I had the pleasure of interviewing Ste Thompson, Founder and CEO of Powster, a multi-million dollar, award winning creative studio powering the majority of the movie industry’s web presence and ticketing sites, with studios in Los Angeles and London.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
I’ve always loved interactivity, the fact you can engage with a computer and get so many different outcomes. It blew my mind that you can create innovation so easily due to the digital landscape being so unexplored. I had a background in eSports (high level competition in computer games), digital media and creating things for the music industry when I founded Powster at the age of 24. The concept was to make posters interactive online so you could click on a DJ’s artwork and listen to the music without leaving the graphic. It was seen by music labels and got the attention of movie studios. The work branched out into music videos and innovative interactive concepts that have won awards. We never needed any advertising and have not had a sales team at Powster until only recently, we’ve been lucky enough for the clients to come to us.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Powster doesn’t have a singular business model, instead we create innovative digital experiences which we believe are fun and engaging and some of them turn out to be hugely viable as products. There’s been times when clients have asked for something we’ve done before, which would be the easy route, but we pitched doing something new and exciting instead and take their campaign to the next level.
We achieve this by having a team we call Powster Labs whose mission is to discover new ways of telling stories and engaging people digitally.
Powster at its core is a space for ideas, and bringing those ideas to life. Once they’ve been brought to life, they can gain traction and become products on their own. Due to this we don’t get left behind, we are constantly pushing forward and keeping up with the way digital is changing, and I think that’s our unique quality. We aren’t just business people pushing a product, we are inventors looking at the future and constantly building new things.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
The Powster team now puts out between 100 and 170 movie ticketing / websites every month, it gives us unparalleled access to the movie studios’ marketing teams, which means we have the opportunity to pitch ideas and concepts on almost any movie releasing. The opportunity itself is exciting. Our technology powers some of the biggest movie websites in the industry such as missionimpossible.com and deadpool.com during their theatrical release. We even created the Star Wars Force Awakens official websites for over 25 countries.
Some of our products have become so big that we have full teams running them. We have just recently hired sales people and marketing to take the next step and make Powster realise its full potential.
We’re currently pushing utility and functionality in Augmented Reality with Facebook. Our latest product from Powster Labs lets you see showtimes for movies by simply pointing your Facebook camera at the movie poster.
We have proprietary technology to make visual effects interactive in real-time, we also have the technology to reconstruct a movie scene from the left and right eye 3D still imagery. It’s all exciting to work on and be part of but probably the most exciting opportunity we have is what we might create next. Every year we add a line item for a labs’ product in our budget with ambitious revenue against it and I have no idea what it’s going to be, but we’re always able to create something.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
The book that’s had the deepest impact on my life didn’t contain many words, it was “Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games”. The book (and chess in general) was an obsession when I was growing up, learning strategies and learning the philosophy of chess. The ability to think logically and very quickly is a crucial skill when making tons of business decisions every day. Everything is connected and leads to something else and being able to get a feel for how your decisions will impact and butterfly effect other things is huge.
Having an electronic chess set was one of my earliest memories of interactivity and AI. I was fascinated by how the computer could calculate so much so fast. I was interested in the human who programmed it and trying to understand where they may have made mistakes and trying to find those mistakes to win the game. It’s more playing versus the original programmer of the AI rather than the computer and that human element that stayed inside the board was epic to me. It’s part of the reason I got into computers and creating interactive experiences.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a 20-Something Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1 - Go for it.
If you have a good idea you should try to make it happen. Ideas are easy to come by but it’s your ability to simply go for it and make it happen which separates people who do big things and people who just think about big things. Prototyping and creating things has never been easier, it doesn’t take mountains of effort to see how well something does or if it can get traction. Just start making it happen, take small steps daily to progress your concept into reality.
2 - Bootstrap is an option.
You don’t need to raise big investment or seed funding to make your concept happen, Powster is completely bootstrapped and has never taken investment. If your concepts are viable you should be able to generate a profit out the gate. You can take the risk of failure on yourself and it may even motivate you further. The best thing is, that if it does become successful you will own 100% of it.
Don’t get caught up in the VC game, just focus on what you need to do to make your concept happen, it doesn’t always have to go through funding. If you get a good enough prototype and prove your concept is profitable then it could be easier to get investment if it’s required.
3 - Relax and do your best.
Things don’t have to be perfect. You’ll be competing with people with more experience and a bigger team than you but all you can really do is your best. There will be moments which are mega stressful but as long as you’re putting the right amount of effort in you can relax knowing you’re doing everything you can. Ups and downs are inevitable but if you expect them, you can give yourself the room to think clearly and make the best decisions without being distracted by stress.
You’ll have moments when it feels like everything is going wrong but those only exist in contrast to things going right, it’s expected. You should push on regardless and ride the wave and if you remain rational and make the best decisions, even in tough situations, you’ll end up in the best place possible.
4 - Care about people.
Everyone you interact with has their own agenda and goals, you should help them achieve them. If you can find out what people want to do with their lives there’s often a venn diagram overlap with yours, that’s the sweet spot to focus on. You’ll both be motivated. If you honestly care about people and want to help them do well then they’ll often return the favor. Each person you interact with has the opportunity to help you and your business down the line so give everyone time, and do the right thing. It’s just a nice way to be in general so don’t be selfish or ignorant.
Your own team is the life of the business, pay special attention to what they are passionate about and help them work toward it. You’ll gain loyalty and great friendships. Don’t treat them like a resource. Even when it’s bad for your business, it’s still better to do what’s best for the team, like letting someone work on their passion project or in an area of business which has low opportunity but is really rewarding for the people working on it. Others on the team will see that and respect it and know you have their interests at heart. Take some hits here and there and you’ll be fine and you’ll end up with a team that has your back which is worth a lot more than the few times you had to help people out.
5 - Be open and learn from everyone.
The moment you think you know it all you’ve stopped learning, and learning is how you progress and keep up with the changing world around you. Everyone you meet has an opportunity to teach you something and help you become better at what you do or be a better person in general, even if it’s teaching you how not to act.
It’s never too late to start following the right blogs, and subscribing to the right newsletters, and reading the right books. It all adds up and big ideas can come from the smallest places. We share a lot of our techniques and ideas on the Powster Labs’ Medium, Twitter, and Instagram.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I’d love to get lunch with John Carmack, he was one of the original pioneers in 3D game programming and now CTO for Oculus VR. I wouldn’t be able to talk on his technical level because he’s literally one of the most talented and respected programmers in the world, but I’d love to find out how he learns and how he keeps on top of innovations and future technology. His tweets are highly technical but give a glimpse into the way he approaches problems; rather than accepting inefficiencies he’ll often find workarounds or even suggest the fixes.
Jean: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
— Published on June 27, 2018