Bassam Salem, founder and CEO of AtlasRTX, on overcoming imposter syndrome, what it means to be a credible leader, and the opportunities and challenges that exist for immigrants in the United States.
Bassam, thank you so much for coming on. It means a lot. You and I have known each other for a bit of time here. But you were born in Cairo, Egypt. Your path to getting to where you are today is really quite fascinating, and one that I think a lot of people can learn from. Can you tell us that experience and the path that led you to where you are?
I'd love to, Clint, and thank you for hosting me. It is great to sort of experience our evolutions together. It's an honor to be here and thanks for making the time. I was born in 1972 in Cairo, Egypt, to parents who were quite avant-garde. My father was a social scientist that was in the military in Egypt. My mother was an electrical engineer. And yes, really, my mother in Egypt in 1972 was an electrical engineer. She was very impactful on me and very impactful on my perception, not just engineering but of women and their equality and so on. My mom is a special person in my life, but I'll keep the first part of the story short and we'll go right to the U.S.
Suffice it to say that when I was six or so years old, I went with my mom to live in France for some time as she studied in graduate school there. Then when I was eight, nine and 10, I went with my father and the rest of our family to England. I lived in England for 18 months, which as a child feels like an eternity, as you know. Both of those experiences, I think convinced my parents that they wanted to give their children opportunities in the west, and that we needed to go overseas and sacrifice everything they had. But hopefully for us, the kids, to be able to have opportunities. Since we spoke English and we'd studied at English schools, we'd had that privilege in Egypt and we've lived in England. It made sense to pick an English speaking country.
No country in the world, certainly back then, but arguably today, gave the kind of opportunity to an immigrant as the U.S. I remember talking about this even as a teenager. When my parents were contemplating this, there were some countries where once an immigrant, always an immigrant. In the U.S. there was sort of a stream that you can be an immigrant, but you can integrate and you can become part of the country, the economy, the society, and so on.
We were so fortunate to come here just before my 14th birthday. We actually came to Salt Lake City, Utah. We had no idea what Utah was. Certainly not what Salt Lake City was. It's quite funny because even our American friends in Egypt never seemed to know where Utah was. They thought it was in Canada or something like that. I suppose it sounds, you know, Native American, so maybe a Canadian province or something.
My parents sold everything, everything. Another time, when there's more time, I'd have to tell you now I appreciate the moment they sold everything not knowing. We left Egypt not knowing if we were going to land here okay. There's a whole story there, but suffice it to say, we landed here on student visas to the University of Utah, thanks to the support of a faculty member at the U—U being short for University of Utah that my father had been working with.
We spent the first 10 years living in a very, very, very small two- and later three-bedroom, one bathroom apartment that was smaller than the apartment we have in our developing country, in Egypt. We started from the bottom and made our way up, thanks to education. I'll stop there, and that's sort of the journey of my early life and my journey to coming here to Salt Lake.
It's fascinating to hear you talk about that. The idea that your parents sold everything they owned to go to Salt Lake City, Utah, without knowing if that would work. Without really having any understanding much about what Utah was. Probably as a kid, you didn't get a sense for how intense that was. How crazy that is. Well, not crazy, but how big of a risk and how big of a bet that is on themselves and on you, and on even this country. And the state of Utah, even, if you want to even get more granular. We're going to seek out a new and different and hopefully better life because we're all trying to improve every day. As you reflect on that, how does that affect you?
It affects me deeply. It affects me deeply because I feel like they took the bet, but I got the reward. They took the bet, they took the sacrifice. It's the children who benefited. Because when you're already middle-aged, then you go to another country and you start from scratch and you work your way up, you give up a lot and you never quite catch up. My parents are fortunate to be both alive and living not far from where I live, and they're doing well. But they certainly, I dare say they probably would have been better off in Egypt had they continued their path. But I'm a hundred percent certain that we, as children, would not have been better off. So as it affects me, I think, am I so selfless that I would do the same thing for my children at my age?
Would I just give up everything? My social status, my economic status, and everything I've achieved in my whole community and start all over. It's pretty impactful and it makes me so resoundingly supportive of immigration to this country. Not just because it was built on that foundation, but because I truly believe the future depends on our ability to attract, and retain, and integrate great people from all over the world. People who want to come here and get educated and study hard and work hard, and become part of this society. It's been a defining experience for me and it'll always define me. I'm defined as an American immigrant.
Well, you're someone who experienced this firsthand, and coming here right before your 15th birthday. You talked about this very movingly earlier, when you said a lot of countries, once an immigrant always, an immigrant. In the United States, that's not true. Is that still the case, this discussion and this conversation around immigration? And it's political. As everything for some reason becomes political. Has that changed? Has that attitude changed, do you think? Do you feel like it's the same as when you were 15 years old? And America is a country where you're not once an immigrant, always an immigrant, but you're an American. Do you feel like that's changing?
I won't speak for the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world stands with respect to the U.S. But I dare say that there are few places we could all name where irrespective of your background, if you come here and we give you a chance... Now, there's that we give you a chance, because I think there's this presumption that anybody can just show up here. That's not the case. It's incredibly difficult to get here. It's incredibly difficult. I'm not just talking about crossing borders, which is unfathomable to me. I mean, just in terms of getting a visa. If you come from a country that is not Caucasian majority, it's really, really hard to get a visa. So I dare say, if you're fortunate enough, because we allow you to come and we give you an opportunity, there is no better place in the world today, in my humble opinion. Very few, if there are, that would compete with the U.S.
When did you know you were going to be an entrepreneur?
Clint, it's funny. I've never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I always thought of myself as I'm the execution guy. I'm all about operations. I'm the one who follows the entrepreneur who's the crazy genius. I'm the one who puts systems in place, hires the right people, creates the processes. That was always me and I always presumed that it wasn't my personality type. I wouldn't be an entrepreneur. So this last five and a half year journey has been truly eye-opening and mind-changing for me, because I do think there is this presumption of, "There are entrepreneurs and there's everyone else." At least in the business world. Until three or four years ago, I don't think I counted myself as an entrepreneur. Even today, my imposter syndrome is luckily under control from an entrepreneurial perspective. But it's a new thing for me.
Well, you certainly have been an entrepreneur throughout your entire career, whether you had the imposter syndrome or not. I mean, just everything you did. You went to university. I believe you majored in computer science at the University of Utah. You got an MBA. You were the CEO of inContact. You may not have started inContact, but you led that company for five years.
You've had a very entrepreneurial career, at least. Where maybe it's not like you're starting the companies or, I mean, who knows how we're going to define entrepreneur in this conversation, right? But as I look at you, I think this is a quintessential entrepreneur. This is somebody who has built things, built teams, created things out of nothing, and really made a difference in the world.
You did the same thing when you went to MaritzCX and you were their COO. The fascinating thing that you've done, which you just touched on, is then you left all of that. I mean, you were the CEO of a public company, inContact, and that's not an easy thing to do. MaritzCX, and that whole thing. Then you bounce out of there for this new experience around Mindshare Ventures. What was that all about? What was your intention there?
Thanks for that question. I'd love to address that. Just a minor correction. I was Chief Operating Officer and Chief Business Officer at inContact. But I appreciate that question.
If I could step back just one step or two. Well, two steps. It's amazing to me how one's worldview comes from your parents and the environment around us. Around you or us. My father's worldview came from his father's perspective, which was he lived in a rural town. And if you can make it to the city, if you can make it to Cairo, you can join the middle-class and have a real life. So that was my father's ultimate goal. Can I make it to the middle-class and help my parents and my brothers and sisters? He was the oldest of 10. Can I go to Cairo? That's the objective. And then make it there.
My father then went on to get two PhDs and became an academic. His new world view was become a professor, or become an engineer, or a doctor, and then work hard for your whole life. That's how you make it. That's what was indoctrinated into me. I’ll go to school for as long as they will let me. If I can become a professor or a doctor and do that for long enough, my kids will then be able to stand on my shoulders and move forward.
So, my worldview never involved business, certainly not entrepreneurship or being a business owner. The worldview was to get three degrees in computer science, which I did, to teach. I don't know about this MBA thing. That's great if you want to do that, but you need to be a PhD. You need to be a professor that's respected, and this country will reward you for that. I spent until age 25, that was really my perspective.
I was fortunate in that I was able to get an H1B. I'm not going to go back to immigration, but I was able to get an H1B and later a green card. I was fortunate to build a career in software as an operator. First as a software engineer then as a consultant, and a consulting manager, and then as an operations exec, and so on. I was fortunate to be on the chair before the Adobe acquisition, then inContact, then MaritzCX. You're absolutely right. Incredibly good fortune for an immigrant kid from Egypt who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, to get those sorts of opportunities.
Then, I'm in my mid-forties. For 10 years before that, all of my friends from the angel group here in Park City, Utah, or other colleagues asked me how come I've never done anything entrepreneurial. My answer back is, "It's just not me. I'm not that crazy risk-taker, visionary guy. I do stuff. I make stuff work. And I'll work hard, but that's not me."
I decided in my mid-forties to have a midlife crisis, and I'll make a crass joke right now. Which is my midlife crisis: I stayed with my wife, and I stayed with my car, and I changed my job, instead of the other way around. So I decided that I wanted a year. And thanks to my wife, who supported me. I wanted a year just to sort of breathe. I had spent my whole life to my mid-forties doing nothing but working hard. Getting the next harder job and working harder. Then the next harder job and working harder. I decided that for a year, I would do what I was passionate about. Then I'd go get a job again. That was sincerely the plan.
The thing I was passionate about was being a professor in the business world, coaching entrepreneurs, and coaching executives. I quickly was fortunate, thanks to my friends, to build a clientele of six, seven, eight portfolio companies that I was coaching and helping. I was on cloud nine. I loved it. I loved helping those executives and entrepreneurs.
But then imposter syndrome peeked in and I realized deep down, I've been fortunate to be part of $10 million to a $100 million and beyond. A few times, actually. But I've never been zero to one. I've never seen zero to one. I've never seen one to 10 yet. Here I am talking to a 28 year old who's just getting his or her company started, and I'm telling them how to build a go-to-market plan. When the smallest go to market plan I have ever been involved in already included millions of dollars of revenue and then scaled beyond that.
So I thought, I don't need to prove this to the world. No one is asking me to do it, but I need to prove it to myself. If my passion is ultimately coaching, I need to go through zero to one. I need to go through one to 10. I need to test all these hypotheses, all this guidance. I need to do it because if it works, it should work for my own company.
Mindshare Ventures was my coaching and consulting, and hopefully later investing, business. But AtlasRTX was the first venture that I incubated within Mindshare Ventures. It's now just over five and a half years old. I'm proud to say that I have learned more in the last five years than I had in the prior 20.
I have an appreciation for entrepreneurs, an appreciation I could never, ever really understand until I experienced it. Now I understand why entrepreneurs won't shut up about their businesses because I won't shut up about mine. It's all I live. I eat it, breathe it, sleep it, it's everything. So that was the genesis of this company. I wish I could say it was something beyond that, but it was to prove that there was a formula, that there is a science to business. That business can be modeled, and predicted, and forecast, and orchestrated, and I loved that.
I have to say something here. As you were talking about that, and it's so fascinating to me, that you experienced imposter syndrome because I've always just thought of you as this amazing leader. Very confident, like someone that a lot of people within the Utah startup and tech community would come to for advice. In particular as you were talking about coaching and talking about all this type of stuff. And we can cut this out by the way, but I want to talk to you about this regardless.
There's a friend of mine who we lost recently, Erin Valenti, and I know that she was close with you. I remember distinctly having a conversation with her about you, and the change and impact you had on her life as a coach, as a mentor, as somebody that she looked up to.
I just want to say you have had such a major impact on this community that we're a part of here and in the world. And it meant so much to me to have that conversation with Erin and hear the way that she talked about you and the way you treat people, and the way you work with people. It was quite beautiful, my friend.
So kind of you, thank you for letting me know. She genuinely was special. She was a special person to me and I really loved our connection and my coaching of her. She was one of those entrepreneurs I admired—her intellect and her gumption, and nothing seemed crazy for her.
It's funny because I felt quite the opposite. I felt like she was the one showing me what an entrepreneur was like, because at the time she epitomized entrepreneur to me. She could go get a job anywhere. Anywhere. Yet she was doing this crazy venture that she was so convinced about. That inspired me. It was devastating.
Yeah. It's hard to talk about. She was a beautiful person. What have you learned about leadership over the past five, five and a half years?
There's so many dimensions to that question that, Clint, maybe we'll peel an onion and we'll start out sort of a high level. More superficial, but I do think it was fundamental.
One appreciation I now have was that the difference between a COO and a CEO is a great one. I don't think I had that appreciation before. I think as an executive team, we assume we're just one step from the CEO and we're supporting her or him and we could step in if we had to. It's not true. Being at the top of an organization is different. We can dig in if you'd like.
The second was being a founder is different from just being a hired-gun CEO. I don't think I had an appreciation for that, either. If it's your baby that you built, you poured your blood, sweat, and tears. People are here because they believe in you. You can't let them down. It's not just about money. You used to hear that from people and you think, come on, it's about money. It's not. You've literally built a team that believes in you, and you now have to prove to them that you can do this and you have to make them proud. It's a strange feeling. You, as the founder, are trying to make your team proud. A founder is a different type of leader than a non-founder.
Then finally, if you're a founder CEO who happens to also be the investor, I now have an appreciation for that as well. It's yet another hat that you wear. An investor's perspective on the business is very different from that of the CEO and the founder.
I've now suddenly realized that these three variables create a number of combinations. A CEO who's not a founder or invested is very different from the other extreme. A founder CEO who put in half a million dollars of their own money to bootstrap it. If you can call that bootstrapping. It's a different kind of experience.
Yeah. It's interesting to hear you talk about leadership as in the team having to believe in you. I think that's true. I think that to start when you're recruiting people, when you have people on your team, what their belief is, is in you. That's what they believe in. Then the secondary thing, hopefully, is that they believe in the idea and the impact the company can have and the chances of the company's success, and all of that type of stuff.
It really does start with belief in the leader. Do I believe this person can lead this company? Like he or she is saying they're going to lead. That must be a fascinating transition to go through. From being an executive and a really great executive, to now I am who they have to believe in first before we can even talk about AtlasRTX or what you're building.
You're exactly right, and actually even as you describe it now, Clint, I realized the epiphany of yet another reason why being an entrepreneur in one's mid-forties is a pretty good time. Aside from all of the other dimensions that you have in your mid-forties that you don't in your mid-twenties, you've also built rapport and authentic relationships with people who care. They'll tell you the number one reason we now have a business is because of people who cared enough about me to support me, to believe in me.
This is not because of the Bassam. This is because early friends who said, "That sounds like an interesting idea. Can we try it? I'll give you a shot." Or early friends who said, "I'd love to join you and do something special." Sincerely, if you were to ask me what is the number one predictor now of a company going forward? It's how many people in the ecosystem are supporting that company's trajectory and growth. Is everybody out there going, "I want Clint to succeed. I want Clint, I want him to make it." If you can get everybody to support you, thanks to how you've been treating everybody for 20 years, you make it happen. That was a big lesson for me. Everyone has been here for me and I'm so grateful for that.
Yeah. That's beautiful. So tell us what AtlasRTX is. What is the company, and how has the growth been, and what's your vision for it for the future?
Thank you. What's really cool is another lesson in entrepreneurship is your vision and your dream for your company sort of grow and materialize as you grow, and realize what you have and where the value is, and where clients love it, and where there's opportunity.
I'll try to keep this brief and describe it this way. That the world is moving to digital experiences in just about everything we do. Even before COVID this was happening. I think we all know that COVID just expedited things, but the world is moving to digital experiences. Businesses are now having to figure out how to deliver digital customer experiences in real time, 24/7, 365, across the whole customer journey.
When someone doesn't even know about my brand, they want to come to a website to learn. Maybe come to consider me versus someone else. So when they're actually having the purchase experience, to post-purchase and maintaining that relationship. How do we enable these digital experiences for businesses where enabling the digital experience isn't their business? Their business is something else.
The premise of AtlasRTX, RTX for real-time experiences, is that we can be the platform that enables these real-time digital experiences end-to-end. From your marketing team's needs to power the website with an AI powered customer experience. At two in the morning when someone comes to your website to look for a home or look for a guitar, or look for whatever. To when they come to an experience and leave and you haven't sold them yet. You need to follow-up with them. What if we give you a digital assistant that will follow-up on your behalf so you don't have to? Because that person doesn't want to hear from you. They want to hear from a digital assistant that they can tell, "I'm not interested, leave me alone." Or, "I'm really interested if only you could do this for me."
We enable all of these different AI powered experiences today textually, that is we do conversational AI across the journey. Whether it's over a web experience or a text-based experience. I think we're a little early voice experiences. Yes, technically it's feasible, but I think acceptance isn't there.
So as you ask about my vision, I see our vision as creating these digital members of your staff. If you're a company, we're going to create digital members of your staff that can represent your brand, speak as if they were part of your company, and support and assist your human staff. So your human staff can do what matters and let the digital assistant to what is less than meaningful, or potentially painful to do. Like being up at two in the morning to respond to a chat. That's a non-sexy way of describing what the vision is for AtlasRTX.
How's it going? What's it like?
I couldn't be more proud. We actually just hit a milestone that we celebrated this morning. I'm proud for a number of reasons, Clint. The first is our company is founder-financed and founding-team owned. We have done this on our own. On our own thanks to all these clients who believe in us, and thanks to all these colleagues who believe in us, and thanks to partners who believe us.
We haven't raised external money. We have really built an incredible presence in a couple of verticals that we're really proud of. One is production home building retail. So really large home builders. When we last talked, we had just gotten a few of those folks, a few small builders. We now power eight of the top 20 national builders in the country. They use our platform to help manage the retail experience, sales experience, and the post-sales experience.
We have universities now. We have Krannert, which is Purdue's business school. We have the Owen School of Management, which is Vanderbilt's business school. Where our chatbots speak to prospective students and students in over a hundred languages, because the parents might want to learn. We power those experiences. It's been incredible.
We're now in the millions of dollars a year in revenue. We're growing at 70, 80% year over year, and we're doing it in the black. So we're building a real business, and I think I'm so proud of that. We're not building a business that is dependent on artificial financing to keep going. We are building it organically, solidly, with a business model that looks like a real business. Which I'm so proud of. That's where we are today.
I wonder if we could end this with a final question to you, which is what leadership advice would you give those watching or listening to this that has been most impactful on you and your career?
I'll try to keep this brief, which it's going to be tough because I actually gave that question a great deal of thought about two years ago. I tried to document all of the traits of all of the best leaders you and I know. And really, sincerely, and empirically from my own experience. I identified five pairs of traits. Five pairs of traits that I sincerely believe in, and I believe are the traits that identify great leaders from good leaders, from non-leaders. I'll say them as pairs, just to keep this a brief, because we could talk for 45 minutes about this.
The first is credibility and communication. Great leaders have credibility. They know what they're talking about. They're not know-it-alls. They know what they're talking about. And communication. They're great at articulating. It's just incredible to me. You have to be able to articulate an idea. So credibility and communication.
The second pair, complimentary. Confidence and coachability. It's this interesting pair because you can't just be completely coachable and humble and act like you are insecure. You have to have confidence, but you have to be coachable as well. The best leaders have both.
Let's go to commission and compassion. Yes, I'm trying to be a marketer and using all C words.
No, this is great.
I think it works. Commission is my word for being able to get things to happen, to hold people accountable. To be able to be tough. That has been something that I've really learned in the last five years, especially when you're the founder, CEO, and investor. Someone has to be willing to say no. Your COO may not. Your CEO may not. But you, as the owner, might have to, if you see where I'm going. Someone has to be willing to say, "I'm going to make this happen, or I'm going to stop this from happening." So commission. But compassion as well. You have to have empathy for your team. You have to have empathy for clients who might be struggling. That combination of commission and compassion sort of offset each other, and it's that balance between the two.
I wish charisma were not one of them. I don't have it, the best leaders I know have it. Charisma and an ability to champion their team, their mission. It's this sort of charismatic leader. We all know when I say that, we think of certain people. Great leaders just have that charisma. They're able to send that message across a radio or a video screen.
Then finally, commitment and constructiveness are the final two. Commitment and then constructiveness. You have to have persistence. Our dear friend, Don Cash, used to talk about the three Ps. Passion, planning, and persistence. I think we all talk about passion and planning, but my gosh, to be a great leader you have to persist through ups and downs. Through the struggles, through the tough days and the bad and the good. So this stick-to-it-ness, this commitment, is absolutely critical to being a leader. A team doesn't want to follow a leader who doesn't have commitment. This is their gig. This is their job. This is their mission.
Certainly adding to that constructiveness, which is the notion of seeing the positive. I love that about entrepreneurs. I love that they're always seeing the upside. They always see things constructively. This is what we're going to do next. I know we just got hit, but this is what we're going to do next. We need to be constructive.
Sorry to answer it with so many attributes, but I sincerely believe that those 10, grouped in pairs of five, identify the best leaders I've ever experienced. I aspire and I work towards those 10 traits.
Well, I appreciate you coming on, my friend. I've always admired you, as you know. I just think you're building amazing things, creating amazing things, and having a huge impact on people in ways that very few people do. So thank you so much for coming on. It was a real honor, my friend.
You're so kind. It was an honor for me. Thank you so much, Clint.