Axon Enterprise CEO Rick Smith
Rick Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of Axon Enterprise, a pioneer in less-lethal weapons and a global market leader in law enforcement technology. He notes that the gun is antiquated technology, and it is responsible for tens of thousands of senseless killings every year. Humanity has accepted that killing is an unavoidable fact of life, but Smith argues that it doesn’t need to be this way and that we have the means to make the bullet obsolete in our lifetime.
Smith founded his company, formerly known as TASER, in 1993 with the mission of “protecting life.” The company has since expanded its focus from the eponymous electroshock weapon to an ecosystem of integrated hardware and software ranging from body-worn cameras used by the majority of major US police departments to a cloud-based evidence management system.
Smith is also the author of the new book, The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem. It is a manifesto on how we will be able to protect life without taking life “through technology that redefines public safety and makes our communities stronger, safer, and more connected.”
In this interview, Rick shares his entrepreneurship journey and details how Axon is pursuing the aforementioned mission.
Peter High: Could you talk about the genesis story of your company?
Rick Smith: Two of my high school football teammates were shot and killed in what was an argument that started at a red light, spun out of control, and ended in a parking lot of a local golf resort. When I was living in Europe, I talked with some of the European students, and they had this dim view of America because of everything they had seen in the news about gun violence. As I was trying to tell them that it was not all that bad, one of them asked me if I knew anyone who had been shot and killed. At that moment, I realized that I did. This realization led to some soul-searching, and it was frustrating when I learned that 4,000 people are shot and killed each year in the United States. I was far from alone in having acquaintances who had been through a tragedy of this nature.
As I was reading about the problem, it struck me that everyone seems to focus on political solutions. People want to see if the government will pass a law that will save us all, but that has proved to be extraordinarily difficult. We have not had a great deal of success, and I realized that the way humanity typically solves difficult problems is through innovation. This philosophy dates back to medieval times with the invention of sewage systems and aqueducts. Technology shifts have been the primary driver in lifting the human condition. I realized that the technology we are using for self-defense is a medieval technology. Our method is to fire small lead projectiles at people, and that is an area we could overhaul technologically. We can give people the ability to protect themselves without having to kill somebody in the process.
High: How did you find the taser technology, which was invented by Jack Cover? What was the leap from this insight to beginning an entrepreneurial journey?
Smith: Similar to many entrepreneurs, I was inspired by science fiction. If we had Captain Kirk’s taser from Star Trek, the idea of shooting bullets at people would seem completely outdated. From there, I worked backwards and did a market survey regarding which technologies were out there [at the time]. There is pepper spray and batons, and I came across this taser devise. This immediately resonated with me.
My undergraduate degree was in neurobiology, and I was putting together a matrix of which technologies could be used to incapacitate a human being. If you go through that analysis, electricity pops to the top relatively quickly because if you want to incapacitate someone without hurting them, you want to paralyze their nervous system for a period of time. You do not have to break their bones the way you would with a baton or kill them the way you would with a gun. Pepper spray uses pain, but pain does not always stop somebody. If you want to stop somebody, you need to take out their control, and electricity has some properties that make it great. It has an extremely high safety margin, and it is an immediate effect from when an electric current is applied to a person.
When I came across articles about the taser weapon, I did some patent searches to learn more. In the course of that, I discovered the inventor, Jack Cover, who was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time. This is near where my parents lived, so I got his phone number by dialing 411. I called him out of the blue and said, “I am fascinated with what you have done with this taser weapon.” However, at that point, it had been a commercial failure, and he was retired and quite frustrated that his invention had not taken off. At the time, I was 23 years old, and he was 73. I went down, and we hit it off.
The two of us started another company in his garage, and he mentored me and taught me all the technology. Because I am more of an entrepreneur than an inventor, I was more focused on how we would ultimately build a business. I believe that balance made a powerful combination. One of the reasons it may have failed previously was because he was extremely focused on building the technology. While technology is a piece of the puzzle, you need sales, manufacturing, and a team that can do all the elements it takes to build a business. Bringing this together is what I believe ultimately made us successful.
High: While you found your way to success, it was quite a long slog in the first decade, and you were worried that it was not going to take off. In fact, you were worried that you would wipe your parents out after they had been so helpful financially. What was the pivot, and how did you ultimately get on the right track?
Smith: We wiped my parents out completely, and it got dicey. We started in 1993, and six years later in 1999, I thought our chance at success was near zero. It was extremely dark, but I had no choice because my parents put everything they had into the company. My dad had signed a note that we borrowed from the bank, so if we went under, he would have been wiped out. We launched our first product in the consumer space, and it was a failure. When your first product turns out wrong and you do not find a product-market fit, it is extremely tempting to try something else and look for a silver bullet. We did this with our second product by trying to do an automotive security product, and that was the biggest mistake I have ever made. This was a disaster because we tried to pivot into a different industry. In the dark moment when we realized we were 0-2 and we were running out of cash, we looked in the mirror and said, “Why did we start this business? What is the problem we are trying to solve? Let us forget about money, what is our contribution to the world?” We returned to creating weapons that will save lives, and we knew we needed to pivot into the professional market with police. There were a ton of credibility issues, and consumers thought it was just a gimmick. We determined that we had to get the technology right and prove it with a professional user base. Going into law enforcement forced us to go deep in the product and figure out what was not working and what we needed to fix. The biggest problem was that early generation tasers were underpowered. If you had an aggressive subject, the early generation taser would not stop them. Famously, an LAPD taser failed to stop Rodney King. That was not with a weapon we made, it was from Jack’s first attempt at the company, but it represented the problem we had. We had to figure out how to get the device to be truly effective. We did the hard work in ’97, ’98, and ’99, and when we entered the law enforcement market, the main change we made was fixing the product so it delivered on its promise. We made it so that when you fire this at somebody, they go down. Once we solved that problem and got the product in the market, it took off. Between early 2000 and 2004, we grew from under $2 million a year in sales to almost $70 million a year of sales.
All entrepreneurs have this delusional sense of how easy it is going to be, and then the dark days set in. It got harder and worse, and there was a moment where I wanted to shut the company down. I told my dad to stop putting money in the company, but he said, “That ship has sailed. Anything I got left is less than what we owe the bank. Failure is now total and complete.” It was a sobering moment where we realized, “We have to figure this out.”
High: After this success, you had another pivot in 2008. Through a strategy session, the company determined that rather than simply being a manufacturer of one technology, the company should be the technologists for law enforcement worldwide. Could you talk about that transition?
Smith: There was a failure that preceded that success. After our pivot in ’99, we took off. Then we went through a phase where we said, “We are a taser technology company. What other markets can we sell tasers into?” We were extremely technology-driven, so we built a long-range taser that was fired from a shotgun, and we built a military taser weapon. This taser was similar to a claymore mine that you could set up near a checkpoint, and if somebody came into the zone, you could deploy it remotely. Those products turned out to be big failures. In retrospect, it was because we had the technology, and we were trying to figure out who we could sell it to. The world is full of stories of how that strategy can fail. We had to do some soul-searching, and taking our technology and trying to package it for other industries did not seem to be working. We realized that some of the industries we were trying to sell to did not need our technology.
There is this adjacent problem that when the police use a taser, they often get sued, or the media accuses them of acting badly towards people. We decided that instead of trying to sell our technology to more people, we wanted to solve more problems for our existing customers. We launched body cameras to help protect police by recording these incidents, which they can show to people to prove why they did what they did. The body cameras led to another problem, which was figuring out what our customers would do with all the data that came off the cameras.
We ultimately decided to pivot and create a cloud software back-end. Apple had just entered the crowded music space, and they won by combining the software and hardware. We noticed that our industry sort of looked similar to the music player industry in the late 90s. There were in-car cameras, and body cameras were relatively new. We saw this as an opportunity to add a camera as well as high-value software to manage all the data. I likely underestimated the difficulty of transitioning the company from a manufacturing company to an integrated hardware-software company. That said, it has been highly successful, and we have grown the company significantly. The software sensors business is as large as the taser business, and it is growing much faster.
High: You now have an integrated portfolio of products that law enforcement can use. Could you take a moment and talk about how policing has traditionally been done and contrast that with your vision for how it will be done using your solutions?
Smith: Around the time we were making this pivot, we recognized that for us to succeed, we could not invent every technology our customer would need. We landed on a strategy around looking at trends in other industries and leveraging those trends in our industry. One of those trends was the cloud. In 2008 to 2009, the idea of using the cloud for business applications had already taken off. Salesforce and Amazon were growing, and our market was highly fragmented. There are 18,000 police departments in the United States, and they are all agencies of your local city government. This makes it extremely difficult for them to implement technology on their own. They have a convoluted purchasing process that is highly bureaucratic and slow-moving. This process does not allow for mistakes, and in tech, many ideas do not work. The idea of pivoting and trying something else is nearly impossible for local governments because every procurement cycle can take a year or two. The political backlash if something fails usually means the people who made the call would lose their jobs, so there was not much agility.
As we looked at those characteristics, we realized that we should shift the entire technology delivery model. Instead of our customers buying technology and figuring it out, we knew we could take advantage of the trend that was happening in the rest of the world. All the other industries were moving to a centralized cloud-hosted model where their technology provider delivered their software and connected hardware. It uses the Internet, and the provider provides the functioning service. We are now seeing this with Alexa where you plug it in your kitchen and have all sorts of crazy awesome services that you do not have to figure out how to set up. That same model was already being used in 2008-09 in the private enterprise space. The big bet we made was that we could use this internet-enabled delivery model to create a whole ecosystem of both hardware and software devices that would enable us to deliver capabilities much more rapidly to our customers. Because they would not have to worry about installing software, we could dramatically accelerate their pace of tech adoption. That approach has worked out beautifully, and our customers love it. Once they get on our subscription plans, we upgrade their cameras every two and a half years, and we upgrade their software monthly. As we roll out new software capabilities, they can buy new services from us, which integrates seamlessly with what they are already using. This dramatically decreases the time and energy it takes for them to deploy new capabilities.
10 years ago, police agencies were largely driven by forms on paper. If they did have video cameras, they were recorded on VHS tapes. All of our customers now have cloud-connected audio and video sensors, and we are launching a whole host of software platforms where our real long-term advantage is that our data systems will be primarily sensor-driven rather than human-driven.
Today, police officers spends half their time writing policy reports, but we have audio-video sensors that represent a far better record than any paper report that officers could write. However, a video is unstructured data, so we are using artificial intelligence and machine learning [AI/ML] combined with our new software offerings so that we can extract the metadata from the audio-video record. As a result, the cop does not have to sit at a keyboard and type all day.
We believe that within the next five years, we will largely automate the whole report creation process to where officers will be spending little time writing reports. Instead, a police report will be an audio-video experience where we are automatically transcribing what happened and helping the officer. The officer can quickly dictate a synopsis, and we can extract names, places, identities, and key events. We can effectively double the world’s police by eliminating 50 percent of their workload. We will do that through a combination of our cloud-connected sensors, our cloud software, and AI.
High: In your new book, The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem, you articulate your mission to protect life, and your long-term objectives to make the bullet obsolete, reduce social conflict, and enable a fair and effective justice system. Do you feel as if adequate progress will be made across all three of those long-term objectives in the next five years?
Smith: Most of what we have been doing has been foundational. It has involved building the network, building the infrastructure, and getting the cops to wear the cameras so we can get the data in the cloud. The reason I wrote the book is that this is my manifesto. Elon Musk is a brilliant technologist, and his manifesto is to get us to Mars. Mine is to figure out how we can get to a planet where people do not kill each other anymore, and technology could play a huge role in that.
Starting with advanced non-lethal weapons. I have set a goal that in the next 10 years, we will have non-lethal weapons that outperform police handguns. That is going to be a game-changer because cops are not legally authorized to be an executioner. When they kill someone, it is not because they are out to kill that person. Instead, it is because when they do so, lethal force is the only way to reliably stop a critical threat. However, that will not be the case for much longer. We have a clear line of sight as to how we can outperform lethal force. We believe we will be able to stop someone faster without killing them.
We want to bring transparency to policing. That is already happening with the body cameras, which we are getting a great deal of insight from. There are far fewer cases where police kill someone, and there is a he said she said scenario. Most of the time, there is a video that can be released, so we can see whether the police were acting rationally or not.
I also wrote the book to take on the controversial issues around AI and facial recognition. These are scary technologies, and they could be misused. However, they could additionally be used to make our justice system much more fair and efficient. We need to get past the initial, “Are police going to turn us into China where we are using face tracking to track every citizen every minute of the day?”
Recently, our ethics board recommended that we do not deploy facial recognition on body cameras, and we are restraining from doing so. I do layout a vision in the book that facial recognition does have a role to play in the future of policing. We have to move carefully to make sure that it does not get abused, that it is sufficiently accurate, and that it is not biased before we start to use it. With these controversial technologies, the answer is not going to be a simple yes or no. Instead, it is going to be nuanced around what sorts of controls are in place and how we can use this technology to make communities safer in a way that does not throw everybody’s privacy away. These are exciting problems to work on because they are going to have a huge impact as we roll out different tech solutions over the next decade.
High: You referenced the AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board that you have created to ensure AI advances with ethics in mind. How have you populated this board, and what mandate have you given them?
Smith: We started by doing a media scan to find the more critical voices of policing. We brought in some groups that tend to be more focused on police oversight. Listed below are some groups and individuals that we brought in;
- Barry Friedman from NYU, who is a constitutional lawyer and professor who runs the NYU Policing Project;
- Although the EFF did not formally join, we have people representing their organization informally on the board;
- Community groups representing communities of color, including law enforcement communities of color. For example, The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement is on our board;
- Some academics with expertise in AI;
- Miles Brundage from the Future of Humanity Institute;
- Several police chiefs.
We have to include some police on the board to represent our customers’ interest, but the board is 75 percent oriented towards civil liberties groups.
We put a great deal of thought into if it would be a part of governance that had veto power over our roadmap. We decided not to go in that direction because if we did, we would have to focus on gerrymandering our board to make sure that the board’s interests aligned with ours. If it is always going to agree with us, why even have a board? We made a decision, we are extremely transparent, and the board agreed with this decision. We want a board that is going to challenge our thinking, and that means we are not always going to agree. The board does not get veto power over the company’s roadmap, but it is going to be tremendously influential. It is going to be a difficult situation for us if our board is making one recommendation publicly and we are doing something else. We are going to have to carefully understand all of the issues before we proceed with something our board does not agree with. Ultimately, that is what will make the board powerful. We intentionally chose one that is not aligned with our traditional core market interests in law enforcement. Instead, it is more aligned with some of the groups that are impacted by law enforcement. We believe that is the right way to make sure we are getting people that are challenging our thinking to make us better.