Innovators Series: An interview with Damon Wayans

While attending Pepcom’s MobileFocus event in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to speak with Damon Wayans. He is known as one of America’s funniest stand-up comedians, most beloved TV dads, and a co-creator of the groundbreaking 90s late night show, “In Living Color”.  Now he can add to his resume 'tech entrepreneur.'   Damon was at the MobileFocus event to personally demonstrate his new mobile app called Vhedz (pronounced vee-hedz).

Vhedz is an entertainment app that offers a new way of engaging with video. Vhedz allows users to post up to 30 seconds of video inside 1-4 small TV screens (or custom frames) that can be layered over photos or other videos. Users can customize their videos with different filters, text, or drawings, and post to the Vhedz community and other social media sites.  Vhedz is now available on iTunes and Google Play.  

What drives a world famous comedian and actor to pursue a tech innovation? What lessons has he learned as a tech entrepreneur?

We sat down to find out more.

Inspiration

Why invent a new app?  The simple answer is that Damon is a tech enthusiast. He sees technology as a necessary part of our lives, and feels that there is a big opportunity to develop a community.  His bigger answer, however, is that he sees an untapped opportunity for people to connect with technology.

“One of my goals is to inspire urban youth. There is more than rap music. There is more than basketball. My belief is that urban youth don’t get into tech because it's not cool. My family needs to be in tech. My friends need to be in tech. My grandchildren need to be in tech. I need to create something. I’m trying to make tech cool.”

A vision like this doesn’t take shape overnight. As most innovators will tell you, inspiration can come from anything at any time. The trick is paying attention to your intuition when it hits you. For Damon, that first moment was at the Eiffel Tower years ago.  He went to Paris right after Michael Jackson died, and found people dancing under the Eiffel Tower, celebrating the man and his music.

That moment planted a seed, and formed the desire to capture that moment in time, where he could be a reporter on the scene. Some ideas never go anywhere, while others stick with us over time. Often without realizing, we become more observant and gather input that helps our ideas evolve. Damon’s idea took shape as he observed problems with social media today.

“Children will spend hours just looking at photos and video. They're being lazy. I want them to get more involved. I want them to be more engaged. To have more fun.”

 “If I posted a picture of my granddaughter, who is gorgeous, someone is going to say ‘go back to Africa you little monkey’. People can say these terrible things, and they can hide. They are basically being cowards.”

These puzzle pieces (reporting, fun, sharing, and accountability) started to form into an idea for a product.   Damon wanted to build a community for sharing videos, both funny and serious.  It would be different from other video apps because you would be able to see the faces of those who are posting.  As he tells it, “I want to see your eyes. The eyes don’t lie.”

How does Vhedz, an entertainment app, begin to confront broader social issues like inspiring urban youth or trolling? In Damon’s eyes, entertainment is a gateway to something bigger. Vhedz is funny and cool; just the type of thing that could become viral and engage a bigger audience. When people get used to making videos this way, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll use it for a bigger cause.

“Twitter is great, but it robs you of your voice. Can I really express my outrage about Trayvon Martin in 140 characters? No. And shooting video is great, but you can’t see the commentator. I want to know who is speaking.”

His product took shape around this passion. When I asked Damon how much passion mattered, he said:

“If I was to do it purely for money, I would have gotten scared out of it already. You do something for a purpose; for a cause. If the cause is not greater than you, don't do it. It has to be more than you.”

Beginning the Journey

Most people with big ideas never take the chance. Fear paralyzes them before they even get out of the gate, or as Damon put it:

“You have to be fool enough to innovate. You have to believe almost like an insane person in your idea. That’s what it takes to bring your idea to the world.”

Foolish or not, Damon doesn’t count on success - he designs a plan for it. Experiences that led to his success in the world of entertainment act as a framework to follow as a tech entrepreneur: find your starting point, study the greats, and set realistic expectations.

Find your starting point:  Damon explained that overcoming fear begins by simply putting one foot in front of the other.  Recognize that you are not necessarily starting from scratch.  Reassess what it really means to begin. What can you build from?

“Fear stops you from doing. There is nothing new under the sun. Before the plane, there was the bird. You have to think, I'm really not starting with zero. I wish I could paint. Well I can't paint, but I can take a photo and put filters over it, so let’s start with that.”

Venturing into new territory can feel overwhelming, making you hyper-aware of what you don’t know and what you aren’t good at. It’s important to rely on your strengths, even if you’re headed into an unknown space. Damon’s move into the tech world was a calculated move that he felt leveraged his strengths.

“I have 30 years of experience in entertainment. I know video. I know photo. I know how to make people laugh. How can I apply those to the world of technology?”

Study the greats:  As he found in comedy, anyone with a high level of curiosity and a hunger to succeed could learn from those who have come before them. The same is true for innovation.

“As a comedian, if you want to be great, you study the greats: Pryor, Carlin, Chaplin. It’s not just what they say. Charlie Chaplin performed in silent films. You look at how he uses his body language to make people laugh. It’s the same thing with tech. I read every biography I can get my hands on…..Elon Musk, Biz Stone, Richard Branson, and every book written about Steve Jobs. I read anything I can find on innovation to learn from the greats.”

Set realistic expectations:  He points out that reading and preparation is no guarantee of success. There is no such thing as a guarantee when you’re taking the risk to innovate. Preparation only serves to help you see clearly and to set expectations.

“You can learn from it, but you can't cheat the process. It's better to understand what could happen. Look, Steve Jobs was thrown out of his own company. You have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for everything that's going to come at you.” 

For an entrepreneur, rejection is one important part of the preparation. Damon points out that, “Nothing prepares you for rejection like doing stand-up.” Stand-up taught him not to give up, but to persist and keep developing new material. Keep trying a different way. “Then one night, it just clicks.”

What have you learned?

Each innovator’s journey teaches something unique. Damon describes three main lessons: find and motivate the right people, train your ear to listen, and simplify to amplify.

Find and motivate the right people:  Damon realized early that he had to find people with skills he didn’t have. 

“The first challenge I faced was finding the right developers. You need to meet developers that can take your idea and make it real. They need to share your vision. It shouldn’t feel like you’re trying to convince your team of the vision.”

Once he found the right people, he found that communications could be tricky.

"I had to learn to talk to developers in a way that would get them to do what I needed. To gain their respect, you have to know some things. I do not code, and at the beginning I did not understand the jargon. I didn't know I should have “frame by frame layout.” Steve Jobs also didn’t code, but he knew how to share his vision in the language that coders would understand. That is what I had to learn.”

Train your ear to listen:  You have to share your idea with people and listen to their feedback. As Damon puts it, training your ear means listening for useful information that will help you make your product better, but also filtering out information that isn’t useful.

It can be all too easy for inventors to dismiss negative feedback, but success hinges on listening to it. When Damon first created Vhedz, the videos were made of animated stick figures with old tube TVs placed on their heads. Early feedback showed that people liked the TVs, but they weren’t excited about the stick figures. So Damon searched for different ways to implement his idea, and kept getting feedback. As he tells it, “Iterate. Publish. Iterate.”

The second part of “ear training” is how to filter out information you don’t need.

“We had film students at the New York Film Academy do three music and video projects. The stuff that I got back was amazing. But I also got really technical feedback, like comments on the white balancing. My audience isn’t that technical. I had to just let that go.”

Simplify to amplify:  It’s too easy to make things too complicated. When Damon shared the Vhedz beta, he could see that it was too hard for people to figure out:

“I kept building Rolls Royce models, and then having to scale down to a Prius. I’d show it to people. I’d soft launch to make sure there were no bugs. When I gave it to people who had never used it before, they would say ‘I don’t like it.’ But it wasn’t that they didn’t like the idea.  The problem was they couldn’t figure out how to use it. When people get an app, they don’t have a long attention span to learn it. It has to be easy. Simplify to Amplify.”

At least Damon was fortunate in that his users would tell him that they didn’t like the product.  Sometimes people won’t tell you what is wrong.  It’s important to be curious enough to observe what isn’t working, and investigate what isn’t said.

Sum it up

It’s easy to recognize the genius of superstar innovators like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, however we often fail to notice moments of brilliance among those still on their own journeys. Many believe that you must be a genius, an enormous risk taker, or incredibly lucky to succeed in the game of innovation. Damon Wayans’ approach reminds me of different philosophy: You make our own luck. Success comes from passion and preparation. It requires enough flexibility to listen, learn, iterate, and improve. More than anything, it takes determination.

“Nobody can stop you, but you. And shame on you if you’re the one who stops yourself.”  - Damon Wayans

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