Entrepreneurship

A Founder’s Journey Requires Focus and Managing Growth With Richard Boyd

A Founder’s Journey Requires Focus and Managing Growth With Richard Boyd

MP spoke with Richard Boyd, Founder and CEO of Tanjo AI, an Artificial intelligence and machine learning company, and the founder of Ultisim Inc, a simulation learning and Digital Twin company, about his entrepreneurial journey. With over three decades of experience in the field, Boyd is an authority on AI, ML, and 3D game-based simulation. He has also co-authored a best-selling industry-leading book on Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) technologies, called “The Virtus VRML Toolkit,” where he expressed a vision for the 3D Internet or Metaverse in 1995 and was one of the architects of the Department of Defense Virtual World Framework. He has worked on movies and helped create some of the most valuable game franchises. 

CEO of Tanjo AI Richard Boyd / Photo courtesy of Richard Boyd

The Journey

The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur? If yes, what was that experience like, and how did you overcome it?

I believe that no one can achieve true success without some help along the way. I met many people throughout my journey who inspired me and helped me get where I am today. 

One of them I met pretty early when I had just finished a degree in military history at UNC Chapel Hill. I was preparing for law school when I met Texas billionaire Ross Perot who came to speak at the business school. 

While I was sitting in the front row, listening to his lecture, Perot approached me and inquired what I had planned to do. When I announced my intention to become a lawyer, Perot said that the United States had 5% of the world's population but 85% of the world's lawyers; why didn't I build something that would make a difference and go into technology? 

Make something that has a tangible impact on the world. 

I didn't even own a computer; the innovative technology on my radar at the time was the cell phone. 

However, I was so inspired that I took a job as a Motorola salesman, bought a computer, and began learning basic coding. 

The Psychological Warfare 

Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?

In high school, I was drawn to descriptions of ideal systems and forms. I once wrote a 50-page paper about Edward Bellamy’s book “Looking Backward.” 

I remember my English teacher being very surprised by my enthusiasm for it and even a little worried. I went from there to devour Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” and other descriptions of ideal systems for a living. I read Plato and Aristotle on my own (do kids do that today?) to tease out those ancient ideas. 

They never spoke of optimism overtly then, only of ideal forms. The Middle Ages happened soon after. 

Life was nasty, brutish, and short again, and optimism was not mentioned until the Enlightenment.

Great people like Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz strode onto the stage then and, although they were still superstitious and fearful, began to talk once again about the capacity of poor dumb humans to bring about better, even ideal forms and societies. Liebniz called it “optimisme.” 

But he meant it in a way far different from how I interpret humanity's limitless possibilities. Leibniz thought this was the best of all possible worlds, but he also thought God was a mathematician. If God is a mathematician, then he/she absolutely must approve of humans working with their artifacts and tools (a nod to Doug Engelbart) to create software to improve our existence.

These books, writings, and philosophers became a part of me. 

They reinforced my need to believe that I, or any of us, could take action to improve circumstances. 

And then I discovered another book. 

I had completed college and had already discovered the software. I was working in interactive 3D design tools for the architecture and movie industries when I picked up a copy of “Engines of Creation” by Eric Drexler.

That book shocked me more than any ancient and recent texts combined. 

I devoured the whole thing in one sitting. 

If you came within earshot of me for the next few weeks, you would see me approach you wide-eyed; maybe I even grabbed you by the shoulders and began fervently lecturing you on the imminent reality of tiny nano-sized machines living within our bodies and making us immortal, of the disappearance of hunger and illness and economic poverty. 

A golden age was about to be born, an age in which every problem essentially became just another software problem.  

Software became my religion. 

I became the single most hopeful person you will ever likely meet. 

Even though it is all moving at a glacial pace, it is advancing.

What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears? 

1. Timing

My most significant concern is timing innovation with the market readiness and the need for that innovation. 

A colleague of mine said that my team seems to enjoy reaching far into the future, driving a stake in the ground, and then dragging ourselves to it. 

For example, I wrote a book about the imminent dawn of the 3D Internet (Metaverse) in 1995. 

At the same time, I have missed some significant opportunities by waiting too long. 

2. Managing Growth

In every one of the six ventures I founded or co-founded, I have wrestled with the process and choreography of growing teams of people. 

Growing more than 30% a year (as successful startups do) requires special attention and skill to keep the whole mission from going off the rails. 

I always interview every candidate and demonstrate the product. I want to see the fire light in their eyes. 

Ensuring everyone is aligned with, and passionate about the mission and culture are critical for early-stage ventures. 

It is essential for larger ventures too. 

I spent almost six years at Lockheed Martin. But I found the apparatus of large companies make alignment more difficult. 

3. Lack of Focus

Another fear of mine is admiring too many problems, as we all do, and lacking the discipline in the organization to realize that success comes from the single-minded pursuit of simple actions. 

The more the action and focus can be distilled, the more likely success becomes. I am on constant guard against some of my early mistakes where I chased too many opportunities at once. 

Communicating this to a growing team of people can also be challenging and risky. 

The Mistakes

What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid these mistakes? 

1. Chasing Success

In my thirty years, I have accumulated a long list of lessons learned. When I advise business students at UNC (through the Adams Advisory program), I tell them first of all to find what they are passionate about and follow that. 

Any time I tried to enter a market because it was hot and looked like it might be lucrative, I was not as successful as working in fields where I was passionate. When Lockheed Martin acquired my company 3Dsolve, I was initially allowed to pursue my passions in education and healthcare simulation. 

But after I created a full 3D digital twin model of a 688 attack submarine, I was assigned to the Littoral Combat Ship and asked to focus there. 

I left the company four months later.

2. Hired Incorrectly

I also learned that every hire matters in a small company. 

As CEO, I would personally interview everyone. I had learned that I could not afford to have anyone in the company who was not as passionate as us about the mission. 

3. Watching Where Your Money Comes From

The last of my top three lessons is that entrepreneurs need to care more about how they raise capital and from whom. 

When someone invests in you, it is like a marriage. 

It is critical if you are to succeed that your investors have the same goals and that your incentives are aligned. 

An investment pitch should not be one-sided. 

Go to those meetings with your own sets of questions to determine how much alignment you have. 

What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning? 

1. Too Much Focus on Technology

This is especially true in computer gaming and some of the early attempts at the Metaverse. 

Early in my career, we engaged with Dr. Fred Brooks at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of the “Mythical Man Month,” and he decided there would be 8 bits in a byte when he led the early engineering efforts at IBM. 

He was famous for walking around to review his graduate students’ computer science work and saying, “that’s wonderful, but what problem are you solving, and who will care?” 

We put that at the top of every whiteboard. 

I would also add that successful and complete solutions must integrate with how people work. 

2. Skipping the Market Research

I see many entrepreneurs who dream up solutions and then try to raise money and work away at it for a year or more before validating it in the market. 

You can guess on multiple-choice tests in college, but guessing in a vacuum in most markets is usually disastrous. 

That is why I recommend SBIR programs like NSF or NASA, where they put you through the rigor of interviewing 100 customers and asking them whether they need the solution or would part with the treasure to obtain it. 

There is no substitute for this process.

3. Organize for Success

So many entrepreneurs I advise spend too much time on their 80-page business plan and pitch deck, not enough thinking through the team they need and the basic corporate hygiene documents that align you for capital raises and IP protection. 

There is no substitute for a good lawyer or some incubation programs that can provide turnkey corporate documents for organizing you for success. These include your by-laws and other incorporation agreements, but also stock plans, and employee and contractor agreements. 

The Successes

What are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?

At this point in my career, I feel pretty well informed about all of the slings, arrows, and obstacles confronting me when I start a new venture. 

If I could go back to when I formed my first startup alone (3dvillage) in 1999, it would be to understand better how to negotiate investment deals that don’t unnecessarily hamper or dilute the founders and permit future growth. 

I know now that choosing an investment partner is like marriage. You don’t just engage with the first adoring suitor; you have to be intentional and thoughtful about what the right match is for you. 

Who will stick with you through thick and thin, for better or worse?

How have you managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?

At Tanjo, we firmly believe that the highest moral purpose of tech, like machine learning, is to model human behavior at the individual and community level to understand better what people think and feel. 

We call this the empathy engine. 

Using this information, we can model and simulate the consequences of policies and investments in those communities to optimize societal outcomes. 

We are working with several partners to model the current state in as many dimensions as possible and explore the idea of what a healthy and happy community can and should be.  

Our community wellness simulator aims to improve health, education, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose, which have been shown in numerous studies to be important factors in achieving happiness, security, and prosperity.  

The Advice

How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems like an impossible task?

My advice for this is similar to my advice for building the initial startup team. 

Make sure you have a partner aligned with and excited by your vision. 

Separating the two lives is difficult, as startup technology companies tend to be all-consuming initially.  I am not sure how one can plan to have any sort of balance in the first year or so. 

So, ensuring your family has bought into the mission, and understands it is a sprint, is what I advise. 

Then, try to continue to hire passionate capable people to whom you can delegate with confidence and begin that vision quest for entrepreneurial work/life balance. 

What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey more manageable, and why? 

Follow your passions and interests and see where they lead you.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes - recognize them, admit them and learn from them. 

Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your ideas.

 I believe in the quote, “Life is not multiple choice, it is massively multiple choice.” 

I was recently invited back to my high school, where I used to be student body president. I gave a speech with this title, reflecting on my experience right after high school when there seemed to be only a few paths forward for my career, and those paths were well known and well laid out. 

A lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a banker, and a military officer are all examples of occupations. 

These were the brochure-papered paths that my guidance counselor laid out for me. Fortunately, very early in my career, right after I graduated from college, I learned that we live in an accelerating information age of constant change and that there are numerous paths forward. 

I made my path by organically following my passions and interests without a map.

What do you think the most significant difference is between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why?

My entire career has been a Peter Pan existence pursuing my passions with like-minded people and integrating fun and my social life with every experience. 

My teams and I create our reality along the way and are fluent with the pivot and serve of technology entrepreneurship. 

The idea of lifetime employment fulfilling the goals of a large corporate entity is anathema to us. 

And it appears that the reality of 21st-century work is aligning with how we have viewed the world all along. 

What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?

Early in my career, I believed in serendipity and omens. 

I thought I had met someone for a reason and put too much weight on some of those early occurrences.  The most dangerous time was when I had just enough experience and confidence to start “trusting my gut” on decisions.  

Later, I learned that one could never have too much data. 

Informed decisions are the only valuable ones. 

And now, I try to use all of the proof points I can to make the leaps from data to information (data that has been organized and meta-tagged)  to intelligence (Information that has been computed with some set of algorithms that provide consistent and provident guidance) 

Other

Is there anything else you would like to share?

This quote is also on our walls in my company. 

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Entrepreneurs must build strong networks

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and sage of Sand Hill Road, taught me early on that networking is critical. He urged us to move our company formation business to Silicon Valley to ensure our ideas would be heard and to strengthen our networking. Of course, I have ignored that advice and stayed selfishly here in North Carolina, arguing that the Internet compresses space and time (and energy), so it shouldn’t matter where I live or where my company is headquartered. This geographic removal means I have to spend a little time every day maintaining, strengthening, and adding to my network of very smart people who can help me connect to customers, think through ideas, and fund those ideas. 

I spend time on LinkedIn (I am among the first 1,000 users) but spend more time on the phone and zoom calls and seeking speaking engagements and conferences to network.

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