Chris Ovitz — President at OK Play on Being a 3x Founder, Humble Leadership, and Reimagining Kids Screen Time

53:45
 
Share
 

Manage episode 289357348 series 2806035
By RockWater Industries and Chris Erwin. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Chris Ovitz is the Co-Founder and President of OK Play. We discuss growing up in a Hollywood family, building technology-enabled media companies, life revelations during an Alabama roadtrip, "humble magnetism", launching a venture fund with the co-founder of Twitter, YouTube as a babysitter, and why the future of play is putting kids at the center of story and creation.

Subscribe to our newsletter. We explore the intersection of media, technology, and commerce: sign-up link

Learn more about our market research and executive advisory: RockWater website

Listen to our weekly executive insights on Media x Commerce news: Mondays at 2pm PT on Clubhouse via @chriserwin

Follow The Come Up on Twitter: @TCUpod

Email us: tcupod@wearerockwater.com

---

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Chris Erwin:

Hi, I'm Chris Erwin. Welcome to The Come Up, a podcast that interviews entrepreneurs and leaders.

Chris Ovitz:

There's so much guilt in general for parents, and then there's all this judgment around screen time. And I think that we forget in our little bubbles, the whole no screens thing is a privilege, that YouTube is a babysitter is real, and it's a problem.

Chris Erwin:

This week's episode features Chris Ovitz, the co-founder and President of OK Play. Chris grew up in LA. And like so many others, his first love was film. So he went to a Hollywood studio, but soon after, Chris became enamored with the intersection of entertainment and technology. Over the past decade, Chris has founded a handful of different companies. And most recently, him and his team are building OK Play where they're reimagining screen time for kids, and putting kids at the center of story and creation. We get into a lot of things in this episode, but a few highlights include what it's like growing up in a deeply connected Hollywood family, some life revelations during an Alabama road trip, his humble approach to building teams, and most recently, helping to launch a venture fund with Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter. All right, this episode was a lot of fun. And Chris weaves in some pretty wild stories from his early career. Let's get into it.

Chris Erwin:

Let's dive back in time a little bit. Why don't you tell me about where you grew up and your childhood a little bit?

Chris Ovitz:

I grew up in LA. My mom and dad are both from LA. They went to UCLA. They met there. Pretty normal childhood in LA, as normal as it can be growing up in LA, lots of after school sports and just hanging out with friends, skateboarding and roller hockey and football and all sorts of stuff like that, lots of video games and film in my family. And it was a pretty traditional childhood.

Chris Erwin:

Okay, you are a skater as well. I was a skater growing up, I played some soccer and tennis. And then when I started hurting my ankle skateboarding, my coaches were like, "All right, that's it. Enough for you."

Chris Ovitz:

You were probably a much better skater than I was. I never actually got good at it. But I loved it. Yeah, I definitely spent a lot more time playing, baseball was my sport. So I played a lot of baseball growing up.

Chris Erwin:

Okay, cool. You mentioned that you were passionate for gaming and for film. Were there any games that you liked the most?

Chris Ovitz:

So I was about 15 when PlayStation 1 came out so I think that was probably the core part of my childhood gaming love and I would say Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil. Earlier than that, I played really Super Bomberman and Mario Kart on the SNES, lots of Street Fighter, things like that.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, I remember Street Fighter 2 with like Ken and Ryu and Hadouken and all that. I was like, that was a real favorite for me. Yeah, I also like being Zangief, the Russian wrestler, whatever.

Chris Ovitz:

Funny story, I always played as Ken Masters. And that was the name on my fake ID in high school, so yeah.

Chris Erwin:

Your father was in the entertainment industry. I don't know if your mother was in the entertainment industry as well. But was there any kind of like inspiration for you of the path that you want to go down as you were thinking about going to school, before you went to Brown and UCLA?

Chris Ovitz:

So yeah, my father was in entertainment. He started a company called Creative Artists Agency, which was one of the biggest agencies around and so it was amazing to watch and to be around. And I always thought that that was kind of the path for me. But as I got older in high school, and he had left CAA to do other stuff, he kind of left me with this big question mark on what I wanted to do. And I was like, I didn't really know what my passions were.

Chris Ovitz:

And so it started me on my journey. And my journey from about 18 through my late 20s was kind of a bit all over the place, but I wouldn't be who I am today without it. And my father was incredibly talented pioneer and many things in entertainment. And had I been a little more mature at 18, I think I would have realized that he was probably right, and it was best for me. So I ended up, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Brown University. That's where he wanted me to go. I always wanted to go to UCLA because it was what I knew. Brown was amazing. I have incredible friends there. I learned a lot there. But I ended up transferring back to UCLA. I told myself that was where I wanted to go, but if I'm being honest, it was probably because I wanted to see about a girl.

Chris Erwin:

Okay, did you transfer like your sophomore junior year? When did you go over?

Chris Ovitz:

I transferred my sophomore year. So I did a year, Brown my freshman year, and then started at UCLA my sophomore year.

Chris Erwin:

And was UCLA what you had hoped it was going to be? Were you pumped to be there?

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, it was amazing. UCLA is a great school. I had a blast. I was a history major. I just loved learning about different cultures and I studied a lot of Roman, ancient Rome and medieval history that I found that fascinating.

Chris Erwin:

When we were talking earlier, you said that there was some poor decisions were a pattern of your youth. So, I mean, do you bucket in like going to Brown and then going to UCLA as part of that or are you referencing something else? I'm very curious there.

Chris Ovitz:

For decisions, I say that a bit jokingly. But I think what I mean by that is Brown is an incredible school, and everyone would kill to be able to go there. And had I stayed there, I think it would have been amazing. But look, I was motivated by girls at that age, instead of being motivated by a passion for what I wanted to do with my life. So I think that's kind of what I did, whether it was transferring to UCLA because I had a girlfriend there at the time that I had met on winter break from Brown. I would make decisions like that, without thinking too far ahead. And I think as I got older, that's not happening. You start to think through each decision with a little more thought for the future.

Chris Erwin:

Well look, if there's any point in your life when you're going to be a little bit impulsive, doing that in your teens and early 20s, that's a good thing. Get that out of your system, and I would also say that having a little bit of impulse ability, or whatever the right word is, as you get older, versus not having to be so calculated all the time based on societal pressures, that's okay. Okay, so you transfer to UCLA, you graduate, and then how do you kick off your career? What type of work do you start getting into?

Chris Ovitz:

So again, it comes back to this really not knowing what my path was yet, not knowing what I wanted to do. I knew I loved film. The entertainment industry was in my DNA. And I knew that I wanted to be a part of it in some way, at least at that point in my life. And so I actually applied to film school. I didn't tell anyone in my family. I applied to the theater, film and television program at UCLA. I decided I was only going to tell them if I got in. I ended up getting in and had an idea that I thought I wanted to be a director. And after about a year in film school, I realized I didn't want to be a struggling artist. So I dropped out and I wanted the income. I wanted to get to work. Unfortunately, at the time, I also had suffered a really bad herniated disc and had to take some time to get a pretty significant back surgery to correct that and rehab it. And at that point, I decided to take a job. It was pretty awesome. I got the opportunity to be one of the first employees as an assistant at Paramount Vantage working for a guy named John Lesher, and that was my first real job out of college. It was an incredible experience.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. And what was Paramount Vantage?

Chris Ovitz:

Backing up a second, John Lesher was an agent at Endeavor at the time before it was WME, and he represented clients like Scorsese and Judd Apatow and Alejandro Inarritu and all these amazing filmmakers. And he was asked to go over and run Paramount Classics, which was Paramount's independent film arm, and he was asked to rebrand it and basically start their new art house film division. I got to see him build it from the ground up. And I got to see him go through the process of building the brand, picking the brand, naming it, designing it. And there I got to really learn how important a talented team was. He had gone out and just picked the best in the industry. And then I got to watch as all these projects came together that went on to be some Academy Award winning films and really well highly, highly acclaimed films. While I was there, we were developing No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, all these really exciting films. But mostly, I drove the golf cart around for the most part.

Chris Erwin:

What a great experience I feel like right out of undergrad, and it seems that you also have some really great stories from working there about Kanye West and Judd Apatow and a few others. So please do share.

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, I mean and the Kanye one's probably less interesting, but just funny. I remember him coming in for a meeting, I had to pick him in his entourage up in the golf cart and make multiple trips. And he told me he was hungry. And he asked what was on the menu, and so I had to go get him the menu from the commissary and he said he was really in the mood for grilled salmon. And so I got him some grilled salmon and brought it into the meeting and my boss was like, "What are you doing?" I was like, "Kanye wanted some food. Here it is.", and he shoo-ed me out of the office. And then the Judd Apatow story, backing up a bit. Jonah Hill was actually, before he was Jonah Hill, when he was Jonah Feldstein was in my student film at UCLA because I knew him from growing up in LA.

Chris Ovitz:

And Judd Apatow had come in to pitch his latest project. And I had read the script because that was one of the perks of working there. I got to be on the weekend read team and give my opinion on the scripts that they were reading. And I told Judd, and Judd had no idea who I was. I was just a kid driving a golf cart. And I said, "You need to make Jonah Hill the lead in this project." And so I'd like to think that I'm responsible for Jonah ending up in Superbad, which is probably not true. But it was funny because I was the only one, it turned out Vantage at the time, that thought we should make that movie. And so my boss John was like, "Well, if you like it so much, go and write a letter to the heads of the studio on why we should buy this film." And I did. And I was like, "This is the greatest thing ever."

Chris Erwin:

Hold on a second, you wrote a letter to the head of the studio for why they should buy the film Superbad.

Chris Ovitz:

Exactly, yes.

Chris Erwin:

Okay, what did you say in that letter?

Chris Ovitz:

I just explained why I thought it was going to be a hit. It was a very genuine, authentic letter from a nobody assistant at Paramount Vantage. But my boss respected my opinion. And he sent it to Brad Grey, who knew me and Brad was the CEO at the time. He was just a fabulous, fabulous guy, unfortunately passed away a few years ago. And they appreciated it. But they passed and it actually ended up being Warner Bros.' biggest hit that next summer. So that's my little claim to fame and moment I'm most proud of in my first job.

Chris Erwin:

That's an amazing story. I love coming of age movies, and Superbad is definitely very high on the list.

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, I was obsessed. It was so well written, so funny. Seth Rogen, he was coming up, but he wasn't established at that point. It was a really fun read. And I was really happy to see that Jonah got cast in that part. Again, I'm pretty sure that was because of me.

Chris Erwin:

So that's an amazing experience. But I think you realized that entertainment wasn't for you. And you kind of changed your career trajectory a little bit. So what happens next after that?

Chris Ovitz:

So I think I wanted to do something that was a little more meaningful. Traditional entertainment was fine. I love stories. I think one of the reasons I started thinking about moving away, I didn't like the behavior and entertainment. There was just a lot of yelling, a lot of disrespect. It's one of the last industries where there's a true apprenticeship, which I do like about it. But everyone was kind of becoming bad Xerox copies of the bosses they had before them, and just picking up bad habits. And so there were all these things that were accepted that I didn't like, like yelling at your employees.

Chris Ovitz:

And so that got me starting to think about what was next. And I was fortunate enough to get hired to run business development at a early virtual world company. And this was really interesting to me, because I always loved building communities and connecting people. And this opportunity played into that in a big way, because you would, this is by the way, in about late 2005, early 2006. And we built this virtual world where you could go to virtual host virtual parties and screenings and shows, and so I was producing virtual concerts with artists like Maroon 5 and the Pussycat Dolls, Kenna. We'd set up virtual storefronts. And this is all before things like Oculus. So it was, way ahead of its time, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, it ended up being like World of Warcraft with nothing to do. It didn't really work out. But it was fun, because we were doing things like I don't know if you saw what Fortnite did with Travis Scott and other artists, these big virtual concerts.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, Marshmallow and all that taking off.

Chris Ovitz:

Exactly. But we were doing stuff like that in 2006 at a much, much smaller scale.

Chris Erwin:

You mentioned how you got the job, there's a unique story behind that, right?

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, so my father was quite influential, obviously. And he knew my boss at Paramount. He'd call me. He's like, "Hey, I got to borrow my son for the day." And I was like, "Sure." And so I go and fly up with my father to a couple meetings in San Francisco. My father liked to invest in tech. And he knew that I had a strong opinion about games and tech and digital media. And so he wanted me to sit in on a couple of these meetings and give my opinion. And as we're arriving at this meeting at this particular company, which at the time, it was called Doppelganger, we later changed our name to vSide, rocking small startup, only about 20 people, everyone's in the room, and they're about to make this big presentation to my father. And he's like, "I want you to observe, and then give me your opinion after Do not talk." And so of course, I talked the whole time, like, "You need to do this. I can introduce you to this person. I can help with that." I walked out of the meeting with a job offer, which was awesome. And so ultimately, my dad was happy, but he looked mortified the entire meeting.

Chris Erwin:

Were you intentional that you wanted to speak? Was that like acting out against your father? Or did it just naturally come up?

Chris Ovitz:

No, that was just because I can never keep my mouth shut.

Chris Erwin:

So then, right after that, we're going down this journey where you become a serial entrepreneur, I think in a few years, which we'll get to, I think a major stepping stone to that was that you went to go work at Adly, which was founded by Sean Rad, who became the founder of Tinder. So what was Adly, and what were you doing there?

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, so Adly was one of the first companies to monetize the social streams for influencers, so getting Kim Kardashian to tweet on behalf of a brand. And they were pretty much the pioneer in that space. And so I knew I wanted to work in tech, but I didn't want to be in SF. The city unfortunately just wasn't for me. And I really liked my life in LA. And I was probably onto something because everyone seems to want to move down here now from up there or to Miami it seems now as of last week. Like you said, I met Sean through Dana Settle from Greycroft, who was a friend and she suggested that we think about working together, and we hit it off. And Sean's brilliant, and I was inspired by him. He's a young entrepreneur built with big, big ideas.

Chris Ovitz:

Obviously, I was right, in seeing something and then he moved and went on to start Tinder. But unfortunately, when we were at Adly, Facebook and Twitter weren't too excited about us monetizing their social feeds. It was ahead of its time a little bit as well. We got blocked. And that's kind of when everyone saw the writing on the wall. So after just about 10 months, that's when I departed and was lucky enough to meet my current co-founder and my co-founder of Viddy in JJ. He took a chance on me and invited me to co-found Viddy with him. And that's where my journey really gained some traction.

Chris Erwin:

I remember the days of when the large social platforms and tech incumbents were blocking their peers. So yeah, at Big Frame, we have built like a programmatic marketplace where our different influencer and talent clients could promote one another. YouTube shut off access to their API very quickly once they figured out what we were doing. So I definitely get the challenges there.

Chris Erwin:

So after this stint in Adly, but it seems like you had made the transition from like a pure play entertainment studio industry, now going into kind of like tech that's like tech talent, intersection with media as well and social. And were you feeling at this point like, "Yes, this is the path that I want to be on, that this feels much more right than where I was before this"?

Chris Ovitz:

Definitely. I realized that I think at that point, I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I watched guys like Sean, and I was like, there's no reason I can't do this. I love creating things from scratch. I had some unfair advantages built in in the network that I had acquired and had built. I realized pretty early on that I was really good at surrounding myself with people much smarter than me, much more talented than me. And I realized that talent was everything.

Chris Ovitz:

I use my network to almost be an agent for the businesses that I was building or involved in. And I was able to do that at Viddy in a big way. I saw that we had something. I saw that we had a product that had market fit. It worked. JJ is one of the best product designers I've ever had the pleasure of working with. And he built a beautiful Instagram for video type product at just the right time, when everyone was craving that, when investors were craving that type of product. We met in the end of 2010. And then basically January 2011, we were starting to work on it and then we launched in April of 2011. And that's literally when Flip Cam, if you remember those handheld camcorders, they shut down in April, and we launched in April. And so it was kind of like with the death of Flip Cam was the rise of Viddy and the social mobile video wars, by the way, like our biggest competitor was Socialcam, which was started by the Justin TV guys, which ultimately became Twitch. And it was just an all out like bloodbath between us and Socialcam seeing who could grow the fastest, wild ride, wild west, extremely interesting time to be in the video space.

Chris Erwin:

So being a first time entrepreneur, what kind of caught you off guard or by surprise in that first experience, in going through those motions?

Chris Ovitz:

Once you're a founder, it's a very lonely, lonely job. And so just dealing with the emotions of the roller coaster that it is, like video ultimately was only two and a half years of my life, but it felt like 10, and so the ups and the downs. And then I think realizing how quickly you can grow something by leveraging the power of your network. We went from zero to 50 million users in a year, granted a lot of that growth came off the back of Facebook and Open Graph. Us in social can have the benefit of that. But we were the first video app to have access to Open Graph. And that was because of a relationship that we had, just shows the power of relationships and how you can use those relationships to grow things.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. You mentioned that when you were at Adly, and you saw, you observed Sean, you're like, "Oh, Sean is founding these companies.", you felt empowered that you could do the same. And you felt that you had this powerful network, you had good energy to bring to the table and a certain skill set, but also awareness of what skills he didn't have. Being at Viddy, did you observe skills that you're like, "Hey, for my serial entrepreneur career to continuously progress, here's something that I really want to work on."?

Chris Ovitz:

You know, it's funny. Things that I really want to work on, I think what Viddy taught me was actually to focus on my strengths and not my weaknesses. So many people say you should, I just read a quote about Tom Brady, sorry to change the subject. But talking about how he's achieved the level of success that he has. One of his big tenets is focus on your weaknesses. And I used to do that too much. And so I think at Viddy, working with the team there, I realized that everyone was so good at what they did. If I was focusing on my weaknesses, there was always somebody that was going to do it better, be able to do that better. And so I spent my time focusing on my strengths. And that's when I think good things really started to happen. That was probably my biggest learning at Viddy.

Chris Erwin:

I agree with that very much, Chris. It's a lot easier to go from good to great versus going from bad to good. And as a leader, I think strong self awareness is really critical in saying, "Okay, here's where I'm good, here's where I'm not." But your job is to build a team, to resource a team, to build towards the bigger vision that the company has. And I have learned that there's a lot less friction, you can move a lot faster. And also just build a team where people are more complimentary and happy coming to work every day with that mindset, going from good to great.

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, no, I absolutely agree.

Chris Erwin:

So Viddy though, you do end up selling to Fullscreen, is that right?

Chris Ovitz:

We did, yeah. So we were acquired by Fullscreen. In full transparency, I left before the acquisition because it was quite a roller coaster ride, and I was ready to move on and to figure out what's next. But we had built a relationship with George, the CEO and founder of Fullscreen early on. He was a friend, and we were always trying to find ways to partner together. So when things got tough at Viddy, it was just a natural home for the company. They had SVOD ambitions, and we had one of the most talented product and engineering teams around with expertise in video. So it was a no brainer. And as I said, I wanted to move on to what was next and I was pretty burnt out from that roller coaster. And at one point, we were the number one app in 49 countries. And then one day we weren't. And so I was just ready. I was ready for what was next. But it was great. Look, JJ went on to be the Chief Product Officer of Fullscreen. And Ken, our CTO went on to run their engineering team. But unfortunately, actually I'm working with them again today, which is really, really awesome. But we can come back to that.

Chris Erwin:

I think Fullscreen leveraged your technology to launch a streaming service, I think three to four years back. I remember that because I think there was like a lot of different Fullscreen talent clients are on it. And I think they also were licensing Friends and maybe Seinfeld. It was an interesting juxtaposition of content. But I think everyone's been learning what users actually want and don't want over the past half decade. All right, so after that, you do end up starting another company called Workpop, but you did a brief stint at Scopely. What was that pathway like? I think you said you were scratching this gamer itch that maybe you had but led quickly to something else, curious to the journey there.

Chris Ovitz:

Look, I always had the gamer itch and I'm always going to have the gamer itch. I love games and anything related to games. And the Scopely thing was interesting because I had promised myself since I was burnt out, I was going to take some time to recharge. But I was having lunch with a friend of mine who was at Scopely. And he was telling me how great it was. And they were going after all these big licenses. And frankly, it just sounded fun. And he was like, "Why don't you come join us?" At the time, they were still small, 50 or 60 people. And they had just come off this big hit for them, Mini Golf Madness, which I had kind of fun playing. And I also knew Walter Driver pretty well from back in the day. And I knew Eytan as well. They're the founders. And I figured that it would be a really fun place to go and join until I decided what was next.

Chris Ovitz:

Unfortunately, in a twist of fate, unfortunately for them, not for me, but they've done fine since anyways, but they roomed me and my co-founder from Workpop together on a company off site. He was the new VP of Product that they had hired out of Zynga. He used to run the With Friends platform there, and we hit it off and he's still one of my best friends. And we basically decided that night that we would eventually leave and start something together, we just didn't realize how soon it would be.

Chris Erwin:

This is like one of the first nights with a company at an off site, and you meet a new colleague, and you decide then and there like, "We're going to start a company together." That's pretty fast.

Chris Ovitz:

Basically, we hit it off, and we're like, "We need to do something." And I just had no idea that it would be that quickly.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. Why do you think you guys vibe so well? What was special about him?

Chris Ovitz:

We had really complementary skill sets. He's extremely talented product executive and entrepreneur. He actually just launched his company yesterday called Mojo, which is a sports app for kids and actually to make coaches better and improve the youth sports experience, which I'm actually really excited about. And he's super talented. And yeah, we just knew it. Do you ever meet someone and you're like, you know you're going to be good friends and you know you're going to work well together? That's what it was like. And so we had fun working together at Scopely and we worked on some really fun products together. And then ultimately we decided to go into enterprise software.

Chris Erwin:

Hey, listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you, if you dig what we're putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guest, it would really mean a lot if you can give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work. And it also really supports what we do here. All right, that's it everybody. Let's get back to the interview.

Chris Erwin:

In under a year, you end up founding what's called Workpop. What was Workpop?

Chris Ovitz:

Back then, mobile job search was almost non existent. And so we wanted to build a better hiring experience for essential workers. So back then, most of the hiring platforms were really focused on building for the employer, and not the job seeker. And so we decided we wanted to build a better experience. And it was a great idea, started with great intentions. I went into that space because I wanted to prove that I could do something that was completely outside of media and entertainment. I wanted to show people that I can build a real company.

Chris Ovitz:

And I did that. But along the journey, which took me to places like selling door to door in places like Birmingham, Alabama, nothing wrong with Birmingham, Alabama, but I realized that wasn't where I wanted to be. And I realized that I needed to be passionate about the space. And I thought I could build anything and be excited about it as long as it was my team. I was super excited about the team, really enjoyed who I was working with. But at the end of the day, these companies take on a life of their own, and you need to be in a space that you truly, truly love.

Chris Ovitz:

And so that was probably my big learning with Workpop. Further, we went down the stack. It started as job seeking, and then it became hiring software. And we're building HR software. And then we were like smack in the middle of the HR tech space. And that's when I realized it wasn't for me. We were building a product for small and medium businesses, and it's just a really tough grind selling into that segment.

Chris Erwin:

You mentioned that you went to Birmingham, Alabama for a sales trip when you were at Workpop. What's that story?

Chris Ovitz:

Look, this is where I realized that I needed to get out of the enterprise software business. My partner and I were on a plane, and we were flying to Birmingham, and the only thing we were excited about was going to be the food we were going to eat in the south. We both looked to each other and kind of had this moment where it's like, "Do we really?". We were both media guys. He came from the game world, and we both kind of ended up in this space, because we had a good idea. And we landed in Birmingham, and we were staying in a motel and we were there to sell a Papa John's franchisee. And we're going in and we met with the HR team was run by this very nice, but like 80 year old woman, and really didn't understand how technology worked. And so we found ourselves selling to a lot of those customers, and it was draining. And when we both looked, we were like, "Where are we? What are we doing right now?" And I think that was the moment. Again, I don't want to take anything away from Birmingham, Alabama. But it just wasn't where I wanted to be in my life. If I was going on sales trips, I wanted to be in New York or Chicago or San Francisco or places like that.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. When you landed and you were doing these sales meetings in person, did you guys feel like immediately out of place? What was going on there?

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah, we definitely felt out of place. And it just felt like we could never do enough. I mean, we were running the business but we were also selling the product. We didn't have some huge sales force. And so it just took a lot to gain even an inch. We felt like we were running miles to get those small wins. And so whether we are in Birmingham, Alabama, or Orlando, Florida, it was just all over the country selling software. It just wasn't what I was into.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. Well, Chris, I want to go back to something that you said where when you founded Workpop, you wanted to prove that you could build something that's not in media entertainment. So it's interesting, because you start in the core of the media entertainment industry, you're working at Paramount Vantage for a very seasoned studio executive and talent agent. And then you do start working in and then founding some companies that are at the intersection of tech and media. So the sentiment that you wanted to prove that you could do something different, was that for you or was it for someone else?

Chris Ovitz:

I think when you have a successful father, at the end of the day, you have a bar that's set for you. And so you're always trying to live up to that bar. And everyone always has preconceived notions of how you're going to be or expectations of you. And I think everyone expected me to do something in media entertainment, expected me to use my network to bring influencers into something right or do something influencer related, and I didn't want to do that. And I needed to scratch that itch. And I'm glad I did it. And it taught me a lot and led me to where I am today.

Chris Erwin:

So what happens with Workpop? Do you stay there through a sale to another company or you depart before the acquisition? What happens?

Chris Ovitz:

At Workpop, about five years in, one of our investors Cornerstone was interested in acquiring the company and the team. There was a natural fit, and they had an SMB product that they wanted to expand on and it was a perfect fit. And so I stayed on through the acquisition, but I knew that I wasn't going to stay and run technology partnerships. A big public enterprise software learning management system company, that wasn't in my future, it wasn't for me, incredible company, really a big fan of the Cornerstone team. And Adam Miller, he's a great advisor to us. But if I was being honest with myself, it wasn't where I was going to continue my career. So I took some time off. I was a new father, a relatively new father. My son was about three at the time, and really started thinking about what I wanted to do next.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, it's interesting to hear you talk about your realization moment there that hey, this is not where I want to be like in terms of your career and work. In an interview with Chas Lacaillade, who's the founder of Bottle Rocket Management, an influencer management company, on our podcast, he was on a road trip in Louisiana in the Bayou. He was selling water pumps. He was in LA. And then he was working for a water pump company out of Orange County. He was on this sales trip and realized there in a conversation with his coworker Buddy in the car, like, "Hey, I need to get back to LA. This is not the right industry for me." So you guys definitely have parallels in your story there.

Chris Ovitz:

Definitely a wake up call for me.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, all right. So after Workpop, you then launch OK Play, which is the company that you're at right now. So what's the story of how OK Play came to be?

Chris Ovitz:

I mean look, it sounds cliche, but I wanted to create something for my son. I was a relatively new father. Son's three years old at the time. I was watching one day while he was a preschool, I was watching Won't You Be My Neighbor, which is the Mr. Rogers documentary. And I became incredibly inspired. This was a man that knew how to reach children, how to talk to them in a way that they felt heard and understood. He didn't treat them like little kids. He treated them like real people, just smaller people. And I thought that was fascinating. And the way he used the television to reach a very, very large audience was very similar to the way that the mobile devices are ever present and not going anywhere.

Chris Ovitz:

And so in the way that I learned how powerful community was in Viddy, I thought that we could do something similar with the mobile devices and kids today. So I think that there's so much guilt in general for parents, and then there's all this judgment and guilt around screen time. And I think that we forget in our little bubbles in our world is that the whole no screens thing is a privilege. And the YouTube as a babysitter is real, and it's a problem. And I think at the end of the day, balance is key. And I think that there's no reason we can't reimagine screen time. These devices aren't going anywhere. And so I wanted to create something. My partners wanted to create something that was screen time that wasn't leaned back, that really puts kids at the center of the story and the creation.

Chris Erwin:

I like how you just phrase that, where I think a lot of people look at kids' content consumption as a problem that plagues the U.S. and all these other countries. But how do you put kids in the driver's seat of that content, that story to make it productive and helpful? I really like how you position that. So you have this vision. And so then how does this start? Where do you begin building and with who?

Chris Ovitz:

So I immediately called JJ, who was my co-founder of Viddy. And he was at Headspace at the time consulting for them, actually. And I was like, "You got to watch this documentary." He did. He was like, "Oh my God, this is awesome. I totally see what you mean. Let's start thinking about what this could look like." We reached out to our former CTO, Ken Chung, who's one of our co-founders, and he was running a big engineering team at Snap. So he was in charge of the camera team there, very talented engineer. He was at Fullscreen as well. And he's a new father. And so he got super excited about the potential.

Chris Ovitz:

And then we just kept building from there one by one, reaching out to people in our network that were extremely talented, that had young kids that could get excited about this. And so it really went from that is how the idea started to when we brought a gentleman named Travis Chen in, who's an interactive play designer. And he was the Chief Game Designer at Scopely, which is where I met him, super talented guy. And he was the one that really brought the play into the mix, and how we really started thinking about learning through play as the mechanism for which we were going to achieve our goals.

Chris Ovitz:

And so he joined. He was the Creative Director for Games and Interactive at Bad Robot, which is JJ Abrams' company. And then before he joined us, he was at Snap running all their AR innovation stuff. And so he was just the perfect person to come in and really help us think about how we can make the phone almost like a cardboard box. So when you see a cardboard box, you see a cardboard box. When a kid sees a cardboard box, they see a rocket ship, a castle, whatever. And so we wanted to take that philosophy and apply it to the content we were creating in the phone. So I think our OK Play, the vision is about really making it kid led, but parent involved. That's when kids really learn the most. So you can go on a treasure hunt with your child, you can do a fire rescue, you can run a candy factory and the kid is at the center of these stories, and they're creating them and then they're creating a piece of content that they can share with their family members.

Chris Erwin:

And is it intended for co-consumption, where it's both the parent and the child consuming and participating in the experience at the same time?

Chris Ovitz:

Absolutely. So it's all about this staring versus sharing, right? We want to get away from the mind numbing, like kid in zombie mode, create truly interactive content that is active and engaging and parents are included. I think this comes back to, so our other co-founder, who's our chief scientist, Colleen Russo Johnson. She's our child development expert and kids media expert. She did all this research on kids absorbing more when the parents are involved. So she did a bunch of research on Daniel Tiger, just the spiritual successor to Mr. Rogers. And I discovered her in an article in The Atlantic, in which she was quoted, it was the article is about ChuChu TV, which is basically like the Cocomelon of India. And she was talking about this study that she did, that kids learn the social and emotional concepts, learning concepts in Daniel Tiger much more quickly, and they absorb much more when the parent is actually watching it with them and engaging with them while they're watching it, than when they're just staring at it alone.

Chris Ovitz:

And so we took a lot of that and built what you see in OK Play today. And because of that article, we reached out to her, she started advising us and the and we're like, "You're perfect. You need to come join us and build this." And she was like, "This is my life's work in an app. This is awesome." And yeah, we just kind of built an all star team and just went after it.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, this makes me think of have you heard of Nike Adventure Club?

Chris Ovitz:

I have not, actually.

Chris Erwin:

I think we wrote about this, maybe now almost like a year and a half ago. But essentially, Nike came up with like a subscription club for their shoes that brings both parents and kids together. So kids can go into the app with their parents and say, "Oh, I like these shoes. I like the story behind them.", learn about them, learn about their environmental impact when they are discarded. And then you sign up for the shoe. And then I think you can get replacements like once every six months or 12 months. And then along with the shoe also comes games and experiences and things you could do it like the local playground or at home. And it's this really cool idea that feels very similar to what you're describing.

Chris Erwin:

It seems like the timing for what you're building is just perfect. Also, I think back to the FTC settlement with YouTube, I think like a year and a half ago, where there's now going to be limited monetization for a lot of the kids content channels. And particularly with all the extremist content and the political backlash and what's happened over the past six months, I think there's a very strong desire for safer content destinations just overall, but particularly for our youth. So have you sensed that, that there's kind of this unique momentum and tailwind that you have in the market right now?

Chris Ovitz:

Definitely, there is. But I think it's very difficult for kids app developers and kid content creators. I think the privacy laws aren't making it any easier. They're only getting stricter, and they're a gray area and they're a moving target, which makes it tough. And the lawmakers aren't technologists. And so in some cases, the laws don't make any sense and just really don't apply. That said, children's privacy is, there's nothing more important, and we have to protect our kids online. But I would say it's getting very, very difficult to create this content because of the privacy laws. So you got to be, when you're thinking about making this content, you got to abide by a strict set of rules, you got to make sure you're not having outbound links that are triggering browsers, you got to gate everything. Social interaction can be a big no, no, but there's ways to do it creatively that are safe for the child. It's definitely the wild west right now, a little bit.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. So it feels like you'd have to staff up that department and that need differently than say, what Complex or BuzzFeed would have to staff their digital and production and user experience team. So what does that mean for you guys? Do you have a bigger legal team? Or how do you incorporate that into your workflow?

Chris Ovitz:

Incredible lawyers, we all are just very aware of what's going on as far as privacy is concerned. There are specific certifications you can go out and get such as kidSAFE to let parents know that your app is safe for children. You just have to be on top of it and pay attention.

Chris Erwin:

So it seems like a fun part of this too just in the product development, like do you go out and you work with parents and kids to get an idea of like, "Hey, what would get you excited? We want to do some alpha testing." I mean, clearly the founding, the executive team that you guys have brought, brings a lot of personal experience, like you guys are all parents. How do you get inspired and get in the mindset of these children to design something that's really special for them?

Chris Ovitz:

So several ways. So we do a lot of play testing. We have a really vibrant community of parents and kids that will test things with. Another thing is we have to remember how to be kids. Kids are experts at play, right? We are not, somehow as an adult, you forget that. And so I think being a parent makes it a lot easier. I'm always building Lego or something like that with my son. I found myself as we've started this company, I'm watching children's cartoons and consuming all the content there is online and finding my favorite shows to draw inspiration from and then look, I'm probably the person that is contributing creatively least to what you see in the app, and I rely on our very talented creative team that lives and breathes this stuff to build these experiences and do this programming for children

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Within the app, is there a certain game or experience that's your favorite right now?

Chris Ovitz:

Right now, yeah. My favorite is probably Fire Rescue. So you take a picture of your face as a child, and it puts them in the story. And this little character that we have Twiggle, who's the cutest thing on earth in my opinion, invites you on this journey to go be brave with them to basically go to an emergency call. And you end up having to get there and get a couple of characters out of the tree. And they ask you to take pictures of your face and all these different emotions. And it's got really awesome music in it and it's fun. You literally created your own mini show, you can then share with your family members. And so my son loves it. And it's fun to play with it.

Chris Erwin:

Cool. So there's a storyline but you take a photo of like a selfie. And then that goes into one of the characters in the game.

Chris Ovitz:

Yes, it puts yourself into the story. It's like an interactive story and you're literally putting yourself in it. And then what happens is, is you'll draw the firetruck. You'll draw the skylines, you'll draw the tree, and then it puts it all together into this interactive story. And you get to then watch it. So it's like you're literally creating, it's almost like you're creating the storyboards for the show. And then we magically put it together and the kid feels like they've just created this really awesome interactive story.

Chris Erwin:

The character's name is Twinkle, the cutest character on Earth as you said, right?

Chris Ovitz:

Yeah.

Chris Erwin:

And this is called Fire Rescue?

Chris Ovitz:

Fire Rescue, yeah. So if you go into the OK Play app, it will be one of the first stories you see. Twiggle is one of our main characters, almost like our guide, and they take you through this adventure. And they do it. We also have Twiggle's Treasure Hunt. And so you go on a pirate adventure to find treasure and you draw the sea monster and you find out the sea monster isn't actually mean. It's actually trying to help you and a lot of really awesome morals in the story. And it all comes from a place of social emotional learning. It's designed by all of our Ph.D.s and advisors that are awesome.

Chris Erwin:

Oh wow, any of this content, is it licensed from a third party or is this all incubated in house?

Chris Ovitz:

It's all done in house. So we have an incredibly talented creative team. We're doing all of our animations, all of our own production, all of our own voiceover stuff.

Chris Erwin:

Wow. Do you ever get involved in any of the voiceovers or any of the brainstorming or anything like that?

Chris Ovitz:

Thankfully, no. I am not a fan of being on camera, on audio, anything. So hopefully I do you justice today.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Have you already raised seed funding for this or was this just funded by the founders?

Chris Ovitz:

We did raise seed funding. So we have incredible investors. We've actually raised, we closed our series A over the summer. We've raised $11 million to date. Investors like Obvious Ventures, Forerunner, Lego Ventures, which is Lego's investment arm, Collab+Sesame, which is Sesame Workshop's fund with Collaborative Fund, Dreamers, which is Will Smith's fund. We have a ton of incredible investors.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. As I think about fundraising, and then you also talking about the documentary about Mr. Rogers, I think about the impassioned plea that he makes to Congress to have funding, I think for PBS and for his program. It's such a beautiful segment in that film. The gentleman who is running the forum is like sold within five to 10 minutes, and Mr. Rogers gets the funding that he needs. So I don't know if that became part of your pitch or you harnessed that energy as you were raising this first round of funding, but I love that anecdote.

Chris Ovitz:

Absolutely. We love it too. And look, that was a picture of him and a quote from him. It was the first slide of our deck and that hooks everyone. It's very hard to root against a group of people that want to build something as meaningful as Mr. Rogers did. I'm by no means saying we're going to be the next Mr. Rogers but we would definitely try as hard as we can every day to live by his philosophies and build as much of that into our app as we can.

Chris Erwin:

Got it. So where does OK Play go next? What are you building towards in 2021?

Chris Ovitz:

It comes back to this staring versus sharing thing. I think we want to get away from this mind numbing, staring kid zombie mode type of content. And we want to build something that's truly interactive. We're building this new media format in which kids are really the star of what they're creating, and lets them create these adventures that they can then share with their family and friends. And it's all rooted in social emotional learning, and teaches kindness and curiosity and empathy and skills that they need to translate into the real world.

Chris Ovitz:

And I think now more than ever, it's super important. You have so many children at home, that they can't go to birthday parties, that can't interact with other kids, I talk to so many of my friends that have young kids that when this pandemic started, they were just at the age where they were about to start preschool. And so they interact mostly with adults, and then they'll see another small person, another child, and it's almost like they don't even know what to do, they don't have those skills yet. And so they've been deprived of this social interaction. And so if there's anything we can do to help with these skills, I think we're doing a good job. And so that's what I would love to see us accomplish this year is really reaching more families, and just helping parents and helping parents know that it's okay to take a moment, that just because their child is playing for 15 minutes on an app, it's not the end of the world. Not all content is created equal, and I think balance is key. And it's really, really important that parents give themselves a break.

Chris Erwin:

Cool. All right, so I have that now, to go back a little bit more personally about you. I think this is like at least the third company that you've found in your career. And you have expressed that in certain previous companies that you realized burnout and you knew when you had to kind of change things up. And I know that your wife Ara is also an entrepreneur, has her own business. You're building OK Play. You're also an investor, which we'll talk about a little bit and you have a young son. So do you feel like that you are stretched in the Ovitz household?

Chris Ovitz:

Yes. Look, a two entrepreneur household is very tough. I have one child, I don't know how people with multiple do it. You definitely make sacrifices, and my wife and I are not going to sacrifice our son for work. We're just not. So we do our best. I think it's made us much, much more efficient human beings. You just have to, there's no time for the nonsense. And so you just have to be really, really good planners. She's brilliant. I'm very lucky to share a household with an entrepreneur that awesome.

Chris Erwin:

I like that balanced mindset. I think that's absolutely critical. And more entrepreneurs need to assume that. So okay, we're about to get to the rapid fire. But before we do, Chris, why don't you tell us about, it seems that you do some investing on the side. You've done angel investing in your past but I think that there's a new fund that you're a part of. So what is that all about?

Chris Ovitz:

About 10 years ago, I was fortunate enough to interview at Twitter, and I met Biz Stone. And he's one of the co-founders and I kept in touch with him. We became friends, he ended up advising a couple of my companies. He was on the board of one of them. And he always said that if he ever formalized his angel investing, which by the way, he has one of the most incredible angel portfolios in history, from Slack to Square to Pinterest to BeyondMe, all of these unicorns. And I think that's because of the way he connects with entrepreneurs and how genuine and authentic he is.

Chris Ovitz:

But anyways, he said if he was ever going to formalize his portfolio into a VC fund, then I would be one of his first phone calls. He held true to that, and invited me to help him build his first investment fund. It's a $200 million fund. We invest in early stage companies that build the future of health, work, wealth, and play. And it's a lot of fun. I get to see incredible entrepreneurs and see how I can help them. I love connecting the dots. I believe that I'm good at connecting the dots that other people don't always see. And I love putting people together, and as I said, building community. And so I like to think of us as more of an investment group as opposed to a fund and just investing in great people.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. Chris, I have to say that we've kind of gotten to know one another through the preparation for this podcast and our conversation right now. Something that stands out to me is that it seems that you have this incredible magnetism to you. Because the people that you attract around you too, whether it's launching a new investment fund or creating the founding teams for companies or recruiting someone from an article that you read, you clearly have a very, very special skill of being able to do that. What defines your magnetism? What is it about you that brings people towards your orbit?

Chris Ovitz:

It's a good question. I've never really thought about it like that and I appreciate you saying that. I think authenticity and just being comfortable with who I am. And that's what people get when they see me. There's nothing, I'm not positioning, trying to be something I'm not. A lot of people are threatened by people smarter than them. I want to be around as many amazingly talented people as I can get my hands on. And I think it's about building real trust and giving people the attention they deserve. And so it really just comes down to being genuine and being a good friend. And I think that builds trust with people. And then, so when you reach out to them, you're able to make things happen, because there's trust. Trust is everything.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, I think that's really beautifully said. So cool. All right, so now we're on to the rapid fire round. So Chris, the rules are as follows. I'm going to ask you six questions. The answers are intended to be brief, one to two sentences, could even just be one to two words. Do you understand the rules?

Chris Ovitz:

I understand the rules.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome, all right. First one, proudest life moment.

Chris Ovitz:

Becoming a father.

Chris Erwin:

Great. What do you want to do less of in 2021?

Chris Ovitz:

Sitting in front of a computer.

Chris Erwin:

Okay. And what do you want to do more of?

Chris Ovitz:

Seeing friends in real life.

Chris Erwin:

I think many people would say the exact same right now. What one to two things drive your success?

Chris Ovitz:

Success is relative. But assuming someone thinks I'm successful, then it would be wanting to set the best example I can for my son.

Chris Erwin:

Very nice. All right, last handful of questions here. Advice for media executives going into 2021.

Chris Ovitz:

Dust off those social skills.

Chris Erwin:

What do you mean by that?

Chris Ovitz:

I mean, we're spending so much time on Zoom and in front of a computer that I think people may have forgotten how to interact with each other in the real world.

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, hopefully you haven't lost your magnetism ability.

Chris Ovitz:

I hope not.

Chris Erwin:

It's your key asset. All right, last couple here. Any future startup ambitions?

Chris Ovitz:

Always. I have an idea deck, some worse than others, but they're probably more of my future.

Chris Erwin:

Where do you keep your ideas?

Chris Ovitz:

Probably shouldn't tell people this but in my head.

Chris Erwin:

That way people can't access them, right?

Chris Ovitz:

Very true. But hey, if the idea is something that someone can cannibalize that easily, then it's not a great idea.

Chris Erwin:

Agreed. All right, last one Chris, this is an easy one. How can people get in contact with you?

Chris Ovitz:

They can feel free to email me chris@okplay.co.

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. I really appreciate you being on the podcast today, Chris. This is a lot of fun.

Chris Ovitz:

Hey, Chris. I appreciate you inviting me on and yeah, I hope people enjoy it.

Chris Erwin:

Hey, listeners, before you go, one final reminder. We love hearing from all of you. So if you have any thoughts on the show, any ideas for guests or any feedback at all, please email us. You can reach us at tcupod@wearerockwater.com. All right, that's it everybody. Thanks for listening.

Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts. And remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend. You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you can follow us on Twitter @tcupod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. And special thanks to Andrew Cohen and Mike Booth from the RockWater team.

13 episodes