When Rick Smith is on an airplane and a seatmate asks him what he does for a living, he usually goes vague: “I sell industrial electronics.” He knows if he admits he is the founder and CEO of Taser International he’ll have to endure a flight trapped in a heated conversation about cavalier cops, cardiac deaths and some buddy or cousin who took it in the chest from one of his 50,000-volt electric weapons. “It’s tiring,” he says.
That’s not to say the 44-year-old is ashamed of what he’s built. The 750,000 Tasers he’s sold in 21 years have saved some 100,000 lives by avoiding gunfire, he reckons. “The number of gun deaths every year is a huge societal problem. I figured if it could be solved in a way that creates value, it would be a big business.”
And it is. In the latest 12 months the company netted $17 million on $148 million in revenue, but the problem is that stun gun sales aren’t as shocking as the company would like, up only 17 percent year to date. What Smith would rather talk about over airplane pretzels is Taser’s new growth business: Body cams and digital video storage. It has a pinky-size camera that attaches to an officer’s glasses for $599 and a deck-of-cards-size chest version for $399. Body cams have been around for years—Taser started making them in 2009—but fewer than 15 percent of police departments have them. That number is now headed toward 100 percent, say Smith and scores of law enforcement officials, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri this summer. “I have changed my opinion on cameras,” said Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith, a longtime camera holdout, to the Seattle Times. “I believe that if there had been a camera on Officer Wilson we probably would not have had the riots and disturbances.”
Sales of body cams are only 10 percent of Taser’s revenue, but its stock popped 50 percent in the weeks after Ferguson. Smith saw a huge spike in interest but not much in camera sales—yet. Meanwhile, his archrival, the privately held body-cam maker Vievu, says it broke its own revenue record in the September after Ferguson, with a double-digit increase in sales and a 70 percent increase in requests for test units.
For Taser the hardware is the front door to the real revenue play: Its cloud storage service, called Evidence.com, which can run $15 to $55 per officer per month. Some 75 percent of the agencies that bought cameras in the last quarter signed up for Evidence.com, as opposed to storing the video on their own servers. The New Orleans Police Department, which deployed 420 of Taser’s Axon body-cams earlier this year, has budgeted $1.4 million for five years. The cameras cost less than $300,000; the bulk of what it’s paying is for data storage.
Smith calls Evidence.com “Dropbox for cops” and has been recruiting Silicon Valley illuminati to his board, including former Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor and renowned angel investor Hadi Partovi. Partovi advised Smith last year to acquire a “social photo album” startup called Familiar, tasking its CEO, Marcus Womack, with making Evidence.com user friendly and developing an app for organising crime scene photos.
Cops don’t like being recorded any more than the rest of us. But the few studies on the eﬀect of body cameras show a significant reduction in citizen complaints. In partnership with Cambridge University, the police department in Rialto, California, using cameras from Taser, found that in the first year, 2012, use-of-force incidents by officers declined 60 percent and citizen complaints against police fell 88 percent. Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar tells Forbes that in the cameras’ second year of use, progress was less pronounced but still impressive, with use-of-force incidents down by 46 percent and citizen complaints down 83 percent from the baseline. Another one-year study by the Mesa Police Department found that 50 camera-wearing officers had a third as many complaints as those without them and that those officers had 75 percent fewer use-of-force complaints than in the prior year.
(This story appears in the 12 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)