By Ian Gauger, Chief Operating Officer
Circle Optics, Inc. was founded in December of 2017, though, the company’s origins extend much further back, to a senior lens design course at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics attended by founder Zak Niazi. The question that kept him up at night was during this course was “what if Google Streetview had parallax-free 360-degree cameras on top of all their cars for creation of seamless VR content?” This question followed him beyond the classroom from Spring of 2012 until December 2017. With the selection for the Luminate Accelerator in late 2018, it was clear that answering this question had a lot of potential and was going to require a team to execute on. In January of 2019, as the Luminate program was kicking off, I was brought on with the directive of building and scaling a team, and that is still one of my main focuses to this day. I have taken time to outline how we are leveraging company culture as a flywheel for strategic growth.
Phase I – Find Your Cornerstone Employees
Phase 2 – Recruit the Familiar
Once we had our cornerstones in place, we needed to start to fill in all pieces we needed to make things work. This is where we most benefited from Allen Krisiloff’s and Andy Kurtz’s backgrounds and network. Every time we needed an engineer or a vender for a component, one of them had a connection.
Allen also had an established process for everything, whether it was drawing production, procurement, or timekeeping, he had a proven template we could follow.
It was from this core of four that we fleshed out a company. Approximately 3 years later we have 4x-ed our staff and now sit at a team of 16 with plans to add two more hires by the end of the year. That would be almost a 10x increase from when I joined in January 2019 and nearly 20x from where Zak’s perspective just the month before.
However, in time we needed to seek out those with expertise which lay outside of our immediate networks.
As we move into 2023, it is time that we invested in exploring what makes our existing team cohesive and productive. We want to add talent for technical gaps and workflow in addition to motivational fit and company culture.
Phase 3 – Establish a Cultural Model to Grow Into the Unknown
Recently, in a series of company meetings and individual meetings we were able to discover the core themes that make this unique team Circle Optics culture. They had always been there, and were exemplified in our work, but require codification into language we could use to guide us as we ventured into the unknown.
Borrowing a page from Simon Sinek’s playbook , in Start With Why, we asked each employee why they choose to work at Circle. Some of their answers you can see on our ‘Who We Are’ page on our website. With over 200 patents on the team and the bench strength of IMAX, Xerox, Navitar, Carestream and many other established firms, our team chose Circle Optics very deliberately. It was the possibility of creating something that has never been done before: real research and development.
In a process of talking to our employees about what made them want to work with us at Circle Optics and what their primary personal drivers were, we noticed a pattern in their responses. The pattern indicated a deep respect of expertise, a real appreciation for collective intelligence and working collaboratively and a desire to build something that has never been built before. We took the time with to codify what our employees were describing and ended up being able to add a behavioral layer to Know-How, Synergy and Innovation.
These 12 attributes make up the fabric of our company culture. Creating clarity at this level allows us to strengthen our hiring process. Good people foster a good culture, but a good culture is the best way to find good people. Most people can see the conundrum in these statements. While this can be a flywheel of sorts, becoming self-propelling, it is very difficult to get that flywheel going. We are expecting this level of clarity becomes a differentiator as we are competing for people with hard skills like engineering but who also possess the soft skills like good communication and relationship building.
Whenever we consider adding someone new, we evaluate them across three key metrics for the company, Synergy, Know-how, Innovation:
- Synergy is their ability to work with others, their fit within the team.
- Know-how is their technical knowledge and capabilities.
- Innovation is their approach to problem-solving and inventiveness in finding solutions.
This architecture allows us to now hire within a framework and also govern our existing team. We are growing beyond our ability to be involved in the day to day with every employee and are going to have more people in charge of hiring and employee development. We now have a human capital road map that will allow us to grow into the unknown.