As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Foster.
Ian is the founder and CEO of Center Cam, the world’s first middle-screen webcam aimed at helping bring back human connection to video conferencing. He’s a father and husband to an incredible family, a social worker to adolescents, a hands-on entrepreneur, and an Alaska gold-diver.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My path has been irregular. As a teenager, I wore a lava-lava for 8 months on a beach in Western Samoa in a boy’s camp. I was wearing a tie in Venezuela when Chavez was elected. Rode a motorcycle around Baja California and ate street tacos daily for a year after that. Was gifted a beautiful english-translated Quran in Zanzibar. Accidentally became a mule for a diamond trader in Congo. Pitched a gold-diving show to a major network and ended up on a couple of seasons of a show. I’ve lived outside the US for 4 years, add another 12 if you count Alaska as a foreign country, which some endearingly do. :) There is one part of me that really, truly and deeply wants to make the world a better place; the other part of me wants to have grand and crazy adventures. So far so good.
I have formal education but I consider my 10 years as a gold-diver to be the most important training I’ve had.
When the pandemic hit, I was interning at a specialty boarding school as a substance use counselor to finish my MSW. Our school discontinued in-person internships, so we switched to remote- and it was lame. The young men I was working with couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see them, I mean, in any meaningful sense. The tech got in the way of that human connection.
In 10 years of gold-diving, I developed a specific way of viewing problems. In gold-diving, you have to implement solutions with limited resources and time, every minute of down-time is costing you money if you aren’t mining. I looked at the screen, and realized to make video-conferencing suck less, the focal angle needed to be in the middle of the screen. I sourced the smallest camera I could find, it was oriented wrong, there wasn’t a way to move it efficiently, it wasn’t attached well at the USB connection point, and there lots of problems. Some zip-ties and duct tape got me to my first prototype. It was a start. Slowly we designed a webcam that could move side/side/up/down efficiently. We launched the Kickstarter in January of 2021, and toward the beginning of the second week, we knew we had something. The response since then has been pretty remarkable.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I started my company, my wife and I had just gotten married, I had sunk everything I had into a real-estate project that was taking its time to sell, we had less than $3k in the bank, and we were pregnant. That’s when the Kickstarter launched. I ran out of money right as our Facebook ad campaign hit its stride. I had to borrow money to pay for our marketing. But that was the moment I realized that this idea was going to hit. Up until then, it was just faith and grit that kept us going. There are plenty of good ideas that never make it anywhere through a combination of poor market timing or poor strategy. But even the best strategy can’t overcome poor timing. Sometimes an idea is just ahead of its time. Or it’s just a poor idea, even if it seems to solve an important problem. The idea resonated with people, and here we are.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We’ve been featured in a number of outlets, but out of the blue we got a reply from the tech section of a top 5 U.S. newspaper. My calendar hadn’t been updated, so I stood them up for our first meeting. I apologized, overnighted them a Center Cam, and rescheduled. When I showed up for the next meeting- they waited for me to start the presentation. I had thought they wanted to interview me. There was an awkward pause until the journalist then explained that he’d been told by his boss to meet with me, and basically knew nothing about it. He said he’d received the Center Cam but didn’t know what it was. I began to explain who we are, what we’re doing (think of the bad pen sales-pitches from Wolf of Wallstreet), and then the internet connection started lagging. The journalist said to his co-worker, losing a little patience, “I can’t hear him. Can you hear him?” It was so perfectly bad it was almost scripted. I couldn’t have designed a worse entrance to this outlet if I’d tried. It was laughably awkward.
I put my head down, did some box breathing, and proceeded once the connection caught up. We had a subsequent meeting where I helped him connect the Center Cam.
So many lessons from this one- but over-preparation is one that stands out. At that point, most of the people in our ecosystem were fans- and I hadn’t actually pitched many non-believers. They were extremely gracious about the hiccups, but it taught me to never take for granted who you’re talking to, and to have something worth saying. And, review your calendar, periodically at least. Island time is no more for me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The first time I went to Africa, I accompanied a woman named Janet Tanner, who was the Chair of a non-profit, and was finishing her PhD in economics. I was her shadow for a month, as she interviewed American volunteers, Ugandan educators, students, NGO partners, legislators, etc. Seeing her operate, getting access to the conversations I was given access to, and having my questions taken seriously altered my life. I didn’t know what she was at the time, but she was my mentor. She consistently helped me to level-up, inviting me on the board of her NGO with some incredibly talented people at a time when I didn’t realize how valuable my own tool-set is. She taught me so many things, but she taught me that you can be a force and be caring. It gave me a window to my own leadership style.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’ve spent a little over a quarter of my life in places where I was a minority, and have been treated graciously by my hosts. Some of the rural places I’ve been to an entire village/street would turn out to see the Muzungu/Gringo. There are profound things you can learn from people living in a hut with a dirt floor extending hospitality to a foreigner. To me.
The organization of my executive team is diverse in the context of the way we look at problems- but if you were to look at us visually, we’re pretty white. This is simply a function of proximity and network. Bryan is my brother-in-law and has been a guy who was instrumental in shaping Center Cam. He spent the first year working for free just to help the idea succeed. He was the only one that put out this level of work for so long, so I’m hardly going to fault him for his whiteness. :) My other partner on the project is Aaron, who was my roommate for 2 years. I trust them implicitly, and there is history there that no one from a hiring pool would be able to compete with.
We don’t ever plan on hiring specifically so we look good in class photos. But I would love to hire people that don’t look like me. Our company solves problems. I firmly believe that a small organization can solve problems more dynamically than a big organization in many instances- but an organization’s ability to think dynamically is only as good as the diversity of the brains and experiences of the people in the organization. The farther away you can hire from where you’re from, the more you’re likely to see some unique solutions.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
During my second trip to Uganda, I found myself involved in a school-building project. Half the classes were meeting under a mango tree- which sounds kind of romantic, but it’s problematic during mango season. We organized a village committee, everyone donated something, land, a tree, a sawmill (chainsaw), etc. The committee was composed of 5 men, and two women. The custom in that part of Africa was for the women to sit on the ground, while the men sat on whatever stools/benches/milk-crates were available. My momma raised me right, so I naturally gave up my seat, and these sweet women flatly refused to take it. It was awkward. I sat back down, so as not to make a self-righteous scene, and we got down to business.
I am white, male, 6’1, and American. I didn’t choose any of those, they just happened to me when I came into this world. But when I’ve traveled to Africa, all of those things get me noticed. I took part in meetings there where I was deferred to as if I were some sort of celebrity, based on my appearance.
So, somewhere in there, I decided this birth lotto was something I needed to attempt to be worthy of, because it was a responsibility. In my work in rural Alaska I observed Alaska Natives’ listening habits. They listen, think, and respond. It’s incredibly deliberate, and clearly something I needed to learn. In that meeting with the Ugandan village counsel, how I used that responsibility, is I repeatedly and pointedly deferred to the women for their opinions. I asked them what they thought of the plan, I listened, asked them what we were missing, cracked some jokes about how the men never understand certain things, etc. I wanted their input. I also wanted those men to see someone who looks like me doing that. I try to let that spirit inform how I conduct my business. I want all my people to be able to voice an opinion. Sometimes I miss things. It helps me understand where they are in their professional progress, and it also helps me avoid group-think. There have been very few disasters in history where at least a few people in the room didn’t try to warn the decision-maker about the impending doom. If I were to put this into steps: 1) listen, 2) be considerate, 3) leverage your stewardship to help people grow in the ways they want/need to, 4) help people find their voice, 5) get good at steps 1–4 so people don’t know what you’re doing. It needs to actually become who you actually are. Nothing worse than a patronizing, self-righteous do-gooder.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The most important thing I do is create meaningful action steps for myself and my team that align with the overall strategy. Once a mature company is mature, many of the functions of a CEO become routines and systems. But we’re a new company, so we’re building everything from the ground up. It requires constant recalibration toward things that have bottom-line importance. I ultimately have accountability if our business makes it or not. It’s fraught with peril, and it’s super exciting. God bless my adrenals.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That you have time for golf. Being a CEO of a start-up is wild. There are a million decisions to make, people waiting on many of them. Let’s just say launching a chip based product in 2021 wasn’t kind to my laugh lines.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am essentially a creative that loves to imagine and wants to help the world be a better place. I have a box full of the skeletons of misfired prototypes of our product in my garage. Creating new things energizes me. You know what isn’t? Creating state withholding accounts for employees in other states. I’m constantly having to reassign and delegate tasks to people that can do them better. I’ve spent a lot of my life doing hard things physically for work, and that’s probably the most striking difference for me. I’m using my brain in front of a computer much of the time. Not many heavy rocks to lift in a tech company.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes and no. I trained with cage-fighters for awhile, and I got punched by some lower-level UFC guys that were amazing athletes; which is to say, in athletics, there was a vast difference between genetically gifted fast-twitch muscle guys, and the rest of us fighters. The good news though, is that aside from professional sports, I think most of us can become whatever we’re willing to pay the price to become. I think many people don’t understand how severe the piper’s payment is to actually reprogram the non-working parts of your personality and regrow into something different. There are certain things good leaders do that you’ll have to take your unique strengths and magnify them. You’ll have to dissect and split the atoms of your personality’s weaknesses and either cut them out or have effective work-arounds.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all blueprint for exceptional leadership, except maybe force of character and a certain amount of creative implementation of strategy. I’m thinking of Gandhi, Lincoln, Roosevelt(s)… remarkable leaders- very different styles. I would guess Gandhi and Lincoln were introverts, Teddy was an extrovert. They had to recharge in different ways. They dealt with the stresses of their callings in different ways. If, like me, you are an introvert, you need to understand that whatever public performances you are required to provide, you’ll need to have a plan for some quiet after the event/meeting. If you’re an extrovert, it will be easy to grab the microphone and talk-over the information your people are trying to tell you; but if you’re talking, you can’t listen. I am in meetings much of the day, and I find I can have overly-talky tendencies also. At its worst, think of Putin right now. That’s a dude that needs to listen to an alternate voice in the room.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Your company is going to reflect your values, generally. If you treat your people well, it’s more likely your people will treat your customers well. If you like to have fun in meetings, it’s more likely that that vibe will trickle down. If you talk badly about your people behind closed doors, it infuses disingenuousness into your endeavors. We live in a complicated world, but the golden rule hasn’t gone away- and it still works pretty well.
Kind of a weird story- but we had to let an employee go. They were dishonest with their hours, by a lot, after we’d given them the opportunity to be honest about them. Without this job we expected them to experience some financial hardship. We couldn’t trust them anymore, so they had to go, but we basically paid them a double paycheck for their final paycheck to help their transition. It was a little bit of kindness in the midst of accountability. I’m the one that made the decision by the numbers, but it was a discussion within our management. I don’t think “sticking it” to someone who is dishonest is the best way to help them become better for their interactions with you, and I’m sure that process informs our team about how we do business with our own people.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We believe that by making better human connections online, we’re creating a better world. So, we have some pretty clear do-good motives behind what we’re doing. If a lot of us are going to be working online, we might as well be looking at each other while we’re doing it. We’re in the growth phase of our business, so we’re not in a position to donate a lot monetarily, but we have specific causes we support. Much of our service we keep within the company as a way to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. Center Cam isn’t the end goal for us though, it’s do-good. We’re not trying to become indefinite tech-bros, we’re just trying to solve compelling problems and seeing where the rabbit hole goes.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- If you don’t smoke cigarettes- start. There have been many days, crazy uncertainty, stress through the roof, 20 things to do, cell phone is dying and computer needs an update- I’d take a drive at the end of the day and call my wife from the road,“honey, I’m going to grab a whiskey and some cigarettes.” Now, I learned early on that I’m an alcoholic so whiskey is out, and I haven’t had a cigarette since I was 17- so, spoiler- grabbing a whiskey and a cigarette is an inside joke for us. But you DO have to have a plan for the stress. Because it will hit you in the guts and heart and head and it will chip apart your vulnerabilities if you don’t have a plan for it. I like drives, damn gas prices. Cold showers, cold bath, sauna, breathing exercises, binge-watching a show now and then. By these means, I press on. But you know what REALLY eliminates stress? A good team, and solving the problems that are the source of the stress.
- Just because someone is a “professional” doesn’t mean they can help. Early on, we had a number of marketing firms reach out to us saying they could help. They talked way better about marketing than I can. But we had already achieved better results than their best examples. We’d already trademarked our logo and a graphic designer wanted to help us redesign the logo. You have to have a clear idea of what your product is, what value you and your team have, and what resources you need. Can you hire a PR firm? Sure. But going into debt for their help may be premature until you prove the concept. Can you hire an injection molder that is recommended by your distribution company? Maybe. But you might be able to spend a couple hours and source one yourself and save yourself 85%.
- Don’t let your story get in the way of THE way. Center Cam comes from a very personal place for me. I made the original marketing video to reflect this. It was 2:40 of beginning, middle, and end. It was compelling. It answered all the questions. Except after 4 days of analytics, I saw only a small percentage of people were finishing the video. But it was MY story. It was personal. It didn’t matter. I ripped up “my story.” I took the reveal at the end and put it at the beginning. I cut all non-essentials. I told the same story in 45 seconds. People watched it and it went by so fast they had to watch it again. My story, the impetus for Center Cam, my personal beliefs that it could change the way we work online, none of that mattered if people didn’t finish the marketing video. Don’t be so in love with your ideas/story/plan/goals that you can’t look at the metrics and make changes.
- Ideas aren’t unique. And neither are you. Or me. What is unique is execution. Taking an idea out of the ether, creating action steps, executing the strategy- THAT’S unique. I’ve had a million ideas, but ideas don’t matter. If you think that they do, that’s your first hurdle. Check your ego at the door, move your body and create some action and inertia around the idea. Then, you might have something.
- If you can’t take it all the way- don’t even start. What initially took me to Alaska was gold-diving. We thought the gold-diving community could become a reality show. That first summer, I captured a bunch of footage of the process, including some of the first underwater gold footage, and I eventually made a sizzle reel out of it. I registered the idea with the Writer’s Guild of America, then researched how to cold-pitch a show to a network. I pitched it to the appropriate networks and two production companies. I had a flash of inspiration on the day I sent the pitches, and put a pinch of gold dust in a plastic baggie paper-clipped to the pitch documents. A major network called me a week later. My WGA documents didn’t mean anything to them. I didn’t actually own anything. I couldn’t produce it, so they basically took the idea, walked past my little effort at ownership, and produced the show. I became a talent on the show, but after getting in front of millions of people over two seasons, I made $12k for my efforts. That informed me with Center Cam. If you can’t make it, you can’t own it. We had to produce it. Period. I spent the years in between that pitch and the launch of Center Cam becoming the guy that can produce it. Not just talk about it. Now, we have US and international patents in place, but our philosophy has always been, “the best protection is production.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I had the idea for Center Cam, when I was finishing my MSW. But the messaging for the marketing campaign of Center Cam happened because of Modern Subsistence, the capstone project I was finishing as the pandemic first hit back in spring of 2020. Modern Subsistence is a documentary short, and it was a culmination of 10 years in Alaska traveling and working with folks in the villages for much of it. I observed some of the best and worst of human nature during that time, and I thought there was something powerful and spiritual behind Native Alaskan subsistence food harvesting. There were so many layers to it, and I realized as I began trying to tell the story that a fundamental tenet of the subsistence lifestyle was connection: to land, resources, each other, and a different definition of “enough.”
I’ve also paid my bills by selling gold I got out of the ground- so my connection to the resources of the land is a little more intimate than the average cell-phone user. Stick construction methods haven’t really changed in the last 100 years. Think about that. We shut down safer resource extraction in the US and don’t blink when we buy rare-earth products (like the ones required to make the device you’re likely reading this on), made from minerals extracted in the Congo. We’ve shut down oil in the Arctic (energy self-sufficiency) to support countries with appalling human-rights records. And most importantly, we in the US enjoy the highest quality of life on pretty much every metric (except happiness) in the history of the world. We need to start looking at the land, resources, and each other differently. This is the movement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The signature line on my emails is, “there is no thrill of mortal danger to surpass that of a lone man creating something that never existed before.” Irving Stone, Agony and the Ecstasy. In that part of the book, some of Michaelangelo’s fellow apprentices are fantasizing about going to war, when the master explains how battle compares to art. In the context of sleeping in your marble-dust-stiffened clothes like Michelangelo, this quote reminds me that I am fundamentally (albeit much more humbly) a creative. I see possibilities everywhere. But when I channel that into its most focused point, it’s basically the feedback mechanism that lets me know I’m doing something worth doing. It’s a kind of exhilarating precariousness that I’m equal parts movie-watcher and the movie when I’m in that zone. Took me a long time to realize that’s the place I should inhabit professionally, so I like that quote being around often enough to remind me. Got no plans to make it into a tattoo though.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Elon Musk. But only because I think I could help him train up for his single combat with Putin.