“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
Culture eats strategy for breakfast — it’s more than likely that first-time entrepreneurs don’t get the culture quite right from the start and the culture needs to go through a series of iterations as the company scales. Our strategy has been remarkably consistent since day one and has kept us grounded as our company evolves. Don’t get too obsessed with your culture since it may need to change, and don’t every lose sight of the strategy.
As part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Henry.
Mike Henry is the Co-Founder, CEO and Chairman of Mythic, a venture-backed AI hardware company. He oversees a team split between Austin, TX and Redwood City, CA. Mike formed Mythic while earning his Ph.D in electrical and computer engineering from Virginia Tech.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started Mythic out of grad school and I have not worked at any other job, so what is interesting about me is inextricably linked with Mythic. Mythic is the pioneer of analog compute, a new type of computing that is a radical departure from the last five decades of digital computing and will deliver AI that is hundreds of times more powerful than what we know today. We deliver an AI hardware and software platform to customers building amazing products across the range of consumer, enterprise, automotive, industrial, and health care. These customers design AI features running on our hardware that provide transformative benefits to end products.
Very early on, we knew a step change in technology was needed to serve the insatiable and ever-increasing compute demands of artificial intelligence. We believed that analog computing — which had been researched and attempted for many previous decades — was ready for a revival given newer developments in flash, processes, and analog circuits. Over the past seven years, the founding team pushed through many obstacles to set Mythic apart as the foremost pioneer in analog computing for AI.
Dave Fick and I founded Mythic in 2012 while I was at Virginia Tech and he was at the University of Michigan. We were soon joined by founding engineers: Laura Fick, whose Ph.D thesis was the foundational technology for analog compute at high precision on flash arrays; Skylar Skrzyniarz, who made significant contributions to analog compute technology and led modeling efforts; and Malav Parikh, who was the first industry-experienced chip engineer in the company.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The Aha Moment was when we pivoted to AI in the early years of the company. We were toying with other ideas, and AI was in its infancy, but we were intrigued. We did a simple experiment to create a program to detect the differences between an image of an arrow and an image of three random lines. With classic computer programming techniques, this would have taken a month to perfect. With AI tools, we had a solution in 90 minutes. This is when we realized that the modern AI tools were powerful, generic tools for solving a myriad of data problems and not novelty problems like “is this picture a cat or dog”. Eventually Jeff Dean at Google called this concept “Programming 2.0”. Now, AI is providing a solution for everything from Cybersecurity to Protein Folding, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
While the start of our company was an exciting process, what stands out was the pivot from being a small research company to becoming a fast growing venture-backed company, so I’ll focus on that. I have a great executive coach and I’m in a CEO circle with 16 other best-in-class CEOs who run companies across a wide range of industries. This group is the one who routinely tells me to stay in the game. Staying in the game means don’t stop fighting, focus both on the bigger purpose of Mythic, and focus on my own career growth and life goals. That is the inspiration I need to keep going.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have about 75 competitors with venture funding and about a dozen competitors with more than 50M dollars in venture funding. Additionally, every large tech company is investing a significant amount of money in AI hardware. All of them have taken conventional approaches to solving the challenge of delivering AI to masses. These conventional approaches have already started running out of steam, and you’re seeing a stagnation in the quality and breadth of what AI can deliver in our everyday lives.
Mythic’s analog compute approach is radically different and can deliver improvements to AI at a far faster pace than everyone else.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When we started, no one was talking about analog compute as a viable option, everyone thought it was impossible. Now we’ve proven it to be possible, and it’s a major thrust in academic research, corporate R&D, and in startups. Playing our part to create a movement that advances technology in a 1000X leap will pay huge dividends to society in the decades to come.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Jim Collins has it figured out with his definition of Level 5 Leadership. Personal Humility (knowing what you don’t know and having a growth mindset) combined with Professional Will (which I would call pure grit and an intensive drive for success of the company). For a third trait, I’ll throw in a good smile.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“Don’t raise too much money” is bad advice for a lot of high-growth or capital intensive companies. There is so much capital out there and funding can be a main determiner of success. My advice is to raise as much money as you can tolerate considering dilution, and remember that no company went out of business because of dilution. Once you raise that money, surround yourself with “A” players who know how to capture success, keep tight screws on the spending until there is confidence in the plan, and look for valuation inflection points to raise more money. This may sound sad to some, but this is the key in today’s Silicon Valley.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We went through a four-year journey of having no VC funding, only a small amount of government funding, while the entire semiconductor industry told us that what we were doing with analog compute was impossible and was destined to fail. We almost ran out of money multiple times, I had to forego a paycheck for three months, and I must have been told “no” by at least 100 investors in the early years. I think the naivety in the early years kept us going. Not only did we think it was possible, but we thought we could do it for very little money, so it always seemed in reach even if the investor appetite was cold.
A few years later, it turns out the technology is possible and we’ve proven it at Mythic, but we set an ambitious vision and it took A LOT more money than we thought. The good news was that as we went through the stages of validating the technology, the market potential became white hot, and the investor appetite grew and grew for bold technology bets like analog compute. Originally, we were bootstrapping on a couple million dollars in government contracts, and now we have raised 165M dollars to make our dream a reality.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
If I was serving my own personal ego for success, I probably would have burnt out years ago. Focusing on the success of the company as my #1 priority and my own personal career growth as a close second , keeps me grounded in good times and bad. I can personally celebrate company wins when times are good. When times are bad, I can treat them as growth and learning opportunities for myself. Nothing cements in quality piece of learning better than a really shitty experience.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
A good entrepreneur needs to have strong personal humility to recognize their blindspots. This can actually weigh heavily, and I’ve seen some entrepreneurs wear all their mistakes on their sleeves. If a company isn’t doing well, this can even lead to serious mental health issues that are endemic to the startup community. On the flip side, entrepreneurs who are egotistical and think they know everything and will own the world (I’m sure you can think of some well known examples!) sometimes get lucky, but way more often crash and burn in spectacularly entertaining ways that make great podcast content.
What I have found that helps here is to have a strong growth mindset and see myself as a lifelong learner. I will never see myself as “fully baked.” My skills and playbooks can always use more time in the oven, every tough moment is just a chance to improve, and enjoying the growth in myself can counteract the negative of the situation around me.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
If you are OK not ever getting above 25 employees, go with bootstrapping. This ends up being the lifestyle small businesses, which is a perfectly fine and fulfilling path and you can enjoy the trappings of entrepreneurship for decades without worrying about scale. If you can grow a business through bootstrapping organically beyond 25 employees, at some point you’ll hit a scale problem where others are leveraging funding (whether it’s VC or PE) to outpace you. You’ll hit this point when you realize there is value out there to be unlocked and the organic growth won’t let you capture it. For companies that need to scale quickly — for example, something that needs viral growth or is going after big customers — just go for VC immediately since you’ll likely have well-funded competitors before you know it.
There are exceptions in the form of companies that hit huge scale with just bootstrapping, but they are rare enough that you should not make it part of your plan.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- I think the most interesting way to answer this is to talk about the conventional wisdom that entrepreneurs hear and the pattern matching that investors follow, and how we bucked the trend.
- Don’t start a company in a stale industry. When Mythic was started in 2012, investment in semiconductors was about as dead as dead gets. Now in 2021, it’s one of the most heavily funded industries due to technology megatrends around AI, 5G, and autonomous systems, to name a few. A lot of the greatest startups were in industries considered “stale” like rideshare apps, vacation rental apps, etc. If you have a clear picture of how you want to disrupt an industry, go for it.
- Don’t go after a solution looking for a problem. We started with a “solution” with analog compute, and attacked AI with it. If we started with the generic problem of how to make AI hardware more efficient, we probably would have felt the time pressure to execute and not have had the creative spark to attempt analog compute.
- You need an experienced team — in the early years, we got laughed out of the room by investors since we were all grad students. But there are investors who don’t have blinders on for the founding team and instead have an attitude of “they’ll figure it out”. You just need to hustle and find them. Once we got our first investment, we surrounded ourselves with an experienced team. Problem solved!
- You need committed customers to raise significant money — we were able to raise a lot of money because efficient AI computation and AI at the edge was such a clear opportunity, and sometimes investors will see that before the customers. We did have some great customer testimonials, but we’ve raised a lot of money without LOIs or purchase orders because the opportunity was so clear.
- Culture eats strategy for breakfast — it’s more than likely that first-time entrepreneurs don’t get the culture quite right from the start and the culture needs to go through a series of iterations as the company scales. Our strategy has been remarkably consistent since day one and has kept us grounded as our company evolves. Don’t get too obsessed with your culture since it may need to change, and don’t every lose sight of the strategy.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I’ll give three:
Mistake 1: Strive for perfection before fundraising. Venture capital is speculative by nature, so if your product is half baked and the customer traction isn’t quite there yet, that’s just the game. Forget polishing the thing to death and focus on walking into the room a killer thesis, a truckload of confidence, and clear evidence that you’ve thought of the problem you’re solving from every possible angle.
Mistake 2: Iceberg principle. 90% of the iceberg is under the water. Whatever you are doing, whether its fundraising, building a product, getting the market to adopt new technology, or closing your first major customer, it will be 10X harder than you think it is. This is true even if you are already applying the iceberg principle to your thinking.
Mistake 3: “B” players in “A” roles. Certain roles in startups require “A” players. Hiring a “B” player into this kind of role may kill the company, while other roles are more tolerant of mis-hires. If you aren’t an experienced entrepreneur or company executive, you probably won’t know what “A” performance looks until you learn the hard way. The key to being a first-time entrepreneur is solving this Gordian Knot.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Don’t burn the candle at both ends or work extremely long hours unless you are in a sprint, and make sure the end of that sprint is in sight. Otherwise, it will eventually catch up with you in very bad ways. The key to preserving the metaphorical candle is learning to prioritize — knowing what needs your immediate attention and what can wait another day.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I prefer to focus on a big vision for a company that can make a positive change for society, and bend over backwards to make the company a great corporate citizen and a great place to work. Companies that are strongly mission driven, such as non-profits, clean-tech, food-tech, etc. do great things, but people sometimes forget the massive benefit to society that computers and semiconductors have given us. The semiconductor industry has created massive incomparable benefits to society due to what the electronics and technology has done for productivity, connection, entertainment, health and well-being, and the democratization of knowledge. AI will be a major source of further improvements in these areas.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
It depends if they are forced to truthfully answer any question I ask. If that’s the case, then I would choose Bill Belichick, since I think there’s pure genius locked up tightly in his brain. I am NOT a Patriots fan by the way and I’d get great pleasure out of the discomfort this lunch would cause him.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I post regular blogs on http://mythic-ai.com/blog . We also post a lot of relevant content to Mythic on our company twitter @mythic-ai. If you follow me on LinkedIn, you’ll get bonus content in the form of occasional sarcastic comments.
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!