Epcon Experts Series With Bassam Salem of AtlasRTX

Bassam Salem, founder of AtlasRTX, discusses entrepreneurship, technology in home building, virtualization and much more in this episode of the Epcon Experts Podcast.

“We knew that we wanted to tackle customer experience and make customer experiences great across the journey with the help of AI. There is no more sophisticated a customer experience than a home purchase. We thought if we could tackle the most considered purchase, we could tackle anything else.”

Host: Today, we are joined by Bassam Salem, founder of AtlasRTX. Thank you for joining us Bassam.

Bassam Salem, Founder of AtlasRTX: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Host: As you know, Epcon has a network of home builders and community developers around the country. These are forward‑looking entrepreneurs that are doing their best to grow, expand and diversify their businesses.

You’re an entrepreneur yourself. You founded AtlasRTX and you can relate to those people who are either starting a company or trying to grow a company. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it means to be an entrepreneur? What that means to you? What is most important?

Bassam: I’ll start out by telling you that the last chapter of mine was my entrepreneurial chapter. The last, nearly a decade. Before that, I was an executive in tech companies.

I give you that perspective to clarify that what I just experienced over the last decade has easily been the toughest professional experience of my life. It is so much harder to be an entrepreneur than it is to be an executive at a company, and that’s something I don’t think I appreciated.

An entrepreneur has a vision, takes that vision, and turns it into a plan, takes a plan, and gathers a team to execute it, and then has the objective of turning that team into a self‑sustaining enterprise that hopefully outlives the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur’s relationship with the entity.

It’s a lot to do, a lot of skills required, a lot of mistakes to be made and lessons to be learned. I think it’s a really, really special experience. I recommend everyone go through it once even if you don’t want to do it as a career, but it’s a special engine that’s part of our economy.

Host: Being able to see it from both sides being an employee, essentially, an executive, but then being on the other side as an owner, you see the complexities that go into it. I’ve started or been a part of three companies that were startups and growing.

I’ve run my own company and I do believe everyone at some point should be able to see it from the other side. Quarterly taxes alone keeps me up at night to this day, where I’ve had cold sweats from that.

Bassam: Exactly.

Host: How does seeing it from both sides and understanding those lessons and mistakes you went through, how does that impact your view on what home builders are doing when they’re building a company from scratch or trying to grow it from scratch? You’ve talked about culture, and cadence, and community, and those types of things.

Bassam: Nothing’s more important to me than building a team. As an entrepreneur and talking to many other entrepreneurs, they already appreciate that. I will tell you that I’ve gained such an appreciation for home building in the last decade. The fact that home building is three businesses in one, something we frequently lament. It’s not just a retail business, selling homes.

It’s a manufacturing business, building homes. It’s not even in a factory much of the time. Sometimes it is. You’re dealing with variables beyond one’s control. It’s a real‑estate business as well. You have to systematically acquire and hold land. It’s an unbelievably complex operation, three different, difficult businesses all in one.

Having said that around home building, I do believe that the heart of what we’ve built here was the culture and cadence. The one great thing that you get as an entrepreneur is the ability to recruit to a culture instead of trying to adjust an existing culture. Like my colleague Mike Bills says, “Culture exists whether you create it or are intentional about it or not. It exists.”

One of the great benefits, great responsibilities, in a startup is you get to pick people. You get to say, “These are the criteria for the cultural elements of humans who are going to be part of this team.” For us, we talk about four H’s ‑‑ happy, humble, hungry and horsepower. We can grade and be judging of every candidate to that bar.

We’re able to build the culture around those principles as opposed to adapting. Finally, I don’t want to belabor this point, I do think that cadence is such an important part of building a company. What I mean by cadence, consider it the traditions that we have in the company.

As a family, we have traditions like the summer vacation, the holiday traditions, the dressing up at certain points. Likewise, a company, a culture needs a cadence like that. We have things like our Mondays and Thursdays have special huddles to open the week and a near the end of the week check‑in to make sure we’re completing our commitments. We have something called T time and we do it Tuesdays and Thursdays every afternoon on those dates, and the team just shuts down what we’re doing and we socialize and do something fun together just typically for 15, 20 minutes.

That sense of tradition, sense of cadence, and predictability, so I know what to expect every week, every day is part and parcel of building a great culture.

Host: I love the fact that you’ve talked about culture and the people and how you build the team and bring that together. How does that impact how the product develops? You’re a technology company, and a lot of people that will probably be listening to this, they’re home builders or they’re community or land developers.

How do you relate what you do when your building a technology company versus maybe what you’re doing within your day‑to‑day? Just wondering if you can talk about how that impacts the product as well.

Bassam: Absolutely. We can all acknowledge, and I’m not a sports fanatic myself, but even I can appreciate that a great team is able to achieve a lot because not just the individuals are amazing, but the aggregate effect of the team collaborating allows them to do really, really difficult things.

Whether the difficult things are building very complicated structures in the case of home building or building very complicated software…No one person in this company, including me as the founder, could have built and thought of the elements that it took to build this company. No one person could have done that.

In fact, there were many, many miracle moments, shall we say, when I remember us sitting in a room together, six or seven of us trying to figure out how to address a problem or how to overcome a challenge we’re dealing with where we couldn’t figure out how to make the software do something.

It’s the building up of ideas one on the other that ultimately culminated in the right solution. I do believe in the concept of one plus one being greater than two in many cases. That is the definition of team.

The definition of team is that surplus value you’re creating beyond the individual value of each member of the team. I do think it applies to every industry, not just home building and tech.

Host: The sum is greater than its parts, and you surround yourself with great people and allow them to be great. Challenge them to be great and allow them to be great.

I’ve gotten to know you and we’ve had the opportunity to interact and we work with Atlas as well as having you at our Epcon National Conference and come speak to our Franchise Builders.

I want to have you talk about your journey. Whenever I’ve heard you speak about your life, what you’ve been through and gotten to, and to where you started Atlas, if you could just touch on that.

Bassam: I immigrated to this country in 1986 with my family. We came here as foreign students and all went to school at the University of Utah. We were fortunate to be able to build careers in various disciplines. My sister became a doctor, my brother became an IT professional and I became a computer scientist.

I was fortunate to build a career over a few decades in tech with some really great brands that gave me so much experience. Then in my mid‑40s, I had one of my many midlife crises. You’ve known me long enough to appreciate that.

My midlife crisis was a desire to reevaluate what I’d been doing with my life. I’d been a heads‑down immigrant, like most immigrants. You come to the country, you work your butt off, you keep working your butt off because that’s the way you make it. This country is fantastic because it rewards hard work.

At some point, you realize, “I’ve been doing this for a long time. Do I just keep my head down and keep doing this? What can I do to optimize my impact on myself, my family and my community?”

I decided to, with the support of my wife, take a one‑year sabbatical in my mid‑40s. Because I’m an immigrant, I didn’t spend it skiing or golfing. Instead, I did what I had enjoyed doing but did on a very limited basis when I was an executive, which was advising young entrepreneurs who were trying to get their companies off the ground.

I quickly appreciated that while I could give them some advice, that having not experienced entrepreneurship myself, I felt a bit like my comments were a bit vacuous in some cases. Yes, if you were already a pretty good‑sized business, I could help you. If you had zero in revenue and you were still getting going, it was all hypothetical to me.

I thought, “I still have 10, 11 months, why just help entrepreneurs? Let me add a portfolio company to my portfolio that’s my own company. Let me exercise all of the advice I’m giving and see if it’s worth its weight.”

I gave myself a target for the end of the year. If at the end of the year, this little business hits that target, then I would consider extending my no longer sabbatical and turning it into an enterprise. We were fortunate to have had those targets met by the end of 2016, which was our first year. I call it year zero because it wasn’t really the complete year for the business.

Then we doubled down on everything starting in 2017. Actually, my wife and I liquidated some savings that we had. We started recruiting a team, and getting some space, enhancing the product, doing marketing, attending conferences and speaking at conferences.

Seven and a half years later, we were acquired by one of the world’s best‑known customer experience companies, a company called NICE out of New Jersey, headquartered in New Jersey, but with offices all over the world, including here in Utah.

That was just under a year ago. It’s been a great partnership for us to belong to this very high‑scale entity that has lots and lots of sophisticated processes, systems and so on. That is the journey to this point.

Host: Having gone through it yourself, when you’re out there talking to a small builder that’s growing a small start-up or trying to grow one that they’ve established, you understand what they’re going through. It’s really allowed you to come into the home building space and run with it.

Bassam: Absolutely, I have to be honest and say I didn’t appreciate how hard their nights were, their days were, their weekends were, but I now do. I now know what it means when your mind literally cannot shut off. Every moment it’s processing. It’s worried about something.

Host: What I’ve always noticed when you speak is that it comes from the heart, and that’s I think is so powerful. That’s why I appreciate you sharing that part.

I would say you are a very forward‑looking person individually as well as within your company, but home building is not always the most forward‑looking industry. I was just wondering if you could tell us a little about your journey and what about the home building industry attracted you to it?

Bassam: I completely agree with that characterization around home building, and I now understand why. Again, those three dimensions of the business are each so sophisticated in and of themselves, let alone the integration of all three dimensions.

We talked about the retail side, the manufacturing side and the real estate side. It’s really hard to move a ship that large, even a small builder is dealing with a pretty complex operation. I do agree that home building is typically a laggard, shall we say, in terms of adopting innovation, which makes this all the cooler.

The fact that we started with a focus on home building and brought conversational AI way before everybody and their dog was talking about it on LinkedIn. We’ve been in business since 2016, building these AI conversational digital assistants. Without delving too much into the tech, AI chatbots is the simplistic description.

It’s been very cool to have home building experience that first showcased some of the largest builders in the country. Certainly, Epcon Communities as well is leveraging these AI experiences for their customers.

Why home building? Three main reasons that we picked it. One, we knew that we wanted to tackle customer experience and make customer experiences great across the journey with the help of AI. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve.

There is no more sophisticated a customer experience than a home purchase. It’s the most, as marketers call it, experts like you would call this the ultimate considered purchase. You really, really think. You don’t buy a house on a whim, typically.

It’s very considered. It’s a very thoughtful decision. It involves lots of people in your family, potentially. We thought if we could tackle the most considered purchase, we could tackle anything else. We’re going to do this. We’re going to prove it in home building.

The second reason is it’s the highest retail transaction out there. Nothing comes close, with the exception of, by the way, our second vertical, higher education. Gets close, but not quite. The average new home is four or five hundred thousand dollars in America these days.

The fact that it’s such a big transactional value means that the ROI is really material. The return on investment is easier to show when we’re talking about how can we make this a more effective transaction for your customer.

Then finally, and I will be the first to admit that we didn’t appreciate this until we got to know the industry over the last decade, it is the smallest big industry out there. Everybody knows everybody. It’s a very collaborative industry, which I think is really cool.

Our own clients work together, know each other, help each other, you certainly support your peers. Everyone works together in this. We call it coopetition, I suppose, because obviously, everyone’s competing, but there’s this sense of camaraderie in the industry that we’ve really, really appreciated.

It’s helped us as we’ve entered the industry and now become a big part of it. We love being part of that small community that still is responsible for so much revenue to the country’s economy. Those are the three reasons home building was our first focus and remains by far our largest industry vertical.

Host: Speaking of technology, as you’ve mentioned AI, it’s a hot topic and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. In your estimation, how big is it going to be?

Bassam: I think it is somewhere between huge and beyond huge. I’m not sure the extent, but I do think what we’re doing as humanity is pretty profound. Because essentially for the first time in our known history as humanity, we’re creating essentially what is tantamount to a new species that is inorganic.

It’s a digital species that will be able to support us. It will be able to make us more productive, more efficient, make us more comfortable.

I will tell you I am absolutely a practical optimist. I do not fear our creation. I really think that we have an opportunity here to materially improve humanity and life if we handle this properly.

Host: Taking that into consideration, what do home builders need to be prepared for?

Bassam: The big vision we all talk about with AI is, certainly, a forward‑looking vision. Like any hype cycle, the excitement comes and goes. Over time and over, we’ll call it the next three to five years, the reality of the benefits of AI will materialize. They’ll materialize for everybody. It’s really, really tough to pick a particular industry.

I do believe that it’s going to impact not just humanity but the business world. What are the things that I would predict? I would predict that, especially for home building but, certainly, for all industries, an acceleration of the digitization of everything. Everything that we do gets digitized.

If it hasn’t been digitized, we should ask ourselves, can it be digitized? Can this be done in a way that is automated, that is not requiring physical assets and physical expense but digital assets and digital expense? The second, which is my philosophical view on AI, is, how can we increase the productivity of every human on our team?

A lot of folks who take a more cynical view would say, “Well, if you can do it with less expense, why not cut humans and use machines?” I’ll tell you. I’m so glad we’ve been talking about entrepreneurship. If you were to ask an entrepreneur, “Would you rather double your revenue or cut your expenses in half?” Doubling your revenue is typically the better approach.

The answer is, I already have a great team. This isn’t about cutting my expenses. It’s, can I do even more? Can I help them become even more productive and make the aggregate outcome and outputs even higher? It’s unnecessarily cynical and not practical to think about downsides like that.

I really, really think that each one of us, each business, whether home building or otherwise, will think about how can I optimize the productivity of every single person on this team?

Host: Any technology can be used for good or bad. When a new technology comes along, we immediately may see it as dangerous or a threat, but for those of us old enough to remember as the Internet was just coming of age, as cell phones were launching and the iPhone came out in 2007, both of those had that “what impact will this have on my life and in my business?”

Over time, we learned and we figured out and how much different, how much better business and life is because of those technologies.

Bassam: I so appreciate you saying that. I couldn’t agree more. It’s never the technology that’s dangerous, it’s humans and their use of technology. That’s all I’ve ever been afraid of. AI in and of itself is a very, very good thing. Just like iPhones, social media, digital media, telephony, telecommunications.

Everything has been so productive for us. If you remember business pre‑email, it’s staggering to me. That wasn’t that long ago. That was just a few decades ago. We had memoranda, internal memoranda, pieces of paper that we would write up and then type up and then make copies of and then send out to everybody.

The pace was ludicrous. You think about the productivity just 30, 40 years ago relative to the per‑person productivity we have today, it’s staggering, and AI can be exactly that. Like all technologies, humans are what bring disappointing uses for it.

Host: I’ve heard you use the word “humans.” You’ve mentioned it during our conversation now, but I’ve also heard you use that term at our national conference and at some of the larger shows like IBS.

You use it a lot when you’re describing your technology and how companies interact with customers, employees. Can you tell me where that comes from, and what does it mean to be human? What does that term mean for you when you use it?

Bassam: Absolutely. We fundamentally, from the inception of our company, had the philosophy of AI plus humans are better together, but the idea is, let’s augment humans with AI. We’ve taken that philosophically in multiple dimensions. Dimension number one is, our AI is overseen and trained by our human experts.

We don’t create machines and just set them free in the wild with no oversight, no training, no predictability, no determinism, to use a slightly technical word. We don’t want machines that come up with unpredictable things. We need it to be deterministic. We need it to be predictable, consistent.

We believe in human involvement, training and oversight of these machines. We’re proud to say that that was a philosophical vision or aspect of our vision from inception. The second, and I think you know us and have known us long enough to believe that this is our objective as well, is that productivity objective.

It’s not our objective to displace a human, it’s our objective to augment a human. Every use case we tackle, the first question is, should a human do this, or does a human want to do this or not? Then we assess based on the answers to those questions the degree of, we’ll call it autonomy, that the machine would have.

There are lots and lots of tasks that we don’t believe most humans want to do and should do. It’s just inefficient.

Being awake for 24 hours a day to be able to speak to someone who may be a looky‑loo, may be just exploring, may have a simple question or may be looking to apply for a job and not a customer. It doesn’t make sense to force humans to go that high up in the sales funnel. That should be completely automated to the degree possible.

Then if it can filter to another stage, maybe an inside sales stage to use a term that most salespeople would be familiar with. Well then, maybe the machine is augmenting a bit but relegating most material conversations to the human, because at that point, humans can add value.

Like this prospective buyer, this person is a prospective buyer, they’re quite interested. They’re looking for a three‑bedroom home under 450 in this zip code. Great. Maybe a human can now assist with some aspects of the next level of subjectivity and topics that maybe the machine isn’t attuned to.

We’ve taken the spirit of that concept all the way through, both internally and externally, that AI and humans belong together with the humans still remaining in charge.

Host: I love that aspect of it. It’s the interconnection and oversight of the technology by people, and they bring a human nature to it. I’ve also heard you talk about another thing where it’s just about people interacting. You’ve started what I believe you call is the coffee club. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the coffee club is.

Bassam: While a bit of a personal story, I will share it briefly. I think in my mid‑30s, I quickly appreciated the fact that unlike our college days or before when we were younger and we got together as people.

Two people would get together just to talk about nothing other than caring for each other, activities with one another, to a point whereby our mid‑30s, that’s been taken out of us. We are now focused on our careers and we’re busy at home with family lives.

When you see two people together at a coffee shop on Tuesday at noon, odds are, it’s a business conversation. I missed having these real, authentic conversations about real and authentic topics. In my mid‑30s, I started having one‑on‑one coffees initially, and coffee is a euphemism for any drink or snack.

It doesn’t need to be coffee, although we met at coffee shops, so that made it convenient. I would do it really early in the morning, like 6:45 or 7:00, and we’d go for an hour and then head to work.

Over time, more and more folks would want to meet and I’d be planning on meeting one person, and another person with whom I met a week earlier, would message me and say, “Hey, are you available?” I’d say, “I’m already meeting with John, why don’t you come?” Before I knew it, we were meeting as six to eight people on a pretty consistent basis.

Now 15, 16 years later, we have a group of maybe 30 or 40 folks — many of whom have been in this coffee club conversation for 10, 15 years — who’ve seen each other go through all sorts of life changes from, we’re getting to the age where many of us have dealt with some serious health issues, or certainly unfortunately divorces from time to time, or challenges with teenage children or…

The kinds of life struggles that we all go through having nothing to do with making money, building a career and hiring someone. It’s become a really, really meaningful part of my life. I look forward to it.

I try to do it once or twice, preferably three times if I can pull it off a month, usually on a weekend. It means a lot to me, and I’d like to think for a lot of the coffee clubbers as we call them, it’s pretty meaningful as well.

Host: It’s a smart way to build a network of people that you know, like and trust, and get to know them on a personal level. I think something that happens similar to that in the home building industry is builder 20 groups, where they come together to talk about business, but what really happens is they start to get to know each other.

As somebody you can know, like, trust and rely on when you’re with a business challenge, those are people that you can reach out to. You know what’s going on in their business, but you are more than likely knowing what’s going on in their lives as well.

It’s often what happens in our Epcon franchise network, we have 80 plus builders around the country that can reach out to each other and learn from each other in their business, but also they start to build those friendships and relationships.

They come to our national conference, they start to get to know each other outside of the sphere of business and what an impact that makes on their lives as well as their business.

Bassam: Absolutely. I can’t imagine how valuable that must be, because in that case, not only can they make these connections on a personal level, but they share probably very similar struggles all coming from the same business models. I can only imagine how impactful that would be.

Host: A side note. You inspired me when I first heard you talk about coffee club, and I go and meet for lunch with people who I don’t do business with, but people that I like and want to get to know, and we’ll go a couple times a year to have lunch and talk about life and all of that, so you have inspired me in that way.

Bassam: Thank you. That’s great.

Host: Bassam, if you’re looking into the crystal ball, what’s next? What’s next in the industry? What may already be here that we’re not paying enough attention to? What’s the future look like?

Bassam: This is not going to be a shocker. I wish I could come up with something that no one is expecting, but I do believe that while virtualization, virtual reality and augmented reality capabilities have taken their sweet time. I will tell you, and I’ll be honest and tell you that I would have guessed that five years ago, they would have been where we are today.

The cycle there has taken a bit more time than I would have predicted as a computer scientist. AI went way faster over the last decade than I thought, but VR, virtual reality and augmented reality has gone way slower than I thought.

I do think that virtualization is going to start kicking in over the next few years where it’s now affordable enough and effective enough and real enough, photorealistic enough that the kinds of experiences we can now build to augment a customer’s experience can be pretty material even post‑sale.

Imagine being able to have an augmented reality headset in your home that comes with your house and connects you to the customer service organization powered by a digital assistant or supported by a digital assistant. Because it’s an augmented reality set, you can be looking at some issue in the home. They can see it in the center and so can the AI.

It can make recommendations and overlay it and tell you, “Just close this tap or tighten this screw.” Over time, we can build capabilities like that that could be something that a machine could literally detect and guide someone through. Yes, there are things we’d still need a human to come and tackle, but how great would it be, again, if we can render things virtually?

I bring up post‑sales use case just because I think all of us have thought of the pre‑sales use cases about envisioning your home, on your particular lot, with your particular finishes, and so on, and being able to walk through it. That’s absolutely fantastic.

More and more, increasingly, I do think that the younger generations are much more apt to accept that as a replacement for a model home than, shall we say, our generation. Wouldn’t it be great if builders didn’t have to deal with everyone selecting the model floor plan because that was the model they did?

Candidly, you can pick one of 28 models because they’re all digital, and we can absolutely give you any of them. You just pick the one that you’d like to explore, and you can explore all 28.

I really think if there’s something I’m going to double down on, aside from AI, it will be virtualization and augmentation of the real world with the digital world. That becomes much more of a reality over the next five years, versus what it’s been, a slow adoption over the last five.

Host: Like I said early on when I said you’re forward‑thinking, there’s an example of it. That’s the stuff that I enjoy hearing about the most as a bit of a technology nerd myself. It’s wanting to think forward, what’s coming, where are things going and how do we get prepared for it?

At this point in time, with that being said, what’s your biggest piece of advice for a home builder today, right now, that’s looking to grow or scale their business?

Bassam: I would say two things. The first is leverage technology personally. Get to know technology personally. We now exist in a world where technology directs so much of our life, our interactions.

To close the gap between Gen Xers and Boomers, and younger generations like Millennials, and even Gen Z, who are now at the cusp of beginning to buy homes themselves, I think we need to adopt technology personally.

It should no longer be acceptable to us to say, “I’m an old‑fashioned sort of person. I don’t like new tech. I know I’ve heard about this new tool, I’m not going to use it on my phone.” That doesn’t work anymore. We will increasingly get detached as leaders and executives from the real world.

Number one, we have to embrace technology ourselves. We have to try it. We have to play with it and experience it. The second is embracing digitization, automation and artificial intelligence. Again, this is not a bad thing. This will help us build more effective businesses and help our customers have better experiences.

The way we tackle that is to look for low‑hanging fruit. We don’t need to look at our entire customer journey and replace it overnight. Not at all. Rob, you’ve done this really, really effectively at Epcon. You’ve done a great job mapping out what journeys look like and tackling low‑hanging fruit.

We’ve got technology that can address the challenge in this particular point in the journey. There’s a tech that we can give a try to. Let me go check out what the ROI is there. Can I make it profitable for me as a business and can my customer have a better experience?

It’s amazing to me how much low‑hanging fruit we don’t address because I think we overwhelm ourselves with the elephant. We just look at this overwhelming customer journey in home building and decide not to tackle it, but we can tackle it one bite at a time, as they say.

Host: Those are great words. We’ll end the conversation there. Bassam, I would like to thank you for joining us and sharing your wisdom and your thoughts. Thank you very much.

Bassam: Thank you. It’s been great working with you for all these years.