You’ve been an advisor, analyst and solicitor. How did you end up COO of 8i?
Well, it was through my work in micro-economic policy. I became really fascinated with what kind firm could be really transformative to the New Zealand economy and raise productivity and, in that capacity, what could I do in my current job to help make more of that happen. And through that process I came to meet an entrepreneur named Linc Gasking and talked to him about all sorts of ideas that he had for companies. I became quite fascinated with his experience in start-up eco-systems. It was through getting to know Linc that, when he started 8i together with Eugene d’Eon, he invited me to come and spend time with him and really be a part of it. So I just had the opportunity when the company was first founded to kind of hang out and help. In fact Linc called me one night and said ‘Hey Toni, we’ve started this amazing VR company. Come over!’ At 10 pm on a Tuesday. And I said ‘Now?’ and he said ‘Yes, now!’ and I went.
At first I didn’t know how I would help, but it didn’t take me long spending time in their company to realise I could help them with a bunch of areas of the business. That evolved pretty quickly into me joining the company full time.
Had you had much experience with start-ups before that?
No, I really hadn’t. Looking back I can see some of the chapters in my life that had some of the characteristics of start-ups – starting a new project or getting a new group of people together – but I’m not from a start-up background at all, so I didn’t know much about incubators, or what to expect in the environment or how to raise money or anything at all actually, so I jumped on a rocket ship and onto a really rapid learning curve.
And what’s the biggest challenge you’ve confronted on that curve so far?
Oh…just one? I guess it’s been about learning things rapidly while also moving the business forward at a fast pace – kind of like trying to drive the race car and repair the race car at the same time when you’re not a trained mechanic yet – so that’s been the experience overall. Early on in the company I ended up with a lot of responsibility for our capital-raising. That, for me, was a bit scary at first actually; I didn’t know much about it and I felt a bit uncomfortable about it – asking people for money and representing us in that way – but I actually found that side of the business really enjoyable. Going out and pitching your company, convincing people that you’ve got both a great idea and the people and the plan to execute it – that’s really cool.
So how did you get through that fear? What was the process for you?
It was just matter of just doing it via necessity. The task fell to me, so it was just putting one foot in front of the other. I think I was able to draw on my background as a lawyer and an analyst, actually. What you have to do is build a good, solid, rational case for doing something. So I put the case together and began testing it out on different people. As I gathered momentum, those people who came in to support us were then able to give me tips on how to take it further forward.
It really was one of those cases of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. In my case at least.
So you’ve raised a lot of money in the last couple of years – where does that leave the company now? What’s next?
8i is at the really exciting phase. We’ve grown the company to 40 people and we’re getting ready to take that to the next level. What we’ve developed is absolutely the world’s best solution for making virtual reality and augmented reality human. You can actually record people in a format for VR and AR that makes sense and that hasn’t really existed before. We’ve opened our own studio in Los Angeles, but the next thing we want to do is power-up other studios who want to record in the format so we can really help fuel the whole content-creation system for virtual reality and augmented reality.
We’ve got a huge amount of interest from people wanting to come to 8i studios in LA and record content, but also people going ‘I want one of these rigs myself, I want to operate it and I want to use 8i software to help me make content for this new medium’. So that’s the next big phase of our growth; to roll that out. It’s like making everything that we do – our software and our whole system and playbook – into more of a ‘product’ and getting that out into the wild and into the hands of content creators. It’s really exciting.
Image: Image via Flickr, Fulbright NZ
Are there platform issues for this tech? I assume you’re going to have to move well beyond YouTube here…
That word ‘platform’ is an interesting term. When you’re in the start-up world, people are always talking about ‘becoming a platform’. We definitely think of ourselves as having a platform technology – a core technology on top of which other people can build things and make all sorts of stuff happen – but there’s also that question of ‘what’s the distribution platform?’ So we’re letting people distribute content on lots of platforms that are appropriate for VR content. There’s no YouTube for VR content yet and it’s not clear who’s going to win that race. It’s really fascinating to see how that’s going to play out.
Do you have a big picture ‘end-game’ in mind?
Yeah. We want to be the way that everybody records people for a world where content is three dimensional.
Day-to-day you must come across a lot of novel uses for the product. What was the last thing you witnessed that blew your mind?
Gosh. The coolest thing I’ve seen recently is when we made this dance party music video for one of our music label customers. Basically you were in this dark room and all of a sudden you can see all these people dancing around you at this party and it’s really cool and really compelling. What’s mind blowing is that one minute they’re standing there in this room, talking to me, and the next minute they’re in a completely different place and they’re dancing around on their own. That’s the thing that’s really fascinating to me, no matter what the application is.
Something I found really touching is when we filmed a baby when she was three months old. Nine months later we filmed her first steps, and we brought her mother back in, and her mother could pretend she was cradling her baby at three months again. She was taken back to that moment. The ability to have people watch those very, very precious family moments and feel like they’re really there – but it’s actually happening remotely at a different time and place – that’s huge.
- Check out Samsung's new VR effort for parents to read stories to their kids when they're not there here.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘Geez, I’m helping create The Matrix’?
No, I don’t. There are lots of things about running a start-up that cause you to wake up in the middle of the night – and if I’m not awake I’m dreaming about it – but not that one. I do believe this technology is inevitable and it will take communication and empathy and the sharing of information forward for humanity. With every new technology people are afraid and there are always bad actors, and people are afraid of the downsides, but my belief is that the upside always tends to be greater. And to be here, in this position at the beginning of the industry, we’ve got an opportunity to make sure it gets used for good.
What do you think makes a company innovative?
To me, it’s the ability to have lots of great ideas, to choose the ones you’re going to focus on and then go forward and iterate on them quickly. It’s not just about the ideas, it’s about doing it and doing it in a way where you can discover things rapidly through the process. That’s the way the company must behave. Ultimately the ability to do that comes down to the people, and the people inside 8i, they’re my greatest pride and joy and that’s what motivates me most.
We assembled a team of top calibre – but really multi-disciplined – people to cross-pollinate ideas, to break things, to argue, then we make up our mind then we go for it really hard.
I think that’s the engine room of innovation.
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