To make PERFORM: The Unsexy Truth About (Startup) Success we contacted many founders and CEOs of successful companies so that we could use their expertise and choose the most valuable lessons and principles that worked for them. We’ve done 50+ interviews with successful founders and thought leaders from the region. Unfortunately, we couldn’t the full interviews in the book, so here we would like to share it with you, as we believe there are a lot of great insights.
Hovhannes Avoyan is the founder and CEO of PicsArt, a suite of online photo and video editing applications. He was also the President of the Union of Information Technology Enterprises of Armenia (UITE) until 2015. So here are the questions we asked Hovhannes:
1. You share that the inspiration to start PicsArt came from “solving your daughter’s problem”. Would you like to share the story? Can you say that gave you additional drive to make the product successful?
PicsArt was actually the result of a conversation with my ten-year-old daughter. Years ago, she came to me in tears after some classmates made fun of her artwork. After being bullied, my daughter didn’t feel like she had a safe space to experiment with creativity. She was stuck. This was exactly what sparked a utopian idea for me. I imagined one diverse community where people could share and create art together, regardless of skill level, language, or interests. Almost a decade later, and this concept is now an established reality. PicsArt is used by more than 150 million creators around the world every month who share nearly 1 billion images. One of them is my daughter, who now holds a degree in graphic design.
When I first conjured up the idea for PicsArt, I didn’t realize the odd position I’d put myself in. Unlike many young Silicon Valley founders of visual sharing apps, I’m a serial entrepreneur from Armenia. I come from a technical engineering and business background from abroad. I wasn’t initially in tune with youth culture, nor did I have professional experience with visual design. The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me, with PicsArt’s key demographic dominated by Millennial and Gen Z creators, whose use cases vary from fan artwork to Etsy business flyers to TikTok video edits.
As you can imagine, I’m not the most obvious leader of this cohort. However, I truly feel that it is those unexpected traits that come together to make me a strong leader. In listening to the needs of my daughter, who wanted a safe space for artistic expression, I saw her vision. But it was my differences that really made PicsArt happen in the long term. I brought my expertise and background as a seasoned founder to the table to bring our platform to fruition.
I also tackled this problem from an international perspective, as many of my ventures began in my home country of Armenia. Approaching the creative tech issue from outside a Silicon Valley mindset and with international experience is what makes PicsArt thrive globally almost a decade after its inception. I’m proud to merge cutting-edge technology and high-growth business to produce what is now the most diverse visual editing community in the world.
2. In an interview you mentioned your founders need to understand “if it’s a real problem or you just think it’s a problem”. Early-stage founders are notorious for first building products they think the market wants, and only then starting to talk to customers and validate it. What would be your message to them? Connected to that, how important is to STAY FOCUSED entirely on solving ONE PROBLEM for one customer segment, before moving on to more and expanding with many new product features too?
This is the biggest company I’ve ever built, and I wish I knew more about the next stages. Every new experience is an opportunity to level up—I learned a lot during the acquisitions of my previous companies, for example—and I’m interested in how PicsArt will grow. I do try and learn what I can ahead of time, by talking to people who have been in the position I’m in now. I ask them what worked and what didn’t. Every company is different, and I know what was successful for them may not be for us. But I think it helps to get their perspective. It’s also just nice to hear how they felt when they were in my stage. Even the most successful CEOs were new to this once and had the same feeling of, “Okay, what do I do next?”
Also, I tend to be pretty data-driven in making decisions, so I usually learn I’m wrong when the numbers show it. You can’t base everything on data, of course; sometimes you learn from mistakes or go on your intuition. But data doesn’t lie, and it can convince me to change my mind. Sometimes you do have to give something time, even when the numbers are going in the wrong direction. It depends on the feature. If it’s a strategic change we think is important for our community and the future of PicsArt, we’ll give it a few iterations and try to solve for issues with usability or presentation. But if it’s something simple like the color of a button, we can switch it back quickly. Either way, there comes a point where if the data shows it’s not working, I need to say, “Okay, let’s roll it back. I was wrong.”
3. In another interview your co-founder Artavazd mentions the culture you created in PicsArt is very result-driven. How did you create such a culture of productivity?
Could you share how you guys set the goals and objectives and make sure world-class execution follows?
The strength and future success of any product company will be determined by product management. These teams carry a heavy burden of responsibility. Get it right, and they will bring an amazing new product to market. But get it wrong, and they can kill it. This is a critical situation for many startups. Teams must understand what kind of product they should build and where it will fit in the market. Having the right people in place to decide on what product features to include that will bring real benefits and value to end users should never be underestimated. By contrast, if a product management team fails to understand their users, then the product will inevitably fail. You end up wasting resources, delivering a product that is a solution looking for a problem that nobody will use.
To help create a culture of productivity, we started an APM (Associate Product Manager) training program. Google, Facebook and other companies are doing this as well, but we adapted this program and provided an excellent curriculum of our own. Although ours was on a much smaller scale, our APM program emerged out of necessity. If we wanted to continue developing new products and features to meet our customers’ rising expectations, we needed a bigger talent pool. The training began with a bootcamp-style approach that gave the students an insight as to what we do at PicsArt. The students were then taught the fine art of negotiation. With these foundations in place, we introduced UI and UX workshops before finally moving on to UX and user research. This program has really helped us shape our team, and the ability for candidates to gain valuable experience working cross-functionally with engineers and designers to launch new products and features is priceless.
4. I watched a video where you share with every startup so far you’ve had “a near-dead experience”. Can you share a story of struggle / a major difficulty you experienced with PicsArt? What did you do to turn things around?
What helps you to remain with a “cool head” and switch to the problem-solving mode in such situations?
One of the main elements that made me who I am today is experimentation. I work in a highly creative field, and as such, I bring that same way of working to the table. Creativity means you should be confident in your ability to experiment and be free of criticism for it.
I believe that it is only by trying different avenues that you can arrive at the best answer. Because this is such a big value of mine, I don’t just practice it myself, but bring it into the workplace as well. Over the years, I’ve worked to create a culture where failure is allowed at first. I encourage colleagues, collaborators, and employees all to take creative freedom to try their hand in fresh, new ways.
Of course, when something doesn’t work out, we can go back to the drawing board and examine what the root cause of failure is. Experimentation means that mistakes are ok, and they can instead become learning moments. It means that no one has the right answer right off the bat. Brainstorming allows for the most interesting, unexpected ideas to come to the forefront. By encouraging people across the company to take risks, we make sure this workplace experimentation remains embedded in our companies’ DNAs.
5. You have achieved multiple successes as an entrepreneur. That’s not an accident. What are some of your personal habits / rituals that help you to stay at the top of your game?
I’ve learned to adapt to stress, rather than overreacting and treating it like the end of the world. I try to recognize that stress is a given and just accept it as quietly and calmly as I can. Failure is part of the game just as much as success, and if you’re not ready to fail sometimes, a startup probably isn’t the place for you. Even the strongest startups go through moments where something big goes wrong. Every company I’ve founded has had at least one near-death experience, where we lost a major customer or something else happened and I thought it was the end. After a couple of those experiences, you learn to manage your emotions. You start to recall other times you failed and then things improved, and you realize you’ll get through this time, too.
Also, a few years ago, I started to spend 15 minutes every day brainstorming. I pick a topic and write down 10 ideas. It might be something personal or something for the business—like how to increase growth or improve marketing or make a key product change. Often it’s whatever was on my mind when I went to bed the night before. If I start the day by putting down some ideas about how to fix whatever problem I’m facing, I won’t worry about it all day. Brainstorming is also important because I think creativity should be part of your job, especially as a startup founder. I always write down at least 10 ideas to help me build that creative muscle.The first four or five are usually easy to come up with. But then it gets more difficult. I might write down some crazy ideas just to fill up the list—and sometimes, the ideas that seem crazy at first end up being the best ones.
6. You come from Armenia and a large part of the team of PicsArt is based in Armenia today. Can you share 3 major lessons you learned by being raised in that region that helped you later to build a few successful global businesses?
Starting a company takes so much time and energy, and people spend a lot of time worrying about whether they have the right balance of business and personal life. But I think it’s better to strive for work-life synergy. Family is and always will be number one. I’ve never been one to go completely offline when I’m on vacation, for example. If I don’t know what’s going on with my business, I won’t have peace of mind. But I don’t let work ruin my time away. I might have a nice breakfast, check my email, spend some more time with my family and then take a call in the afternoon. It’s very organic. Vacation can also be a good time to do some of the strategic thinking that is harder to focus on when you’re in the middle of all the daily tasks. I just don’t feel a need to create a wall between work and the rest of my life. It’s all my life. What’s important is that I’m thoughtful about how every part of it coexists.
As you can see, building a successful startup company is all about problem-solving, creating a culture of productivity, and achieving work-life synergy. If you want to read more about how you can do that yourself, you can order PERFORM: The Unsexy Truth About (Startup) Success now on Amazon.
Enjoy reading and #KeepPERFORMing