William Santana-Li: CEO of Knightscope – Ep. 89

Autonomous Security Robots?

About William Santana-Li & Knightscope:

William Santana Li is quite the remarkable individual.

Through incredible grit and determination, he rose through the ranks of the Ford Motor Company to become the youngest senior executive at the company at the age of 28.

He was given a $250 million budget to build a Ford subsidiary called Greenleaf, which led to him getting bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

William Santana-Li was recruited by SoftBank Venture Capital, made famous recently by WeWork & the show WeCrashed, and funded or worked on a series of startups before landing on his current start-up, Knightscope.

Knightscope is a publicly traded company that’s raised millions and millions in funding and makes autonomous security robots in silicon valley, to assist with security and law enforcement around the country. Needless to say, in this episode, I’m about to get schooled. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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:05 – “We build autonomous security robots. They’re a unique combination of four critical technologies that are extremely, really difficult unto themselves. We’ve decided to make it harder and just combine all of them. So we’ve got self-driving autonomous technology like a self-driving car, robotics, artificial intelligence, and electric vehicles, and they’re intended to provide officers and guards really smart eyes and ears for them to do their jobs much, much more effectively.” 

2:57 – [On the design of the Knightscope robots] “These robots are not on the battlefield. They’re not for military use…We’re actually in the community. So we needed something that had enough of an intrigue, enough of a design element to bring the kid out of everyone like, ‘Oh, wow, this is like the thing that was on the science-fiction movie screen is now right in front of me.’ But because of the long-term mission, to see if we can make the U.S. the safest country in the world, you need a little bit of physical deterrence, a physical presence, a minor level of intimidation so that you’re like, ‘maybe I shouldn’t do X negative behavior I was contemplating doing’…You need to scare away a criminal, but you can’t scare away the kid or grandma.” 

5:03 – “My second last job, I was director of mergers and acquisitions…My last job, ill-advised, I was an intrapreneur. I helped build the company for Ford Motor Company. So the board had to release the quarter billion dollars to me to do a roll up in the used parts industry. And I bought 22 companies in 11 months. I had about 600 employees doing about 150 million in sales. And, you know, at the age of 28, you’re able to do that. You get that entrepreneurial bug…At the time, Ford had 430,000 employees, and I was the youngest senior exec there. And again, it was an awesome training ground.” 

8:01 – “As I often warn tens of thousands of folks that have applied to come work at Knightscope. Start-ups are really hard. 95% of them fail. It will drain you emotionally, psychologically, mentally and physically. You’ll have the worst day of your life within a few hours of having the best day of your life. It is a massive roller coaster…You got to have that, not just the stamina, but that slightly illogical, unconventional, sometimes stupid perspective, too. It’s like, I’m going to fix this and just keep going ahead.” 

9:53 – “One of the reasons I was able to advance quickly at Ford Motor Company was one really bad attitude/trait that I had at the time, which was: I’m going to do two things. One, I am going to attempt to do my boss’s boss’s boss’s job and make sure I’m always three steps ahead of everybody, which is hard to do, but it’s doable. The other was I was really aggressive in terms of trying to move the company as fast as possible. And so I had this really bad attitude of, ‘okay, you’re either going to promote me today or you’re going to fire me today.’ I’m going to push that hard every single day. A couple of times I almost did get fired.” 

13:03 – [On leaving the corporate world] “The more time I spent with the senior levels, that I frankly used to look up to a lot, then I started realizing that they don’t actually do work. You’re going from one meeting to the next meeting to the next meeting and you’re parroting what happened. And the next thing, no one around wanted to make a decision. It was a little demotivating. And it’s like you have all this authority, right? And a lot of smart people and a lot of bright people. But, you know, you get up into those echelons and sometimes you get into the massive bureaucracy where well-meaning people want to do massive things and they can’t. Not allowed or have lost the lust and fire.”

14:01 – “There’s a couple of things that I really, sorely miss. And I don’t say this in jest. A couple of jobs I used to have there, I would lose $1,000,000,000 in rounding! Like $1,000,000,000 in the real world, when you need to go raise it to go build your own company is a really tall task. So having that, not discretionary and unlimited resources, but at times it felt that way is like, ‘Jesus, we can move a mountain here real quick.’”

16:53 – “My little motto is: Life is short and do what you love and make a big impact. Screwing around on the margins is kind of not in my DNA.” 

24:40 – “There’s a time and place for venture capital. So, a few issues. One, and this changes widely, but crudely speaking, about $130 billion goes into start-ups every year, about 80% into software, 10% into biotech, and then 10% into other. Do you think that the economy is 80% software? No, it’s not reality. So then a lot of bad stuff starts happening, right? Things that should be funded for society’s benefit, still could be lucrative, end up not getting funding because everyone’s just trying to do the easiest thing. Let’s come up with an app and we’ll be able to 5x, 10x our money and out we go. We didn’t put these people in charge as to what should get funded in the economy. So it’s flawed in that regard.” 

28:40 – “What ended up happening with us when we started the company Knightscope in 2013 was, ‘hey, Bill, you’re out of your mind. This will never work. It’s hardware and it’s software. You should pick one. And physical security is not an investment thesis. You need to go away.’ So it’s really important for founders and entrepreneurs to pick something that they really love, and you’re willing to go to the mat for it, because if you get a year’s worth of ‘No, no, no, no, no, and no,’ well, what are you going to do about it?” 

30:57 – “I was born in New York City. Someone hit my town on 9/11 and I am still profoundly pissed off about it and have dedicated the rest of my life to better securing our country.” 

31:32 – “The first role of government is to protect its citizens. I don’t believe the founders of our country would have ever expected us to build a society where going to work, going to school or going to a movie theatre, literally came with a risk of being shot or killed. That is not acceptable. But our society experiences over $2 trillion negative economic impact of crime and terrorism every single year. The country’s over 200 years old. We’re on our 46th president, and no one’s fixed this frickin’ problem. I think we should try to give it a shot. And I think it’ll be some of our teammates’ life’s best work that you can get up every morning and have the honor and privilege to try to help a society and try to fix a really, really hard problem.”

33:14 – “One of the triggers/catalysts was Sandy Hook. And right after that, frankly, a bunch of VCs did get together, made a bunch of press releases, ‘We’re going to go try to fix this’ and all this other stuff. Where are you? And, then you know we reach out and then it’s like ‘Yeah we don’t invest in that kind of thing.’ Interesting. So you go in public at a time of crisis, you make a commitment, and you don’t have the stamina to follow through?” 

36:07 – “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice have no federal jurisdiction over the 19,000 law enforcement agencies and 8000 private security firms…No one in D.C. controls those folks. Each has their own budgets, their own authorities. And there’s no risk capital. There’s no innovation process…So when someone shoots up a school down the street from where you live, who gets fired? Nobody. Because no one’s in charge. Go walk by a police car and go peer inside. It’s laughable. Like you took a rental car and Velcroed and Krazy Glued some lights and a CB radio in it. And you’re having this person put themselves in harm’s way every single day, this is just revolting. And to me, it’s a massive lack of invention, and innovation, and capital to actually provide these folks some tools for them to do their jobs.”

38:29 – “The robots are here to help and they do basically two things…they gather over 90 terabytes of data a year that allow an officer and guard to have unprecedented situational awareness. They have their eyes, ears and voice on the ground in multiple locations at the same time…The second thing…is just a physical deterrence. If I put a police car in front of your home, marked, criminal behavior will change, right? Similarly, if you want to go steal a car at 3:00 in the morning at a hospital and you see a five foot tall, 400lb machine roaming around…The strobe lights going. It says police or security on the side…I don’t know what this thing does, but I think I’ll not steal a car tonight or do it somewhere else. And just being there changes the dynamic dramatically.” 

45:11 – [On day-to-day life at a start-up] “It could be anything and you get hit left, right, and upside down. Some things you’re expecting, some things you’re not. And it’s always something new. For those folks that don’t like the monotonous, if you like the unpredictable, it’s – I don’t want to say it’s a new job every day, but it’s almost – because the company is growing and it’s not the same company every day. And then you’re dealing with new challenges.”

47:26 – “I believe in negative fuel. When you’re doing something a little bit different there’s so many naysayers, haters, rock-throwers, people throwing banana peels physically or online. And you’ve got to have a mechanism to deal with that, because if not, you’re going to crumble. I don’t care if you’re Mother Theresa or the Pope or some politician or actor or musician or whatever, don’t ever read the social media comments…In some cases, you’re not going to be able to get away with not dealing with something really negative. And you’ve got to be able to turn that into fuel to drive what you’re trying to get done.”

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