Serial entrepreneur depends on communication to lead teams, startups

Rice Engineering alumnus Bryan Hassin is the chief storyteller in his current CEO role at Dexmat.

Bryan Hassin headshot

Rice University alumnus Bryan Hassin was already a successful entrepreneur when he heard and responded to Rice Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley’s call to work on something meaningful

Hassin turned his three degrees in Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering and his experience launching seven other startups into a new climatech company, then co-founded an accelerator for like-minded entrepreneurs.

Third Derivative quickly became the world’s largest accelerator focused on sustainable energy and climate technologies,” he said. “In two years, we looked at thousands of proposals and funneled nearly $1 billion into 150 promising climatech startups. From that perch, I could see solid progress in batteries and storage. But there were still huge gaps in heavy industry, and materials used in industry. Most people imagine we’ll just get better at using and recycling the same materials we’ve tapped for centuries like copper and steel. But what if we could come up with new, better materials to replace those that are old and dirty?”

“Two Rice alumni I’d met while serving as Rice’s Entrepreneur in Residence were working with Matteo Pasquali to commercialize a new material. Based on a patent Matteo had developed with Rick Smalley, Dexmat was a great niche material used in ultra-premium applications like defense and aerospace. We looked at it together and thought, ‘This could be the next steel industry. This could be the material on which truly sustainable energy can be built.’ None of the thousands of proposals I’d reviewed with Third Derivative had this kind of potential to reduce our carbon footprint, so I left the accelerator and stepped into the CEO role at Dexmat.”

Entrepreneurs become chief storytellers

Communication is perhaps the most critical tool he utilizes to successfully launch startups and lead teams. With Dexmat, his audiences are both wide and diverse; Hassin must engage investors, collaborators and partners, clients, and employees. He said the role of a CEO or co-founder is essentially that of “chief storyteller.”

“Your primary responsibility is to convey an inspiring story to captivate your audience. From the media to prospective employees, you’ve got to get your story out there and do so in a way that prompts others to tell it and become part of that story,” said Hassin.

“The best storytellers are also the best listeners. Know your audience and what matters to them. You’ll often tell the same story using different metaphors or analogies that better suit the interests and needs of each audience. The Dexmat story we tell to an early investor like Shell is not the same story we tell a customer like the U.S. Air Force. They are interested in different outcomes, so I focus on the part of our story that will be meaningful to them. But you won’t know what they need until you ask them. So, in addition to being the chief storyteller, I must also be the chief listener.”

For someone as loquacious as Hassin, talking is easy. Learning the discipline to pause and listen, to be thoughtful about his audience, to put his empathy to work as he communicates – those are skills he has had to develop and continues to practice.

“I was fortunate to work with John Bennett and Tracy Volz at Rice,” he said. “In John’s computer architecture class, we spent a semester learning system design by working in teams to solve a customer’s problem. We had to find and ask the right questions of our customer and integrate their responses and goals into our solution. Putting myself in someone else’s shoes and looking at our solution from the perspective of the customer was one of the most valuable take-aways of that course. And John’s now one of Dexmat’s advisors.”

“Tracy helped us focus on how we communicated our engineering solutions. For every assignment that included a presentation, we had the luxury of working with Tracy first, trying out our presentation, listening to her feedback, and reworking our pitch. By the time we presented our final talk, it had gone through multiple iterations with Tracy.”

Hassin continued to build on that engineering communication foundation in graduate school. His MBA training included communication lessons with coaches from the theater world. He said learning to speak articulately on a stage before thousands of people was great preparation for talking to smaller audiences, like a group of influential board members.

“If you can’t get an MBA, get a kid,” joked Hassin. “Now that I’m a parent, I am always storytelling – and the message is constantly evolving as my children grow. Taking a complex question and distilling it down to the level of the audience is a life lesson you can use to rise or improve in any role, from individual contributor to entrepreneur. Keep learning. Stretch yourself to be a better communicator.”

Tackle a TED Talk

Giving TED Talks is a skill Hassin developed while serving as a Rice Entrepreneur in Residence. He said the lessons he learned were linked to work he’d done with an acting coach.

“You have something you want to impart to an audience, an idea you want to leave with them. You could just say it – and there is a presentation style where you tell the audience what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.

“But I’ve found it more effective to lead the audience on a journey of discovery. With a TED Talk, you don’t get to listen to the audience first and find out what their needs are. Instead, you show parts of the story that allow them to come to their own conclusions. I lead teams in the same way – not pushing my view on them but giving teammates the chance to contribute by responding to the problem I’ve presented.”

To shape a team’s conversation or the conclusions of a TED Talk audience, Hassin said he creates a bit of a mystery, revealing facts along the way, asking provocative questions, and focusing on short stories that lead to the eventual destination. His communication tips for entrepreneurs are similar, but also surprising.

Founders should communicate vulnerability

“We entrepreneurs have a tendency to communicate from a position of invincibility. ‘Everything’s great. We’re crushing it.’ But anyone in that world knows that kind of talk is all BS. Entrepreneurship is hard, and we’re dealing with one crisis after another.”

“Communicating from a position of humility and vulnerability is more effective. You can build a lot of credibility when you are upfront with your investors and your employees. You’re doing something new and that means working from a hypothesis, not facts. But you’ve got a plan to explore that hypothesis, you have a track record as someone who gets things done, and you have a team of people who are good at turning hypotheses into facts. That is the story you want to tell.”

“Also, people want to work on things that are challenging. Instead of talking about crushing it, concentrate on how hard the problem is. That is what attracts investors and employees.”