Our Founders: Sonny Tai, Co-founder and CEO of Actuate
Prior to founding Actuate, Sonny served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, where he led Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection planning and training. After the Marine Corps, Sonny helped corporate executives solve their most challenging growth and operational problems in a strategic advisory.
Sonny graduated with a B.A. from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
Tell us about Actuate and why you started the company?
I was born in Taiwan but grew up in South Africa. While I had wonderful childhood experiences growing up in South Africa, it also has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. We had family friends robbed at gunpoint, carjacked, and even a close family friend who was fatally shot. As a result, my mom brought us to the United States when I was 13 years old. I also developed a deep, lifelong desire to protect others, leading me to join the Marine Corps and ultimately start the company that became Actuate. After yet another mass shooting in late 2017, I decided to look into how technology could help save lives during crises. After speaking with dozens of law enforcement and education leaders, a common piece of feedback was that they wished existing security cameras could identify threats in real-time, so I decided to dive into building a company that would solve this problem.
Actuate recently raised a Series A of $8M to enhance your AI Software. Can you share more about your plans for this next phase of the company?
In 2020, we found that we had a scalable, repeatable sales process and began driving a lot of explosive growth, going from several hundred cameras deployed to over 10,000 in less than a year. However, we knew that there were bottlenecks with the number of customers that we serviced. We knew we needed to raise to hire the sales and engineering talent needed to continue scaling at that pace. Since we closed our round, we’ve filled several key roles in sales, engineering, and product management, and we’ve also invested heavily in marketing and PR.
What’s been the most important milestone for the team?
Landing our first customer in remote monitoring in July 2020 was absolutely huge for us. After schools, hospitals, and corporate offices were closed due to the pandemic, we needed to market to a different customer segment. In remote monitoring, we found a customer that was largely pandemic-proof and moved fast to sign large contracts because of the immense economic value that our AI brought to their operations. Signing that first remote monitoring contract was proof that direct sales to this segment was the right near-term sales strategy, and it was what enabled us to quickly drive enough growth and traction to raise an oversubscribed Series A round.
The world is getting more complex, uncertain, and dangerous. We believe tech can and should play a key role in reversing the course here. Can you share how Actuate has had an impact for its customers?
In real-life deployments, Actuate has enabled security teams to respond immediately to threats such as intrusions, narcotics deals, and vandalism. While we haven’t caught a real-life gun threat yet, we expect it will eventually happen as we continue to scale. Actuate has enabled security teams to “do more with less” and react to threats in real-time while doing so in a way that minimizes privacy and bias concerns. Ultimately, there are always trade-offs between security and privacy; we’re confident that Actuate will continue to make our communities safer while minimizing privacy implications, and based on our growth to date, it seems that our customers agree with us.
What do you need to know before becoming an entrepreneur?
Founders need to realize that even if they work for 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, that’s still fewer than 100 hours a week to get things done. It’s okay to get help. From your first co-founder to every seller and builder you hire, the team that you put together will make or break your business. Founders should hire talented, passionate people and trust them to execute as much as possible. If you’re rigorous with your hiring processes, you’ll be surprised at how much a small team can accomplish.
Our TVP Founders tell us there are so many lessons in entrepreneurship. What’s the biggest lesson from your Actuate journey?
Founders need to approach building a company with a deep sense of intellectual humility. It is impossible for founders to be good at everything and know about everything, so your most important job is bringing in people who have complementary skills but share your vision and values. The best decision I made in the company’s lifecycle was bringing in my co-founder, Ben Ziomek. When I first met him for coffee in early 2018, we scheduled a 30-minute coffee chat that turned into 3 hours. After meeting, I knew that he had all of the skills I lacked to build a technical and operational team around. I could tell from our long conversation that he shared my vision and values, so I immediately offered him the opportunity to be my equal co-founder, even though I had been working on Actuate for a few months before we met.
Ultimately, the team is everything, and if a founder can put the right team together, everything else falls into place.
“We, unfortunately, live in a world where active shooter events and public safety threats continue to make headlines year after year, pointing to the critical need for faster, more accurate, and privacy-conscious security management solutions.”- Sonny Tai, CEO of Actuate
How has your experience in the US Marine Corps influenced your career?
In the Marine Corps, we’re taught that integrity is paramount. For example, when I was a brand new, 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant, I saw the Marine Corps fire 13 officers because they cheated on a land navigation exercise. These values that I learned in the military have carried over to my private sector life, where I also never sell my integrity for short-term gains and expect every person I work with to live up to the same standard.
I carried this with me to my consulting career as well, where I developed a reputation for doing and saying the right thing, even if it’s not necessarily something that the client wanted or expected to hear. At Actuate, we’ve quickly developed a reputation for being honest in an industry where technology companies have a history of overpromising and underdelivering.
What’s your advice on what an entrepreneur should look for in an investor?
An entrepreneur should look for an investor that falls into three primary buckets — values, personality, and capabilities.
- Values — Does the investor share my conviction in our mission and a similar ethical worldview?
- Personality — Will I enjoy working with this investor, even when circumstances become difficult, or things don’t go as planned?
- Capabilities — How can this investor help take our company to the next level, whether through their network, expertise, or resources?
The best investor proves to be a strong fit in all three domains. Still, all else being equal, I think that values and personality ultimately matter the most, as they determine whether the relationship with an investor will be a collaborative or contentious one.
How do you balance being a CEO with everything else in your life?
In the Marines, we’re taught that good leaders practice “centralized command, but decentralized execution.” Ben and I are the facilitators and decision-makers, but we give our team members a great deal of agency in execution. By having a world-class team and trusting them to execute rather than micromanaging everything, it’s not difficult to have a reasonable work-life balance as a founder.