Before Marvel’s “Black Panther” hit the box office, Russell Ladson talked about building a virtual wearable — a piece of hardware to replace the smartphone.
Now he hopes to create a prototype of that within the next five years, and he says it could look something like the Kimoyo beads you saw the characters wearing in “Black Panther”.
“We’re big sci-fi fans at Drop,” Ladson told Moguldom. “We like to say we have the vibranium.”
Based in San Francisco, Drop is backed by venture capital from firms including HTC (Vive X is HTC’s VR-focused global accelerator program), Autochrome Ventures, Backstage Capital, Macro Ventures and Matter Ventures.
One of the most popular and downloaded VR titles on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset, Drop is also available on Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality.
After graduating from Morehouse College, Ladson worked as an investment banking analyst. Today, at 29 years old, he’s leading what has been described as the “Google Chrome for VR.”
Learn more about this mogul in our Moguldom interview, part of the Mogul Watch series:
Moguldom: Why did you start Drop?
Russell Ladson: I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I had no intentions of starting a company after college. I spent the first few years after graduating college working in investment banking. During that time, I was in an exploratory phase in life, where I asked myself, “OK, what’s next?” Most of my interests have always been around technology and art and trying to figure out how to blend the two.
I started looking at top graduate programs, and while doing so, I was involved in a near-fatal car accident in April 2013. I remember being in a hospital and the doctors saying, “Your injuries don’t match the physics of the accident. You’re extremely lucky to be alive right now.” I hate to say it because it is such a cliché, but when you have one of those near-death experiences, it increases your level of self-awareness. I knew then, whatever I would do next, it couldn’t be something just because it pays me a lot of money or because my family or what society expects. I took some time to figure out what’s next.
Little did I know my obsession with information discovery on your computing device would turn into a startup known as Drop. When I started Drop, I was looking at how are people going to interact with information in the future. How are we going to use our computing devices? What will this all look like in a post-smartphone world? Here we are four years later as one of the leading VR and AR browsers on the HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and Oculus Rift.
“I left San Francisco for five months to live in Hong Kong and be closer to the Chinese market. VR and AR advancements move at a much faster pace there than in the U.S. market.” — Russell Ladson, founder and CEO at Drop.
Moguldom: You immersed yourself in the VR and AR industry in and outside of the U.S., correct?
Russell Ladson: When I was working in investment banking, I lived in New York City. When I started Drop, I was in New York. By January 2016, I was spending so much time in Silicon Valley; I decided to move here. I hate to say it, but there’s no place like Silicon Valley when you’re trying to build an early-stage venture. I left San Francisco for five months to live in Hong Kong and be closer to the Chinese market. VR and AR advancements move at a much faster pace there than in the U.S. market.
“Being a Black-founded company to receive an investment is a win in itself.”
Moguldom: What are some notable wins for Drop?
Russell Ladson: A few small wins would include being a venture-backed company. When we closed our first seed round of capital, it came from the leading VR/AR hardware provider, HTC. The round included HTC, Macro Ventures (which is led by Charles King), Backstage Capital with Arlan Hamilton, Autochrome Ventures with Vaughn Blake, and Matter Ventures with Corey Ford. We also had three angel investors participate in a round as well. Being a Black-founded company to receive an investment is a win in itself, let alone with these companies. Another notable win is that Drop is one of the most popular and top downloaded VR titles on the HTC Vibe. Plus, we’re also an early developer and launch partner for the stand-alone headset by HTC called the HTC Vive Focus. I feel like a good part of our success is because of HTC discovering us and giving us the opportunity to build software that we had always envisioned at Drop.
Moguldom: What are your thoughts on building a good team?
Russell Ladson: Building a good team starts with you. I am a firm believer that companies, early-stage ventures, are just a reflection of the founder(s) and founding team. I think building a good team begins first with the CEO having a great sense of self-awareness, having a solid understanding of what the vision is for both the company and the product. I also believe there must be what I call a “creative process” for how things get built at the company. These things must be in place before you even start hiring people. I say this because you’re going to attract people based on values in which you believe and establish at your company.
Moguldom: What does success look like for you?
Russell Ladson: Success at Drop looks like creating a body of work that can stand on its own, is value-driven and an extension of the human experience. In 10, 15, or 30 years from now (success looks like) Drop still being a leading technology company, whether I’m at the helm of the company or not.
“I found that creativity works best for me when I take off two days for myself … If I’m not in the office or home, ask any of my friends and they will probably tell you, ‘Russ is out hiking somewhere.'”
Moguldom: How do you keep the creativity flowing to make the best product and services for your clients?
Russell Ladson: I found that creativity works best for me when I take off two days for myself. I spend time reading books, talking to my friends and seeing what they’re creating. Many of my friends are artists so what they work on inspires me. I also help to drive my creativity by spending time outdoors. If I’m not in the office or home, you can ask any of my friends, and they will probably tell you, “Russ is out hiking somewhere.”
I think the closer we can get to nature, the closer we can (get to) gain a sense of awareness. When you’re building and designing technology products to help the world connect in a more meaningful and authentic way you need a humanistic and esoteric touch with what’s happening, in nature and the real world.
Regarding how I keep the creativity flowing at Drop, we have a very exploratory culture. Our three values are: be curious, be understanding and be creative. Being creative means embracing inner artist within with our medium of choice. I encourage our team after a sprint or new feature to go and build something. It doesn’t have to be related to Drop. They just need to go and create.
Moguldom: What is in store for the next five years?
Russell Ladson: I see Drop moving into a space where we will begin creating the foundational tools needed for the next generation of computing. Very similar to how Microsoft was, in early Genesis days, something like that happening. I see Drop with a full suite of tools to enable the VR and AR ecosystem. I also have another vision. Before Marvel’s “Black Panther”, I used to talk about building a virtual wearable, a piece of hardware to replace the smartphone. I would like to create a prototype of that within the next five years, and it could look something like the Kimoyo beads you saw the characters wearing in “Black Panther”. We’re big sci-fi fans at Drop. We like to say we have the vibranium.
Moguldom: What will people say about your leadership years from now?
Russell Ladson: I always say people build products, people use products, and people become your greatest asset. I think the first thing people will say about my leadership style is, “Russ gave me space as an engineer, as a designer, as a researcher, as a technologist, to build the future of immersive and spatial computing.” I think they will also say, “I did my best work at Drop.” The second thing they would probably say is I have a very strong product vision for what we’re building and how it relates to humanity and being responsible technologists.
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