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Mike Smith of AerialSphere: “Be a great team builder”

Be a great team builder. As I alluded to earlier, it is important to build a team that you trust and believe in. The entrepreneurial journey is challenging and having a solid team that you can count on to stay grounded and follow your vision allows you to do what you do best. You do […]

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Be a great team builder. As I alluded to earlier, it is important to build a team that you trust and believe in. The entrepreneurial journey is challenging and having a solid team that you can count on to stay grounded and follow your vision allows you to do what you do best. You do not want to have to babysit, you need people who have resiliency, discipline, and conviction because you will hit some really rough patches along the way.


Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Smith.

As CEO for AerialSphere, Mike is responsible for running all facets of the business. Mike Smith is a serial entrepreneur with an amazing track record of building, managing and growing successful companies. Mike also owns and manages Jokake Companies, the parent company for Clarion, Aerial Sphere, and the Stockyards Restaurant.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was raised in rural Arizona on a cotton farm with an entrepreneurial family and learned the meaning of hard work from a very young age. When I was younger, I was inspired by a close family friend who was associated with the petroleum industry. His mentorship inspired me to set my sights on working in that industry. I decided to study mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona, and upon graduation went to work for Texaco as a Petroleum Engineer. It was nothing like I had imagined, and I quickly realized I was not cut from the fabric to work for a big company. I had aspirations of being an entrepreneur but knew that it was too capital intensive to start my own business in the petroleum industry, so I made the decision I would have to find a new vertical to begin my entrepreneurial journey. I initially decided on a construction venture, and from there, I have been involved in mining, real estate, paint, signs, restaurants, cannabis, chemicals and technology.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The “A-ha” moment for AerialSphere came when the idea for the company checked off all of my personal requirements for starting a business. When I dug into the idea for AerialSphere, it passed my gut-check of being an amazing idea, but when I put it to my “big three” requirements, it passed all three. My first requirement is it must have barriers to entry. AerialSphere’s plan to capture 360-degree imagery for 70 of the largest markets in the US was an incredibly tall order, not to mention the challenge of processing and delivering it. Requirement one: check. My second requirement is it must provide recurring revenues. Customers who consume aerial imagery typically need their imagery up to date as our world is constantly being developed — we planned to fly the US every year to provide up-to-date imagery, which would allow for recurring, yearly revenue from our customers. Requirement two: check. My third requirement is that the product or service has to provide a high level of differentiation. The idea for AerialSphere was to disrupt the mapping and aerial imagery industries with the first-of-its-kind 360-degree aerial imagery with precise location data. It would enable people to see the built world from completely new vantage points. Requirement 3, check, and my “A-ha” moment was complete — I was ready for my next entrepreneurial endeavor!

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

I was definitely a natural-born entrepreneur. I was raised in an entrepreneurial family, and once I started working at a big company out of college, I immediately knew I was destined to be an entrepreneur. I have always looked at businesses from an entrepreneurial mindset, I always try to see the value in every business I look at. Whether it is a business I am looking at starting or a casual conversation with someone about their own business, I am always looking for value and ways to grow things.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I didn’t really have that “one” mentor that made me see the light or got me started on my entrepreneurial journey. I think it was a combination of being a natural-born entrepreneur and all of my positive experiences I had with my family, my teachers, my coaches, and my friends. I have always surrounded myself with positive people which has given me the tools I needed to develop into a successful entrepreneur.

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

The biggest reason AerialSphere stands out is the fact that we are providing a new way to look at the world from above — the industry has been stuck in looking at the world in 2D, with vertical or oblique imagery, and the market has really been pushing to move to 3D and virtual experiences. We are satisfying the market with our amazing technology as it really has changed how people look at homes, buildings, land, structures, etc. I remember one of our earlier presentations with a very large company that uses aerial imagery in their offering and their reaction when they saw what our product could do. It was as if we had just presented the first-ever iPhone to them — they were blown away and we immediately knew we had something that would make us stand out from the rest.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

First: Being a strategic thinker. As an entrepreneur, it is important to look deeper than the “dream” of the company, product or service. Yes, it is obviously important to have those exciting big picture dreams to be an entrepreneur but to make those dreams a reality, it requires a fair amount of strategic thinking. You need to develop a strong corporate agenda and stick to it. You must have plans for everything — because things are always moving fast and changing on a dime, you must always be one step ahead to ensure you stay on course.

Second: A thirst for knowledge. I use knowledge in everything I do — it is the cornerstone for driving all decisions I make. I like to be armed with as much knowledge so I can always strategically think about a problem, an issue, or an opportunity, and make the best decision. It drove me crazy in my first job when I saw decisions were not being made because of knowledge, they were being made for political or self-serving reasons, and I knew they were not the best thing for the success of the business.

Third: Empowering. I believe it is incredibly important to empower your leadership team. I always hire people that I trust and that I believe in, and in turn, I empower them to do what they do best. It is important to trust people enough to let them handle things as I can’t do everything and make every decision. You never want your company only being as good as the leader, you want to make sure that power is shared — I always like to say, “lead through empowerment, not through management.”

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I would have to say I have had some legal advice in the past that I felt was philosophically and morally wrong and I regretted doing it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

My biggest tip is taking care of your employees and pay attention to their needs — they are your most valuable asset. A strong work-life balance needs to be pushed from the top down so they can always feel comfortable in taking a break or taking time off to keep themselves in a good place. I always push the fact that family comes first. There is nothing worse than employees who get overwhelmed or burned out — it will negatively impact all facets of your business. Keep your employees happy and fresh, and you won’t have turnover issues, and most importantly, you will be able to accumulate tenured employees, which is key to the success of any business. When your employees feel respected, understood, and informed, it can go a long way in preventing burnout, or them getting overwhelmed.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Be real and stick to your core values. This translates through to your employees, it will come across in your brand, and will ultimately lead to trust, credibility, and authority in your industry or marketplace.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Buying is an emotional decision and customers purchasing decisions are based on trust and credibility. There is a lot of noise in the marketplace, and it is important to establish trust, credibility, and authority in order to establish that emotional connection that allows your customer to buy from you and continue to buy from you in the future.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Losing sight of the vision of the company — you can’t shortcut a vision, you need to properly fund the execution of the vision and see it through to completion. Another thing I see a lot is not understanding the cost of starting a business. I always like to assess what I need and double both the time and the money necessary to achieve our goals and vision.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride the Emotional Highs & Lows of Being an Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

As an entrepreneur, I have an insatiable need to transform dreams into reality — this requires creating models, plans, etc. and seeing that through to the end goal. Through that process, there are both wonderful highs and challenging lows — which can both occur within 30 minutes of each other. However, this is part of the journey that every entrepreneur must go through — you must be comfortable with the rollercoaster ride if you want to be an entrepreneur. There is no way to avoid it, both the highs and lows, need to be embraced. It is all part of the process of transforming those dreams into reality and being able to turn those downs into learning experiences that can eventually be turned into positives. It is absolutely exhilarating to build a cohesive leadership team where the sum is greater than the number of individuals; it really comes down to working together as a team and everyone can ultimately enjoy the highs together and help each other out when there are bumps in the road.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Many years ago, we were at an industry convention and were in the booth of one of the biggest potential customers of our product. I remember the initial reaction the employee had when we first explained what we were doing with aerial imagery and watching how over the next hour we were constantly passed along to the powers that be until we were with one of the top execs the company had at the show. By the time we were meeting with the exec, we had a meeting scheduled with the leadership team in their corporate HQ to showcase our technology. Being able to observe firsthand the immediate excitement and interest and understanding of our value proposition each of them had was one of the most exciting experiences I have had as an entrepreneur.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I would have to say it was our initial product launch & realizing our product wasn’t ready for primetime. We had planned and worked so hard to get our product offering ready for the market, then realizing it wasn’t quite ready was pretty deflating. It pushed our timelines back 6 months and made me question our plans and our model. But this is part of being an entrepreneur, you can’t second guess yourself — always stick to your plans, even if it takes longer than expected.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I trusted the process that I have been using as an entrepreneur — I made sure everybody on the team understood that our core vision hadn’t changed, but we just hit a major pothole on our ultimate road to success, and to embrace and learn from it, but not to get down or sidetracked.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need to Successfully Ride the Emotional Highs & Lows of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Believe in his or her own internal entrepreneurial gauge. This really has to do with knowing the journey and being able to pick up on cues that you have experienced before and knowing how to adjust, or power through to stay on course. This helps you weather turbulence on your climb to the top.
  2. Have faith in yourself. There are lots of times that I question myself, especially since I have ventured into so many different industries, etc. I always have to remember to take a step back and trust the process that I have created, used, and achieved success with.
  3. Be a great team builder. As I alluded to earlier, it is important to build a team that you trust and believe in. The entrepreneurial journey is challenging and having a solid team that you can count on to stay grounded and follow your vision allows you to do what you do best. You do not want to have to babysit, you need people who have resiliency, discipline, and conviction because you will hit some really rough patches along the way.
  4. Be able to execute. You must be a great strategic planner and be able to stick to your proven script to execute your vision. It is easy to lose sight of things along the way and get lost.
  5. Have resiliency and conviction. As we have discussed, entrepreneurs need to be resilient to be able to weather difficult times. Strong conviction helps you stick to your plans and believe in the process.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

As you can probably tell by now, I believe resilience is very important to achieving success as an entrepreneur. Resilience is the ability to face challenges and overcome them and not let them impede your ultimate goals. An entrepreneur is nothing without resilience — you will never be able to reach the summit if you get tripped up and cannot power through. I think conviction, faith, and positivity are a few of the most common characteristics of resilient people.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

I was involved in a very scary accident on our ranch when I was 7 years old — as I was dressing my horse, my hand got wrapped in the reins and I could not free it and my horse took off running; I was kicked in the head multiple times, my teeth were knocked out, and I was knocked unconscious. After a 25-mile trip to the hospital, I still remember the doctor discussing the possibility of brain damage with my parents. This completely set me on my heels — I knew I was going to have to fight hard to live a normal life. I really struggled through my early years of school until I found I had an affinity for math — I quickly realized how I could apply it to everything I did, from problem-solving to sports. I still use it in all of my businesses, and it has helped with my resilience every day since I was in the accident — I know with hard work, and trusting the process, I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

100%. I am an eternal optimist — I have always had to stay positive, especially after my accident when I was a child. I think it is the best way to power through difficult situations and be able to see the best path to success when you are thinking positive. Positive attitudes breed positive outcomes.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Positivity is infectious. People like to be associated with positive people, be it employees, clients, customers, contractors, etc. People like to hear what CAN be done, rather what CAN’T be done. Positivity builds trust, excitement, faith, and a healthy working environment — all necessary ingredients for entrepreneurial success. For example — as a small startup, we set out a goal to capture imagery for the entire US in one year — everybody we spoke to said it wasn’t possible for a company of our size and limited capital. As a team, we bought into it and all carried a positive attitude that we would accomplish this amazing feat. We hit a lot of turbulence along the way, both figuratively and literally, but we maintained our positive attitude, conviction, and resilience throughout the whole process, and guess what, we did it.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“Life is an adventure.” I am all about embracing what is around the corner, good or bad, and experiencing everything to the fullest. I enjoy the ups and always learn from the downs.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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