Be transparent with your team. This is the most important piece of advice I’ve received. Make sure your team knows what your goals are as a business and how you plan on getting there. It’s important to have this buy-in at all levels so everyone is on the same page. I also think the team should know when something goes wrong that may throw those plans off-track. We’ve had this happen at Azumo, but because our leadership team was transparent, we were able to move quickly.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Casper.
Mike Casper is the founder and CEO of Azumo, a breakthrough display technology company revolutionizing a 130 billion dollars industry. It’s LCD 2.0™ reflective technology is the first in a generation of high performance displays that improve user experience and battery life for end users in consumer, medical, industrial, and educational markets.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I studied engineering as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s where I met my Co-Founder, Tony Nichol, and we worked on a couple projects together. Our working styles really clicked and we had a feeling we would build something great together.
Tony and I participated in an invention competition through our engineering school and won second place, which also earned us some money. We used that money to file our first patent. Then we moved onto a business plan competition, brought on our third Co-Founder Shawn Pucylowski, and won second place, beating out some MBA students. It was those two competitions that really kicked off our business and drive for entrepreneurship.
After the competitions, I got a job in Chicago doing consulting while Tony went to MIT to get his PhD and Shawn went to NYC, and we worked on what is now Azumo on the side. At that time, it was a totally different business.
We eventually got our first big break with an NHL team who let us do a test run with our lighting technology. It was basically meant to light up the advertising underneath the ice in the hockey rink. This is what initially drove the core technical innovation and made us feel like we had a viable business model.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Our lives revolve around screens — they’re on our phones, televisions, billboards, laptops, you name it. But for years, screens (LCD screens specifically) have just gotten brighter and higher resolution. It’s very much a marketing tactic meant to persuade customers that this television, for example, is the best one out there. But the problem with this approach is that screens are more power hungry than ever before, not to mention that amount of light shooting directly in your eyes can be harmful. The lighting of the screen, for example, is the most power draining part of smartphones.
At Azumo, we’re changing all of that with our front light technology. It’s basically a plastic film that’s the thickness of a human hair and it’s embedded into an LCD screen stack. This allows for screens to use up to 90% less power compared to traditional backlit LCDs — the reason they can do this is because our light guide allows the screen to leverage natural light to illuminate a screen. And when you have that, that means the screen isn’t shooting harmful artificial light into your eyes. Not to mention screens no longer have to fight the sun. How many times have you been outside and had to put your hand over your phone so you can see the screen when the sun is out?
Ultimately, our light guide technology improves user experience and battery life. It’s currently being used in consumer, medical, industrial, and educational markets and can easily integrate into any device. Azumo is poised to disrupt the 130 billion dollars display industry.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the biggest and best mistakes I ever made was quitting my full time job after we got the opportunity to prototype our technology with an NHL team. We really thought that opportunity would catapult our business so we left our jobs. It turns out that was premature, because at the last second, the team had to cancel our install because they had a charity event planned on the day we were supposed to install. That was a lesson learned for me, especially because we never had a signed contract.
I also ended up pledging my house mortgage to get a loan for bankrolling Azumo in its early days. That was a huge risk I took, especially having a family. Tony, Shawn and I knew we had to act fast since we didn’t have jobs, so this resulted in our first pivot as a company, and it led to the launch of a new product for retail window display advertising.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve had many mentors over the years that have been a huge help as we’ve grown Azumo. A couple in particular really stand out to me.
Cliff Morris, CEO of C3Nano and industry veteran, helped provide advice and guidance on expanding our business in Asia, especially during COVID when we can’t physically be in China.
Norm Soep, the CEO of a global metals and manufacturing conglomerate, has been a crucial mentor for us as we scale our business globally and he’s helped me a ton with leadership development. There are many nuances that come with management and manufacturing, and Norm continues to be a great guide for me as we do that.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The LCD industry, like many large industries, tends to take whatever was working last year and make it just a little bit better. For example, our industry keeps trying to make screens brighter and higher resolution. But the human eye can only perceive higher resolution up to a certain point, so why are we spending resources on something that doesn’t end up providing any real value to the user?
I think disruption is a great thing especially in our space and the work we do with light guides. Because of our early developments outside the display industry, it forced us to think outside the traditional box. People in our industry don’t usually work with hockey arenas, and I think that experience allowed us to think more freely and not be bogged down by the way our industry has developed LCD innovation in the past.
Plus, most of the innovation in LCD and displays in general has happened in Asia or on the West Coast. We have some incredible talent and a history of roll-to-roll and film converting/manufacturing here in the Midwest U.S. So I think when you look at disruption, you also have to look at it from a geographical perspective as well — it’s often good to be innovating in a completely different ecosystem than what the “industry” is in.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Be transparent with your team. This is the most important piece of advice I’ve received. Make sure your team knows what your goals are as a business and how you plan on getting there. It’s important to have this buy-in at all levels so everyone is on the same page. I also think the team should know when something goes wrong that may throw those plans off-track. We’ve had this happen at Azumo, but because our leadership team was transparent, we were able to move quickly.
- Find the right experts. Hire the people who know how to do the work, and let them do what they were hired to do.
- Push back on your investors. On the coattails of number two, there are times where founders can get pressured by investors to make a big name hire (usually from a well-known company). I get why it sounds good, but it doesn’t always make sense for where your business is. Oftentimes those big name hires are great for the company two or three years down the road, but aren’t necessarily what you need today. Luckily, our investors understand and support that nuance.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We’re working with some big partners including Sharp and Kyocera on some new products that will include our light guide technology. We’re also planning a new product launch this year to support larger displays in tablets and other consumer products.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I’ve got a couple books that I really like.
- The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’m a big fan of learning through others’ experiences, and I love the story of the Wright Brothers. They failed many times but kept at it. People in the U.S. weren’t really buying into the idea of an airplane, and they ended up having more success in Europe in the early stages. I feel like Azumo is in a similar position in terms of introducing our technology to the world.
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a fascinating recollection of humankind and into the psyche of how people think, and more importantly, how we’ve adapted to work together in groups. As a leader, it gives great examples of where groups have succeeded and failed in the past, which can give insights to see trends for tomorrow.
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitcz. This book does a great job of cutting through the crap when it comes to building a business. I like how Ben’s advice is very practical and matter of fact. It’s full of things I can be doing right now as an entrepreneur.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Work Hard, Play Hard. Relationships are so key to building a successful business, but it’s important that they are not always about “the business.” It’s been important for me to compartmentalize, have fun, and really get to know the people around me. Whether its friends, loved ones, employees, investors, customers…it doesn’t matter who, but we’re all people and at the end of the day it’s our relationships and reputations that will outlast any business. It’s important to put the time in and have a little fun together too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would encourage people to get outside and play. Play something — it could be sports, games, anything. Find something fun that really gets you moving. I think this is important not only for physical health, but mental as well. While we’re stuck inside due to COVID, I think this is even more crucial.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on my LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!