Founders’ Forum: Leading A Young Company In A Young Industry
September 28, 2016
Even at 6pm on a Thursday evening in September, the offices of Survios are buzzing. Most employees are still present, engaged in a variety of work and extracurricular activities. The VR demo bays are occupied by those testing out new Raw Data content on HTC Vives. A small group congregates in the kitchen, chatting over snacks – with the wide open floor plan, you can feel their jovial energy from a distance. Some of the engineers are playing Left 4 Dead, mowing down hordes of zombies together. Others are holding a planning meeting behind glass doors even at this late an hour. The dogs are just as active: a chihuahua and terrier are locked in a tug of war over a plush Stormtrooper doll. With all the activity and the warm glow of the occasional lamp, Survios feels more like a trendy restaurant entering peak dinner hours than a tech company winding down for the night.
For Survios cofounder and CEO Nathan Burba, moments like these represent their own kind of success. While breaking VR sales records and having Raw Data earn over a million dollars in a month is a huge accomplishment, Nathan takes more pride in creating the right work environment necessary to spark the creativity that goes into making a hit game. We sat down with him to chat about work culture and what it takes to lead a young company in an equally young industry.
At what point in the process did you start putting thought into what kind of company you wanted to found – as opposed to just what kinds of VR experiences you wanted to create?
NB: Anybody who founds a company wants to found a company that they themselves want to work at. So you start asking questions about yourself and your life and what kind of lifestyle you want to live. So, for example, we have dogs in the office, and I always wanted to have a company where I could have my dog. Why? Because why not!? When you start a company, you fundamentally change how people live their lives, really at its root level…
What I always wanted to do was create an environment where I don’t have to only see my friends on the weekends, because first things first, I want to be with my friends during the day all the time. I want to hang out… and I want to be with family during the day and hang out. I miss the kind of culture where you can bring your kid to the office, or where someone is a mentor and someone is an apprentice, or where someone is having a beer at the office at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday.
In our modern society, there’s a certain kind of alienation from our ‘tribal roots,’ I guess you could say. So it starts with wanting to make something like that and then seeing how this thing synergizes with other things–in our case, the love of video games and virtual reality technology.
Are there any other companies out there that inspired you?
NB: There’s companies that I’ve been following for a little while, and you hear stories about, and get a sense for, like, “Man, that’s how those guys do it,” and, “What about those guys?”
Like at Google they work this way, this is how it happens at Google, and you hear about their ‘flat, holistic style’ over and over again.
And then you hear about Valve as well. The Valve employee handbook is legendary because no one actually has any managers at Valve and everyone is a doer: “What do you do at Valve?” “You do whatever you want!”
How do you run a company like that?! It’s fascinating, so I started to study those kinds of companies and to understand what makes them tick and why they’re so successful.
But your vision of the ideal company culture started well before this research?
NB: Yeah, a lot of it can be traced back to my personal history. I’ve always been really fascinated by intelligent people. I had a number of friends in high school who all got 1600s on their SATs. They all turned into PhD researchers at the best colleges in the country and I was always trying to live up to them. I never really felt like I was that smart of a person based on them and what they did… and so I had this, kind of, fetish for intelligence, for lack of a better word. I really really appreciate people who are intelligent, who are nice and can communicate their intelligence very well. So that leads you on the path of recruiting. You understand who those people are. How are they intelligent? How do they think? What are they interested in? Where do they live? Etc… You start to get into that meta recruiting process.
Recruiting the right kind of person who can come in and plug in and do work and have fun at the company – that and raising money are probably the two things that I try to do more so than anything else. Raise money and give it to people who are incredibly intelligent and ready to do amazing things and just keep doing that basically. It starts there.”
So if you had to summarize the core culture of Survios…
NB: It’s all about building a place that’s a haven for people with those similar passions so they can live out their dreams and do it with people they enjoy being with. That’s at the core of what we do. We’re able to be successful because we think we’re at the tip of a new wave of culture, a new kind of thinking – a new kind of person. It’s really nice being in LA and being able to connect with investors who want to enable that sort of thing is fantastic, but at the end of the day we’re doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it because this is what we want…
Really the core of it is an appreciation for art and science and science fiction. It’s someone who watches Blade Runner and says, “Yes I want to create that world!” or “I want to explore the human mind,” or “I want to write!”
I want to take popular science and turn it into something that makes people feel that movie magic, that Disney magic, that George Lucas feeling, I guess… That’s also partly why I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to be part of that creation process. That video game or film creation process. I wanted to create magic basically. That’s why we’re all here. It’s about finding people who tap into that, and then taking some of those principles and things that I’ve learned and felt over time and designing a culture around that. It’s turned into the Survios culture, where people have unlimited vacation and manage themselves and their own schedules. We’re all adults, but we’re also kids sometimes and just love to hang out. It’s a mix of a lot of different things. Obviously we still have a long ways to go, but we’re finding that it works so far.”
How do you go about recruiting somebody? How do you feel out if they’re a good culture fit or not?
NB: We have five fundamental values that we look for culturally for people.
They have to be fun, meaning they’ll actually become friends with the people in the office.
They have to have a hard tech skill. Sometimes the skills can be softer, but it’s sort of like every X-Men has to have their power. Everyone has to be able to do something incredibly well and show that off, otherwise we don’t think they’ll get the respect from the rest of the people in the company or they won’t have enough value.
People have to be passionate. Someone who is doing it work completely dispassionately, even if they’re good, is not what we’re looking for because they have the wrong fundamental motivation. What we’ve learned is that we motivate people implicitly here. Their passions are what motivate them and we enable that passion. But there’s no passion if it’s all extrinsic motivation. They’re probably not at the right place.
They also need to be adaptable. If someone is rigid in their thinking, they’ll wash out of a startup. Startups have to zig and zag sometimes, so adaptability is really critical.
And then they have to be humble. So you can’t have anyone who’s an asshole. You can’t have someone who doesn’t play well with others. We don’t tell people to do things here, we ask them to do something. The idea is if someone says, ‘no I don’t want to do that,’ then perhaps they have a good reason. Or if they don’t have a good reason, then maybe they’re an asshole. [laughs]
* That concludes Part 1 of our interview with Nathan. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!