CEO and Co-Founder of Imeve
Devon is an expert on live immersive technology with more than 20 years experience in online media and VR. Prior to Imeve, he was Head of Product for the Nokia OZO VR platform, where he expanded the OZO ecosystem to include live VR broadcast, next-generation immersive delivery and multi-platform playback. Devon co-founded online media consulting firm Interocity (acquired by Chyron) and was VP, Customer Success at leading cloud video platform Kaltura. Devon studied Computer Science and Theater at Yale and was a Sloan Fellow at the Stanford GSB.
What is your role in business and in life?
I’m a husband and a Dad of children 11, 9 and 7 so that's a big aspect of who I am and what I do!
I'm CEO of a start-up over 2 years in and we're in the thick of it. The initial excitement of going off on your own and doing something has long since rubbed off and now we’re actually trying to make it work in the real world. So it’s a challenging and interesting time.
What’s important to me is that I have a co-founder, Prasad. I’m much more comfortable when I have somebody who will challenge me on my assumptions and that I can do the same with – that always brings about a better result.
With your background in product development, what triggers that idea to innovate, when do you see an opportunity to make a change?
There are 2 aspects to that I think…
One of them I think is an attitude or a temperament. I get bored easily. Not saying it’s a good quality but it does lead me to be impatient with the status quo, to always be looking for something else or something new.
When temperament meets with opportunity, that’s when the magic happens if you’re lucky to come up with something that can actually fly. That can take time and you can get it wrong a bunch of times.
Secondly, well it’s an old story. It comes from really immersing yourself in the problem domain - whatever it is - so that you understand it deeply - and then let go. As often as not, when you’re not sitting at your desk, the more creative ideas come.
That’s how Avatour came about. I’d been doing VR and 360 for years and talking about how we could be bringing multiple people together. One night I had tickets to go to see a band that my wife and I were really excited about but she got sick . She insisted I go without her. I really wished my wife was there with me. I was standing there and I thought, wait a minute, I know how to fix this. I know how to bring her here with me. I started texting her and my partner in the business, about how we could do it - and it literally became the seed for Avatour.
It sounds like your game-changing idea came from a connection that was personal?
The connection was also the personal level of engagement that I have with the technology. I am very excited about immersive tech, I read about it all the time, before I was working in it, I was doing it in my spare time.
You know, I think that’s something we should all aspire to in our daily lives, is to be doing work that makes us feel that way. We don’t get it all the time but you can work towards it, and usually if you work towards it, you can usually get to that kind of a place.
How did you get others to see your vision?
From the moment of the concert, it’s been a pretty wandering path to be honest. The technical innovation aspect of what we wanted to build was the easiest to articulate – me and Prasad had always been sniffing around wanting to do something uniquely different, that nobody had thought of yet, with real-time communication.
Going from there to the business opportunity, well there’s been a lot of twists and turns. It’s been a systematic evaluation of trial and error.
What’s helped in terms of keeping the team with us during that process, was to be explicit about what we know, what we don’t – and what we’re trying to find out!
The first set of customers we tried it on was not a very successful engagement. We learned from that. We shared what we learned with the team, we even wrote blog posts on it!
I think that’s important as a leader, well the kind of approach we take is to say:
“We’re always trying to figure it out and we’re figuring it out together, we’ll get it wrong sometimes, and we’ll tell you when we’re getting it wrong. So, if you’ve got a better idea, tell us because we’re in this together.”
That’s what keeps the team engaged and not getting too disappointed about the setbacks along the way, is recognising that there’s a process here, that we’re moving through it, not moving in circles.
How do you keep yourself energized, to have that drive for yourself and others along the start-up journey?
Good question. It’s easy when you get fed by energy when you have a big win, a technical accomplishment or a customer deal that closes or something.
The hard part is how do you keep the momentum going when things don’t go so well.
We’re pretty radically transparent. Our intention is to share the good and the bad with everyone.
We shared when things were looking tough unless we closed on big deal.
We had huge opportunity with a huge company and we blew it on one occasion because the software failed in a certain way. This is not an occasion to point blame, to say you should have done better.
I think it’s those situations that are the most important because you can say “Look, we’re on to something here, we have the talent, we have the resources to execute on it, but we can’t expect someone else to do it for us. It’s not a given.”
This whole early phase of a start-up – it’s a multidimensional problem we’re trying to solve – and we need everybody’s brain on it because it’s not an easy problem.
How do you motivate different teams?
Transparency, simplicity and clarity are super important.
And the bigger the org is, the simpler it’s got to be. It doesn’t really matter if you’re dealing with Account managers or engineers, to be able to provide two to three simple things that everyone needs to be concentrating on is ideal.
The perfect example is Jack Welsh of GE, you know a giant company with multiple divisions doing everything from dishwashers to jet engines and airplane leasing – none of the companies have anything in common but his message was simple:
‘We’re number one or we’re number two or we’re out!’
And he said that every time he was in front of anybody – a very clear and simple message that gave people a way to understand what their job was at the right level of abstraction from what he does. I think finding that level of abstraction that’s right for your audience, and hitting it and repeating it, making sure everybody understands it – to me that’s a big part of leading successfully.
How do you think about innovation or the process of innovating?
That’s a good question. I don’t think of it. It comes naturally to me. I mean I’m fascinated by technology, just by nature. Ever since I was a little kid and by the opportunities I got for sure, like program computers when I was 7, not everybody gets that chance.
Because I did, I think I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities that are opened up by technology as it continues to advance. When you think about innovation, it starts with curiosity. It starts with wanting to understand, the new technologies and the underlying physics and science behind it. To see what new possibilities have opened up because of the latest thing to come down the pyke. And then thinking what you can do with them. It’s almost like a toy box. That’s kind of what it feels like to me.
It comes down to that. You can’t have innovation without curiosity. You have to start there. That’s the only way to find something new.
What tips would you give to people who may not believe they can innovate?
Whatever gets you interested, whatever that is. It could be pre-Columbian agriculture. Immerse yourself in the new information in that field. You’ll find questions, that lead you in new directions. It’s hard to do that if you don’t care about the domain.
To me, that’s where you need to start. Spend time in the domains that you’re into, that animate you of their own accord. Then from knowledge, comes questions and curiosity, and that’s what leads you to coming up with answers, that might be new answers. That’s how it works for me anyway.