How Becoming an Entrepreneur Helped This Refugee Connect in America
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Who are you and what’s your business?
My name is Paul Kats. As a refugee from the Soviet Union, my biggest challenge growing up American was not fitting in and feeling like an outsider. Being an entrepreneur was a natural fit for me to create a community of collaborators to help bring new realities into the world. Currently, I am the CEO of Los Angeles-based Vyng.
What problem is Vyng solving?
Vyng is a video caller ID app that lets you set the video your friends see when you call them. Most apps were not designed for users around the world getting their first smartphones. Tech literacy, bandwidth and other constraints create a barrier of entry for self-expression and connection. The promise of Vyng is bringing self-expression and emotion to existing mobile behaviors to these users.
How much has it been used?
Vyng has served over 2 billion videos in over 170 countries since its 2017 launch. We've raised over $7 million to bring our vision to reality.
How did you come up with the idea?
Vyng started when my best friend, Jeffrey Chernick, received a call from his friend and the ringtone was his friend's voice. “Wouldn't it be cool if you could control the content on your friends’ phones?” he asked. I thought so. So I took the idea to a local hackathon and we built a prototype in 48 hours and won. With an idea this big we needed the right team to bring it to life.
How did you do that?
My best skill is bringing people together around a common vision. I looked for co-founders that complimented each other with unique skill sets. Jeffrey has a unique social and business aptitude. Sohrab Pirayesh is a legendary filmmaker and product visionary. Art Haedike is a veteran in mobile tech who built five products that we grew to 35 million active users at inMarket Media (where we had worked previously). On day one, Sohrab immediately said, “What about video?” After that, it was off to the races.
What was your experience on Elevator Pitch like?
Absolutely surreal! Being in front of the camera was frightening, and takes you out of your body. Luckily, I had just completed our series A roadshow where I pitched Vyng over 120 times to investors around the globe. I could do the elevator pitch in my sleep.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
You need to put yourself out there and network. Add value to every interaction you have and ask for introductions to investors from other founders. Every investor that we have came from a warm introduction by our network. And record yourself giving your pitch! It’s tough at first, but seeing yourself in action will help you hone your speed, tone and articulation.
What was your toughest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Our first release worked perfectly on our phones at our office in Santa Monica, and all the local users we tested with on the Promenade had a great experience. The moment we launched international, the feedback was unanimous that the app did not work in the varying tech, bandwidth and carrier conditions around the world. To overcome the challenge, we got into a van and took daily trips to Tijuana, Mexico, to a local university and tested our app with students for weeks. Our entire tech team sat at the lunch tables while we handed out gift cards and spent the night in a nearby Holiday Inn until we fortified our tech stack. We returned to Santa Monica to launch our product and watched as it worked and caught on globally.
Describe your company culture and how you helped shape it.
Having a global team is not without its challenges. The most prominent issues are being in separate physical spaces, time zones and language and cultural differences. To combat this we came up with Vyng abroad. A two-week retreat where the entire company (16 people and their significant others) all met up in Indonesia where we co-worked and co-lived. There we did team-building and emotional intelligence exercises, went white water rafting, reidentified and recommitted to our core values. It created a sense of unity, friendship, a shared sense of purpose and focus on starting better conversations.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
“The cavalry is not coming.” The quote refers to an existential concept of owning your destiny instead of reacting to outside forces in the hope that it will bring you closer to your goal. When the runway is getting short, the users are not getting your product and you need more resources, remember: no one outside the team will save your company. The cavalry is not coming. You control your own destiny!