Lisa Falzone is a proven operator at scaling companies: She co-founded the first iPad-based point of sale system, Revel Systems, in 2010. By the time the company was acquired by a private equity firm in 2017, it had raised $200 million in financing and employed over 700 people globally.
Her work earned dozens of accolades, from Fortune’s 40 Under 40 to Forbes’ Women to Watch.
But when Falzone and her Revel co-founder Chris Ciabarra decided to start their second company together in 2018, the mission was greater than scale and disruption. This time, they wanted to save lives, Falzone tells Rho.
“I wanted to start another company, but I wanted to do something really altruistic and really meaningful to the world,” she says. For her and Ciabarra, that meant turning their attention to one of the most devastating and seemingly intractable problems facing America today: Mass shootings and gun violence.
“I was really shocked by all the shootings that were happening, and still continue to happen,” Falzone says. “Politicians just keep complaining and complaining, but no one is actually doing anything now. So how can we use technology for good, to prevent some of these crimes?”
That question led the pair to co-found Athena Security, which provides computer vision technology integrated with security cameras. “We detect when someone pulls out a gun,” she explains. “If someone pulls out a gun, within three seconds we alert on that to the appropriate authorities.”
Like now ubiquitous fire alarms, Falzone envisions a world where Athena can provide ‘gun alarms’ to schools, churches, corporate buildings, and more, preventing shootings and dramatically increasing the efficiency of first responders. Current clients include the Archbishop Wood High School in Pennsylvania and the Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Athena is still an early stage venture: The company announced a $5.5 million round of funding in June 2019, led by Pathfinder, the early stage arm of Founders Fund, and has over 20 employees.
At the early stages, one of the biggest challenges a technology startup faces is hiring. Demand for tech talent is higher than ever, with the unemployment rate for technology workers hitting a historic low of 1.3 percent in May, 2019.
So how does Falzone — who at one point was on-boarding dozens of new employees every month at Revel Systems — approach hiring at Athena?
First, she says she is highly intentional about each hire. “I’m looking for people who aren’t just looking for a job. I’m looking for people that really care about the mission,” she says. “If you’re going through the interview process and you don’t see their eyes light up about how this can change the world, if they don’t see that, that’s definitely a red flag, and I wouldn’t hire that person.”
She’s also looking for employees who match the Athena’s set of values, to ensure cohesion within the company as it grows. “It gets harder as you go to scale, but it is all about values and how you define those values,” Falzone says. “What I mean by values is, ‘How do you want people to act? What characteristics are important to you?’”
Using values as a framework for hiring will give you a clearer sense of which candidates will be the right fit, she says, rather than just aiming for something nebulous and hard to define, like culture. “I think people throw around ‘culture’ a lot, and it has become kind of a buzzword. What does it actually mean?” She asks. “For me, culture means values, and how people behave.”
Her advice? Define six clear values of your company — characteristics you want to see in your employees’ behavior — in addition to your mission, and align those values with every hire.
For example, at Athena, two key values are teamwork, and belief in the mission to end gun violence, Falzone says. The values you choose are entirely dependent on the nature of the business, she adds. “At my last company, a sense of urgency and being customer centric were critical. Those are still important here, but maybe they wouldn’t be in the top six values, because it is a different product.”
And, of course, at a resource constrained startup, Falzone says founders should focus their first hires on core functions. “When you’re starting a company, it is all about sales and engineering,” she says. “At the very beginning stages, not much else matters.”
At Athena, Falzone leads the team on the sales and business side as CEO, while Ciabarra leads product and engineering as CTO. “We had experience in building large, complicated engineering teams solving complicated problems,” Falzone says of their time at Revel. “Computer vision is relatively new, so pretty much everyone in machine learning and computer vision is relatively new to it, just because it is brand new technology. We look for the best developers and build a team from that.”
Lastly, hiring tends to be easier outside of the Bay Area in California, she says with a smile. “I developed my first company in San Francisco, and now Athena is headquartered in Austin, Texas. I’ve found the talent here super respectful,” Falzone says. “I have found really great people here.”
So far, the strategy is working, she adds: “We’re solving on one of the biggest problems in humanity, which is crime. We’ve been able to attract really great talent. People are really excited about what we’re doing.”