The unique lessons of Oculus


The news broke today that Oculus is joining Facebook for $2 billion, and we couldn’t be happier for Palmer, Brendan, Nate, Laird and the amazing crew over at Oculus. These guys are the kind of people, and a mission, that startups are all about. As Santo wrote about, we fell for this company hard from the first moment we saw them.

There will be lots of stories about what this means for Facebook, Oculus, and the world of virtual reality but I think mostly about how this team has executed so incredibly well while carving a very unique path every step of the way. 

These guys are the epitome of a missionary company trying to bring a truly amazing product to the world. That missionary nature has allowed them to ignore much of the standard startup ethos and follow their hearts in several ways that defy convention. 

1. Don’t be afraid to be small – Oculus started as an ambitious hobby project, and they have fought hard to not lose those roots. A lot of startups try to look bigger than they are, but Oculus has taken a different track by just being transparent about their position.

For instance they don’t have a launch date because, simply, they don’t know when the consumer product will be good enough. They have been remarkably open and blunt about the technical hurdles needed to bring the product to market. And they initially started raising on Kickstarter because that was the stage of the business at that time even though some said it would send the wrong message.

If you spend all your time trying to be as polished as Apple or Sony then you are also setting expectations that you are going to execute your first product like them. And that, unfortunately, leaves absolutely no room for error.

The folks at Oculus were mission driven from the core, which let them have the courage to say you should believe in them not because they were the most polished company but because they cared more than anyone else and they were your best shot. That meant that even when an order page went down, or first developer units made some people nauseous, instead of complaining everyone was on their side. For all the press attention on Oculus every week, they have spent most of their life actually looking smaller than they really are.

2. The best marketing is a mission – There is no Chief Marketing Officer at Oculus, there is not even a VP of Marketing. Despite the tremendous amount of Oculus press that happens every week there is basically no playbook. That isn’t to say they aren’t amazing at but there is no inbound content marketing strategy or master plan at work.

The simple fact is that they built an undeniably amazing product, so they shared it with others and talked about it as much as they could. When you have a mission, and an amazing product, you can dominate the market not by tactics but by heart. In many ways when you in the rare situation of creating a market versus competing in a market, this can be the best strategy.

3. Hire your CEO – I have been a founder/CEO twice, and I personally believe it is the best situation when the founder can be the CEO long term. But Palmer Lucky had the intuitive sense, and tremendous humility, to realize he might be an exception. Palmer brought in Brendan Iribe as CEO not to try and raise money, or because some board of directors said so. In fact he brought in Brendan before there was any outside money or a board of directors.

He brought in Brendan because he knew he wanted a person to do that job and he didn’t put too much ego on that title. That bit of information should tell you a lot about who Palmer is, and about who Brendan is in getting so heavily involved that early. I don’t expect this to be the right plan of action for a lot of startups, but it is a textbook case of ignoring convention and doing what is right for your company.

4. Be an outsider – Like a lot of hardware startups the early team at Oculus is mostly software engineers learning hardware. Palmer and others are hardware hackers for sure, but this is not the story of an amazing hardware visionary like Tony Fadell, the “father of the iPod,” spinning out of Apple to start Nest.

This is a group of folks building something because they believe in it, adding world class expertise like John Carmack along the way, but always keeping an outsider mentality. It made the learning curve much steeper, but it also allowed them to question a lot of common assumptions.

Of course no startup should follow these steps and assume they will work for them. They just remind me that these guys have been successful because they have been true to themselves. And that will likely continue for the team with Facebook.

They will have deep pockets from a partner that is focused on the platform of the future. But also, in Mark they have an entrepreneurial partner that is also an outsider to the machinations of the hardware business. I expect that much like Instagram and Whatsapp they will be left to their own devices to flourish, and I expect they will. The future for them is exciting.

The excitement about seeing that future is of course a little bittersweet. Our involvement with Oculus was all too short and I will miss those day flights down to Irvine. But all of us at Spark will continue to help them in any way we can because, just as before we invested, we believe in the vision. We’re rooting for them.