Interview With Devon Copley
Describe your product or service:
“Avatour is the 360° remote collaboration platform designed for site meetings. Unlike standard videoconferencing, Avatour’s advanced 360° technology gives remote attendees the power of the full picture — and the freedom to choose their point of view. Our platform focuses on providing the full context of a physical location, connecting real people with real places in an immersive, real-time experience.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“We believe in a future beyond distance. We’re creating a new product category for remote collaboration, while we’re also building a remote-first company culture based on three values: respect, transparency, and challenge.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“We bootstrapped to about $500,000 in annualized revenue before receiving seed financing from Ulu Ventures, Merus Capital, and 500 Startups in 2021.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“Currently about 20 full-time [members], distributed around the world.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“Starting a business wasn’t really my goal so much as having control over my own destiny. I’ve always been independent-minded and not very good at following orders, especially if I thought I had a better idea. At the same time, though, I’ve done my best work in partnerships, where my ideas could be challenged and improved and where I had a responsibility to someone else I respected. I wouldn’t have started Avatour without having found that kind of a partner in my co-founder Prasad.”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“Names are hard! We actually had a couple of previous names and were known as “Imeve” for our first couple of years. Not a great name. My own mother didn’t even know how to pronounce it. We spent enough time with a crappy name that we worked hard to come up with a better one. We probably went through two hundred options before settling on Avatour.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“Prasad and I had worked together for several years on the Nokia OZO project, which was the first camera designed for virtual reality. When that project was canceled in 2017, it felt like our work together had been cut short. We had gained an intimate familiarity with the technology but hadn’t yet found the right economic application for it. We had seen what was possible, and we had a conviction — naive perhaps — that there had to be an application. So, getting laid off was really more like a pivot. It was an opportunity to go back to first principles, to rethink how this tech could be applied to real-world problems.
Over a long series of conversations and a few beers, what we came up with was the simple idea of communication. Every major technology advancement has had one or more “killer apps” based on a new way of connecting people for real-time communication. We felt confident that there was a communication application of the “reality capture” technology we’d been working on. So, we set out to build it.”
Did you encounter any roadblocks when launching your startup? If so, what were they and what did you do to solve them?
“It feels like a startup is an endless series of challenges; it’s hard to say what the single greatest one was. I can say the hardest time was towards the end of our development process when we hadn’t paid ourselves for nearly two years, and the product wasn’t even really done but needed to be launched. When there was so much to do and hardly anyone to do it, when we had no customers who were willing to pay, there was more than one moment when I worried that I had led everyone astray and that I had done the wrong thing for the team and for my family.
How did we overcome it? Luck, I guess. It turns out we had the right product at the right time. But I sometimes feel like it could have gone either way. Reader, beware: there’s a survivor bias to startup stories.”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“Actually, this might be the greatest challenge we face as a startup. Avatour has enormous potential across multiple use cases and verticals. Compare: what is the target market for video conferencing? We’re a little less universal than that because what Avatour does is location-centric. Still, we can bring value to any enterprise where value creation depends on physical locations.
This translates to an enormous range of potential target markets, from manufacturing to construction to real estate to retail. But, we’re a small team with a limited budget, and we can’t boil the ocean. So, the question of how to target is probably our biggest challenge.”
What's your marketing strategy?
“We’ve selected a few target sectors and developed a multifaceted marketing strategy based around messaging our value to those sectors. At the highest level, it’s a pretty standard B2B SaaS strategy based around paid search, paid social, outbound email, and inbound thought leadership. The execution is hardly simple, though, and our small but mighty marketing team does amazing work.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“The first few are way harder than the next 100. Our first few came through straight-up hustle — crashing trade shows, working personal connections, the like. But success breeds success, and once you have credible references, the more systematic marketing processes take center stage. We’re working to turn this into a machine: a certain amount of effort generates a certain number of leads which convert to customers at a known rate.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“As a SaaS company, our ARR (annual recurring revenue) growth is our single most important metric, with LTV:CAC closely behind. Beyond that, we pay attention to usage metrics such as the number and average length of sessions hosted, and satisfaction metrics such as CSAT and NPS survey responses.”
What's your favorite startup book and podcast?
“I don’t commute anymore, so I don’t listen to podcasts much these days. I do read a lot, though, and it’s hard to pick just one favorite. ‘Crossing the Chasm’ and ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ are well-deserved classics at this point. ‘The Lean Product Playbook’ was a great guide as we were trying to figure out what our product was; ‘Monetizing Innovation’ is the only book you need to read about pricing, and lately, I’ve been particularly inspired by Reed Hastings’ ‘No Rules Rules.’”
What is a song or artist that you listen to for motivation?
“For motivation, it's hard to beat Lizzo — she's so positive and so high-energy.”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
“A big challenge as a startup CEO is financial forecasts. The inputs can change pretty dramatically, and it's hard to keep actuals updated in an Excel spreadsheet. I've been using a terrific new product from a fellow startup called Pry. It integrates directly with QuickBooks for past actuals while providing comprehensive tools for modeling hiring, revenue, and expenses. Highly recommended.”
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“This isn’t my first startup, but it is my first as CEO, and the new role has held some surprises. Once we grew out of the two-guys-in-a-garage phase, I’ve been surprised at how little work I actually produce. I mean, I work a lot, but I don’t produce an enormous amount of work product. Mostly my job consists of clearing the way for our terrific team to get their work done — fundraising, hiring, contracts, insurance. Of course, I get to do some fun stuff too — strategy and product decisions — but a lot of my time is devoted to clearing blockers.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“I’m not sure that I do! I prioritize time with my family — my wife and I have three tween-ish kids, and we have dinner together and go out hiking or doing other activities on the weekends. But most of my other waking hours, I’m working. Still, it’s sustainable for me because I love my work, especially my interactions with our team and with our customers. If your work is fulfilling, you don’t feel the need to balance it out so much.”
What is a strategy you use to stay productive and focused?
“We have a very clear vision of what we’re making, and I find it enormously inspiring. I honestly believe we’re creating something new and valuable, something that can benefit a lot of people and help address climate change. And I honestly believe we’re the best team to build it. If I didn’t believe those things, I wouldn’t be doing this. Of course, there are setbacks, and I have moments when I feel discouraged, but I always come back to this conviction that we’re really on to something.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“Basic stuff. I have a terrible memory, so I write everything down and take extensive notes at every meeting. I’ve learned to pay attention to my own personal rhythms — I’m at my best in the mornings and late evenings, so I tend to do most of my work during those times.”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“When I was a teenager, my mom and her sister owned a small furniture store in Clarence, New York. My first real paid job was setting up and running their electronic accounting and inventory system. I think getting this direct window into entrepreneurship made me think it was a perfectly natural thing to do. I guess it created a sort of presumption that I'd run my own business once I was old enough.”
More on Avatour
Avatour’s innovative “live 360-degree remote presence” system enhances traditional video conferencing; this is the origin story.
Devon Copley, founder of VR startup Avatour, shared valuable insights during our interview that will inspire and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.