S9E12: From Navy SEAL to saving lives through technology, with Mike Lahiff (CEO, ZeroEyes)

An episode of The Impact Multiplier CEO Podcast

S9E12: From Navy SEAL to saving lives through technology, with Mike Lahiff (CEO, ZeroEyes)

We're continuing our season "Mission-Driven CEOs". Top Chief Execs talk about the impact they want to make beyond just the financials - in terms of the company mission and their personal leadership legacy - and how they put that into practice on a daily basis. Today Richard speaks with Michael Lahiff, former Navy SEAL and now CEO of ZeroEyes, an intelligent video analytics company that uses artificial intelligence with existing security cameras to detect weapons and send alerts to local staff and first responders.

In this conversation, you’ll learn:

  • The chance conversation that set Mike on his new mission to save lives at scale
  • How the company has grown in 5 years despite the COVID pandemic dramatically impacting their core market
  • The hiring strategy that Mike uses to 'piggyback on high-performance culture'
  • The three key military watchwords that Mike has repurposed as a leadership mantra in business

"It's like climbing a mountain knee-deep in mud..."

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Transcript

Richard Medcalf
Hi Mike and welcome to the show.

Mike Lahiff
Thank you for having me. Oh, Richard, really appreciate it.

Richard Medcalf
Well, this is going to be a cultural voyage for me, right? Because you're the Chief Executive of one minute describe is a very American business, but it sounds like it's really essential and needed. So I'm just gonna say jump straight in and just explain because I think it's extraordinary what you're what ZeroEyes is all about. What is it in a nutshell?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah, so ZeroEyes, we're a video analytics company. We use computer vision models over existing security cameras to detect guns stand when a guns detect that we can send alerts to first responders, local staff and security. So they have more actionable Intel to stop mass shootings and active shooters, save time save lives.

Richard Medcalf
Right. So you are on a mission to stop mass shootings, right? That it's a life and death business.

Mike Lahiff
Yes, absolutely.

Richard Medcalf
And so obviously, I'm saying it's a very American business, because we know that obviously, in America, particularly of all countries, there is a issue with gun violence. What's your backstory? So how did you get into, you know, this incredible idea of video analytics to prevent shooting mass shooting incidents? I mean, that's, you know, interesting journey to get there. So, how did it all start?

Mike Lahiff

So, so we're based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I grew up here in Philadelphia, but I'm gonna I'm gonna rewind the clock a little bit here. In back when 911 happened, I was in college and shortly after that, I dropped out of college and went and Lucent and navy to become a seal to where I met, the majority of our CO founding team did that for over 10 years and then it was it was time for a career change, because I want to spend more time with my kids and I was away a lot when I was in the military. So I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. So I figured business school would help me figure that out. So I applied to business schools, and I was fortunate enough to get into Wharton Business School here in Philadelphia. So it was a nice homecoming and then that was 2013, but then dabbled in a couple different jobs and then fast forward to 2018 and unfortunately, like you said, and United States, lots of active shooters, mass shootings, especially since Columbine and Columbine happened in 1999 and it's just gotten worse year over year but back in 2018, Parkland School shooting happened. My oldest daughter was in junior high at the time, came home from school and our school started doing active shooter lockdown drills and it but that was the first time for her to experience something like that and she was very upset and she was like, are they going to come in and shoot my school, like at these other schools, and I was like, this is just not something needs to change, something needs to change. Now, everyone's been saying, you know, never again since Columbine, but every time there's a shooting, they say never again, people just offer thoughts and prayers, but action needs to happen and me and my co founders started take action and so we started ZeroEyes in 2018. In a really, I was at my daughter's school for indoor sports practice and I was just waiting for it to finish I was sitting there I was looking around, I was a camera. It was like every 1520 feet in a school is a security guard who was looking after him and he just laughed. He was like, no one's looking at them. We just don't we only use them after something happens. So I was like, Wait, if we use those cameras detect guns, and provide better information. I was like, we can help save lives and here we are.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, I think it's interesting racist that one comment almost from your daughter, that it used to go, you know what, like, something has to happen and then it's so creative to say, well, let's get technology on the case. What was the link? Right? So how did you? So you're really involved in visual, artificial intelligence, visual recognition, those kinds of things? Or was that something you felt you had to go and research and learn about? How did you make the link from one to the other?

Mike Lahiff
It was a little bit of both, you know, I dabbled in some tech startups. One of my co founders is very heavy in attack. He actually worked for him before, when I was in business school, he had a previous startup and when I was at Comcast, I work around a lot of engineers, but also knew some folks that were doing facial recognition technology and other computer vision stuff. So I was just learning more about it. I mean, computer vision is still in its from the scale business perspective is still in its infancy and I just kind of I realized that people could do facial recognition technology, but I was like over security cameras, why can't we detect a gun? And you don't have to deal with all the political baggage of privacy concerns and everything else? Like we're detecting an object. Everyone wants to know if someone's walking around with a gun where they shouldn't be and yeah, and so we just started chipping away at it. It was a it was, I mean, it's still an uphill. I feel like every day I'm climbing a mountain knee deep in mud, and there's no peak to it but it's but it's okay.

Richard Medcalf
They're coming in after knee deep in mud. Yeah. Often that's like that. It's a great definition of our businesses, right? You people don't see that often. They see the peaks, you know, when you have your big success, but they don't see all the well, the muddy marshes in Texas.

Mike Lahiff
Takes like seven years for an overnight success or something.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, no, that at least probably probably taking you your whole life. In many ways and yeah, and so who do you actually sell this equipment to or this service? You know, who is it for schools? Is it for governments? Enterprises? Who are you focusing on?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah, so we started this. I mean, we formed a company specifically for schools and that's where we started our first, after we got our MVP off the ground, we went into a school, they're a beta customer, and they're still a customer today. Excuse me a burner, the so we started off in schools and what was interesting when COVID hit, schools went into basically a holding pattern. No one was going into schools anymore but we started getting, we started getting a name for ourselves and was getting out there and people were hearing about us and so when COVID hit in United States, it was like kind of this unfortunate, perfect storm of gun sales went through the roof. There was defund the police there's and so gun violence across the United States is been increasing and commercial companies started reaching out to us to go in places like shopping malls, corporate campuses, etc and then we started, then we started getting into military bases and so now we have, you know, we have dedicated sales teams across multiple verticals from education. We have commercial that's broken out into sub verticals and then we have our government team.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's amazing. So I know you've you've in mind, right? You build out this business pretty fast, right? When you had COVID to deal with which required a pivot in your business model and you're in, you know, perhaps for four years or so you've scaled the business up to 120 people, I think you said, so how what's it been like growing and creating the business? Because again, it's not like it's a it's two things, right? It's a new market. It's an innovative technology. It's selling to quite complex organizations like public sector, schools, military, whatever, right, with long sales cycles, you know, and you have this organizational chaos of bringing in lots of new people and creating a culture in the midst of all that. So it sounds like a bit of a perfect storm. Yeah, well, what's been your learning? I suppose from that process, like, you know, what, what? What have you learned along the way? What advice would you have?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah. Well, first, I've been very fortunate to surround myself with very smart, capable people, I love going into the room at work and realizing I'm the dumbest person in the room. So that's, it helps when you put the right people in the right seats and my, my co founders, our founding team, and our, you know, our first employees that are still with us, they're just phenomenal eight plus players all around, and they know how to not only lead, but they know how to follow and they know how to create a team and communicate. So we have a very flat organizational structure, ZeroEyes but we really focus I mean, to scale, especially with those people. Everyone likes to hear a growth story and everything but with growth comes, your more problems grow and kind of get to you want to avoid playing whack a mole, but it happens sometimes but if you keep from a top down from leadership of setting goals, making sure those goals are visible to everyone tracking towards those goals and showing them where we are and if we go past them, awesome. Why did we go past them? If we didn't hit the mark? Okay, why didn't we hit the mark, and just being really honest with ourselves, as has really helped, and I wanted to things that we mantras we had when we're in the SEAL teams was, you got it, you got to master the basics and part of that was being able to three things shoot, move and communicate and you can apply that in the business sense to when you're not shooting but think about that as like execution and you have to be able to move like if something's not working, right, or something is but being able to move and flex and get to a different position very quickly and then communication. I mean, the wheels will fall off the bus of teams are not communicating, and you want to stay away from teams getting siloed and it happens, sometimes. You recognize it and you go in and change it.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, I love that metaphor. I was going to ask you actually, on that very question. How is being a seal? Having that military background, although you're smooth, or the founders, I believe had the same background? So how, how's that influenced the business? The way of looking at things? What do other people come in when they when they join the company and say, Oh, this has got a certain feel, you know, what, what would you say would has carried over, apart from that, obviously, nice. point around.

Mike Lahiff
Yeah, in communicate. So from a veteran military standpoint, I mean, there's a couple things to unpack there, but one. In the military, particularly the US military, getting special operations, navy seal teams, whatever, it doesn't even matter but like you really good at forming teams around a mission, and just executing on that mission and even when times get tough developing. I don't know if you develop it, or if you're born with it already, but you definitely strengthen it is that perseverance and grit to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even if you're getting knocked down every day, getting back up and staying in it because eventually you're going to have that breakthrough, or you're going to have that 1% improvement, and then the next day a 1% improvement and we put a heavy emphasis at ZeroEyes on hiring veterans, for a couple of different reasons. One, it's, it's it's part of our culture. I mean, most of our founders are vets, we have 100 and some people in our company, roughly 70 of them are veterans, US veterans and we'd like hiring veterans one because we know what they've been through and what kind of training they have and when veterans leave the service to and transition that they they need to have another mission and so we help provide that mission and a lot of people get behind trying to stop senseless active shooters, mass shooting events in United States. So it's, yeah.

Richard Medcalf
It's interesting. It sounds like you might be actually piggybacking on an existing pre built culture to the benefit of the business.

Mike Lahiff
100% I agree 100%. With that, it's it's definitely piggybacking on on a camaraderie and teamwork and mission oriented approach that we had in the military and yeah, we we have that in ZeroEyes.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's interesting, because yeah, you've almost pre qualified people against certain criteria because of that background, and of the shared experience that people can tie into. So that's really interesting. How would you describe the personal mission that you're on, you know, as a leader, because obviously, there's what you're up to in the world, you know, in the in the, in the market, you know, in your team, you know, what, how would you kind of think about that? What's Yeah, what? How would you boil down your mission in that way?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah. It's really nice to come out of military and find a place where you have that mission that we talked about, and our mission is to, my mission, and the mission of ZeroEyes, at the end of the day could boil down to wanting to save lives. It would be, you know, a lot of us in a company, we're off to war and, and saving lives wasn't really the mission, you know, that happens during missions but it's a it's, it's war. It's nice, personally, to have a mission that's leaning towards something more positive of saving lives, but at the same time, it bothers you, because that's just a state of what is going on in America right now. So it's like this weird, ying and yang pulling on you, right? Like you want to go out there and save lives and do something to make a difference but it's so frustrating that this even has to exist. Yeah, I would love for one day that Yep, active shooters, mass shootings has never happened ever again and all right, we don't have a business. I'd be completely happy with that. I'll find another mission. Right now. That's our...

Richard Medcalf

Yeah, interesting, right? Because your mission is actually to put yourself out of business in one in one sense of it.

Mike Lahiff
Yeah. It's that, if we can all sit around it mean, and everyone on our team could sit around a table one day and look at each other and say, art mission success, there's been more active shooter with mass shootings. That'd be a fucking wonderful day. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime in the near future United States. No.

Richard Medcalf
So what? So right now in the business, which is obviously a business that's, that's growing, it's a it's got to make its mark in the market. It's communicating what the technology is about and figure out all those things, right. I'm sure as you scale in these different verticals, what energizes you and excites you the most in the business and what drains you and slows you down the most?

Mike Lahiff
What energizes me, you know, the whole when you're growing, and things are going well, and everything's moving in the right direction. That's exciting. Just in in itself, it's great to wake up to that but with that, you know, comes more problems. But it's just that energy, like, we're, we're growing fast, we're getting more cameras on the platform and you know, going back to the mission of saving lives, it's it boils down to like, the more cameras we're on, the more opportunities we're going to have to make make a difference and make an impact and that's what really excites me seeing our operations team and our monitoring team and everything just getting on more cameras and doing the job day in and day out and come into the fight. What drains me? Egos people bullshit. It's, it's it happens everywhere in life, not just in business but that could get you know, I think we do a really good job of hiring and finding great fits in the company but still, you're gonna have people problems, and people's egos are gonna get in the way and that's, that's tough. That could be draining, but I think we do a good job of handling it.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, yeah. Fish. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, that's people issues, always the sticky ones. So often.

Mike Lahiff
We just get back to the VM focused on the mission and moving forward and, and egos get in the way at the end of the day, it just boils down to everyone knows what the goals are, and where we have to get to and what needs to be done but it's, yeah, that's why it's great having veterans, little, not all veterans, but you know, I'd say a large percentage of them know how to minimize their ego and think about the broader mission and team.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, I was gonna ask what your tip was around that. It might be what you just said, you know, how you actually help people? How you get past those ego, ego ego problems? I would generally say focus on Yeah, what's the bigger picture here? But is that what you would do? Or do you have a...

Mike Lahiff
That's what we do all the time? Yeah. I mean, we're going to have another all hands here soon and we always go back over our mission or vision or our core values, our three year plan tenure plan and, and then we just talked about what we need to do in the next six months to make those other things a reality. What's that next? That next bite of the elephant? The next foot in front of the other?

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, awesome. See with leaders, it can be really easy to focus in on what's going on right now this week this month and leaders can quite easily lose their sense of vision and I think they might still have it actually but they forget to communicate it. Because they're in the day to day and suddenly they're wondering why the team is disengaging, pulling back. It's because they're not inspired. Right? They don't know why they're doing what they're doing anymore and we forget that quickly.

Mike Lahiff

It's tough. I mean, you're in it, especially in like a hyper growth company or not even in a hyper growth company cap and in any company, but with you know, when things are growing, you're adding more to your team, but you're in the trenches with your teams battling it in day in day out, like you gotta realize sometimes Oh, I can pull my head out of this and see what's over the next Ridgeline. Yeah. Which, going back, I'm just fortunate to have really great people, my team and my founding team, and I wouldn't be able to do it, solo. It's definitely a team, team approach and we get it done.

Richard Medcalf
Perfect. Let me move us on to our quickfire questions here and what's the favorite quote? What's the quote that you live by?

Mike Lahiff
I have a few one I'm gonna steal from my my co founder, Rob puberty, but actually he bought he sold from Ben Franklin but it was a small strokes fell great oaks. That's, you know, just chipping away at it. Another one I like is not the size of the dog and a fight the size of the fight and a dog. Yeah, great ones. What about a book, the book that's been influential to you as a leader Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning. That had a huge impact on my life and it actually helped me with when I read it before I went into SEAL training, and I picked it up. I've always gone back to it. It's just it's amazing book.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, that's the classic right? And it's hard hitting.

Mike Lahiff
Yes.

Richard Medcalf
What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

Mike Lahiff
Stay out of trouble. Stay on past and keep putting one foot in front of the other. It will be alright.

Richard Medcalf
Okay, next one is many of our best guests have come on the show come from referrals and recommendations. So I'm always curious, when are people on who inspires you as a leader? So who's an impact CEO who you know, you know, who might be a great guest for future episodes right and what you admire about them?

Mike Lahiff
If you could get Bob Iger on air from Disney, that would be phenomenal. But he is pretty amazing but one appear fellow veteran, we work in the same space our companies work together, but he's real amazing. His name's Mike Rogers. He was a West Point graduate Ranger officer or US Army Ranger officer and he started a company called CRG and they're working in a public safety space and he's been growing like bananas, is companies doing phenomenal and he's just having his very similar team and culture at his company and it's just great person.

Richard Medcalf

Yeah, what inspires you about him? What you admire?

Mike Lahiff
I just gets it done? You know, he just does what he says he's gonna do. He's, he's no bullshit, no frills, he just gets right to it and I love it when people are like that and he's the he's the walking epitome of that.

Richard Medcalf
Nice, nice. So my favorite question is always looking forward because no matter how much we've achieved, there's always a next level to get to. So where ZeroEyes is good from here as a business?

Mike Lahiff

We're gonna stay at well, we got to stay focused and stay on path to where we are right now but at the end of the day, our mission is to save time and save lives we're gonna do it through for right now we're doing that through gun detection through computer vision on security cameras, but the more cameras we're on, the better opportunity we have. So we just want to we want to get on every security camera and the United States, like, think of fire code, building code, like more people in the United States. 15 times more people die from gun violence in United States than they do fires but every building you walk into the United States has smoke detectors, fire suppression systems, it's only a matter of time where it's, you're gonna see building code around this type of technology, and we're gonna lead the way for it.

Richard Medcalf

That's, that's brilliant. I love it. I love that scale of vision, this kind of thing, which changes the world and so I want to honor you for going going there going for it go and thinking big. What do you what will you need to do Mike, personally to multiply your own impact, right because we all have a little success formula that gets us so far, and then we find it hard how you're going to break through what's gonna be your challenge?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah, the whole force multiplier thing that was that was a bit when I was in when I was in the military, particularly as an overseas I worked with the Navy dropped me in to work with another country Special Operations Group. So I was kind of flying solo for a little bit, I had a partner with me for a fellow CEO but they called us force multipliers on a battlefield. So we work with other special forces from other countries and we would help provide them with intelligence if they needed assets, such as helicopters or something and we said, we'd be like, hey, these are the targets and mission sets you guys should be going after for and we would help enable them to make it happen. So now the US they only have one US soldier or maybe two US soldiers on the battlefield and they're not putting 50 US soldiers on the battlefield. So it's a force multiplier, the way I apply that in business is thinking about, like, you know, I had my executive team, enable them to be the leaders that they need to be given the tools that they need, so they could turn around and create their leaders within their teams and then they could build out for those teams and it has that keep a flat organization where you enable leaders and then a good leader makes good leaders. That's that's what needs to happen and that's how you force multiply.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, I love it. Well, that's the podcast, right? In that multiplier. The X and X quadrant has a couple of meanings but one of it is the multiplier effect, because as you say, was one thing to be a great leader. There's another thing to create a team, great leaders and there's another thing to create that multiplying effect where you build leaders throughout the organization and that I think the end game, for any organization that wants to scale, and have an impact. This is great, Mike, it's been great conversation. I've loved you know, a the story, the sense of mission, the heart that come through what you're up to the very practical, you know, getting in the trenches to solve an important issue. If people want to find out more about about the business or get in contact with you, you know, how do they do that?

Mike Lahiff
Yeah, they could just go to zeroeyes.com.

Richard Medcalf
Perfect. So we'll put although in the show notes, and my my it's just been a pleasure. It's been so interesting to talk with you and hear all about the business and I'm looking forward to watching as you get on every security camera in the USA.

Mike Lahiff

Thank you for having me on Richard. I really appreciate it.

**Note: This transcript is automatically generated.
Please excuse any errors.

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