Intrepid Insights: Odeh Muhawesh, Serial Entrepreneur & Executive Chairman of Squigl
Odeh Muhawesh, Serial Entrepreneur & Executive Chairman of Squigl
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Full transcript from video/podcast below:
Derek: Odeh, thank you very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Odeh: My pleasure.
Derek: To get things started, I'd like to know a little bit more about who you are, and tell us a little bit more about what you and your team are doing at Squigl.
Odeh: Absolutely. My name is Odeh Muhawesh. I'm the chairman and CEO of Squigl. We created software that takes your text and with one click you have a whiteboard animated video that is based on neuroscience and the latest principals and arts.
Derek: That's fantastic, right? So, tell me a little bit more about your history. How did you get started? Is this your first company? What's your brief summary, brief history, of who Odeh is?
Odeh: Yeah. I actually call myself an addicted entrepreneur, which is a very factual statement. No, this is not my first company. I've stared a number of companies before. I started in the late 80s, in, primarily, the tech sector.
Odeh: Although I ventured into commercial real estate, as well.
Odeh: So, I created companies in the content, document management, case management, analytics, cybersecurity, and education, higher ed.
Derek: Wow. So, it sounds like you're a serial entrepreneur.
Odeh: Yes, absolutely. Admittedly so.
Derek: Okay. Very good. Talking more about Squigl, because that's what you're doing right now,-
Derek: ... today, what problem were you trying to solve when you came up with this idea and started working with the team? And where do you see the business going?
Odeh: Yes, absolutely. You have to bear with me. I'm just going to give you a bit of background and remind-
Derek: Sure, that's fine.
Odeh: ... ourselves about how humanity evolved in communicating ideas. The first two people, presumably, Adam and Eve, first communicated, undoubtedly communicated with sounds. Those sounds meant something to both of them ad they were able to convey ideas back and forth to each other. As they had more children, grew, people had different villages, if you would. Then somebody said, "I have an idea that I think is worth sharing, but my cousin in the other village is not here. How am I going to preserve this for them?" And so, what they did is they came up with an image that reflects that idea. For example, for a spirit it was a cat.
Odeh: Or for power it was an eagle. And so they etched that on stone and the person in the other village would kind of look at that and say, "This is what my cousin was trying to say." They did this for people who were geographically dispersed, but also time-wise. They're not there, in the future, as well.
Derek: Oh, sure.
Odeh: And we have hieroglyphics that exist until this day from thousands of years ago, and we're able to decipher what they were trying to communicate. But as time went by, and as humanity grew, we created different languages, we became more sophisticated in having those sounds that we have reflect certain things. And we call those letters. So when we put those letters together, words came together. Add we put words together, sentences came together.
Odeh: But still, if you think about it, knowledge was monopolized by an elite who were able to understand those languages, because we didn't have good distribution mechanisms. And humanity was ... Nations completely misunderstood each other.
Odeh: Sciences were limited to certain people. As time went by then, somebody invented the printing press and that changed humanity.
Odeh: Now you can have an idea that you can disperse to a lot of people and, because of that, a lot of people were able to actually learn languages.
Odeh: And with those, with the printing press, politics of the world changed. The superpowers of the world changed. Religions changed, The split in Christianity between the Catholic and Protestant churches happened because of the printing press. And the story goes on and on. Now we think about a 21st century, how do we, as humanity, communicate? We still community by text.
Derek: Sure. Email.
Odeh: That's exactly right. We think about email. We think about text messaging. You think about Chat.
Odeh: You think about the fax machine before for those people who are my age and your age. It's all about communicate in text.
Odeh: Images still occupy a very small portion of our language. Now, take us a back to the days of etching an idea, an image, on a stone. And the reason they did it on a stone, it wasn't animated, the reason was that they didn't have the technology.
Odeh: But now, we can animate it. And this is the importance of this, is if I drew an eagle and you saw how I was drawing the eagle, you will understand a lot more what I'm trying to communicate with you.
Derek: Of course.
Odeh: And now, because we can capture those animations, we can take ourselves back to the employment of text, imagery, sound, and auxiliary sounds, like music, or the sounds of animals, or things like that, into the same message where we can be a lot more understood. And hence, our motto, which is "Hear, see, be understood."
Derek: Wow. So that's what Squigl is doing. We're almost going back to how our communications started.
Odeh: Precisely. We actually consulted with neuroscientists. We have some of the brightest artists in the world. We sat them down together and we said, "How do we do this, guys?" And we came up with the system that powers Squigl. And what our idea is, is that a cab driver, an astronaut, a fighter jet pilot,-
Derek: Sure. A grandma.
Odeh: ...a teacher, a grandma, anybody who has an idea, they can just put in Squigl, click, and something comes out. Now, granted, we give you a lot more editing capabilities, but as time goes by, and with the employment of artificial intelligence in what we're doing, you will not need to do that. You have an idea, you share the idea, you click, and a Squigl will come out that people will understand exactly what they're trying to say.
Derek: So, I, literally, can have an idea and say it, and Squigl will put this into a video format, essentially, where anyone can understand it?
Odeh: What's more exciting is where we're taking this. We're taking this so that, and you will be able to do this fairly soon, where you take your phone, you speak to your phone and say, "Google" or "Siri", or whatever, or "Cortana, Squigl the following and send it to Lee in China, Jose in Mexico, and Tony in New York." Each one of them will get a Squigl in their own language. But also, that will be sensitive to their own imagery and culture. And the only thing that you have to do is speak it in your own language, whatever it is, let's say English. And when you're done, you say, "Done." And it will go to them in their own language, in their own culture with their own imagery, and everything.
Derek: It really crosses all borders, then?
Odeh: That's what were excited about, is that it breaks down communication barriers.
Derek: Sure. I mean how many times have something been misunderstood,-
Derek: ... accidentally, and then created a problem.
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Derek: I think this is going to help solve that.
Odeh: And the misunderstandings that we have, by the way, they cross all kinds of realms of our life.
Derek: Oh, I bet.
Odeh: There are, of course, political situations, economic situations. But even in the corporate world where a specific organization, a leading organization, came to us and said, " We have material, a 67-page PDF document, that we give to our engineers, who are the smartest engineers." This organization had employees, some of the smartest people on the face of the earth. And they said, "We gave them this material to pass the safety test for government compliance, but the engineers are not passing it. Can you help us out?" We turned that into a scribeology-based video that's an 8 minute, 25 seconds. And now the engineers are passing the first time. So, we really didn't alter or improve the intelligence of the engineers. We just allowed them to see and understand the message the first time. And saved them a lot of time. Imagine all of the-
Derek: Oh my God.
Odeh: Imagine a hundred engineers reading a 67-page document versus watching an 8-minute video, and passing the first time.
Derek: You're saving time. You're saving money. You're improving the message, the quality of the communication.
Odeh: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.
Derek: So the applications are endless.
Odeh: Absolutely. This is a horizontal application that crosses all lines of humanity.
Derek: Wow. As a serial entrepreneur you say you've been through a number of companies now from start up through exit, we tend to only hear about the successes of those exits, when you maybe raise another capital round, things of that nature. Can you tell me a little but more about maybe some of the dark days that you've experienced through some of your businesses, some of the things that we don't tend to hear about, but are really important for other entrepreneurs watching this?
Odeh: Yeah, absolutely. You know entrepreneurs and CEOs are the loneliest people in the planet. You're given credit when you succeed and you're not given any leeway if you make mistakes. The journey of an entrepreneur is full of faults and full of challenges. If anybody thinks that they can have an idea, and create the idea, and get it done the first time, they're absolutely mistaken. Not even robots can do that.
Odeh: So, what I would encourage other entrepreneurs is that be prepared for dak days. Be prepared for tough times. Be prepared for days when you don't have enough money to do payroll. I've never had to face that, luckily. But be prepared and understand that it's a natural part of your process. I find, actually, what I found through my journey that having mentors, regardless of your experience, having a coach regardless of your experience, is something that is extremely valuable. So, if I would do things over, although by all measures my journey has been a successful journey, I wish I had mentors. I wish I had sounding boards from the get-go, instead of learning-
Odeh: ... and having nosebleeds on my own. This is some of the days. Timing for an entrepreneur is everything.
Odeh: I'll share a story where I sold a company. I was, literally, offered an xyz amount for it, and I said, "No, I want to hold on to it, because I think it will get double." Well then we had the dot.com bubble burst.
Odeh: And I get exactly 50% of the same offer for it a year later.
Odeh: But no regrets.
Odeh: I went with the data at the time to the best that I can. Timing is everything. And to fine tune your time and have other people around you who will give you ideas, trust them, but make your own judgment.
Derek: So, get feedback from others, whether it's a mentor-
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Derek: ... or other professionals and then, at the end of the day, go with your gut?
Odeh: That's exactly right. Yup.
Derek: Yeah, okay.
Odeh: But it's a tough balance. It's a tough balance, because as an entrepreneur, you are often surrounded by naysayers.
Odeh: Whatever idea I had that I took to the market, I've always had people who told me, "Crazy idea. Nobody is going to buy that." So, I learned early on to really activate my dumb factor. And my dumb factor is I don't want to know the ways that I will fail. I want to know the ways that I will succeed. And that's my focus.
Derek: hat's a good focus and motto to have. We talked briefly about this before, can you share a little bit about the story when you were about ready to start your first company and what your boss at the time said?
Odeh: Yes, absolutely. I was Senior Systems Engineer at a company, a national company. And one day, my general manger called me into his office and said, "Why do I hear rumors that you're thinking about starting your own business? You shouldn't do that." And then he counted the ways. He said, "There are powerful companies that will crush you." He said, "Your name, not many people can pronounce it. You look different. You have an accent, and you will not succeed, while you have a very good future here at the company." I actually, in all sincerity, I wasn't thinking about starting my own business, but right there and then he made the decision for me that I was going to, and I started my own business. And that very first year I made a million dollars.
Derek: Wow. That's amazing. Yeah, so don't listen to what the naysayers are saying.At least, not a lot, right?
Odeh: Well, your gut feel as an entrepreneur has a lot of value.
Odeh: Your determination has a lot of value. One common element I see with successful entrepreneurs is that they're tenacious, they're fearless.
Odeh: Once the have an idea, they'll go after to the very end. Successful entrepreneurs will pivot with data. They will mold the idea, modify the idea, but they'll never walk away from an idea because people told them it's a crazy idea. Uber is a crazy. Bill Gates, you know the story of Bill Gates going to IBM and saying, "I'll buy DOS from you," and not many people know DOS, but DOS actually changed the world from supercomputer to personal computer.
Odeh: And so many people told him, "You're crazy. You're quitting college and paying $50,000 for code that doesn't do much?"
Derek: And look at it now.
Odeh: That's exactly right. Yeah.
Derek: So, stick with that vision?
Odeh: Yes, absolutely.
Derek: So, your first company, you go from employee, your boss tells you can't do it, you're not going to listen to that. Now you're determined to do it and now you have a successful business within a year. That, I'm sure, changed your personal situation a little bit. From a family side, how did that affect being a husband and a father? And then, how did that affect your personal financial situation, if you will?
Derek: What changes happened with that whole journey from employee to founder.
Odeh: The truth is, being a successful entrepreneur, your financial situation is a lot more stable. I have a formula where 50% of my gains through my ventures I put it away.
Odeh: And 50%, I don't gamble it away, but I invest it in new ideas.
Odeh: It's a good formula that has worked for me.
Odeh: We're blessed in the sense that we do what we want when it comes to travel or material acquisition. But we really don't let that change who we are, because it doesn't really matter if you have money or if you don't have money. What maters most is your moral compass, right?
Odeh: Yeah, it helps us with our children's education, our travel, our exploration. More importantly, actually, with helping good causes, like orphans and children.
Derek: Oh, sure.
Odeh: That's where it helped. But, money by itself doesn't buy you happiness.
Derek: No, it doesn't. I've found it's a tool.
Derek: You can leverage it to do these other things you're talking about.
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Derek: Based on your personal experience, you have a business, you're starting to make some money, did you have a team in place ahead of time? Did you look for advisers along the way to help you with that? Because its been my experience that a lot of entrepreneurs are so busy with their business that they know this other stuff's important, but maybe they don't have the time to spend on that? What was the catalyst to think about your own personal financial planning and then what did you do?
Odeh: Did I have a team? No, I didn't have a team. But, I realized early on that to have a business, you do need a team.
Odeh: I remember hiring a young man out of UMD.
Odeh: Actually, he's from [inaudible 00:15:38], but he went to UMD.
Odeh: And I remember, I was a very good systems engineer.
Odeh: But I made a decision that I don't want to continue to be a systems engineer. I wanted to be the leader of my organization. So, I relinquished that power of being the Subject Matter Expert to somebody else, who wasn't necessarily as good. He became better than me later on, because I mentored him and he learned. And making that transition, by the way, is one of the most difficult transitions for entrepreneurs, from and SME, Subject Matter Expert, into a business leader. You have to make a decision who you are.
Derek: You can't be both.
Odeh: You cannot be both. If you are the SME and the CEO, you will end up killing your business. You will end up crushing your own employees' innovation and creativity. Step back. Let them learn. They may, and most likely they're not as good as you are. Give them chance, they will be better than you are, and they will work for you. And that is the best situation that you can have for you. As far as financial advice, of course I went to a financial adviser.
Odeh: And say to them, "How do you go from here? How do you invest?" And my experience has been mixed. Some financial advisers are financial advisers and they shouldn't be. They don't believe in themselves, so how could they believe in you? I actually remember a story, sitting down with a financial adviser in my house in Roseville,-
Odeh: ... around the kitchen table with my wife, and the financial advisor asked me ... At the time, I was making $75,000 a year.
Odeh: Which is a lot of money back in the 80s.
Odeh: And he said, "What's your goal?" I said, "Next year I want to make $150,000."
Odeh: And instead of saying, "Okay, let's figure out to do that," he laughed. He said, "You have to have realistic goals."
Odeh: It was that year that I made a million dollars.
Odeh: I fired him, obviously. I didn't deal with him.
Odeh: But there are, in my experience with other financial advisers, is they're advisers. They are ... They don't necessarily think that they know better than you, but they are Subject Matter Experts in the area where you're not. And they give you ideas. You share ideas, you give and take with them, and come up with the best advice. "From my perspective as an SME, this is what I think you should do. What would you like to do?" Especially, for entrepreneurs. You cannot tell entrepreneurs just do it this way, do not ask questions. Entrepreneurs, as I was saying, are surrounded by advisers. They're surrounded by SMEs. And they can relate and work well with SMEs.
Odeh: Treat them like that.
Derek: That makes a lot of sense. Okay. So, that was your transition is to look for somebody that was an adviser and work with you in that capacity, instead of just trying to sell you something?
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Derek: Yeah. That's how it should be.
Derek: Right. So, building a business, multiple businesses, obviously it's part of who you are. It's not 9 to 5, right? How has that affected your personal life? Have you had to make some sacrifices? Were there times when you were not around for your kids? And what advice would you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting to get into this whole world on how to balance the two?
Odeh: It is a tough gig. It really is, admittedly. I did miss a lot of kids' school activities, games. Not all of them, obviously.
Odeh: Many times I was traveling during their birthdays or events. And that's a sacrifice that you have to make as an entrepreneur. If you think that you're going to be a successful entrepreneur by working from 8 to 5, or 9 to 5, forget it. Get yourself a good job somewhere and stick with that. And there is nothing wrong with that sort of plan.
Odeh: There isn't, really. But, most entrepreneurs are ambitious, and they're ambitious for their own families. Every company that I started, I had my family in mind. It wasn't for me. So, I have a very supportive family. Wife and children, all understood the goal and the mission behind what we're doing, and they were extremely supportive.
Derek: So, did you share what you were trying to do then? So almost like have a family sit-down, maybe, and say, "Okay, folks. I finished this business, but I've got another idea. This is the vision. This is what I'd like to do." So, there's open communication?
Odeh: Always open communications, but, unfortunately, I had to break my promises to my family several times. The first time that I retired, they said, "This is it," and everybody was happy. And then I find myself not being able to sleep over an idea. So, my family would tell me, "What's going on now? When are you going to start your new business?" The last one, Squigl, it took some convincing to my family that this is really a game changer. And they're very supportive.
Derek: Well, they see your passion, right?
Odeh: Yeah, but they really am ... In all honesty, they didn't want me to start another business, because they know. They saw hoe much work it takes.
Derek: Well, yeah, it's not 9 to 5. It's every day, all day.
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Derek: Right. And you're going to be away from your family in that process.
Derek: But they understand it, because they see that passion and they know it's for a greater good, right?
Odeh: Yes. Absolutely, yeah.
Derek: As you said earlier, you're trying to give back, whether it's to charity or whatever it is, you're trying to help others through that, so it's part of that journey it sounds like?
Odeh: Absolutely. You know my family, I'm blessed in the sense that they're very philanthropic. They really like to help, especially with children's causes. And so, it is part of our commitment, as a family, that whatever venture we get into where we have a good outcome, that set amount, set percentage, automatically goes to the orphans.
Odeh: And that is something that makes us all feel good and become supportive of each other.
Derek: Of course. It brings the family closer together.
Odeh: Yeah. Very much so.
Derek: So, as a founder of multiple companies, there are some pressures that come from building that company, whether that's financial or just trying to get to market fast enough. How did you deal with the extra pressure that's associated with high risk of being a start up founder?
Odeh: Through evolution. You know the first company was the hardest.
Odeh: The most emotionally connected company to you. But as you move away, I keep telling myself, "You have a mission. You have resources. You have possibilities and probabilities." You evaluate all of this objectively and just deal with it. So, when you have a pressure, expected or unexpected, you just try to be as unobjective as you can with that evaluation.
One of the most important things for us humans, and especially entrepreneurs, is to be honest with ourselves. There's an entrepreneur who, one time, said something that actually resonated with me. He said, "The biggest problem for entrepreneurs is that, a lot of times, we believe our own BS." We have happy ears. We like to hear new ideas. We're excitable. So, step back and evaluate what you have. Is it real? Is it something that, if you face a challenge, is surmountable within reasonable means? Is a skill that we all need to develop and stick to.
However, balance that with people who are naysayers. Whatever you do in your life, from the moment that you are a child all the way to the minute that you die, there will people around you who tell you, "I can't." And what I learned is something that I'll take to the grave with me, is that when people tell you, "You can't do this," what they really are saying is, "If I was in your place, I can't do it." And so, what I tell myself when people say, "You can't do this," is I immediately understand that they're saying to me, "I can't do it." But I tell them that I can.
Derek: I'll be darned.
Odeh: Yeah, so this is really important to keep in mind. Really important. If you want to be an astronaut and you're in high school, there will be people around you who will say, "Well, you know only 1%," or I don't know what the percentage is that people can be astronauts. You better believe that you can be an astronaut. And you will be an astronaut. And the best thing that you can do is anybody who tells you, "You can't", fire them.
Odeh: Fire them out of your life.
Odeh: Absolutely. Shut them out of your life, because you can. I don't believe that humans that there's anything they can't do once they set their minds to it.
Derek: I would agree with that. Definitely. So, don't be around people that think that way.
Odeh: That's exactly right.
Odeh: Yeah. You know, entrepreneurs are the ones who make a nation great. Small business is what makes a nation great. If you look at the giants in the industry. It doesn't matter if they're in software or manufacturing. They are literally, but a collection of small businesses that they acquired. So, when you create a disruptive technology or destructive way of doing things, you're contributing to the great er good. So, think in those terms and make sure that you focus on this.
And the second thing is, I didn't really become involved with Squigl for the financial side of it only, although, I look forward to the worth from that.
Derek: Of course.
Odeh: But, because I genuinely believe that it will change the way we learn. I'm also an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas, and I see in my students when they use Squigl to express their ideas - instead of writing a short paper, they do a Squigl - that they really understand the subject, because they're forced to not only choose their words carefully, but they're forced to make sure that the image that Squigl chooses for them is the appropriate image for what's in their minds.
Squigl evens out the playing field for people. And it is available to everybody, and it will be even more available to everybody through every means. It is an Office 365. It will be in your Google Docs, in Gmail, in Outlook, wherever you are, now and in the future. Just go Select Your Text and right click and Squigl it instead of sending text. People will understand you more and you will be less misunderstood. That is so important.
Derek: Oh, it's so important. So, if I'm hearing you correctly, through this disruptive technology that you're working with here at Squigl, it wasn't the potential financial gain from the company, although that might be a nice byproduct, but you're truly trying to help improve the quality of life for people, is what you're doing?
Odeh: That is, in all sincerity, what drove me to say, "I am committing my time to this," because I know, for a fact, that it is so disruptive. I don't know what will happen to Squigl. We might be acquired by a big company.
Odeh: Or we might be around the next 100 years. Right? But the technology, the engine, the cognitive presentation engine that Squigl is, will be in everything and it is truly a disruptive way of communications and understanding. And I'm excited to see here this goes.
Derek: Yeah, its really cool. It's really cool. And helping people along the way, what else could you ask for?
Derek: Odeh, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I really appreciate it. Its really fascinating to learn more about your story and Squigl.
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