The idea of remote/distributed teams has so many appealing positives: the ability to hire more diverse teams, lower cost of living by not cramming everyone into dense urban centers for certain jobs, less time commuting and consuming scarce carbon resources, time to better balance personal/work trade-offs. The pandemic forced many companies into remote-work modalities without time to think through how to be great at it! While many companies will try to return to something like the “pre-covid way” of dense office environments, I believe the cat is out-of-the-bag and we will see steady, meaningful, permanent trends towards much more distributed and remote modalities of teams working. Some 100% remote, some flex, some occasional. But the need for “better ways for teams to collaborate and communicate and get work done” is going to be a Trillion $$ category of software over the next decade.
The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewingForest Key.
Forest is a serial entrepreneur with a 30 year passion for innovation in video platforms. Previously founder+CEO of hospitality marketing SaaS provider buuteeq (acquired by Booking Holdings) and visual effects software tools innovator Puffin Designs (acquired by Pinnacle Systems). He was a founding partner of China based UX design and development studio for OTT video applications Redsafi (acquired by Objectiva), and the founder CEO of Pixvana which spent 4 years developing a VR video platform before pivoting to create Voodle. He was previously the GM of business development in the Server and Tools division of Microsoft and director of product planning and marketing for .NET platforms and tools. As a founding team member of both the Silverlight and Macromedia Flash video teams he worked in the boiler room of early internet video infrastructure from 2003–2010 which powered the first wave of consumer video apps including Youtube and Netflix.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m a bay area California native who grew up with a serial-entrepreneurial step-father as an impactful mentor — he had natural food stores, construction and home design companies, and adventure tourism businesses in various cities as we moved to throughout Chile and California during my childhood. I attended Palo Alto Highschool and was very active on the school newspaper in the late 1980s — a really disruptive period where digital publishing, video editing, and multimedia technologies were just emerging. I went to UCLA with the intent to study film and work in traditional Hollywood/cinema, but through a series of pivots I ended up becoming a “storytelling technology entrepreneur” now on my 5th company as a founder. My first job out of school was at George Lucas’ visual effects studio working on Star Wars and other features, and each successive job and company I’ve worked at has in some way incorporated my technical chops in media tech, with my passion for storytelling (mostly in software applications as opposed to in film/television).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
An “interesting”/good story starts by knowing your audience and several different “interesting” stories come to mind regarding working with technology, understanding end-users, building high performing teams and working with diverse people… but in this case, I’m going to choose an entrepreneurial fund-raising anecdote because I think it will be of interest to this audience.
“It’s not always about you” is an important lesson that I learned and like to share with other CEOs who have been through the grind of pitching lots of investors and most-often being told “no”. Founders deeply invest themselves into each and every pitch and when hearing “no”, it always feels like a knife to the gut. I would often spend hours rehashing the meetings and conversations that lead up to the rejection, and think through the scenarios with myself at the center of the decision-making process: what could I have said, what did they think of my idea/business, what else were they thinking about, why did they invest in that other company but not mine?
For my hotel-saas software company buuteeq we had been talking to a great VC at length, nearly a dozen meetings over 18 months, and we were really bummed when they passed on our deal… AND, the same week, they invested in a company *very* similar to ours, but in another industry that was much smaller and (I felt) less interesting economically than ours. I’ll anonymize to protect those involved and to not be mean — let’s say it was a “buuteeq for chefs”, where the “chefs” category is a global opportunity of $10b, and hospitality/hotels is a $500b market. I probably spent 5 hours going over it in my head — ”why did they like the chef business more than ours, it is a small market?”, “did they have a better pitch”, “did they not like me”, “is our market traction not as impressive”… etc.
Well: I eventually found out that one of the 5 partners at the firm was having a really hard year and was suffering from mental-health/depression challenges. He hadn’t been showing up to the office, hadn’t been excited about any deals, hadn’t been participating as needed as a general partner. BUT, he suddenly was showing a spark and was coming back to life because the “chef” business was a passion of his — he was going to restaurants, hanging out with top-chefs, happy… So, the partners at the firm had decided to make an investment in the chef business, as a kind of “therapy play” to revitalize a member of the team.
Here I was thinking through the rejection as being centered around me, and factors I could control. When, it had NOTHING to do with me, my business, the market, or even financial logic. “It’s not always about you” are words to live by as you deal with rejection — take the “no”, spend 5 minutes feeling sorry for yourself, and move on to the next 10 pitches. You can’t control how others will think of your pitch, and ultimately, they get many, many more investment decisions WRONG, than they do right. It’s a numbers game for them, and you. #wordstolivebywhengettingrejectedbyavc
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A board director/mentor of my first company once told me: “Forest, as a first time 27-year-old CEO you are making every mistake in the book. But you only make the mistake once.” In the moment I first heard this my heart sank as I thought I was being given a reprimand, but as he walked me through the feedback I came to understand it was a high-complement. To this day, it is one of the most impactful and important compliments I’ve ever received. Making mistakes is not a problem per se — in fact, in most endeavors in life being willing to make mistakes is a superpower, because it is the fastest way to gather data/signal, learn, and then iterate. The key is to not make the SAME mistakes, which doesn’t add additional value. I jump into most things in life excited to make mistakes and learn from them. When I have, I try to live up to the high standard of not repeating my mistakes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have a rich pantheon of life mentors that have been the scaffolding for me to achieve my heights so choosing just one feels a bit like a “Sophie’s Choice”. I was very fortunate to attend 3 years of high school in one place (after a lot of disruption/moving-about earlier in life) and at Palo Alto Highschool I had a supremely influential teacher and life mentor named Esther Wojcicki. “Woj” as she is known is an incredible educator and a bit of a celebrity educator (google her: she has 100s of former students telling stories about her as I am here). I was very involved in her journalism curriculum and ended up being editor of the school newspaper. In her classroom and through her herculean personal involvement and advocacy for me as a young person, I developed strong communication and leadership skills, familiarity and comfort with taking risks and learning through failure, as well as the space in which to act-out in unhealthy teenager ways while trusting/knowing that she would not give up on me. At that time in my life, I really needed an adult I admired and trusted to see/hear me. When I see those meme posters about “those footsteps in the sand were when you were being carried by the spirit”… that seems to be Woj’s superpower for *many* of her students.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would like to tell you that my broadest impact on the world has been in the products that I’ve been a part of building that have changed the experience of users in positive ways. For example, I was among a couple of dozen key folks that brought Flash/Silverlight video capabilities to the ecosystem that ushered in video-on-the-web and directly led to Youtube and Netflix and the 100s of millions or billions of people watching video on their phones/screens.
But I’d call that “impact”, not success. As for success, I consider “how many people had a conversation with me that positively influenced them in their pursuit of their goals and aspirations”. Just as my many mentors spent coffee-chats with me sharing their personal narratives, I’ve strived to avail myself liberally to meet with almost anyone that seeks me out for conversations and interactions on any subject where I can be of use. In the last 20 years that has usually meant young entrepreneurs where I have shared my story, anecdotes of failure, lessons learned, and as much as possible emotional transparency. Sometimes it might just be travel trips to Chile or China (where I have lived and have great tips!), or fundraising tips, or anything where my “wisdom” from experience can be passed along.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
My colleagues and I are building Voodle, a “short-asynchronous-video collaboration app for teams that work together”. The idea for Voodle came to me while traveling in China where I noticed a preponderance of people out and about looking at their phones watching vertical video, way back in 2019 (TikTok was big in China already). I reflected that an increasing portion of all of our social communication is achieved through images, video, memes, emojis, etc. aka “graphical” messages — messages such as “look what I’m doing”, “look who I’m with”, “look what I’m eating”… these messages are human-face centric and shot on mobile cameras, often the selfie-camera. These visual stories we tell each other over social apps and messaging platforms like Snap, Instagram, WhatsApp, iMessage are very empathetic, transparent, casual, and effective/powerful in short bursts of time. Yet, at work, we still nearly universally communicate through text and documents, with more structured norms inherited from the time of written letters through the post-office. We think short-video-forward messaging and collaboration has a place in the workflow of remote teams in particular: teams need to drive connection amongst team members and a sense of alignment, something that is very hard to achieve with only Slack + Zoom meetings.
How do you think this might change the world?
I think we fit into the larger trend of “the future of work” that was brought on and accelerated by the COVID pandemic. The idea of remote/distributed teams has so many appealing positives: the ability to hire more diverse teams, lower cost of living by not cramming everyone into dense urban centers for certain jobs, less time commuting and consuming scarce carbon resources, time to better balance personal/work trade-offs. The pandemic forced many companies into remote-work modalities without time to think through how to be great at it! While many companies will try to return to something like the “pre-covid way” of dense office environments, I believe the cat is out-of-the-bag and we will see steady, meaningful, permanent trends towards much more distributed and remote modalities of teams working. Some 100% remote, some flex, some occasional. But the need for “better ways for teams to collaborate and communicate and get work done” is going to be a Trillion $$ category of software over the next decade.
Within that market opportunity, we are dialed-in to how to give individuals a sense of being connected, seen and heard by their peers, and building confidence and understanding towards “alignment”. Alignment is that “aha” moment after sometimes hours of meetings on zoom and dozens of slack back-and-forths, where you feel “ok, I get it, I understand what you think, you understand what I think, and we’ve decided together what WE think and now let’s go do the work”. That is a really expensive part of all collaboration, and it needs more human empathy than can be achieved in slack and zoom. We think Voodle can have magic powers in this endeavor.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I’m a huge fan of the show and believe you can use the formula of the dystopian near-future to lambast and lampoon just about ANY human habit or societal resource. While the show focuses on “technology-dystopias”, you could make equally terrifying episodes about, say, food: the obesity epidemic, alcohol and tobacco addiction, the negative impact of cattle production on greenhouse gases and water utilization, mutant farmed fish! I’m currently reading a Kurt Vonnegut book called Player Piano — he was writing about machine AI replacing humans and creating a dystopian society in the mid-1950s! Yes, machines have replaced human beings in the labor force in dramatic ways and that has presented some challenges (as Vonnegut wrote) — but I’m mostly an optimist about technology and see the positive potential for software like Voodle to help humans feel more empathy towards each other.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
[I think I covered this in my earlier setup about my trip to China but here’s some more] I think the “inception” idea is that consumers will communicate at work like they currently do socially outside of work. That’s inevitable. So that’s the starting point. But the “tipping point” is yet to come — that will be the moment where we get the product features dialed in just right, and users that try the product adopt it in higher volumes and with greater frequency than we have yet to identify. We are on the “product-market-fit” tipping point… hard work, but I’m glad that’s hard as that means it is not obvious, and figuring that out will be worth the challenges to get there.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
It’s early, Voodle is introducing drastically different ways for teams to express themselves to each other and it will take time. Slack didn’t just appear out of nowhere: it is the baby of 20+ years of a trend towards short-messages on T9 keyboards on phones, the growth of AIM and ICQ messaging, the emergence of Twitter and “Twitter at work” apps like Yammer, and then the “Slack” format that is itself still in the early stages of replacing email. The good news is about 4 billion users are using selfie-cameras at this point. A 40-year-old might think “no way, I would never talk to people at work with short-videos”… just as surely as a 40-year-old in 1990 might never have thought they’d use email in their lifetimes. These sea-changes of tech happen fast once certain inflection points are hit, and I believe short-video-at-work will happen very quickly because it has ALREADY happened socially. Short-video messages will jump from “look at the food I’m eating in Thailand” to “hey I just had a great idea for the marketing campaign” and “I just met with an account that I think we can win” and “hey, welcome Trish to the team, so glad you decided to join our company”.
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them, of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
In 2019 consumers generated billions of selfie-videos for social interactions and human connection, so we think it is a foregone conclusion that short-videos will emerge in a meaningful way in @work interactions, especially given the dramatic shifts to hybrid-remote work environments that will follow the pandemic. The empathy and transparency of selfie-videos generates trust and “social capital” between colleagues and collaborators, helping teams feel connected and aligned. Zoom and Slack simply can’t replace all the 1:1 coffee chats, lunches, casual hallway conversations, business trips, customer visits, morale and team building events, or the ever-present eye-contact and body-language cues. The coming decade will be the “future-of-work” decade for communication and collaboration tools — what exists in the market today is wholly unsatisfactory, and we expect dozens of innovative new tools to emerge to meet the many needs of remote-first workforces.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Jaws is just a movie!
I saw jaws when I was 6, in a movie theater big screen, with my 8-year-old brother. It scared me forever and I have an irrational fear of the ocean (for that matter, any body of water). Irrational fears are the lesson. Leaning-in, not away, from these fears is how you overcome and master/grow from the experience. Took me longer than it should have to learn this, so there it is — it’s just a movie, pass it along!
- Papillon got through it, so can you!
I read the biography-fiction story of french prisoner Papillon who spent years in a penal colony including hard time in solitary confinement for long periods. “It can always be much, much worse” is one take-away (it was horrible for him), but “with mental fortitude, a positive outlook, and patience — you can live through a lot of bad times” is the zen-take-away that has served me well and I try to pass that along to others to help them endure tough circumstances in their own lives.
- Listen to others. No, really, LISTEN
For decades I’ve heard about the power of listening. For decades I nodded my head in “yes, I understand”. It took me until just recently to begin to comprehend just how powerful *really* listening to others can be. It is a mixture of hearing, listening, and actively *reflecting* to the person you are listening to, that you HAVE listened. A skill I am planning to get much better at in the next decade!
- Know what you don’t know.
In the logical framework (think of a 2×2 grid), you can categorize everything there is to know as either being (1) things you know, (2) things you don’t know, and (3) things you DONT know that you know, and (4) things you DONT know that you DONT know. The most power in this framework comes from individually reflecting on it and thinking about self-awareness. Hint: focus on mastering #4 — the other’s are relatively easy.
- Go to China!
Just like in the movie Looper where the man from the future who has time-traveled to the present keeps telling Bruce Willis’ character “trust me, I’m from the FUTURE… go to China”, a life-highlight for me was the opportunity to live in Beijing with my family for 2 years while I was working for Microsoft, and I try to pass along to everyone that hasn’t yet been = you should visit China! China is an *amazing* country: its people/culture/food are lovely, their spirit bright and full of transcendent optimism after a pretty horrible early-to-mid-late 20th century. See for yourself… spend 2 weeks, it will really open your eyes and you will understand the 21st century and what lays ahead.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve read about and thought about the idea that if an alien civilization arrived on earth and they said “take me to your leaders” what they might expect is for us to take them to a wheat field. By some logic, the most successful species on the planet (and whom are collectively really in charge and running the show), are the crops that have “domesticated” us to help them grow and replicate their DNA. While humorous, it does challenge us to think about our place on the planet — as a species, we are really stewards of the entire ecosystem. Every living thing on the planet is a distant-cousin relation to one great-great-great micro-organism. Certainly, as homo sapiens, we are one big family (there is no such thing as race, and language/religion are very small, recent variations in the grander scheme). This is the queendom-earth and we are perhaps the most adept species to be stewards. Our self-interests should drive us to take better care of each other, and the planet.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.