In 2015 – after traveling the world for a year – I came back to the Valley to build the next iteration of the future in VR. Amazed with the new technology being created by HTC and Oculus, I decided to start learning about the space and evangelizing at the world’s #1 VR community organization as their first employee. At Upload VR, we held events around the world, wrote articles about the industry, built the world’s first VR co-working spaces and did what we could to drive the industry forward. Unfortunately, Upload VR didn't live up to my expectations as their company culture was a bit toxic, so I left. About a year after my departure they got hit with a massive sexual harassment lawsuit, so I'm glad I split when I did.
Eventually, I received an opportunity to lead VR programs at Twitter and jumped at the chance to help bring VR to the masses via 360 video and AR platforms on Twitter’s horizon. Unfortunately, my role at Twitter was short-lived, and so I moved on to build VR experience centers, which I believed was the most critical component that was missing when it came to bringing VR to the masses.
The VR landscape was riddled with 3 primary challenges, which I hoped to help solve:
1) The Technology was complicated and hard for consumers to setup.
2) People couldn’t afford VR systems – and if they could – they usually didn’t have easy access to them or know what the best systems were.
3) VR was too nascent as a technology, and was being used more as a novelty for fleeting thrills than like an everyday gaming console.
With that in mind, and inspired by events like Tribeca Film Festival’s VR installations, I began building out what would become the worlds largest VR Experience Centers — a place where people could enjoy dozens of the world’s best VR experiences. In total, the VR center I built would have 40 different experiences across VR Gaming, VR Simulations, VR Films and VR Art experiences.
Along with my friend Ben Taller, we built technology that would be used to power the experience centers and worked with a landlord in NYC to renovate their space and get licensing deals to put the top VR experience within it. The project is still ongoing and opened to much fanfare in 2017, though it is still finding its footing. Over the next few years we’re hopeful to see these experience centers blossom across the country and showcase to people the exciting potential of what VR and AR can bring in the near future...
A Better San Francisco
In 2015, I took a crack at Solving Homelessness. Really! I was so fed-up with the poor job San Francisco was doing that I thought the only way it would ever get better is if passionate outsiders stepped in and offered unorthodox solutions. And of course, I always love a good challenge – especially if it can help those in need.
In 2012, I realized that there wasn’t a hackathon social network, so I built "hackathon.io" to fill that need. It was designed as a place to manage hackathon competitions and for hackers to showcase portfolios of their cutting-edge work.
In 2011, I organized my first hacakthon, AngelHack. What started off as a passion project to bring angel investors in to judge hackathons quickly became a global startup competition across 50 cities and 30 countries! With 50,000 members, AngelHack is the largest hackathon competition in the world and has seen the hacks produced at the event raise millions of dollars, sell to Google, and change the lives of people across the world.
Back when Blackberry’s were a thing and the iPhone 2G had just come out, there was a big opportunity for fixing people’s mobile phones. One day, when my blackberry’s track ball stopped working, I decided to YouTube some Fix It Yourself videos and learned how to repair it. Amazingly enough, there were FYI videos for all kinds of things online. So, I posted a few ads on Craigslist for Phone Repair and before I knew it I was making more money fixing phones on the side than I was at my full time job! Within 4 fast weeks Phone Nurses was my sole employment.
A good friend of my cousin by the name of Ari Meltzer joined me, and together we set up 3 locations for Phone Nurses (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Boca Raton) – all in less than 2 years. We moved into iPhone Repair (because that was huge) and became one of the first phone repair businesses in South Florida from 2009-2011. We also moved into refurbishing used phones and selling them as Like-New on Ebay, which also proved to be quite lucrative.
However, after 3 productive years of working on Blackberry’s and iPhones it felt like the business had plateaued. Ultimately, I had lost my joy for the business. I wanted to learn how to build things like Facebook, I wanted to get in on the tech revolution! Around mid-2011 I decided to hand Phone Nurses over to my partner and travel across the country to learn to build a tech startup. To say it wasn't a very developed plan would be an understatement, but sometimes in life you just have to take a leap of faith. Sure enough, within 3 months of moving, I learned enough to start my next adventure, "AngelHack."
In 2007, I founded my first company: a bus transportation company called Weekend Gator. At the time my girlfriend was still in school and I had just moved back home to Miami, about 5 hours away. We tried to see each other on weekends, but there weren’t any convenient options and it was complicating our relationship. So I built a company to help make it easier for us, assuming there must be a bunch of people in similar situations.
Weekend Gator ran weekend bus transports across 6 cities in Florida including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Gainesville. Essentially, I’d operate like a high-end greyhound, renting luxury coaches on the weekend, selling tickets on my website, and making a healthy profit if I filled up the bus. Luckily, a lot of Floridians had loved ones far away, and students were also quick to use my service.
I thought of a lot of crazy marketing ideas back then. Originally I just covered the school with flyers, but then I started getting more proactive and distributed them to people when they’d get off from other bus services. Might as well go straight to the competition, right? Eventually, I figured out a way to buy a database of the incoming freshman class and mailed my flyers to 20,000 incoming students and their families. Word spread fast, and business was booming!
We were profitable in under 2 months and had thousands of students traveling with us. I should have been ecstatic, but running a transportation company wasn't fulfilling me – successful as it was. To make matters worse, there were a lot of factors that I couldn’t control like bad weather, buses breaking down, problems with the drivers, and rising gas prices (this is when they peaked at $150/barrel in 2007). So, less than a year after I launched the business, I decided to sell it and move on to a career in advertising, which I was still very passionate about back then.
In addition to proving to myself that I had a knack for solving pain points, Weekend Gator taught me an important lesson: just because you can run a successful business doesn't mean you will be happy doing it. Passion > profit. Always.
My first real job, and most inspiring to this day, was working for The SouthWestern Company selling educational books and software door-to-door during my college summers. This is where I learned the art of sales and the joy of having a positive mindset when overcoming adversity.
Essentially, while all my friends were off on spring break somewhere tropical, I was out in Ohio or Missouri, talking to mothers about their kids' education and selling them study guides that they could use to get ahead. In-person sales is the very foundation of business and a bit of a lost art to say the least. To say it was exhausting is an understatement, but I loved it all the same. I was knocking on my first door by 8am every morning until about 10pm every night. Six days a week selling and one day a week of team-building with the book people in my region, all summer long. I clocked around 12,000 miles on my car both summers I did the job.
Not only did I enjoy door-to-door sales, but it turned out I really had a knack for it. I won company-wide awards for most hours worked (86.5 hours a week), most customers (55 per week), and most units sold (~$25k per summer). The whole process taught me about sales, personal development, team-building, recruiting, and company culture – skill sets I would utilize my entire life. I recruited a dozen other people to come out during my second year and pay forward the gifts the company had given me. It was gratifying to say the least.
In the end, I was really grateful for the opportunity, but I had learned what I came to learn and decided to move on to new ventures.