As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Graham, CEO of Alen Air Purifiers.
As CEO, Andy Graham leads Alen’s long term vision as the innovators and difference-makers protecting indoor air quality, empowering wellness, and ensuring people everywhere can breathe worry-free in shared-air spaces. He guides Alen’s empathy-driven product innovation and shepherds its culture of equality and accountability. Under Andy’s leadership, Alen is more than doubling the number of people it helps each year to breathe cleaner, healthier air wherever they live, work, learn, exercise, and play.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Growing up on a farm in South Carolina, I learned a lot of valuable lessons at a young age. Farming is the purest form of entrepreneurship. Very early on, I learned that you must accept the things you can and cannot control, to plan for the unexpected, to be able to problem-solve, and to build trust between people, crops, and equipment.
While I deal with fewer literal crops today, I have carried these lessons with me throughout my tenure — now as the CEO of Alen Air Purifiers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Earlier in my career, I was working in an industry that needed to learn how to “cooperatively solve” an industry level problem on “plug and play” software tools used to design computer chips. Seeing the problem, I shared an open systems vision individually with customers, competitors and suppliers, then invited a few of those people to gather together at what I thought would be a small discussion on how to solve the issue at hand.
I was in a state of shock when over 80 people showed up and I became the face of a new industry initiative as the elected chairman. It was stunning how quickly it happened as a beautiful form of miscalculation.
Twelve years later, I’m proud that the organization that started as a timely belief in possibility became a defacto industry standard known as OpenAccess by the Silicon Integration Initiative (Si2). This is a relevant example of where we are today with a need for a clear and understandable way to know if shared air in a number of venues is safe. Among government agencies, standards bodies, scientific, medical and industry communities there are no commonly agreed criteria upon which consumers or employees would know their level of afforded safety when entering an enclosed space with others.
It might just be time for another impromptu meeting to share the vision of “shared air spaces” based on proven, agreed certification protocols where I can only hope upwards of another 80 people show up.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. He put his finger on a unique insight about empathic accuracy with customers or any audience whom you may seek to serve. Empathy often gets overlooked when businesses focus on themselves and turn inward as they scale instead of being empathically customer-focused. Seth deftly unpacks the art of personal attention at scale.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Alen will always be driven by a passion for helping people live better, healthier and safer lives with pure air.
Today, as we collectively define the new normal in a world that’s been reshaped by an airborne virus, we aim to be educators and advocators for an “always-on” measure of shared air safety..
Much like a car’s air bag or a home’s smoke detector, we see air purification as a passive form of protection that people can plug-in, turn-on, and rest assured it’s always working to make their space safer.
People generally walk around with two questions: How am I doing and what is the next thing I can do to improve my situation?
Technology and other capabilities that can make things better without the consumer having to think about it — that reduce their cognitive load and make life easier — will win the day.
In this case, we offer effective, always-on solutions for wellness that ensure the air you breathe is indeed safe. No, we don’t claim to be the only solution, rather a key element that includes other well established disinfection safety protocols. COVID-19 infections are primarily from airborne transmission. Simply put, you have to remove the particle from the air as rapidly and efficiently as possible
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
— Winston Churchill.
In other words, take the long view because there will always be setbacks along the way. They’re part of the journey. You have to reframe failure as opportunity — the elimination of one option on the longer path. It’s not about winning but continual progression. Doing the fundamentals well with making lasting value based empathic connections as noted earlier will bear the fruits of revenue, earnings, and customer satisfaction — all of which are lagging — not leading indicators.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Human beings dislike uncertainty almost more than fear. We live much of our lives trying to predict what’s next. COVID-19 has striped that bare to a place where we, as humans, are continuously learning and relearning expectations.
The biggest challenge in leadership has been thinking about ways to shepherd families, communities and companies in a visionary context while in an immediate time of great uncertainty. That includes being keenly sensitive to what people are dealing with while keeping a steady cadence toward a future that includes ambiguous loss. Particularly in western cultures we are used to problems with neat, available solutions often through technology. However, COVID-19 along with its ancillary cultural effects is not a problem with a neat solution.
For me, one of those “ambiguous loss” moments was when my daughter had to have an operation in the middle of the pandemic. The idea of not being able to even go inside the hospital made me realize that people metabolize fear and risk in different ways. In this case, I had to trust the medical system with hers’ and my loss of the comfort of presence which we all need. This is not a sustainable situation
We are learning to metabolize risk and fear by knowing the power and healing of connection with each other so that having done so we are even more grateful for each other being protective of our “safe circles.”
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Demand has sharply accelerated during COVID-19 given the protective nature of the product we provide. The biggest challenge is planning for supply to support marketplace demand and making choices regarding which markets to prioritize.
Alen’s policy is to focus our capacity to where it will do the most good. To protect vulnerable groups of people, we always consider the question, “where is protection and needed most?”
In this situation, we gave priority to schools. Right now we have an entire educational community — parents, kids, teachers — trying to move forward with varying safety protocols. In the classroom, we raise the bar of safety regardless of group or personal protocol differences.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
At Alen, we are prioritizing education both internally and externally. In our content marketing, we’re doing our best to explain the science of indoor airborne virus transmission and how HEPA purifiers can help — communicating as clearly as possible without fear mongering.
We are investing in as much research as possible to advance the understanding of HEPA filtration. And we’re using that data to educate families, employees, customers, and the industry as a whole.
But it’s just as important to recognize how people perceive fear, to meet people where they are, and to keep communicating on pain points. With employees, for example, that means understanding the struggles of working parents and being supportive of their situation.
We know there’s a lot of fear about going back to school. We gave air purifiers to disadvantaged schools for use in classrooms. We also created an in-depth article to answer common questions about returning to classrooms based on the best science at hand.
Fear comes from watching the latest case or death counts. We focus instead on the reality of transmission and the proven physics of capturing the offending virus particle among other protective and liveable measures.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I’m going to state the obvious because of the business we are in: Human habits are difficult to change but we are going to have to find ways to make shared air spaces safe.
That’s why we’re working to bring our highly-effective HEPA air purification to as many shared spaces as possible — because it’s a simple, passive, always-on safety measure.
From sitting in a restaurant to staying in a hotel room, we need to resume social interactions and human contact.
Elsewhere, industries like travel will be reshaped simply because today’s effective use of technology will make us rethink the need for things like business travel.
We’ll also rethink work concepts like performance management and work-life balance. When work is an “on” switch and is so enmeshed with your personal space, there is a great need for people to redefine what’s important to them beyond work where we spend a majority of our time. Industries that help get that capability back — leisure and wellness — will be significant.
We believe HEPA purification is a rare exception that can benefit everyone.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I do. Since this is an airborne virus, heightened consciousness about indoor air quality is the new normal.
I frequently hear the term “safe circle” referring to questions about who we can trust based on lifestyle and risk profiles. In that sense, I think we will see stronger nuclear family interactions and a redefining of social circles.
So many of us have digital fatigue these days. Social media is about breath and speed of connection. In the future, I think we’ll place more value on the depth of connection and what will enable those connections.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy? Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would embrace the reality things are not going back to the way they were. The longer you hold on to the past version of normal, the more you prevent yourself from discovering novel ways of experiencing a new normalcy.
At Alen, we’ve geared up to offer solutions for shared-air health and safety and to help people minimize risks. Previously, our focus was on helping individuals solve various health concerns at home (e.g. asthma and allergies)
COVID has highlighted the risk of airborne pathogens that’s always been present but became unmanageable by the medical community and previous safety measures in businesses.
We must use COVID as an opportunity to strengthen the healthcare system, not put bandages on things, but become more prevention-oriented.
As leaders, we should re-examine our business models — the way we deliver products and services, our logistics, and our relationship with retail — to ensure we can accommodate different patterns of consumer behavior. The restaurant industry is on the cutting edge of this.
Ultimately, each company will need to determine how we are delivering REAL value.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
When you grow up as a farm kid with a single parent working long hours as a hospital lab technician, you grow up really fast and become an adult really fast. I had to learn how to play and work at the same time and make the combination enjoyable. Continuing to do so in adulthood is what keeps life interesting. Let’s make it fun on a whiteboard!
How can our readers further follow your work?
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/agraham3/
- Alen’s social accounts — @alenAirpurifiers