Kairos co-founder Brian Brackeen reveals ‘Raw Truth’ beyond the idealized view of startups

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February 27, 2015 by Jenna Buehler

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Brian Breslin, founder of the networking and workshop series Refresh Miami, and Brian Brackeen, founder of Kairos, a facial recognition software company that was nominated as one of the Wall Street Journal’s 2013 startups of the year, discuss the ups and downs of launching a startup. Photo by Preston Tesvich.

Two years ago, Brian Breslin, founder of the networking and workshop series Refresh Miami, met Brian Brackeen, a Miami-based entrepreneur who frequented the city’s many networking events in search of investment opportunities for his facial recognition software, Kairos

Today, Brackeen’s startup success has distinguished him as a regular on Miami’s entrepreneur’s speakers circuit. Kairos has received $2 million from investors in Florida and California.

At Thursday night’s Refresh Miami event at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, Brackeen offered the not-so-glamorous truths behind the sometimes romanticized view of startups.

He opened his speech by giving credit for Kairo’s success to his core startup and engineering staff, his family, and the support he received from entrepreneurial incubators such as NewME and Endeavor Miami, which helped Kairos gain access to a network of Fortune 500 business owners.

“I'm committed to our idea, but I’m even more committed to our employees and everything they do,” he said, before asking employees in the audience to stand and thanking them for continuing with the idea for Kairos even when he ran out of money to pay his core team.

“It was the first of many tearful conversations,” he said, “I told them you know you’re going to get paid this Friday, but you’re not going to get paid next Friday and I understand if you have to go. I got on Google Hangout the next day and every single person was there. I still get emotional about it because everything that we are now is because of these people.”

He offered these eight tips to people who are soon to enter the ups and downs of their startup journey:

Tip 1: You are married to your co-founder and divorce is expensive.

“One of the first things I did was I needed someone to help with the tasks. [The beginning is] roses until you realize [you have] slightly divergent views,” Brackeen said. “The good news is that I went through a rather amicable divorce and was able to buy all that person’s stock.”

2. Raising capital is hard.

“That first dollar, man,” he said, confiding in the audience. “That is the hardest dollar to raise. I went door to door quite literally, went to every meetup, told people I just wanted to take them to coffee until, eventually, I convinced someone to see me again and again. It was fortunate that he had a bunch of really rich friends.”

3. Don’t hire too many people, especially when you don’t have a product.

“It was hard for me to interview people with that [sales] skill set,” Brackeen said. “Salespeople are good at selling and even better at selling themselves.”

“[What] I had done was drain, and drain, and drain the money we needed for engineers to build out the idea for Kairos. Months later we cut ties and, again, focused only on our core team and building our product.”

4. Don’t run out of money.

“[Kairos] was finally working by building with two companies to help us prove our model, then we ran out of money,” Brackeen said. “That’s a tough conversation to have with yourself, when you have to ask, ‘Have I led these people and their families down the garden path?’”

5. Product market fit is as important as the product itself.

“I thought we were ready to hire again because we had more of a product,” Brackeen said, after having raised more funds with the support of investors old and new. “What we did not have was product market fit. You’ll feel like you’re close but you’ll know when you’re there because your investors will know.”

6. Don’t hire a salesperson until you are at a point when you can no longer handle the sales yourself.

“I hired a great guy, but he wasn't right for where we were going because he had a hard time selling the new model,” he said. “Just because someone does $100 million in sales in the commercial market does not mean he can deliver for a startup. Nice guy, but he delivered absolutely nothing. Again, we went back to the core team and just totally focused on what we were doing.”

7. Focus on being ready for your customer and continue to iterate.

“Each time we were ready to turn a corner, I had to ask where is the focus,” Brackeen said. “What we have learned and what we are doing now is focusing on doing one thing at a time.”

8. Find balance at the intersection of family and work.

“I’m only sharing this personal bit so you don’t do what I did,” Brackeen said. “I see my daughter sometimes every other month, but sometimes once a quarter. It’s not that she didn’t have a good childhood -- her mom is amazing -- but her childhood could have been excellent. Find a way to better balance than I did, not for you but for them.”

Following the presentation, Breslin moderated a session where Brackeen answered  questions from the audience submitted via @refeshmiami on Twitter. In response to questions related to his decision to launch his business in South Florida, Brackeen said the decision was an obvious one.

“For those raising money, know this,” Brackeen said. “California has 24,000 startups and roughly 8,200 investors. Florida has 2,400 startups and 7,800 angel investors. So, Miami was really the place for Kairos.”

Brackeen’s appearance marked the 120th Refresh Miami event, a series supported by  Knight Foundation. The next event will feature financial technology startups and will take place at 6 p.m. March 26 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. For more information, visit refreshmiami.com.

Jenna Buehler is a Miami-based freelance writer.

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