Ethical Blog Series #4 - Steven Kounnas, Phoria Co-Founder
Welcome to our fourth write up in the Ethical Kollektiv’s Ethical Business Series, where we share the stories of some incredibly driven humans who have committed to running their own for-purpose businesses that are having a positive impact within our community.
This story is one that is close to our heart, we sat down with all-around legend and one of the motivators behind The Ethical Kollektiv (we haven't told him yet) Steven Kounnas, Co-Founder of the Immersive technology giant Phoria.
After beating us 4-0 in Table Tennis, we dragged ourselves to the table to discuss his journey!
Let's dive straight in, for those playing at home - Steve, tell us about PHORIA!
Phoria is an immersive tech studio that focuses on delivering world-class Virtual and Augmented reality experiences. At the heart of our business, we strive to use our technology to create impactful experiences.
My business partners and I were fortunate enough to all go to high school together. After school, we all went down separate paths of education but were always throwing business ideas around. At the time, I was working as an accountant and had just moved to Melbourne.
My business partner Trent had started a 3D printing consultancy and the biggest barrier to entry that he saw was the capability of scanning and creating 3D models. At this point in time, we had noticed an advance in 3D mapping technology over in the US and jumped at the opportunity to bring it to market here in Australia. My business partner showed me the tech one afternoon and I instantly saw the opportunity at hand, which was to use this technology within the Real Estate industry for open homes. The next day I submitted my letter of resignation and started the business.
The initial concept of the business was to map properties in order to create virtual tours that you might see on Domain and Realestate.com.au today. Since then, we have built out a creative studio that focuses on creating immersive experiences whilst still driving the adoption of digital twins globally. For reference, a Digital Twin, is a digital replica of any physical object. There are digital twins of pretty much everything these days including cities, homes, cars and even people. Our focus is on large scale cities and building digital twins.
You are obviously in a well-established space now, but it's been a very fast journey, tell us about the firsts steps you took to go from Idea to ACTION!?
When we first had the idea of offering our services to real estate, we arranged for a Matterport camera to be shipped from the US. While the hardware was being sent we had arranged with a few local agencies to provide them with free services for the first few months while we started to test everything out. Pretty quickly, once our customers saw the content we were creating, along with the speed and cost in which we were doing it, we were able to expand across Australia. Within 3 months, we had become cashflow positive and started to hire our first employees.
During this time, we had used website template builders such as SquareSpace to create our very first website and also applied to the Melbourne Accelerator Program which was an incubator out of the University of Melbourne. We were fortunate enough to be selected to the program which was a pivotal point of our business’ life as we started to focus on R&D within the VR space to determine how we could further commercialise our products.
In the initial stages of our business, we would be calling hundreds of potential customers and investors on a weekly basis to drum up new business. We were also constantly flying around the country to conduct meetings and run demos (this would be very different now with everyone happy to jump on Zoom calls). It was during this phase that we created some of our longest-running partnerships which still exist to this day. We would get knocked back 99 out of 100 times but when we got an opportunity to provide our services to new customers we always made a point of over-delivering along with carefully educating them about the product. As we are working within an ever-evolving tech industry, if we are able to create an informed customer, they can then become one of our biggest advocates within their organisation and industry. If they are able to confidently explain our products and services, they will be more likely to discuss them in meetings and present the concepts to their colleagues.
You do some incredible community work, one that stands is the work you do with The Royal Children's hospital. Tell us more about the impactful work you do?
It was a very definitive moment in our business when we saw the potential of using our technology for impactful purposes. In 2015, we had started working with the TV show The Block to create VR experiences that the contestants would use as part of a challenge on the show.
At the time, the series was being filmed in Melbourne at a site across the road from the Alfred Hospital. After the episode aired on TV, we received an email from a father whose daughter had been in hospital for months and was a big fan of the show. He asked us if there was a chance that we could provide a VR headset to his daughter so she could experience the properties.
This entire experience started us down our journey of using XR for good. We developed out a portion of our business, DREAM3D that partnered with various hospitals and research organisations to better understand how VR could be used to assist kids going through treatments in hospitals.
Seeing the type of impact we could make on people's lives through the use of technology allowed us to take a look at the bigger picture and find areas in which we could create meaningful impact through the technology that we have developed. The virtual tour and software side of our business generated the revenue we needed to stay alive whilst also providing us with the room to conduct R&D to determine how XR could be used to create impact.
Since then, we have been fortunate enough to partner with Google, Netflix and WWF to help launch David Attenborough's TV series Our Planet via an AR experience called REWILD. This ended up winning a Webby for Best Use of AR, and more recently when we released a world-first VR Nature Documentary series, Ecosphere, these ongoing projects that have allowed us to focus on an area that we are passionate about as a company, which is creating lasting change to benefit our global environment.
Money is obviously not the only driver behind Phoria how do you measure the impact you are having with your campaign/mission?
We have a company goal of creating over 1 billion impactful experiences. This is intended as a guideline for us as we continue to produce content for ourselves and for our clients. Something that we have struggled with in the past is measuring the conversion of someone going through our experience and then seeing their behaviour change. So for now, rather than tracking the exact behaviour change, we are more interested in creating space for conversations that can take place after an experience has been completed. My business partner was recently invited to speak on a panel at a UN conference, and these are the types of conversations that will allow us to move the needle forward. In saying all of this, however, we recognise a difficulty in all of this. The people who we want to be connecting with, to provide them with a different perspective to their own, are almost certainly not the people that are organically going to go out of their way to try one of our experiences. It is this part of the population that we want to try and get in front as part of the next stage of our journey. There is no clear cut path for this, but a challenge we all see the benefit in taking on.
Let's get back onto you, as a founder of a fast-growing business, I know we've discussed the rollercoaster that is the Start-Up world in the past, how do you manage the emotional ups and downs that come with it?
The emotional rollercoaster of running any business is something that you need to harness for the benefit and not let it get to you. If you are starting a business, you are intrinsically going to be emotionally connected to its success, but you can't let the downs get to you otherwise you will never move forward. In a single day, you can land your biggest client and then lose another three.
Everyone deals with challenges and down periods in life, let alone business. As we were young founders, we never really set processes or procedures in place if we were to come up against times such as these. What we found was that periods where we had our backs up against the walls and there were concerns around whether we could pay wages and rent next month, were some of the periods in which we saw the biggest times of growth within the company.
Our drive to keep the lights on in the business and succeed outweighed any challenge that we have faced to date. We sometimes took projects that we might not otherwise have taken to ensure that we could continue to seek the next opportunity that would allow us to focus on what we were passionate about. We are now coming up to our 7th year as a business and employee close to 40 people around the world. These challenges never cease to exist, they evolve and come at you in different forms. But the difference is you become better at recognising when a challenge might present itself and can try to get ahead of it before it gets out of control.
Something we have also recognised that we need to do better here at Phoria is to celebrate the wins. You can easily get into a rhythm where you succeed on your goal and immediately move on to the next area of focus. As founders, we set out goals that form steps in a ladder, and once we achieved one, we were already focused on the next. We are so focused on the next big thing that we rarely stop to celebrate the wins along the way. As the team around us grows, we need to appreciate that not everyone works at the pace of a founder, and having a mentality like this can cause burnout within your organisation. The simple process of stopping to recognise success can have a huge effect on your teams’ mental health and have flow-on effects for the next challenge that you are about to face.
In your own words, we'd love to understand your definition of success, in business and life?
I'm probably not the best person to talk about defining success. It's always something I have struggled with both on a personal and business level. Still to this day I find it hard to separate success in a personal sense versus success in the business. We have put our hearts, souls and best part of a decade into the business, which intrinsically makes it part of you and therefore becomes part of your personal success. But more recently this is something that has needed focus and attention as we embark on the next stage of our journey.
Janine Allis, the co-founder of Boost Juice, recently spoke about her approach to success and defined it as ‘Choice’. This resonates with me quite a lot in relation to how we choose to run our business. If we are able to choose the projects we work on and with the clients, we want to work with, we are then inevitably creating the experience that we believe will generate the most impact and telling the stories we believe need to be told. I believe If we have these choices available then we have become a successful company. We are not at this point yet and still have a long way to go, but when we can truly say we have the freedom of choice, I will view this as a point of success.
Similarly, in my personal life, the choice becomes a strong indicator of success. I am still working stupid hours every week and making sacrifices in other areas to ensure that the team we employ have security in their jobs and that we as a business are in a position to hopefully make a difference in the world.
As the years roll on, I find myself getting more and more choices in my personal life and have noticed that there is an underlying goal that I unconsciously gravitate towards...that being happiness.
It's probably quite a generic definition of success but if you are able to create your happy place in life and maintain it, then this for me is a clear indicator for success. So the choices being made in business are then affording me the opportunity to make decisions that allow me to be happy, whether that's spending more time with my partner or having the ability to work on passion projects this all comes back to having the ability to make your own choices.
What’s The Plan For Phoria From Here?
After a pretty crazy 2020, we have been fortunate to come out the other side continuing to grow as a team and hire new talent. We are about to secure some additional funding from a well-aligned investor who is an advocate for the types of experiences we are creating.
There are a number of key hires we are looking to make across the next couple of years, from game developers and designers, through to marketing and product management.
With this next step in our company, we want to move from client funded work across to partner initiated projects, from which we can begin to charge for and have a portion of the revenue feedback into the area in which the experience is based on. We are focused on creating self-sustaining business models for our experience not only to provide awareness for the subject matter but also to be in a position to provide financial support back to these initiatives which have been generated from the project and also continuing to fund extensions to the existing work.
It's been awesome catching up with you as always, as a leaving note I'd love to get your top tip for anyone looking to start out.
It's hard to narrow this down to only 1, so I'll provide 2.
Your team and the people that you surround yourself with are your number 1 asset. It is impossible to do everything yourself and having reliable, talented and passionate people in your corner is going to be the best thing you can do. At the start, it is difficult to relinquish responsibility, but if you have the right people with you, they should be able to perform at their roles much better than you. The journey also becomes more enjoyable when you can celebrate the wins, and shoulder the losses with a close group of people all fighting for the same thing.
And secondly, the answer will always be no if you never ask.
Take the risk, ask the hard questions, and reach out to the people you need to be speaking to. For the most part, people are happy to help where they can provide value. If you need to speak with a potential client that you think might be out of reach or a certain contact that you need to help get started or accelerate, the best thing you can do is be persistent. If it is important to you, and there is value to them, you will eventually connect. From there the only thing you can do is ask and see what results.
Steven Kounnas - Co-Founder, Phoria