…You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing. If you’re not waking up in the morning, living and breathing what you’re doing and excited about it, you won’t become a thought leader. Something which I hope comes across when I meet people or present to them is, I am super excited about passionate about the industry I am in with law enforcement. If you don’t have have that all-important passion, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’re not going to be able to lead because the excitement is not there. I’ve been in the position where I was leading and not excited by it, and I’ve seen things not be successful because the passion was lacking behind the scenes.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Smith.
Tom Smith co-founded TASER International (now Axon Enterprise) in 1993, serving as President of the company until 2006.
Serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors of TASER from 2006 onward, Tom later retired in 2012 to pursue entrepreneurial activities. Amongst his most significant roles and responsibilities at TASER, Tom managed domestic and international sales, significantly expanding the sale and distribution of TASER’s products, including sales to more than 17,200 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries. In 2012, he founded Achilles Technology Solutions, LLC, AND through its subsidiary ATS Armor, developed a line of ballistic solutions for law enforcement and military.
Tom is a proven executive with extensive operations, logistics, manufacturing, global sales and marketing experience selling technology to law enforcement.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Starting out at the University of Tucson as a pre-med major, I came to the realization early on that I did not want to attend school forever. After earning Bachelor of Science degrees in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I attended Northern Arizona University to get an MBA emphasizing in entrepreneurism. This led me to work for Anderson Consulting (previously known as Accenture) to work as a consultant. During that time, my brother and I suffered the painful loss of two of our close friends who we played football with; they were both killed as a result of a drive-by shooting.
My brother and I got together and looked at the issue, saying to ourselves: We can put man on the moon, we can do so many technologically advanced things with science and other areas, but the means with which people defend themselves in the modern era seemed to be the same way we fought the revolutionary war — by putting lead at high velocity toward a foe to injure them, hitting them with a cave-man-like baton, or throwing some sand in their eye. We’d seen visions of the future in TV shows like Star Trek and blockbuster movies like Star Wars and asked ourselves: “Why are we not going down the same path in self-defence?”
This is what eventually became the driving force behind my first company, TASER, where I worked for the next 20 years. I was responsible for everything outside of the company, from investor relations to international sales, ultimately taking the device to more than 100 countries. In 2012, I decided I really wanted to push myself in the entrepreneurial aspect of business. My brother stayed on at his role at TASER, which is now known as Axon, and I tried out some venture in aviation and a few other industries. During my entire time at TASER though, I would often get asked “Isn’t there a better way to stop someone than this?” and when I saw and heard about the capabilities of the BolaWrap, the device which our company WRAP Technologies manufactures today, I knew this is what those people had been asking for — and I joined the company as President two years ago.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I would say I’m an authority on thought leadership because I have spent my whole career in the industry of public safety –from launching my first company TASER, where my brother rand I ran the business very successfully, to the point where we took it public and went through an IPO process, to running Wrap Technologies today. In May 2001, right before the internet bubble burst, following on to when we had the 9/11 event — I’ve not only successfully been in the space, but I’ve also navigated significant challenges present for everyone in business. Even up to and including the financial crisis of 2008, there have been a multitude of unforeseen circumstances arise which could have been detrimental to the success of the projects I was overseeing.
Working at WRAP Technologies today, we are servicing the same customer we had previously and in the same market, and also in the same space I’ve spent my entire career as a public officer for more than a decade as Chairman and President of TASER, and now as President and CEO at WRAP. As we have worked our way through 2020, guiding the company through COVID has been our biggest challenge, the same as it has for almost every other business around the world, and we’ve been successfully navigating the pandemic by growing a start-up and establishing ourselves.
These days, footage from police officers wearing body cameras which show the use of our product, which was merely conceptual four years ago, is now something we see frequently in the field and being used on the front lines. This is especially important following the tragic George Floyd incident, as police are being asked to do their job differently, and there have been no new tools to come to market since TASER, so frankly I believe there is no better expert than myself to try and walk through the field of introducing it and leading the company in it. We’re seeing financial success by navigating these challenges, as well as getting BolaWrap into the market. We have now launched our next product — WRAP Armour — and are already discussing our next project, WRAP Reality.
There are a number of different facets based on the experience I have, which I am able to bring to market. WRAP is a leader in the industry because of this, and the last device which successfully reached the market was TASER twenty-something years ago. Although a lot of other tech-based innovations have come around in that time — such as body cameras or video storage — the case is we’re actually making a difference for the guy on the street, in the type of force being used, to remotely restrain somebody or stop them without injuring them.
I also work directly with law enforcement, meaning I understand their challenges better than anyone, and having provided a service to them for so long means I can meet their needs better than anyone else — not only domestically, but also globally, since we attend all the major global conferences each year.
I know many of the major Police Chiefs, having become acquainted with them first at TASER when they might have been Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains, when they were going through their first promotions up the ranks. All of us have now advanced in our careers, and we shared that experience and built valuable relationships. My name is known in the industry because I took TASER to more than 100 different countries, and I also know the differences between the US and global policing needs. For instance, in the US we have 18,000 agencies, which means the same number again of decision-makers, and the same number of Chiefs and Sheriffs, and internationally it means you’re talking about dealing with a Ministry of Interior and so forth. I have met presidents, kings, and I’ve met the highest-ranking officials of countries where decisions are made internationally. These decisions are not made here domestically, so I think mine is the right experience for where we want to go with this company, and it’s why we’ve already shipped our product to 35 countries.
Very few companies could say that from their first day of financial production of a product, which for us was last summer in 2019, that they have shipped to 35 countries around the world in an 18-month period.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This probably doesn’t happen to many people, but to those people who are familiar with the movie ‘Coming to America’ starring Eddie Murphy, I happened to be in South Africa one year while doing a demonstration for TASER. I was told we’d be going to the country of Swaziland, which I admit I couldn’t point to on a map at the time before I visited it and was told we were going to attend a police day to do the demonstration.
After a four-hour drive from Johannesburg, we arrived at an ancient border crossing where guards lifted the gate by hand, and we were told we technically were not in any country at that point because we were on ground which lay between Swaziland and South Africa, a chilling thought to say the least! We entered Swaziland to attend the police meeting and it was a huge open field with grandstands all around. They had traditional tribal dancing during the presentations, and literally just like in the movie Coming to America, in rolls the big huge car with the outrageous fanfare, and out comes the mother of the King — I looked around and thought we must be on candid camera!
Afterward, the King emerged from the car and they gave a whole royal presentation, the crowds were going crazy because of this, and 10 minutes later I was asked if I wanted to meet him, and I said yes! I went in and did a personal presentation for him in a swelteringly hot conference room, and I still have the photos to prove it.
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?
In the 90s believe it or not, we were trying to sell our product TASER to civilians. Our first customer was The Sharper Image catalogue: we had a two-page layout (for people who remember that time) — it was a mail-order catalogue and we thought we were going to knock this thing out of the park and sell millions of devices.
We geared up, even spending half a million dollars, a significant investment for a start-up back then, on producing an infomercial. We staffed up thinking our phones would be ringing constantly, partnered with a company with 100 operators, and the infomercial ran in numerous markets across the country — we got a total of two calls, the second one came from my mother asking how many phone calls we got!
The lesson here is, you can never predict what the market will do or what it’s going to perceive, even when you think you’re in the right place. What we learned very quickly is law enforcement were not shopping in The Sharper Image catalogue or looking next to the motorized tie racks for a high quality piece of security equipment.
You must also look at where you’re going from a marketing perspective, and I’ve also been on the other end of that situation too, where we launched a new product and thought we weren’t going to get much response from it, and then came a huge response — it’s really hard to estimate what’s going to happen in your wildest dreams and it’s never as straightforward as you think it’s going to be. You have to roll with those punches and another lesson I learned very early on is, don’t sweat the things you can’t change. If you focus on those things, there’s nothing you can do about it, all it’s going to do is cause stress, you have to treat it like water off a duck’s back and roll with it, and instead concentrate on the things you can change and plan for, to be able to react accordingly to what’s going on with the business or the market.
For instance, this year with COVID, if someone told me six months ago we would be doing nothing but Zoom meetings and presentations to law enforcement, I would have told you you’re out of your mind — these people are not exactly stalwarts of change and therefore it’s never going to happen. But today we are doing more than half our demonstrations via Zoom.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
I say often that it’s very easy to point out the problems, it’s thought leaders who come up with the solutions. Since the George Floyd incident occurred back in May, we’ve heard all the protests, the riots, we’ve heard the “Defund the Police” police reform, but we haven’t seen many people come up with realistic solutions — and that is what we’re doing as a company.
We’re trying to figure out how can we change the paradigm, how can we make it different, and how can we help police stop somebody who is a potential harm to themselves without having to hurt them. It’s a difficult challenge because the last thing people in a routine want to do is change. When you look at thought leaders in all the different industries trying to come up with solutions they are taking big risks, because there’s a lot of risk in trying to change people’s behaviour, and to change patterns.
To me, anybody who is challenging the status quo is really a thought leader and someone who is going to make a difference because they’re willing to help solve problems, not just sit back and join the masses complaining about them — they’re actually willing to take action and do something about it.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Being a thought leader, I can tell you, from my days spent working with TASER to the present day working with WRAP, it’s really cool feeling to land in a foreign country or go to a city where they have your equipment on their belt; or perhaps you see it show up in a movie, or you see it where it’s made a difference.
The best example I could give is a video we have showing a police officer’s bodycam footage from an incident which took place in St. Cloud, Florida. Nobody heard about it until we publicized it: a mother called police because her son had said he wanted to die in front of her in the family’s driveway, and the police then used our product to avoid that happening. As a parent, I can’t imagine the thought of having to watch something like that happen in front of me. The fact that our product, all the effort, the blood sweat and tears that everyone at the company has put in, led to that event being prevented, is the reason we are here. It’s what gets me up in the morning, it’s what has driven me through my entire career.
The police officers certainly didn’t want to have to do use force, neither did the parents, the family needed help and we had all those things confluence and come together at that point in time to end it safely and effectively. And there is no better feeling in the world than that. They used to say you could tell the pioneers because they had all the arrows in their backs, and when you’re a thought leader it’s not because you did everything right, it’s because you had the passion to see it through.
Because this company is going in the same trajectory I’ve seen before, I know where a lot of the land mines, pitfalls and issues lay. This helps expedite the growth of the company, and I also benefit from the team I get to work with every day. I’m just one person, but the people I attract to join me because of my history, my work and because I’ve done this before, the fact they’re joining this team is another big benefit to the company.
I have people with expertise in their areas that want to do this again or want to make an impact, or people who are just joining us and know the story and want to be part of it, because they can see where we’re going, and it is those visionaries who buy into your mission is as an organization. That’s the other exciting part of being a thought leader, attracting many other people who want to be thought leaders in their areas who make the company advance quickly.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
The first day I joined WRAP I was on a flight overseas, I had never gone to the office because I knew this product was going to be something the international markets would want quickly, and at the time, the company wasn’t focusing on international sales. Since that time, and for the next one to two years I’d say international is going to cover the majority of our business.
Again, this goes back to my experience of having been here before and knowing what they want, and knowing it’s also a longer lead-time so I needed to start that part early in the process because it wasn’t going to be quick — if I didn’t jump on it early it would have just delayed the roll-out. These are things I’ve had the fortune to experience previously which help me know what’s going to make a difference.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
Firstly, you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing. If you’re not waking up in the morning, living and breathing what you’re doing and excited about it, you won’t become a thought leader. Something which I hope comes across when I meet people or present to them is, I am super excited about passionate about the industry I am in with law enforcement. If you don’t have have that all-important passion, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’re not going to be able to lead because the excitement is not there. I’ve been in the position where I was leading and not excited by it, and I’ve seen things not be successful because the passion was lacking behind the scenes.
Next, surround yourself with great people who want to do what you’re doing. If you don’t have a strong and dedicated team the company will not to be able to advance quickly. You have to look at what’s going to make a difference — it’s super easy to jump in to all the problems of the world, but very few people are jumping in to solve them. If you can combine passion with a team to go out and problem-solve, that’s where you will get an advantage. The saying goes that 10 businesses can start but only one is successful, and that has never been truer.
Today, TASER has become a household name, and I am proud to say was part of and responsible for much of that. I had the chance to do the same thing again with the BolaWrap, and work with the team who does that and that’s a really rewarding feeling. To be able to say I made a difference so that a mother did not have to watch her son die, and that a police officer did not have to harm her son in front of her is a tremendous thing; we impacted those lives directly through what we’re doing here, with a product and a vision and the industry we’re in. It is not an easy industry to be in either, law enforcement faces these same challenges every day because it’s their career, but for us to be able to provide a product which helps fix or change or upgrade the technology they’re using, that’s what gets me up every day — and my team too.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
Because I followed him since day one, it would have to be Elon Musk. Look how many different trees this guy has climbed! The automobile industry would never have gone to electric battery-driven vehicles had it not been for an outsider coming in as a thought leader with the attitude “I can make a difference here”.
Then you look at how he’s morphed and is now working on SpaceX. Not to detract from NASA, but you look at the past technology they were using with space shuttles and you look at the way SpaceX does the launches today, everything about it works in conjunction; just from how quick and slick they make it look, people are genuinely excited about the space program again. It used to be something which was not super–exciting, however now you look at these astronauts and they look like real astronauts, and I think that is really a cool thing.
You can also look at how he changed the whole car, except now he’s looking at the batteries themselves where now Tesla’s Giga factories are coming into the equation, pushing further into solar. They recently acquired SolarCity for example, a company founded by Musk’s cousins based on his own concept for a solar-driven company. It’s a great example of a higher paradigm shift looking at the way we transport ourselves and the resources we use to do that, not just shying away from the oil industry but also bringing in new elements such as the Tesla battery to power the home, to reduce the need on electricity in rolling blackouts. If you step back and look at the whole thing Musk is doing as a thought leader, it takes somebody with that larger-than-life thought to push it forward.
At WRAP Technologies, we are often compared to Spiderman or Batman because of our Hollywood presence, because often Hollywood has a really artistic director looking out into the future, although it may not be an exact reflection of what is achievable in reality. I used to joke at TASER that we had the ‘wired version’ of Star Trek’s beloved Phaser gun. And today, the BolaWrap is similar to the tool Batman uses to capture people, or similarly how Spiderman uses his web. When you see those things truly brought into reality, that’s where the thought leaders are driving hardest.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
What else would you call them? They’ve innovators. It’s not just their brains, thoughts and ideas, but it’s also these same people asking how can we get there? Elon Musk has made a lot of mistakes, as have I, but you have to overcome those to advance the mission of the enterprise you’re leading.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
The first key is to completely disconnect, something which I find hard to do these days, but when you have time make sure you do things you enjoy for yourself. For me it means getting out into the mountains in Montana and getting away from everything that’s going on.
The other key is to surround yourself with people that can do your job better than you, and not view that as a threat. I remember talking to people early in my career about it, telling them to hire someone to do the job better than them and it’s true, it is not a threat. Instead, it’s good management because you’re helping the business by getting people that can take it to the next level. The more I can pass off things that get done quicker by someone than me trying to do all of it when it’s just never going to happen, the better. It’s taken me a long time to learn that skill and to be comfortable with it, and there are still times when I struggle because it’s a challenge to say I’m going to hire someone who does the job better than me.
I think I can do it the best, but it’s for the betterment of the company to say to yourself, I might not be the smartest guy in the room, but I’m sure as hell going to surround myself with the smartest people out there.
You are a person of enormous 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.
There has never been more pressure on law enforcement to change the way they use force and for people to understand the way they use force, and BolaWrap is a leader due to the technology we bring — it’s the only tool available today which doesn’t hurt somebody when stopping them before it escalates to having to use a higher level of force. Adding to this, we have specialised training we’re bringing forward in 2021 which ranges not just from BolaWrap but everything else police are doing, and investing in law enforcement and understanding their job is critical. There are people out there who do not have good intentions and we need these first responders to be there to continue to fill that role and we must support them — we must do it with technology and training, with fiscal dollars, and across the board we need to stop the message of defunding the police. It’s really about how can we help the police to do their job more safely and effectively.
I saw it first-hand when we had to call police to help my own mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and attacked my father unknowingly, the last thing I wanted was for police to cause her any harm. But at the same time, these are the people who show up and had to help get her the help she required.
We must understand they are in a very challenging role and come up with new methods, something which WRAP is doing, to allow them to do the job safely and effectively, where the officer gets to go home uninjured and the subject can leave the scene unharmed. This is key to what we are trying to achieve with our technology, trying to prevent those higher levels of force being used and those negative outcomes from happening.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In law enforcement right now, if I give an officer a hammer everything looks like a nail — that’s the reason we want to give them different tools to do their jobs such as the BolaWrap. Different scenarios require different responses.
Another of my favourite quotes is, “no one has ever failed from being too focused”. Very early on at TASER we got distracted with a product we wanted to launch in the automobile industry and it nearly bankrupted us. We had no business being there but because it was new and attractive and appealing to us, we lost our focus and passion for what we were doing. There’s a lot of things which get thrown at you, opportunities to go this direction or that, and you really have to stay focused, because it’s that focus which leads to success.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
There’s a lot of them, but I’d love to sit and have a conversation with Elon Musk and find out as a thought leader, how he comes up with solutions, what his motivation is. I’ve heard about how Bill Gates shut himself away from sight for 10 days, for example. I’d love to find out what his creative mode of thinking is.
Even leaders of some of the biggest countries I have been fortunate enough to meet, I’d be keen to know how they process their day and divide it up to lead a country. With COVID happening I don’t really envy any of them right now. They are having difficult decisions thrown at them every day which are literally life or death, and I’m sure a year ago none of them were planning for that. I’d like to find out how they are thinking about this challenge, how are they balancing the economics. Even to speak with the governors regarding all the shutdowns we’re seeing, that kind of conversation fascinates me, simply to learn more about how they are tackling the issues in front of them each day.