Product Hero is our bi-weekly series that highlights outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Brian Brackeen, Founder and CEO of Kairos.
C. Todd: Hey everyone, I’m here with our latest Product Hero Brian Brackeen. We’ll get into what you do at Kairos, but Brian, tell us about how you got into product. What drove you to it?
Brian: Well, I take it all the way to my time at Apple. I think that’s really where my love of product came from. Prior to that I worked at Comcast and IBM. I don’t know if you know products from Comcast or IBM, but they’re not great. It was really at Apple when I understood why design really matters. It’s important to the user and you should put the user first in everything that you do. So that level of empathy, I think, didn’t really develop until I was at Apple.
C. Todd: Was there any particular event or place you worked that sparked an understanding that the user should come first?
Brian: I would say that developed because of positive and negative environments I was in. I think my time at Comcast, in particular, comes to mind. I love the company, overall they do a good job, but it’s still one of the worst product companies in the country. Just getting from point A to point B required so much work. It showed me what a bad user experience looked like, the pain it caused me day-to-day, and the fact no one started really asking “how do we fix this?”. That was no one’s job there, which is why it was so bad. No one was ever in charge of the product essentially.
I juxtapose that to my time at Apple where really all of our discussions and meetings at every level were almost always led by a product champion. They led the technical discussions too. The conversations always started with the vision and then we would figure out how achieve it from a technical perspective. This was the opposite of ticking the technical boxes and then, whatever comes out at the end, hoping the customer will use it. It was really refreshing for me.
C. Todd: So you started Kairos coming out of Apple? Tell us more about how Kairos began.
Brian: I’m in my cubicle, at Apple, in Cupertino, California, it’s a wonderful place where people make you meals and all these great things. I remember feeling my soul was being sucked out of me, like into the neon lights. I could not sit in that cubicle another second. Absolutely not. I went into the office, and resigned. I had to resign twice because the first time, my boss was like, “Are you just upset? Come on, no one resigns … that’s not a thing. Go home this weekend, think about it, come back to me. You’ll think better of it.” So it was on the second time the following week. And yeah, started Kairos after that.
C. Todd: Wow! Can you tell us more about what you do at Kairos?
Brian: We do three things particularly well. One is facial recognition and matching. We can find one person in 500 million in a about a second. And we’re 99.6% sure that person is who they actually are. Two, we know anything else about the demographics, so their age, gender, ethnicity, and attentiveness as well. Anything else about the person. Last but not least, their deeper emotions. We can tell how they’re feeling about pieces of content which is actually very applicable to this conversation. Are they feeling fear, joy, disgust, sadness about what they’re reading or watching at any moment.
C. Todd: What gave you the idea to create this facial recognition company and product?
Brian: We originally made a time clock product where employees punch in and out for more of a human resources audience. They were using the front-facing camera to verify the identity of the person that was sitting in front of the phone because way back when phones didn’t have that. Then we realized, making facial recognition easy for corporate customers is a big idea to use in a variety of different functions.
C. Todd: That’s cool. I read an article in the Miami Herald was about that you bought a company to serve your users needs because that’s how you were going to solve their problem. A lot of startups just go build stuff. Instead you noticed that another company was already doing what your users needed. Tell us more about that story.
Brian: Yeah. Think about the crunch of getting series A funding and identifying what investors want to see. Defining the kind of growth numbers you need to hit and what kind of product you have to have to get there. So many great companies die on the way to getting series A because it takes too long to reach product market fit. Taking that into consideration, we found a startup that had great technology and a great marketing strategy. We integrated their technology, learned why the marketing was working, and applied it to our business. It was like a private equity approach to getting bigger, faster. It was quite successful.
C. Todd: Given your polar opposite product organization experiences, how have you grown your team to make sure they have a strong relationship with your users? How does your team interact with your users?
Brian: One of our very early employees, my right hand man really, is Ben Virdee-Chapman, our chief design officer. Ben was brought on very early on with real intent. If you don’t infuse that user-centric design into your company at early stages, it’s so easy for design to take a backseat. Then you have to backpedal and spend lots of time and resources making it user-centric. In this day and age, a lot of B2C companies, the Apples, the Googles, and so on have done a really good job with design. People’s’ expectations are changing – they expect a high bar for design. If it isn’t thoughtfully designed, you’ll find adoption is pretty slow.
C. Todd: Yeah. Even something as simple as basic typography, which is a good chunk of our interactions, is sometimes ignored. Absolutely.
Brian: I once fired somebody that used Arial. If you have the audacity and the taste to change the font from a Times New Roman or an Arial to a Helvetica, you’re not my guy or girl. You’re not for us.
C. Todd: Exactly. Exactly. Let’s talk about how your team works together. There are a ton of buzzwords on team structure out there: lean, Agile, Scrum, design sprints. How does your team ship product?
Brian: We use all of those things: Scrum, Agile, and Design Sprints. But you know what’s the number one focus? Empathy. We have love and thoughtfulness for each other, as a team, for the user, for potential customers, people who are reading our blog or just trying to understand who we are. If we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, assume they have positive intentions, which is a big internal thing at Apple, we will be successful. I think that, yes we do Agile, yes we have stand-ups, but how we execute with empathy, thoughtfulness, and love makes a big difference.
C. Todd: I’ve heard the empathy used a lot, but you’re throwing up thoughtfulness and love, which are two words that aren’t really used when you talk to companies and other product people and design people about creating products. I’m delighted to hear you use those words.
Brian: Yeah, our Twitter URL is LoveKairos. Not just because it’s cute, and it is cute, but it’s thoughtful, love is a core value of ours.
C. Todd: That’s great. What are some of the other core values at Kairos? How do they spread into your product?
Brian: I think it’s goes deep to my background and personal life. We tend to attract people with similar philosophies about life.
I was adopted at six months old by my two amazing parents. I actually had Amish foster parents. Can you imagine a guy who runs a facial recognition startup had Amish foster parents? There’s the first level of me experiencing empathy and love. I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There’s all these kind of concepts of openness that growing up in Philly taught me, and it’s infused into my being and our company and its culture. We get some things wrong, we can fight about decisions, there are so many decisions at this stage of company that could make us fail. But it’s our love for one another that allows us to move past those things. It helps us build trust. When you’re open and honest and build trust, business moves faster. Trust and love makes Kairos ultimately financially successful.
C. Todd: How big are you guys now?
Brian: We are 18 now, hoping to be above 30 by the end of the year. We have some new openings being posted soon on our website. But for now, you can submit your resume here if you want to be contacted.
C. Todd: Let’s talk more about your product. You mentioned there are three things that you guys do better than anyone else: facial recognition and matching, recognizing demographic information, and understanding people’s deeper emotions. How are you measuring success?
Brian: We’re very outcome driven. We identify more faces in an image than any of our competitors. We are 10 times faster than any of our competitors. We’re able to recognize face sizes from very small images of about 144 bites versus others who need literally 90, 100, and 200% larger images. Because of this, we can search for so 500 million people so quickly.
C. Todd: That’s cool. How do you measure love? How do you measure love in your product?
Brian: We find love in a couple different ways. Some people come to us already having consumed a ton of our content, they know us, and are excited to be on board. We also pay close attention to engagement. Are people sharing our information, coming back to the website multiple times, and spending a good amount of time on the site. We think of those as little bits of love.
The biggest way we measure love is by talking to customers. There’s a lot of great stories, but I really like this one. Emma Yang, a 13 year old girl in New York City used our API to build an app for her grandmother with Alzheimer’s so she doesn’t have to be embarrassed if she forgets people’s names. Emma’s grandmother can discreetly hold the phone up to someone’s face to find out who they are and some information about then. How cool is that? We’ll never charge Emma for that. It’s awesome thinking that our product can really build these kinds of emotional and positive reactions for people.
C. Todd: What’s next for Kairos? Obviously you’re trying to hire some people to scale up and go forward, what does that future look like for you?
Brian: You know, we’re based in Miami, Florida. This area is really great for a number of different kinds of full-stack type developers, but there are some very specific skills like computer vision PhDs that come from Michigan State and other places where we need to attract them to join our team.
C. Todd: Let’s talk about the future of your product. How does roadmapping play into your product process?
Brian: Everyone in product has these micro issues that will always come up, and then macro challenges to determine where you’re going over the next quarter and beyond. We’re being very agile and listening to customers to help prioritize some of the features that will help them the most. We solve high frequency problems by putting them right into sprints and are continuously delivering.
We also think about our development in Kanban style, identifying the roadblocks in our process to create more value for customers. By combining what’s going on in the market and what customers want, we’re able to focus on what creates the biggest value. At the beginning of the year, we have an all-company offsite to plan for the year. We do a huge brainstorm to come up with some big ideas and leave some space for things that will pop up.
C. Todd: Cool. That’s great. What’s missing in the conversation around product, design, and startups? What do we need to be talking about?
Brian: I would love to see people talking more about love when it comes to product. People also need to be a little more humble as well. Even in product design, I see a lack of humility. Instead of continuously listening, designers will only talk to a few people, come up with a solution, and that’s it. While it certainly might work, the sample size wasn’t large enough and you’re not getting the best testing results. I’ve also seen dominant personalities outweigh the quieter personalities in testing. We need to think about how to account for these personalities differences.
Some of the best data and insights we’ve ever gotten have come from women. We don’t have enough women weighing in on issues in tech. Especially in our facial recognition space. Competitors have black and red color palettes, with guns on it try and show it’s a cool security product. It’s unbelievable. I just think everyone is better served when you have more women being represented in product and design. You’ll definitely have a better product. Period.
C. Todd: What advice would you give someone who is starting out as a product manager, design, or even entrepreneur?
Brian: First of all, take a really deep look at art and design schools. They’re very under appreciated in the world of digital products and even in this country. They’re putting out some of the best designers who can carry those foundational design principles to the world of product. Second, people are wired to thinking taking a design job at IBM is the ideal path. It’s not a bad thing. I worked there, it’s a great organization, but work at a startup. It’s going to be tough, but what you will learn in that year or two will serve you your entire career.
C. Todd: Cool. That’s great advice. Where do you think digital products are going? We have facial recognition thanks to you and your team. Self-driving and flying cars are the near future for us. What’s after that?
Brian: There’s some interesting things that we’re doing around artificial intelligence that will allow you to test content without people. If I show content to enough people and I gauge their reactions, the algorithm can learn what people feel when they see certain content. Therefore, in the future, you’ll be able to just run the content through an algorithm and it will tell you how humans would accept that content. Say you’ve got a very secretive movie, you could show the algorithm the movie and it will tell you if they’re going to like it or not. Very, very interesting things. Say even physical products, give me the product, it could be a new iPhone or Android challenger for instance, and the algorithm can go through as humans would and use the product and tell you what they would have liked or didn’t like, based on the UI.
That’s where the field’s going.
C. Todd: Very cool. Well, this was great. Thank you for spending time with us today.
- You can follow Brian and the rest of his team on Twitter and LinkedIn.
- Learn more about Kairos’ mission and values on the Backstage Capital podcast.