How did you get the idea for Digital Dream Labs?
I have a background in neuroscience, so I love science and the process of learning. When I was getting my PhD at UCLA, my dean there, Micheal Phelps (not the swimmer) told me that what I was doing was not just for scientific curiosity, but it was to build a better humanity. I’ve always felt that if you aren’t researching something that’s getting into the marketplace, you’re wasting your time, so I wanted to take science and commercialize it.
With Digital Dream Labs, the whole company is based on a project our team did while I was a business school at Carnegie Mellon. The assignment was to create a museum exhibit for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh that got children engaging more with learning at museums through technology. This was over five years ago, so the technology was a bit different, but we essentially created a giant table with big blocks that children could move around. The table contained an infrared reader and the blocks were using a scanner to move the data, so kids could move all of the presidents in order or the colors of the rainbow, etc. It was a big hit and the feedback we got from teachers and parents was that they wish they could take the display home with them. When we heard this, we decided to shrink it down using a circuit board and a Bluetooth connection and take it to market.
What was your life like before Digital Dream Labs?
I had actually moved back to Pittsburgh to help my dad at the coal company. I’m a 4th generation Pennsylvania coal guy. My great grandfather, Michael Hanchar, came to the US with a one-way ticket from the Ukraine and started working at the mine. I remember the stories of him getting ripped off by his straw boss who took advantage of the fact that he couldn’t count properly to underpay him. So when I was a kid, my grandfather would play a game where we would slide pennies across the table and he would teach me how to count. We weren’t just playing; he was educating me so that I wouldn’t get cheated. To me, that’s the main purpose of education.
My father was the first college graduate of our family and he was able to get a loan to buy his own coal company and grow it. When he started having issues with his health, I came back to Pennsylvania to help him run the coal mine. This gave me a taste for business; I learned all about sales, operations, and systems management. When we eventually sold the company, I decided to go for my MBA. I’m not going to lie; when I got my PhD I was never going to be an academic guy--I always wanted to work for profit.
What was your experience founding the company?
This has been a very different experience because I started with nothing. At least with my father’s company, there was an established team; everyone knew their place and what to do.
When you have a startup you need to hire people and you have no idea whether they are good are not.
That’s the biggest problem: you need to operate at the speed of trust.
You need to be able to trust that person inherently that they are going to do what they say they are going to do. That’s so hard to find and can take time to get the right team on board.
What are some of the qualities you look for when hiring someone?
“What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” That’s one of the big questions I like to ask. I want people to really understand struggle and know what it takes to build something and sacrifice a little bit of yourself.
What has been your greatest challenge when starting your company?
My sister is a stand-up comedian in Seattle. She mentioned that comedians actually like hecklers -- it’s better than silence. That’s kind of what it’s like with a startup. You do what you need to do to launch and then there’s crickets; there’s not even a “this product sucks.” I wish we had a heckler to bounce ideas off of, but what I don’t think people realize is how huge the market is, and when bigger players can operate with a larger marketing budget, they can exert so much downward pressure that it’s often hard to get a response or make some noise.
It’s like you are a little seedling in the rain forest staring up at these 300+ year old trees and all you want is a little bit of sunlight to grow.
In a big market, it can be challenging just to get people to know who you are. I’m OK with negative attention--at least that means people have heard of us.
What is your superpower?
Empathy. I’ve always identified as a teacher and I feel that it’s my job to impart knowledge to everyone.
What’s your kryptonite?
Usually having a PhD is a strike against you in business. I’ve seen it. Take a look at some of the most successful entrepreneurs out there. They are the antithesis of formal education (not of learning, but formal education). People want to make money as fast as possible and a lot of PhDs don’t get that.
What’s it like having 5 (almost 6) kids?
They are my driving force. I often get frustrated when people think you can’t be successful in business and have a big family. You can totally succeed because of your family. For instance, if my kids want to go on vacation or want something special, I’m going to work hard to provide that for them and I will teach them how to do it themselves so they can provide for themselves one day.
I also think there’s sometimes a perception that your kids and family world should be separate from your work. I disagree. I take my kids to the office with me all of the time. As far as I’m concerned, until they are 18, they are on the road with me and I want them to see how hard I work so they can translate that into their efforts later on.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
I love to go to the gym and lift weights. There’s something about learning about the different techniques and being able to constantly improve that really speaks to me. No matter what program you are on, your work at the gym is never done and you can’t get stronger unless you have resistance. I think about that with startups as well; resistance to ideas and products can be good because that makes you stronger and helps you prove the concept.
Are you a gamer?
I wouldn't call myself a gamer, but I’m a person who really likes games. I really look for games that are beautiful in art and game execution. Some of my favorites are Cuphead -- I think this sets the bar for beauty and brilliant execution of a game concept. I also really like Mega Man (on the old NES system) and the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game--the one that was the first fighting arcade game for 4 people.
What’s something you wish you knew more about?
I wish someone could give me a list of things I don’t know that are important to know. I’d love the priority list of things I could learn about. That would be helpful.
Based on your experience, what do you think is the #1 skill founders need to succeed?
Improvisation. I think there should be a book called “Business by Batman.” I was reading a book to my kids about Batman going after the Penguin. Batman started by getting a flight to Antarctica to find the Penguin. The Batplane gets blown up, but Batman had already planned for that, so he turned it into a Batboat. Then the Penguin tries to blow up the boat, but Batman already had his Batsuit, and by the time Penguin tries to come after him while swimming, Batman has already called Aquaman to come help. Batman had 5+ contingency plans! You can’t beat someone who has that many contingency plans. That’s why I think founders need to be as nimble as possible and be able to improvise at a second's notice.