Jake Bullock, founder of the augmented reality company Ravn sums up entrepreneurship in one of the best ways I’ve heard: “You’re standing in the middle of a minefield. You don’t know which direction to walk.” A bad move could take a piece of you with it, or eliminate you entirely. But “good advisors and mentors help you pick a direction, then tread lightly.”
Jake knows what he’s talking about.
He spent eight years as a Navy SEAL in four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming an entrepreneur to help save lives on the battlefield.
Jake shared his journey on a recent episode of The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast, taking listeners from his service on the battlefield to his studies at Columbia University, to launching his company with the help of the Columbia Startup Lab and Y Combinator, and to his effort now to grow Ravn in Silicon Valley.
In becoming a founder, Jake has maintained the same passion and sharp focus he used to realize his childhood dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. The path to startup founder was more circuitous, however: It was “very much placing a stone down, taking a step, reassessing, putting another stone down, frequently in a different direction,” and so on.
He approached being a founder methodically, taking time to understand the skills he needed to master. Mentors, advisors and peers helped him earn those technical chops while also teaching him one thing he sees as integral to his role as CEO: “It took me a long time to understand that storytelling was my primary job.” As a CEO looking to get buy-in from VCs, partners and customers “you have to (be able to) pick that one nail that you can drive into someone’s head to convince them that it’s a good idea.”
Having been a Navy SEAL gives him an edge, Jake says, especially when it comes to the critical tasks of building a world-class team and creating the right company culture. An effective startup team welcomes diversity of thought without losing sight of that strong mission that you’ve centered your work around, he says.
“Culture is a great way to force conformity around a set of values that you have as an organization - however, you cannot force conformity around everything. You have to know where you want people to add their unique perspectives and allow them to add to the culture, and then you have to know where they need to conform and join what you’ve already established as your core set of values. Knowing the difference between those two things is very important.”
Jake’s idea for Ravn came out of personal experience. “I left my deployment in early 2007 knowing that I had to build a device that was going to give people who were in the line of fire more information. Information that you could collectively have as a unit, but that you might not have access to when you are on the street corner with your hands on your rifle and your head up.”
As he describes the scenario: Someone is coming through a door with a big piece of metal that looks like a barrel coming at you, and you’ve got less than a second before they see you to decide how to act. What do you do?
The reality of being a soldier is that “you have to act with certainty, having only a very limited amount of information, and sometimes, when the dust settles, you’ve made the right decision and sometimes you didn’t.” These split-second decisions affect people very deeply and change people forever.
For more about Jake’s mission-driven entrepreneurial journey, listen to the full interview here or skip to the time stamps below:
1:52 - When your entrepreneurship journey starts with a co-founder arrest
4:15 - Managing the fog of war
7:15 - Becoming an entrepreneur at Columbia University
10:01- Why a founder needs a strong North Star
15:40 - How knowing your stuff helps gain trust and build relationships
19:55 - Why storytelling is crucial to being an effective leader
25:35 - Why a solid team of advisors and mentors is crucial to your success
30:26 - How to build your team ...
34:52 - ...and how to part ways with teammates who don’t work out
43:12 - Why Ravn is bringing the team together in San Francisco
48:37 - What drives Jake’s work
1:01:46 - How AI will help save lives on the battlefield, and how fear of tech can put lives at risk
1:09:00 - The challenges of working on hardware and UX for the military
1:14:16 - Why military service gives startup founders an edge
1:18:09 - A mission-driven entrepreneur’s willingness to sacrifice
1:28:06 - Why getting modern technology to the battlefield is crucial
The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast highlights the best and brightest mission-driven entrepreneurs — people dedicated to making the world a better place. The show airs Mondays at 11 am PT/2 pm ET on Stanford University radio station KZSU, 90.1 FM, and is streamed at kzsu.org, Past episodes are archived here.
Tune in Sept. 23, when our guest will be Col. John Cogbill, Chief of Staff for the Joint Special Operations Command.