Take moments to enjoy what you have built! Starting a company is hard, and it’s serious business. You are responsible to your customers, employees, and your investors. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the daily challenges and be laser focused on the next goal or milestone. I have found that it’s important to pause every once in a while, look around, and appreciate what you and your team have built.
I had the pleasure to interview Aaron Zarraga. Aaron received his BS/MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in 2011. After graduating, he worked for Amazon’s Lab126 for 2.5 years, where he worked on emerging technologies and co-invented next-generation product concepts, including “PagePress,” which allowed easier page-turns on for the Kindle Voyage. He co-founded Sensel with Ilya Rosenberg in 2013 and holds 25+ patents in the field of sensing and human-computer interface technologies.
Thank you so much for joining us Aaron! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have a distinct memory of the first time I was intrigued by technology. My uncle had this old school land-line phone where the outside was made of clear plastic so you could see all of the electronics inside. I remember staring at that phone as a kid, completely amazed by how all of those little wires and circuit boards could let you talk to someone on the phone. As I got older, my curiosity in electronics only increased, and I eventually went to college to learn how those wires and circuit boards were designed. I ended up with an Electrical Engineering degree and this led me to co-founding Sensel.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Starting a company turned my whole perspective of “work” upside down. I’d worked several jobs prior to starting Sensel with Ilya Rosenberg in 2013, but none of my experiences up to that point were at startups. I had worked at large companies like Raytheon and Amazon. On your first day at one of these organizations, you typically meet your manager and team, and then you go through some type of systematized onboarding or training. You learn how things work and you quickly become a well-oiled cog that helps the greater machine execute.
In contrast, I remember our first official day at Sensel back in 2013. I walked into a tiny one-room office that Ilya had rented out for us. He had a table set up with two laptops — and that was it. There was no manager for me to meet, no orientation, no predefined task list. It is an odd sensation because there is no one telling you what you should be doing. You have to figure it out yourself, every step of the way.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
We’ve been able to build something really great at Sensel because we’ve focused on building an incredible team. Ilya and I received advice from our StartX mentor that when hiring new team members you must “prioritize culture over everything.” At Sensel, we always wanted to build a healthy environment where you are surrounded by genuinely nice people who want to contribute to the team, work hard, and take pride in what they do. Our success as a company has been directly tied to this prioritization.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- I thought working as a CTO/co-founder would mostly consist of building technology, but at the end of the day, no matter how impressive your tech is, a company is made of the people who work there. As your company grows, you spend way more time hiring and managing the team, which is critical to building out a well-functioning organization.
- Hardware is hard! Your company should only be building hardware if it’s absolutely 100% necessary for your business. Timelines are long, capital requirements are great, and scaling presents unique challenges. I’ve advised software startups against ideas like “I’ll build a hardware widget to differentiate myself.” Sometimes this works out, but more often than not, hardware is much more difficult than you expect.
- Committed investors can be some of your most valuable team members. When you first start out, you typically think investors will only bring the value of cash to your business. However, some of Sensel’s investors have been amazing evangelizers for the company, helping us reach new customers and even more investors. They can be a core part of your team, helping you sell the company vision to others.
- One of my Directors at Amazon once told me, “Starting a company is like riding a roller coaster, the highs are really high and the lows are really low. Don’t let yourself get too high or too low.” I took this advice very seriously and I think it’s really helped me keep an even keel as Sensel has grown. When you experience a win, you should celebrate, but you also want to bottle up a little of that positive energy and hold onto it for your next low moment (there will be plenty of those as well).
- Take moments to enjoy what you have built! Starting a company is hard, and it’s serious business. You are responsible to your customers, employees, and your investors. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the daily challenges and be laser focused on the next goal or milestone. I have found that it’s important to pause every once in a while, look around, and appreciate what you and your team have built.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s important to carve out time for yourself and have hobbies outside of work. When we first started Sensel, I was under the assumption that I needed to work 24/7 and dedicate every waking hour to work. I would work through most weekends and I was quite relentless with the amount of time I committed to the cause. This lifestyle turned out to be unsustainable and I had moments where I felt totally burned out. You have to realize that you’re in it for the long haul, and it’s important to keep yourself whole so you can continue to be effective as your company grows and the challenges and stakes become even greater. I still work some weekends, but I really try to take that time off. I also carve out time for myself during the week to work out, play basketball, and enjoy life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My fiance, Riah, has been my rock over the past 6 years and has helped me maintain my sanity through the process of starting a company. There are so many times where I’ve come home and endlessly vented about all of the things you deal with as a founder. She has been a great sounding board and has given me guidance on how to face challenges and improve myself as a leader. I couldn’t have done it without her.
She’s also an amazing presenter and writer, so Ilya and I would frequently run some of our first pitch decks by her for some heavy editing and feedback. We learned pretty quickly that when two engineers collaborate on a presentation or pitch deck, you can end up with an unintelligible jargon-filled mess. She helped us understand how to effectively communicate with wider audiences, which is critical!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I’m excited to continue to grow Sensel and see how far we can push it. We are really starting to make noise in the consumer space and I feel like we’re just getting started. Personally, I want to be in a position where I can help other founders deal with some of the challenges we’ve experienced at Sensel. I can’t tell founders what to do, but I can definitely give guidance on what not to do. I find these are sometimes the best lessons.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Honestly, I just want to be known as the ultimate team player and be remembered as someone that people are excited to work with.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
At Sensel, we have the privilege of building technology that fundamentally changes the way users can interact with the digital world. Our first product, the Sensel Morph, has the ability to capture rich force data on a touch surface. We enable many out of the box experiences with the product, but personally my favorite thing to see is the way people use our API to access the underlying technology. It’s so much fun to see how creative people are, and we’ve created our own movement in a way. We’ve had users harness the Morph API to develop new musical instruments, force-based drone controllers, and hand print authentication systems. Morphs have popped up on performance stages and have been used in art installations across the country (including some sightings at Burning Man!). Technology is a powerful thing, and for me, the greatest reward is to see the technology we’ve built empower users to experience and see the world in new ways.
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