Don’t Compare Yourself to Others” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brady Simpson.
I’m Brady Simpson, founder and CEO of Simtek — a technology company helping people monitor safes and other spaces that don’t have easy access to power or connectivity, in hopes to reduce accidents and theft. Before Simtek, I worked at Facebook in Menlo Park for three years from 2014–2017, and prior to that was a product manager in Washington DC. In 2009 I founded my first company, 3M8 and became one of the first people to build and sell multi-touch tables to consumers out of my college dorm room!

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

I think there are a few types of people in the world when it comes to companies and startups: those who inevitably want to branch out on their own and do their own thing — and those who excel and enjoy working for others and may not have that same desire. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but in my own experience I always felt a sensation early on in life to become a founder of something, anything. The thrill of taking a risk and charting my own path has an allure I can’t shake. I first became a founder in 2009, while a college student at Virginia Tech. Then, fast forward to 2016 I left my well paid, amazing job at Facebook to start Simtek, which was a big risk to take.. It was an idea I’d cooked up many years ago, and thought the timing was right, my network was right — and most importantly, I felt comfortable and confident with the idea that I could make it on my own. In college, I was so naive that I hadn’t given it two thoughts about starting a company and becoming a founder. This time was different. I knew the risks, and I knew the stakes were incredibly high, so I waited until I had a product people liked and a story I could tell before leaving.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Simtek was founded on the premise of helping people become more aware and more alert around gun and valuables access. My story starts personal; when I was a teenager, my friends’ father (like a second father to me) nearly took his own life with his own gun. This event, plus being at Virginia Tech during a shooting, planted seeds in my head about creating technology that people could use to simply monitor guns and other items, and not restrict access. Growing up in Northern Virginia, I had friends on ‘both sides of the aisle’, and I knew that none of my pro-gun friends would want technology that could restrict their guns and subsequently their rights in any way. So I set out to design a simple product that could be used by anyone, without compromising their weapons but that could potentially do some good in the world by notifying the owner that their safe, or weapons might be compromised.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We recently pre-sold $65,000 in product on Indiegogo, and we’re deep in the manufacturing phase. It’s incredibly exciting to build products in Shenzhen China, the consumer electronic capital of the world and experience their way of life and get hands-on experience into how products (like your iPhone) are made. I never dreamed I’d be managing a company that builds hardware and software end to end, from conception and design to manufacturing and rollout. But it’s incredibly rewarding to learn new skills, meet new people, see new sights and yes, run into new problems.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

As a founder, there’s a balance between deep execution into what you’re doing (launching your company, building your product) and learning from outside knowledge. There were several months where I just didn’t have the time or the interest to read much because I felt like I was learning so much so quickly in my startup. I’ve made it a point in the past six months to start reading again more intently, and one of my favorite reads has been a book called The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. I always try to write down at least ONE solid takeaway that can help me improve from every book. This book is a founder’s goldmine! It’s full of bite-sized tactics and takeaways that can be pretty life changing. For example, one big takeaway I had is that incremental improvements (small improvements in products, like trying to build a better Facebook or surveillance camera) will almost always be won by the existing incumbents. New and different innovations on the other hand can be won by the smaller unknowns. It makes sense when you think about it, but I would never have thought of it this way! It’s changed how I think about and evaluate opportunities in life, and you can extrapolate a lot of the advice to broader life too.

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Would you regret it when you’re 80?

This is the question I asked myself before I took the plunge and started Simtek. Let’s face it — when you’re in your twenties, your friends might be getting married and having kids. You probably had a couple jobs already and started to question what you really want to get out of life. I was going through these same questions, and one of the biggest lessons I learned was that I really valued having an impact in life. I pictured myself 80 years old and having worked for other people all of my life, and never venturing out on my own and starting my own companies. This would have been a huge regret, and every fiber of my being rejected that notion. So I learned to project ahead, and live without regret.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive.

Being a founder can be brutal. There’s a lot of rejection. I learned very quickly on that you have to put your ego aside, and just try asking for what you want or need. There’s no one who will pick up the slack, who will move the company forward. It’s you. What this means is that I have to ask for favors ALL the time, and ask for everything from discounts on software and services to asking for feedback on our product and packaging to asking for advice from other founders or even directions in a new country. You can’t be shy, timid or reserved — there’s simply no time for that, and no one cares. One of my most important and talented engineers on our team turned me down for 6 months before he finally joined and agreed to help out. It makes you feel vulnerable to constantly ask for things, like you don’t know all the answers and you should — but that’s okay. It’s forward progress, and that’s what matters.

If there’s a will, there’s a way.

Be creative in how you get things done. I think a lot of founders are either hackers or people who bend the rules in some way — and part of that comes out in the form of finding any means necessary to get something done. For example, with Simtek some of the first code written was done by fellow engineers at my last company, under the radar.

Stay hungry.

It can be easy to get complacent with how things are moving and let your foot off the gas a little. In an effort to operationalize and produce consistent results, I found myself trying to make everything a routine. This is dangerous and sets a bad precedent. Part of why I’m a founder in the first place, is because I took a big risk and did something different. You have to keep asking yourself what else you can be doing, and try new things to survive and thrive. I missed a couple key conferences and opportunities to present Simtek on a more global and national spotlight, because I’d written off conferences after going to a couple. Turns out, they’re not all created equal and you can find value in unexpected places. But you have to be willing to venture there, first — and continue to do so.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

This might be the most important lesson I learned. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people and wonder why you’re not at that point, or how they’re doing so well or what you can do to get there. But this is so dangerous. I started comparing myself and my companies’ success to other founders and other startup friends. Not only that, but I was still comparing myself to my colleagues at Facebook and envious of all their business class travel, closings on new houses etc. I realized that in life, many things are optical illusions — the people and companies you’re comparing yourself to may be doing way better or way worse behind the scenes. 2) Your mental health is important. It’s surprisingly easy to feel defeated or helpless when your friends’ company is killing it so effortlessly. But the truth is it’s much more complicated, and you will only feel worse — not what you need when running a company. Lastly, it’s important to SET GOALS for your life and your company. But I learned it’s a bad idea to set goals based on someone else’s life. There were several days when I started questioning everything just because others were doing seemingly better at earlier stages in their companies. Paradoxically, to keep up with the Joneses, you have to forget about the Joneses entirely.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I’d love to meet the Spanx founder, Sara Blakely. She’s the type of founder that I aspire to be — someone who “goes for it” on their own, and despite all the odds makes an incredible business and product loved by millions. I think she’d have a ton of valuable thoughts to share on overcoming adversity and rejection, sticking with it and focus. She could have quit a million times over, and she didn’t and she ended up becoming incredibly successful. She seems like a fun person and super down to earth.

— Published on June 27, 2018