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4 hard lessons on VR startup life that I’ve learned attending events

Hello all! As I’ve told you in my newsletter, this period I’m travelling to attend events to try to spread awareness for my consultancy company New Technology Walkers. This is why I’ve not managed to write an article in a week and this is why I am also incredibly tired (oh, and I’ve still to do my homeworks for my Chinese course, damn). It’s a while since I don’t talk in this blog about my startup journey, so I want to tell you 4 hard VR startup lessons that I’ve learned in this week (and yes, this title is in that fancy SEO friendly format that personally I don’t like but that everyone loves so much).

In the last 7 days, I’ve been at a VR enthusiasts event called AperitiVR, to a Networking event (mostly business-oriented) called Futureland, and at the Press Conference of the Virtual Reality experience Rome Reborn.

Futureland has been my first paid networking event in which I participated. I met a lot of people there doing crazy stuff (like Chris Wrobel, that does training of AI-controlled robots inside VR), I’ve listened to interesting talks (like the one that said that in the future, if we make an extreme use of car sharing, we could remove 97% of total cars of the world), I’ve eaten insects (yes, you read it well! I’ve eaten some grasshoppers and I can tell you that they have almost no taste, but it is strange having some insect leg between the teeth) and I’ve also met one my favorite bloggers: Nir Eyal (he made also an awesome talk on how to keep people hooked to your app). There have also been problems there, like talks that were only promotional or the networking app that continuously got crazy, but let’s concentrate on the good stuff for now

I asked Nir Eyal to shoot a selfie with me… I was really excited at that moment!

The press conference of Rome Reborn has been the first press conference in which I have ever talked. Rome Reborn is an app that lets you explore the ancient Rome in Virtual Reality and that you can find on most VR (and also non-VR) marketplaces. I had been invited there to talk about the importance of VR in education and I accepted because I’m very happy of this project that promotes the Italian cultural heritage (disclaimer: my consultancy agency may work for some services for the Rome Reborn’s society, but this is unrelated to me talking about it on my blog). I was very nervous because it was my first time talking in a Press conference, in front of so many journalists, and I did not know how to behave. In the end, I did my talk (not the best ever, I was a bit nervous), then I exchanged some business cards, and especially I’ve been able to meet Enrico Speranza, a very passionate Roman VR community manager with whom I talked a lot on Facebook, but that I had never met in person. And then I saw the Coliseum… as an Italian, it was strange I had never seen the Coliseum…

Me at the press conference: I really seem a serious person

So, I gained some XP points :), but what are the startup lessons that I’ve learned?

  1. Package your product well for sales. This is something that I started realizing at Gamescom and that Futureland confirmed me. The technical aspect of your products is interesting, but you need someone that packages it well for selling it. This is especially true for B2B enterprise products: you need to offer a full package that is easy to use, that you give to your customers and it works without hassles and with which are offered complimentary services (like assistance). Take for instance Hologate: technically speaking, it is just 4 PC + 4 HTC Vive stations, running some multiplayer or single player apps… nothing special. But it has been packaged in a smart way: you buy it and you get a complete hardware and software infrastructure to offer a VR arcade installation in your place. You don’t need to worry about anything, you buy it, install it and it just works. It costs $75000 for setup, but it makes you earn your money back in a year or less. As you can see, it is a well-prepared package, both from a technical and business standpoints.
    Me at Gamescom, at the Hologate stand, having fun with the assistant (and cosplayer) of the stand

    At Futureland, I met another startup that offers the possibility to do presentations in VR. It sells a mini-PC, some Pico Goblin 2 headsets and the software service for $6000 a year. Both the software and the hardware are not revolutionary at all, but they created a service for which they found a need in the UK and sold the whole software+hardware package to let the commercial personnel of companies do VR presentations easily. They buy the package, create easily presentations and then showcase them easily. No worries.
    When I had my full body startup, I had an innovative product (full body + room scale + walk in place in 2014!), but we had no idea on how to sell it properly… should we sell the hardware, or the software, or what? Should we do the installation or let the customer do everything? We were confused and in the end this lead to the failure of our entrepreneurial idea. As you can see, I had a company that was 100x more innovative that two above ones, but I failed and they are doing business, this is a hard lesson that I learned.

    I still think that technical innovation is important, but you have to think of how this innovation can be sold to companies. You have to find the need that it solves, so you have to find the right customers and you have to find the right format to sell it. Then you have to refine it, until it is perfect for the format you decided. In the end, you can start selling it, offering a clear message and a compelling product for your customers. This may mean selling it only for a niche because you are refining it only for a small set of companies, but if this means selling well in that niche, that’s ok. You can expand later on. So, create a product that has a format that has a clear target and that satisfies completely the needs of that target without any hassles. Maybe, if we offered our full body product not as “full body VR for everyone”, but as an enterprise product to help with the rehabilitation of the body in VR to clinics, with full installation, analytics, and on-site assistance, we would still be still, who knows.

  2. If you target consumers, foster craving. One of the most interesting talks has been by blogger and writer Nir Eyal, that is the famous author of the book Hooked, that teaches how to create services that hook your customers in using them every day. Nir proposes a model made in four phases: trigger, action, reward, investment. If you have never heard this model, I advise you going to his blog and start reading about it.
    The four phases of the hooking model of Nir Eyal. Once you start with the first trigger, you start a loop that keeps you attached to the application

    Here I want to highlight a very important part of his talk when he told us that there is a little part of our brain called Nucleus Accumbens that activates when we desire or crave something and that when activated, it is able to give very powerful and addictive sensation. Can you recall the wonderful sensation that you have when you are waiting for something beautiful (like, for instance, it is afternoon and you have a date with your crush in the evening)? Or the sensation that you have when you see a product that you desire (like a very expensive car) and you would really love to have it? Well, those amazing sensations are given you by the activation of the Nucleus Accumbens and vanish away when you obtain the thing that you desire because the fulfillment of your desire activates other parts of the brain.
    This means that when designing your VR products, you have to continue foster desire in your users: if you just satisfy their needs that lead them to open your app, they will be happy that way and will never return to your app again. That’s why for instance in games when there are quests, as soon as you finish one, you are presented with new ones. Because your brain wants to desire other things, wants to crave new challenges… this is how you keep your users hooked: satisfying the initial trigger, but making them wanting for more. Some days ago, I was reading a post on the New World Notes blog and there I found a video of a piece of the movie The Matrix, where Agent Smith talks about the Matrix with Morpheus. He says that the first version of the Matrix was a perfect world, where everything was perfect… but it didn’t work because the human brain couldn’t accept it. We want to desire things, we want challenges, we want uncertainty. This is how our brain is made. And you have to exploit that to make your VR app successful (but please, exploit that in a positive way, like for instance for education).

    As a side note to the “trigger” phase: most smartphone programs (Whatsapp, Telegram, etc…) keep us hooked also thanks to notifications: you see a flashing light on your phone, you hear a sound… and you know that there is something that should be checked, plus you crave knowing what is this thing: is it that girl that you like that have written you? (most of the times, no :D). So you turn on the smartphone, and open the app, returning to the hooking loop. This is very powerful. But in standalone VR headsets and in VR applications in general, we don’t exploit this mechanism that much. Yes, Oculus sends various notifications to your smartphone, but they look more like ads than other… I think that VR apps should exploit triggers and notifications more and in a better way, making the user want to wear the VR headset just to discover what that notification is about and then using the VR app that sent the notification. I think that a companion smartphone app or some little external display or flashing light on the device itself could also help in delivering better notifications. If we want to make VR be part of the everyday lives of people we should also exploit these little tricks;

    Helping a woman experiencing Rome Reborn after the press conference. Oculus Go is very handy and the companion app has various notifications to advise you new apps that you can try
  3. It’s all a matter of luck. There are a lot of networking events and in each event there a lot of people that can potentially be your customers or your partners. So, how to do an effective networking? Of course, I know that I have to select events that are in line with my needs (going to an event that talks about the mating process of warthogs, hardly could give me good connections for virtual reality (but who knows)). But in the classical “networking lunch”, how do you know what people you should talk to? Honestly, I’ve never had any clue, and I just start talking with random people.
    The insects food buffet at Futureland. It was very easy networking in front of it because everyone had strong reactions towards this kind of food. As a side note: I ate every product offered… I was incredibly curious! The locust covered with dark chocolate was delicious.

    At Futureland, I met Francesco Ronchi, that is a man that has been able to raise a consultancy company (Synesthesia) that in the beginning was a one-man-show and now it counts more than 40 people. I wanted to discover his networking secrets, so I asked him what he does to do effective networking, hoping to get some Yoda master sentence with the secret of networking.
    “I have no idea” he sincerely told me.
    “Wait, what? Sorry, and what do you do with networking lunches?”, I asked.
    “I just start talking with random people for a random reason”
    “And how do you know that he is the person you should talk to?”
    “Actually, I don’t know. If you keep seeing a person at all the events you attend, then you know that he is someone you should absolutely talk to, but otherwise, you just talk to random people and hope they are the right one”

    Me networking on social media (Image from Know Your Meme)

    I was like… ah, ok. I thought that I was an idiot that had no idea on how to do networking, but in the end, I got that no one has actually any idea on how to do that. The advice of talking with people that go to your same events is very good, because if someone attends your some events, tha person most probably has similar interests with you. But for the rest: it is a matter of luck. Like playing at the casino. You try going to random events and meeting random people and you hope that this will lead to something. This is why you have to attend most events possible, so to maximize the chances of winning.

    Me and Max, at the press conference, ready to meet new people
  4. Life is unfair, deal with it. Since most things will depend on the chances, most of the things you will do will be useless. Maybe you have spent time and money to attend an event, and got no good contacts. Or maybe you also got some good contacts, that really seemed interested in you, but then, after you send an e-mail to them, they just vanish away. Or other things… at Futureland, lots of people didn’t come to the appointments I scheduled with them through the app: I had to meet one of the most important worldwide AR investors and evangelists and he didn’t come. For sure he had good reasons… but it was one of the things that I craved the most of the whole event and I missed it. Another woman, who I wanted to ask some pieces of advice, told me “oh, sorry, I am so tired, I can’t talk with you now, write me on Linkedin and I will give you advice for sure” (#believethatthishaseverhappened). Another person started talking with me and then said: “oh, sorry, I have to go away… but let’s keep chatting on Telegram” (#believethatthishaseverhappened). At the press conference of Rome Reborn, I was there also hoping to have some visibility on the standard press. This morning I woke up discovering that the Italian news reporting agency has released a press release about the event and quoted all the speakers with the exception of me. I tried to prepare an inspiring talk about VR and education and, in the end, no one gave a single f*ck.
    At least at the press conference, I met in person Enrico Speranza, that is really a wonderful person

    That’s life, and you have to deal with it. The “how” depends on you, on how you are used to dealing with difficulties… but in the end, you have to let all these bad things slip over you (it’s not easy, I know). The only thing that you can do is keep trying and hoping that in the end, with all the experience that you will gain and with all people that you will meet, among a lot of delusions, there will be those satisfactions that will help you in satisfying your dreams. Keep fighting and the good things will eventually come… if fulfilling dreams was easy, everyone would be rich. Or as Doctor Kelso of Scrubs said: “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy”. #ibelievethatthiswillhappen

Me being interviewed by Eurovision to have material for the European televisions at this press conference. I don’t know if it has been used or not

And that’s it, these have been days of various ups and downs and I’m glad that tomorrow I will return to my office playing with some VR headsets! I hope that this article has taught you something about VR startup life… and of course if you have some more lessons to tell, add them to the comments And since we are in the same boat, if from time to time you want a friendly startupper hug because of your difficulties, feel free to ask


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4 hard lessons on VR startup life that I’ve learned attending events


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