is set up today, everyone owns your data except you, you are supposed to go to each site to keep it updated, and they use your data to spew ads and products at you.
The Internet of Things makes it even worse because so many of these devices are inside your house or car, gathering data.
We are empowering the next generation of developers to incorporate privacy into every app and every device. This is deep tech, going all the way down to the protocol level. And we have made this technology open source – so anyone can use it.
In addition to our groundbreaking open-source technology, we are a distributed company with people in eight different countries – we love the diverse mix of cultures and backgrounds.
We are also an age-diverse company, with everyone from baby boomers to interns still attending college, all working side-by-side.
And I mean working side-by-side because we are a completely flat organization with no managers. Everyone picks their own projects to work on, and teams form and disperse as needed for any given project – without management-level oversight.
Everyone picks their own job title and can change it at any point in time, depending on what they want to focus upon. Decisions are made in the open in decision logs, with input from everyone, but decided by the person who wants to move things forward.
What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?
There are so many magical things about this company that the term atMagic is a part of our everyday vocabulary.
From a technology standpoint, we have gone down to the protocol level (below the application layer on the internet) and started there.
That is the only way that you can really ensure privacy and create a highly efficient system at the same time. Our competitors are layering security measures on top of their products, adding firewalls, VPNs, and a lot of administrative overhead.
Our solution is more secure, lighter weight, less expensive, and much easier to administer. From a company standpoint, we have managed to hire the very best people that we have worked with in the past.
The team is an amazing group of people drawn in by the mission and willing to work at a start-up because they feel they can make a difference in the world. I really feel so honored to work with this level of talent.
How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?
We shifted our focus last year in sales to the IoT market, and we are just now seeing our first sales in that market.
Since we are a fundamentally different way to solve the IoT security problem, it takes people a little while to wrap their heads around the technology. But the market is huge, and there are many companies that are hungry for a better security solution.
As we are a foundational technology company (not a solution provider), we talk to everyone in the IoT ecosystem, from device manufacturers to connectivity providers, to the companies and organizations that are deploying sensors and devices.
Our technology gets incorporated into other’s solutions. That makes the sales cycle a little longer but creates a much more scalable customer base.
What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in California over other states in the US?
The three co-founders of the company were located in California. We all moved here to be in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has always been the best place to start a company because of the access to talent and funding.
Broadly speaking, there is also a culture of openness and optimism in California that is ideal for start-ups with really big ideas. However, we created the business as a virtual company – even before Covid. We knew that we wanted to tap into some great resources that were in different countries.
We believed that being a virtual company would give us access to resources that other companies couldn’t tap into. Then Covid hit, and everyone scrambled to figure out how to work remotely. But we were already doing that.
Even though we are a fully remote company, we live and exude the ‘spirit of California’ (especially Silicon Valley) on a daily basis across the global team.
We never shy away from trying something new, being the first at doing something even if that is the total opposite of the norm, and that has become a big part of our culture which has propelled us thus far.
We do love California for introducing the CCPA (California Consumer Protection Act) and for being the first state to recognize that people should have rights to their data.
What (if any) are the weaknesses of operating your business within California?
The expenses of both office space and the salaries in California would have meant that we would have had to raise a lot more money if we wanted everyone to work together in an office in California. Being a distributed company has allowed us to maximize our investors’ money.
We are currently suffering through a cost-of-living crisis. With California already being one of the most expensive states to live in, how has this impacted your business?
This has not really had an impact on our distributed team. But those of us who live in California have had to struggle with this. It is difficult for a start-up to pay people enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in California.
It is no secret that California is the birthplace of innovation. But that also makes it incredibly competitive. How have you found the competitive environment of California?
We have not had a problem in hiring great talent for the reasons stated above, a distributed team, an engaging mission, and an extremely collaborative work environment.
Have you considered moving your company to another state? If so, which state and why?
No. All the co-founders and their families are here.
Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
We will be providing the underlying technology to large swaths of the IoT space, and we expect it to be the default way to protect people’s devices and data.
Our business will also grow beyond the IoT space as we become the underlying technology for a whole new breed of social apps. These apps will respect people’s privacy and will have a very different way to monetize that is not accumulating and selling “user data.”
And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?
- Discord – https://discord.com/channels/778383211214536722/778383211712741458
- Twitter – https://twitter.com/atsigncompany/
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/company/atsigncompany/