From Pioneering Facial Recognition to Apple Acquisition

Adi Eckhouse Barzilai
Co-Founder and CEO of RealFace
1hr 34min
February 8, 2024
About the Show

“Solve one thing really well, and it will be valuable to somebody that has money in the end.”

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Adi Eckhouse Barzilai is the Co-Founder and CEO of RealFace, a facial recognition software company that was acquired by Apple Inc. She was previously in brand management at Procter & Gamble. As founder of RealFace, Adi helped pioneer mobile facial recognition capabilities that later became integral to Apple’s FaceID unlock feature. RealFace provided the core IP and engineering talent behind making robust facial authentication seamless for iPhone users worldwide. After multiple pivots and surviving high-stakes fundraising stresses familiar to most early-stage founders, Adi successfully negotiated an acquisition deal with Apple.

Throughout a wide-ranging interview, Adi shares hard-won lessons from her entrepreneurial journey in the high-risk world of consumer tech startups. For young founders, she strongly advocates getting hands-on experience learning computer science to better grasp future opportunities. Adi also believes time working at a top corporation exposes priceless insights on how elite marketing, product development, and operational scale-up works behind the scenes.

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How I Sold To Apple - 5 Tips For Aspiring Tech Entrepreneurs

Adi Eckhouse Barzilai is a serial entrepreneur, mother of four, and tech pioneer who founded RealFace, a facial recognition software company that was acquired by Apple. In a wide-ranging interview, Adi shared her remarkable journey along with key insights on starting, pivoting, scaling, and selling a tech company.

A competitive chess player with degrees in computer science and business, Adi has always had a knack for strategy. After getting experience at companies like Procter & Gamble, she set out on her own – driven by her desire to build useful products that solve real consumer problems. Through perseverance, smart pivots, and more than a few difficult moments, Adi built RealFace into an industry leader in facial recognition, ultimately catching the eye of Apple. Now, with several successful exits behind her, she passes on hard-won lessons to the next generation of tech founders.

Read on for Adi’s top five tips for starting a tech company that makes an impact: 

Study Computer Science as Soon as Possible

According to Adi, computer science is the ideal preparation for working in the tech industry. As she explains, "it gives you the ability to understand technology better" across every function. Whether you end up in product, engineering, sales, or marketing, a foundation in CS enables you to "sell, strategize, and communicate with both business and tech sides." She wishes she had learned to code at a deeper level, but even basic programming chops establish critical "foundational knowledge that touches every industry."

Understanding code unlocks empathy that makes collaborating with developers vastly smoother. As Adi discovered, “When you understand technology, it’s much easier to talk to both the tech side of a company and the business side.” Even if you never want to touch a keyboard again, familiarity with common concepts like algorithms and data structures transforms how you comprehend tech’s possibilities and limitations. 

Consider Working at a Big Company Before Starting Your Own

While many eager entrepreneurs rush into startups, Adi suggests another path: "The best lessons in entrepreneurship I learned working in corporate America." Giants like P&G form a "phenomenal" training ground where you "learn how large organizations run before building your own." By analyzing their systems and processes up close, "you can make something even better." Even more than a fancy MBA, this insider knowledge becomes your "brand behind your brand" when recruiting talent or pitching VCs. 

In particular, observing world-class marketing teams in action shows you how the magic happens. Watching geniuses execute “international campaigns” with military precision engraves key lessons about positioning brands around the globe. Whether participating directly in a product launch or shadowing managers, Adi tells us the core benefit of working in a big company before becoming an entrepreneur - you “see how it’s done in the right place, then go build your own thing.” 

Solve One Specific Problem Really, Really Well

As a scrappy startup competing with tech titans, Adi believes narrow focus is imperative. For anyone trying to enter the tech space, she recommends that you “solve one thing really well and it will be valuable to somebody that has money at the end.” Instead of trying to boil the ocean, concentrate your limited resources on building differentiated IP around a niche pain point. The next stage is building a team that is perfectly suited to the task. “Hire the best people to focus deeply on” mastering a single use case. While you may not become the next Apple, you will find that   the riches are in the niches” by dominating a small but lucrative market. Given the specificity of RealFace and it’s acquisition to Apple, Adi made it clear: If you build it, “someone will see value in your focused solution.”

Once you have established your technological niche, you can expand. Adi points to Twilio as a startup that provided a core, specific feature that provided the communication infrastructure for developers to expand into a suite of products. Concentrate on honing an initial beachhead product rather than plotting global domination on day one. As Adi discovered firsthand, “if you’re a tech company,.you have to have a differentiated IP in the world of technology and try to solve one thing really well.” Do one thing great, then let your technology enable growth into adjacent areas.

Develop the Technology First, Then Craft the Story

Sky-high valuations tempt many founders to sell the promise over the product. However, Adi contends that “you have to know what you're building” and “be authentic.” Demo a working prototype before making bold claims. Other companies might “buy something patch tech on it,” but true innovation comes from internal capabilities, not off-the-shelf components. Once your product reliably fulfills the niche pain point, then you can pitch VCs on expansive applications. When making your pitch, think long-term: the “power of ‘bullshit’ and storytelling” matters more when your story becomes your strategy, but you need to have the tech to back it up. 

At the same time, don’t get so heads-down building products that you neglect narrative altogether. Mastering technology must evolve into articulating compelling visions for how it transforms industries. Plotting multiple pivots ahead gives your startup agility to fluidly reorient from consumers to enterprise when conditions change. Even if the final path remains foggy, map out enough strategy to spotlight the next milestone to enthuse stakeholders about where you’re headed.

Back Up Your Bullsh*t with Real Technological Innovation

Tying her advice together, Adi concludes that the most fundable startups fuse both technology and storytelling into their mission: “Ensure you have strong actual capabilities, not just a good pitch.” While ambitious narratives attract attention, turning that into an acquisition or IPO requires building defensible tech that delivers tangible value. Adi’s revolutionary face unlock idea means little without the PhDs who can “solve something on the tech side” better than anyone else. A technical cofounder was hugely important for this stage of Adi’s story, combining an inspiring founder with the engineering power to make something that has never been done before. 

Ultimately, change comes from shipping innovations people love, not giving TED Talks about a concept. Had Adi focused only on photo sorting algorithms without pivoting and trimming her focus into facial recognition, RealFace likely would not exist. Build flexibility into your platform, but pour energy into placing vital bricks instead of just describing towering buildings you hope to one day construct. Pair big dreams with small, measurable wins that prove market pull.

Adi spilled well more than five tips during her download with our team – including insights on being acquired, making strategic pivots, and lessons from motherhood as an entrepreneur. To uncover more hard-earned wisdom from her experience taking RealFace from concept to successful exit, be sure to check out the full interview here.  

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