As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Lipkowitz, CEO for Vyond.
Gary is the CEO for Vyond. Over the past 9 years, he has crafted the company’s strategy and guided its growth. Prior to Vyond, Gary was the COO for Wego.com, a leading travel search engine serving the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Prior to Wego, Gary worked in feature film development for Mediacorp Raintree Pictures, and as a strategy consultant for Yahoo! Southeast Asia and MTV Asia.
Before moving to Asia, Gary was an award-winning corporate television writer/producer in Chicago and Austin. He also wrote, produced and directed the English-language adaptations of over 20 anime franchises for ADV Films, including both “fan titles” such as City Hunter, Legend of Crystania and Queen Emeraldas, and “crossover titles” such as Tekken and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Gary enjoys talking about screenwriting, dialogue writing, the value of rich media and the growth of early stage startups. He is originally from New York, so if you get him started talking on these topics, he may never stop.
He holds an MBA (With Distinction) from INSEAD, an MFA from Northwestern University and a BA (Magna Cum Laude) from New York University. In his spare time, when not sheltering-in-place, Gary enjoys playing ice hockey.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
My backstory is certainly not a straight path and it took me a long time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I was fed a lot of “be a doctor, be a lawyer” growing up, but had a ton of interests pulling me off that straight line path. I’m also the kind of person who needs to experience things directly to know if it’s right for me. So I did — and it took a while to sort it all out.
I always enjoyed acting. I did drama from elementary school through high school. Then in college (NYU) there were all these film and theater people around, which kicked things up another level or 10. So I decided to go for an MFA. Then in the MFA program I’d “sneak over” to the Performing Arts dept to take electives. Pilots take aerial acrobatics — not necessarily to learn how to do tricks, but to better handle difficult conditions during regular flying. These electives (although theater electives) were like that for screenwriting. It was like acrobatic adaptation. How do you make Beckett cinematic? How do you make poetry cinematic? I’m this hockey kid from way out on Long Island and now I’m in a tiny room with 8 people adapting and performing poetry for Frank Galati. It was a gift.
At the same time, I was exposed to business early on, as my dad started his own business and I would work with him in the summers. That was a long commute into the city but it was kind of cool.
Beyond getting my undergraduate degree, I ended up going to film school and getting an MFA, followed by going abroad to INSEAD for my MBA — the latter being one of the best decisions I ever made, significantly shaping me personally and professionally.
Along the way, I’ve been privileged to have many kinds of opportunities — from working as a producer in corporate video, to dubbing Japanese anime, to working in a feature film studio and to working on an early stage startup as COO. Today, I’m proud to be the CEO of Vyond, the world leader in business video animation software.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One summer during film school, I interned in a corporate video department of a major professional services firm. Even though my job involved lighting, camera and grip work, we had to wear button-up shirts and nice slacks to work. I only had like two pairs of the pants, and I wasn’t going to invest in more because students have no money! One day, I was up in the lift adjusting big lights on the (ceiling-mounted) lighting grid, and the seam on my pants split — down my behind and underneath. When I came down, I grabbed a roll of duct tape, went in the little dressing room we had for the talent, and duct taped the pants back together from the inside. Nobody noticed the seam for the rest of the day — or summer. Key takeaway — you can fix anything with a little bit of hard work and duct tape!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot helped me better appreciate our existence in this crazy universe and keep everything in perspective. We are a speck in our galaxy — a single pixel in this grand photograph. This perspective has helped me stay focused and problem solve in my career and all aspects of life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I’m a big believer in clear and engaging communication. It’s a belief that comes from my background in film, but I truly believe it’s just as essential in the business world — and there’s a real cost to not doing it right. Consider our current situation around return-to-work in the age of COVID-19 and how companies need to clearly communicate around the exact process and policies of returning to work. If that information does not land with audiences — because it is unclear or because it’s boring and not engaging — people will come back, not having absorbed the information, and infect other people.
There’s a lot that goes into effective communication from business leaders, but companies need to have the right tools to convey their messages. I believe video is the strongest medium for business communication, but many business professionals don’t have the resources and tools to use that medium — and that’s where Vyond comes in. Vyond enables people to easily build storytelling and visual dynamism into their communication. That’s our purpose and what gets me excited each and every day because we’re helping companies be stronger communicators to build their businesses and deepen their relationships with internal and external audiences.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
There are a lot of decisions that you’ll need to make running a business and it’s so easy to get fired up over one piece of data or jump to a particular and popular conclusion. That’s a trap. Build the discipline to take a 360-degree view of an issue. You’ll never have all the information you need but get what you can in the time you have. Then focus on what’s real, trust your instinct and ignore all the noise.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Navigating this crisis is unlike anything we have seen. It’s important to keep things in perspective and try our best to navigate this new realm, together. I share some things I’ve been doing to help me navigate the situation in an upcoming question.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The first challenge is the one many businesses are facing — how to keep people engaged with their colleagues when they can’t just walk over to each other’s’ desks. How do you keep morale and team spirit high without seeing each other’s’ faces? To that end, we leaned heavily on video conferencing tools like Slack and video calls. We have a question of the day channel in Slack, moderated by our awesome office manager. We do virtual lunches and happy hours. We’ve tried to keep our virtual all-hands meetings as interactive as possible.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve started a #quarantine-beard channel on Slack, where we can keep up with the overgrowth on some of our employee’s faces.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The first one is to be grateful. We are facing a lethal health risk, but we can mitigate the risk we face by following precautions. This is a gift, for both our mental state and the actual health of our families.
(This doesn’t apply for all, such as the elderly in nursing homes or medical professionals on the front lines, but you asked me what I say to my family).
The second is to choose a “lockdown goal”. I’ve lost my recreational sport (ice hockey) so I’ve set different fitness goals. I walk a certain amount every day and hit the exercise machine a few times a week. I know other people who made reading lists, which I think is a great idea. Other people took online courses. Or started practicing a musical instrument. The main point is to come out of the lockdown period having achieved something tangible, that you wouldn’t have achieved under normal circumstances.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
During this period, we’ve gone nearly fully remote. In the post-COVID world, we won’t be fully remote, but we’ll do more things remotely than we used to. So “remote engagement tools” will be a big area. We’ve already seen “Zoom” become a household word.
We all look terrible on video calls. But I’m not sure it’s the camera’s fault. Many mobile devices have outstanding cameras. So it’s us! We all look terrible! Really, it’s the camera work. Often the camera is above our head, or shooting up from our chin. We’re in the dark, or back lit, or in front of a messy room. I suspect this time next year, home video call kits will be a thing. Three small lights and a green screen, or something to that effect. Your knee-jerk reaction is that people won’t do that — they’ll think it’s too hard. And you’re right. But then there will be an important job interview or a really important meeting. We all (used to) dress and groom ourselves for success. In the new normal, we will also light ourselves. And trust me, three-point lighting is not that hard.
I also think 3D printing will take another quantum leap forward. Many meetings are about showing a product or something physical. Some percentage of those meetings will not happen in the post-COVID world. People will send files, the recipients will print them, and we will discuss over well-lit video calls.
Similarly, the post-COVID world will present more boring and practical applications for AR and VR, which will help propel those industries forward.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The nature of our office space will permanently change. It won’t go away, but it will be less dense and less utilized. Put another way, we’ll be there less and have more space when we are.
There will likely be a general drift of population away from the urban centers. People will opt for the relative health, safety, lifestyle and cost-of-living benefits of lower-density areas. These will come with longer commutes, but those commutes are less likely to happen every day and will likely have less traffic. As our relationship with “the office” evolves, so will our learning, engagement, and collaboration methods.
We can expect people to also be germophobes to some degree as the health and safety of our colleagues will be prioritized now more than ever.
Beyond that, I’d rather steer clear of grand proclamations. I’ve seen headlines about “the end of the office” or “the end of cities” but that’s really premature. If the pendulum swings suddenly in one direction, it will likely swing back.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’re very thankful that our business continues to do well.
In the post-COVID economy we’ll focus on hiring to help manage our growth. The challenges there will be about modifying all the things we used to do in person all the time — like interviewing, having coffee chats, bringing people in to meet the team. We were very comfortable and confident in our previous recruiting activities and will now have to adapt.
We used to attend a lot of trade shows to “get the word out”. I would expect us to continue doing so to some degree. I also expect there to be fewer conferences, and the ones which continue will not be attended as well as they were pre-COVID. So we’ll have to find or invent new ways of introducing Vyond to thousands of people at a time.
We will also have to continue proving our value, every day, one thrilled customer at time. We did this pre-COVID and we will do it post-COVID.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Be creative. Don’t focus on the things you can no longer do. Focus on the business benefit of those activities, and workshop new ways of achieving those same benefits. You may end up with a better ROI.
I was in a discussion earlier today regarding pitching physical goods to major retailers. That used to all be done in person, through heavy business travel — that was the gospel of the retail world and there was no arguing with it. It was accepted as fact, but never tested. Now those same suppliers are realizing that they can achieve their same level of sales while drastically cutting their travel budgets, and redeploying those funds into other activities. It’s not that the existing process was wrong or broken, but with a fresh look there was room for improvement. I would encourage business leaders to embrace this moment of change and instead of dwelling on the way things used to be, take a fresh look at things, and consider how they could be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I used to practice Aikido, and I continue to be fascinated by the philosophy of the founder. Here is one quote that made a big impact on me.
“True Budo (martial arts) is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.”
O’Sensei (the founder of Aikido) was a martial arts prodigy and genius. He mastered many arts and won many competitions. His epiphany is that these victories were meaningless. A person or a nation might win a competition, a battle or a war. But the world hasn’t won. These victories come with a great cost, and sometimes engender future violence via negative emotions such as anger, resentment and revenge.
For the world to win, we must treat violence and the desire to dominate others as the enemy. He created a martial art with no offensive strikes, the sole and stated purpose of which is to receive negative energy, and bring it into peace and harmony in the universe.
If you incorporate these values as an individual, you find that ego, for instance, is fairly useless.
Similarly, a lot of business discussion is essentially “win win win — usually at the expense of someone else.” One of the things I enjoy about building startups is creating new markets and generating new value, rather than competing over slices of an existing pie.
There’s also a mandate in there for businesses to make positive contributions to their communities.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can visit Vyond.com and sign up for our emails, or follow us on social media (details below).
- Twitter: @L1pk0
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lipko/