That move-forward attitude is still in my nature, but I’ve learned how to prioritize. Now I’m more willing to pull in devil’s advocates and ask for feedback.
Brian Goral is co-founder and CEO of Furenexo. Solving complex problems through technology has always been Brian’s passion: one that brought him to more than 30 countries over the course of a 15-plus year career with the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2015, while beginning his work with Eric Skiff on a project aimed at improving situational awareness for first responders and military personnel, the two recognized the potential for similar technology to benefit the disabled as much, if not more, than their original goal. Clearly seeing the profound impact their technology – and future technologies built upon it – would have on the lives of disabled persons, Brian and Eric cofounded Furenexo. As CEO, Brian’s mission is the same as the one at the CIA: solving complex problems through the use of technology in order to safeguard and improve lives that need it the most.
Where did the idea for Furenexo come from?
A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting a company called Berkeley Bionics (now Ekso Bionics) and saw the work they were doing to help people learn to walk again. I witnessed a person who expected to be in a wheelchair for the rest of their life stand up for the first time with the assistance of an exoskeleton.
When I started Furenexo, my co-founder and CTO Eric Skiff pushed us to consider the impact and aim of our company. The memory of that life-changing event came flooding back. It became vital for us to use emerging technology to solve overlooked challenges for people with disabilities. Furenexo’s mission is in line with just that: to produce affordable, assistive devices for people with disabilities and to change the world’s perspective on who is able to contribute to society.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m a night owl, so I typically stay awake a bit too late plugging away at email drafts or fundraising copy. I always start my morning with a good breakfast – usually a turkey sandwich and half a PB&J – that I’ll make and eat while watching the Daily Show or reading news online from the night before. I’ll catch the subway to the office and review to-do items from the previous night before a regular morning meeting. From there, the team plans out tasks, calls, and appointments for the day ahead.
One habit that helps me stay productive is that I don’t force myself to work from the office during specific hours. If I need to run a few errands or get my laundry done and that means I’ll need to dial in to a call or roll out a bit early, I find it all balances out. Having flexibility in my day and not stressing about little things is very helpful, because I already know I’m going to be up late on my computer most nights.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’m a daydreamer. I’m more than happy to let an idea bounce around in my head to develop it. I’m also fairly visual and enjoy sketching an idea out. If you asked me a decade ago, I would have followed that with, “And then I go forward with the finished idea and action needed – better to do something rather than nothing.”
That move-forward attitude is still in my nature, but I’ve learned how to prioritize. Now I’m more willing to pull in devil’s advocates and ask for feedback.
In my previous career, there was not a lot of time to coordinate with all levels of management. Similarly, in a startup, time is valuable. I had to learn to let others run with the ball as long as they communicated about where they’re headed. My instinct is to jump right in and take control. I suppose that’s fairly common in startups.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I’m seeing an enormous number of people in tech who want to leave a positive impact on the world. Some want to leave a personal mark, but by and large, there are people who seek something lasting and important, which they’ll be proud to say they were a part of.
Furenexo’s products are all open source, meaning anyone can contribute to their development. The open source movement has taken off in the last few years, especially among young people. Millennials have been given a bad rap (I’m Gen X), but I really see a younger generation that wants to face new technology issues in ways that were never anticipated. These folks and so many others realize that they want to and can be part of something bigger than the next “Uber for Dry-Cleaning” – and they can align their whole lives around doing things they feel are important. Furenexo wants to highlight one avenue to enable everybody with that sense of ownership of the future.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’ve definitely opened myself and become more trusting. For example, I’ll ask myself if I’m the one who needs to make the first draft of a presentation, and generally the answer is no. I can provide guidelines for how it should fit with other pieces of the company, however, I’ve found there are few issues that absolutely require my sole attention.
My team is great at helping me realize that. Eric, in particular, makes sure I keep things in perspective, and our Programs Lead, Risa, stays on top of process details and schedules. Furenexo’s team reflects how much you can achieve with an open mindset.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I’ve generally enjoyed my jobs, although I have had some terrible managers.
Two of the least effective bosses I have had were micro-managers in subtly different ways. The first made very assertive decisions without understanding the tasks at hand (even when sometimes they were already accomplished by the time he made a decision). The other decimated a well-run office by withdrawing responsibility from myself and other leaders in the workplace despite an already growing backlog in his queue. He played the martyr role well.
These individuals showed me exactly who I didn’t want to become as a leader. They taught me to listen to the people around me and trust them to do what is both necessary and right to keep the organization moving forward.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would consult a few more venture capitalist friends about what they look for in a growing business. Not for the purposes of gaining investment, but to help me understand how to find partnerships and be taken seriously. When I started Furenexo, I naively thought that having a great idea and a solid plan for execution would be enough to get funding and build connections.
As I got going, I learned that proving traction in the marketplace – especially for a hardware project – is crucial. The plan I drafted needed to be extended. More importantly, I learned that the team behind a plan or idea is critical and that coming from a somewhat sterile government background, I would need to show that I had an experienced team to carry my company forward. Meshing these pieces together sooner would have helped me tailor my expectations and early focus.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
One thing I find myself doing over and over – especially at the end of the weekend – is kicking myself for not being as productive as I planned. I have an organizational board and know what tasks I need to complete, but will get off track while going for a run with Achilles (a nonprofit helping individuals with disabilities to run and exercise), catching up with a friend, or just sleeping late on a Sunday.
I recommend not to be too hard on yourself for these “mistakes.” Certainly don’t decide to slack off completely, as any growth requires extensive care and feeding. However, recognize that we all need to recharge our batteries. Those little moments where you connect with the world outside the company – whether with friends, hobbies or family – will keep you charged and moving through longer, tougher times. They are also the moments that you’ll remember regardless of the success of your business (or anything you do in life, really). I completely understand shutting yourself off during a stressful time, but don’t live your whole life there. Recognize that being strong-willed also includes being smart about your own mental health.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Early on we decided to engage with as many people as we could regarding disabilities and the challenges that come with them. More importantly, we made a conscious decision to listen to challenges beyond those we thought we already understood. We listened to our customers. Eric heard a story from two different people about a product for people who are deaf which no longer exists, and this brought Furenexo to the concept of building assistive devices with emerging technology. We were inspired to create something similar. This became our first product, the Sound-Sense device. The Sound-Sense is a device that converts loud noises into a vibration the wearer will feel. With it, a deaf person is more aware of happenings in their environment.
However, by engaging with representatives from Hellen Keller Services (an organization committed to improving the lives of individuals who are blind, visually impaired or have combined hearing and vision loss), the special education community and a group supporting people with Autism, we recognized the need to change our approach to tackle a wider range of challenges. That led us to create a portal connecting the maker community with the disabled community. That portal is the open source aspect of Furenexo’s products.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest failure was one many first-time entrepreneurs face – thinking that I was completely ready for everything involved in my role as CEO. I knew the mechanics involved in fundraising and refining our business plan, so I thought I would be cool as a cucumber. In reality, the whole effort would have gone under several times without Eric and Risa. Eric co-founded other organizations and has been phenomenal in helping me map out day-to-day activities and breaking large tasks into smaller chunks. Surrounding yourself with the right people makes all the difference in the world.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Create an online medical records interface between different existing medical filing systems.
I’ve spoken with many doctors in the last year, and most of the digital records systems in medical centers and hospitals are functional for a given office or a given insurance network. However, the software quality and types of data stored are wide-ranging and not necessarily compatible with new systems in use by other offices. Transferring files between providers frequently means a fax. Many medical offices still use paper files for everything. A machine-learning based interface that links and securely stores/exchanges the medical data created in dozens of different medical data systems would be hugely impactful. It would simplify the sharing of critical data in emergencies, cut waste, and enable more comprehensive epidemiological studies and investigations into the effects of medications. Technical challenges aside, there will be numerous policy hurdles, but the upside is huge both financially and in societal impact.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I moved to NYC only last year. When I was first finding my way around (before starting Furenexo) a cousin suggested I take an improve comedy class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I went in expecting to learn a few jokes. In reality, the course was a lesson in communicating with others, both in the audience and onstage with you. Part of it is illustrating what you feel the “odd” thing about a situation is. The other part is listening carefully to how your teammates on stage react to you and present their own perspective on what stands out to them. That give-and-take is hugely important. UCB teaches this in a way that doesn’t undercut your teammates and operates from the top of your intelligence.
I’ve also begun directly incorporating the idea of “Yes, and…” This is one of UCB’s initial lessons on how to move an idea forward. I swap in “Yes, and…” for “No, but…” into emails and business conversations.
UCB helped me get up on stage in front of strangers and discover that pressure is only in my own head. I’ve since taken two additional classes with UCB and am scouring my schedule for an opportunity to continue further.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I have Trello open on my computer at all times. Trello is an organizational tool for businesses that helps me collaborate with my team and keep important tasks in front of me. The team also uses messaging programs Slack and Google Hangouts frequently. These keep everyone in the loop even when we’re not in the same room.
A Google Chrome extension called The Great Suspender has been a lifesaver for my laptop. It suspends unused windows in my browser so I can keep more items at the ready without unnecessarily driving processor, draining battery, or heating up my laptop.
I consider myself a constant learner and enjoy exploring both human and computer languages further. Google Translate is convenient for translating larger chunks of text, while WordReference gives a much broader range of possible meanings for individual words, particularly slang. Linguasorb tweaks my verb conjugations. Coursera offers free online university courses and has so much to offer, though I’d prefer more courses feature open/adjustable enrollment timeframes.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend The Economics of Public Issues by Rodger LeRoy Miller, Daniel K Benjamin and Douglass C. North. The book contains a series of short anecdotes that get to the roots of issues including FDA drug testing, black markets, the environment, and globalization without spin. It offers both sides of each argument. The Economics of Public Issues not only informs but shows leaders how to break down arguments to enable decision making in context. Especially in very tech-focused environments (or any single-focused business), it’s useful for leaders to have a broad understanding of what is going on in the rest of the world and how those happenings will affect our work.
A lighter suggestion is the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. It’s fun and absurd, yet it details approaches to problem-solving that lead to innovation and new ideas.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. I’m a big fan of physicist Richard Feynman as well. My dad, who was an inner-city high school guidance counselor for most of his career and now teaches abnormal psychology at a small college in Ohio, has been a huge influence on me. Data scientist Hilary Mason (@hmason) has been a great friend and confidant throughout Furenexo’s inception.
When I moved to New York, I started listening to podcasts as I walked around the city and took the subway. I enjoy podcasts that teach me about different topics and their societal implications. A favorite is physicist Brian Cox’s Infinite Monkey Cage podcast. I also listen to Radiolab, Freakonomics, and Invisibilia. These podcasts aren’t single-themed, so every time I listen I learn about issues I might never have sought out on my own.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.