Many founders have agonized about leaving a perfectly well-paid gig to try something new. It takes courage and self-belief to commit to your dreams, start a company, and bring others on board. This month I had the pleasure of sitting down with Edward “Teddy” Nass, founder and CEO of AIRIA, an AI data analytics platform, launched in 2020, that is helping to create true situational awareness for safety, facilities and IT teams to manage resources and improve planning. His story is inspiring, but his energy, drive and vision is even more so.
The foundation of an idea
“I first had the idea for AIRIA nearly ten years ago when I was still in college. It was a more basic version: a population heat map to help students see in real time where was busy on campus so you would know if the gym was free, or how crowded the library was. I like to think the idea was a bit ahead of its time in terms of technical feasibility, but I lacked the professional experience back then to put together a viable business strategy and execute.
So, I put the idea on ice for a few years. I thought I’d end up in law school, but after college, I was recruited by a UK-based, AI cybersecurity company called Darktrace. I worked for them in the US and then moved to their London office, closer to HQ. I spent four years doing full-cycle, enterprise security software sales across the US & Europe – enduring the highs and the lows – and picked up intimate knowledge about AI, data privacy and digital security along the way. I learned the importance of partnerships and public speaking at conferences, as well as the value of a strong brand and enterprise identity.
The combination of all these experiences, and the ongoing situation with COVID 19, motivated me to rethink my original college idea and go out on my own to start AIRIA.”
The origins of an entrepreneur
“Once my vision for AIRIA was clear, I knew I had to get trusted eyes on the project to validate the concept. I spoke with a long-time business partner and IT expert, John A. Smith. He’s the founder of a consultancy called Conversant Group, based in Tennessee. I shared my idea with him, and he said, “Teddy, if I could bet on ten horses, I’d bet on you as one of them.”
He told me to put together a business plan and hire a CTO. I did exactly what he said, and he became our first investor.
It’s so important to use the business contacts you have and the people that know your work style in those early stages. As a first-time founder, you’re asking people to take a gamble on YOU, and you’re more likely to get a positive reception with people who have already seen how you work and what you can deliver.”
How AIRIA takes advantage of Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub
“We decided early on that we were going to be a Microsoft house, leveraging the entire Microsoft software suite. AIRIA’s CTO, Stuart Anderson, was an Azure expert before we even got started, so we were always going to build on Azure. It’s part of why we were so excited to join Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub. We have a lot of shared values with Microsoft – relating to data privacy and enterprise software – that have made us super excited about the partnership. And we know that the US public sector likes Microsoft, too, which is important in our case.
Every CEO understands the importance of preserving funds so, the Azure credits have, of course, been enormously valuable to us, especially as we start ramping up deployments of our Azure-hosted solution.
But there’s more to it than just credits. Having access to GitHub and the mentor program has also been really helpful. We are taking advantage of the mentoring available as part of Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub. It’s amazing to connect with mentors from all over the world for advice, idea validation, and more. That’s really when you get a sense of the scale of Microsoft!”
Advice from an early-stage founder
“There is so much going on in the early days, and so many things that need to be considered, but you have to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure you know what your goals are in any given week or month, but take it one day at a time. Also, don’t forget that it’s only going to get busier as you grow! Outside influence will always drive you to move faster. Pace yourself, exercise patience and execute. The analogy I always use is spinning plates: You have to learn which plate needs your attention, and when, to ensure they all don’t crash to the ground.
Your first hires are the most challenging to recruit but also the most important. AIRIA is such a deep tech, heavy software initiative that our initial hires had to be highly technical (especially given my lack of technical expertise). After I found our amazing CTO, Stuart Anderson, we brought on four developers, and then a Director of Operations & Strategy to help me juggle legal, finance, marketing, fundraising, strategy and sales projects.
Another big challenge early on is finding enterprise partners for pilots. We don’t have the resources of a big tech conglomerate, so we have to thoughtfully prioritize feature requests and early deployments. The experience I had in software sales has been very helpful here. The secret to landing pilots (and enterprise sales, as a whole) is to leave no stone unturned, identify interested parties who believe in the mission, and make it as easy for them to say “yes” as possible!
You want to work with people who are rooting for you to succeed, not continually raising barriers to that success.”
Communicate, innovate and grow
“When you’re a small company, clear communication is critical. You literally can’t afford for anything to get lost in translation. I’m a non-technical founder, leading a team of sophisticated engineers, so my personal strategy is always to over-communicate to make sure nothing gets lost in translation – thankfully our CTO helps bridge this gap excellently.
One smart decision we made at AIRIA was to design full prototypes of how we wanted the software to look and feel. Once we had that, the development path forward became much clearer. Design work and prototypes can sometimes feel like they’re slowing you down but investing upfront in this kind of visualization is worth it in the long run. Besides, design work is a lot less expensive than dev work!”
At AIRIA, we have two continuous pillars: Innovation and Growth. Innovation relates to improving and expanding the product, making it more useful and valuable for all our customers with exciting advancements. Growth refers to building out the business, in the US and then globally, across a variety of different markets.
Be honest, be thoughtful and execute!
“You’re going to be told “No” more than you’re going to hear “Yes”. Try to remember that the “Nos” don’t matter, but the “Yeses” do!
Along the way you’re going to meet people who feel like you need them to succeed or make you doubt yourself. Take the time to consider if their comments have merit in your context. If they’re dragging you down or holding you back, forget them and keep moving forwards.
Some things will be delayed; some things will run over budget. Learn to manage accordingly. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst!
Finally, be patient, be honest, be thoughtful and execute! It takes 20 years to build credibility and two seconds to ruin it.”
I couldn’t help but be impressed with Edward’s vision both for his product and for the company he is building. He has an evolved sense of the role of a non-technical founder and the humility to work with people who have the skills he doesn’t. Instead, he brings his experience in sales and his network to position his company for success. I look forward to seeing what Edward and AIRIA will do next!
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