Steve Callanan is the CEO and Co-Founder of WIREWAX, the first taggable video tool; allowing content owners to add motion-tracking hotspots or ‘tags’ to people and objects in video and create their own interactive experiences. We met Steve at a recent business event and whilst we wern’t able to organise a podcast interview we’re thrilled Steve took the time to fill out our entrepreneur Q&A.
Steve has gone into a great level of detail here, and there’s a lot of valuable insight for anyone considering starting a business or already riding the wave of entrepreneurship.
What was your first ever business idea?
I started my first ‘business’ when I was at school. I started making longboards in my dad’s garage during the summer holidays I had plans to sell them to the local skate store. I spent all my time building them and by the time it came to selling them, summer was over. I sold nothing and it was a few years later I turned them all into bookcases and gave them away. I guess I enjoyed building them too much. Not the best use of my time but a valuable lesson learnt nonetheless.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I had a handful of part-time jobs like any other teenager growing up but I always found them a frustrating waste of time for very little satisfaction or financial reward. Plus, I’ve always wanted to build things and see others use them. I’m driven by creativity, engineering and problem solving so I was always destined to create a product and sell it to others.
While I was at university I acquired a bunch of old Super 8 projectors and used to make money from projecting my crazy films onto the walls in nightclubs and behind bands. Those projectors were heavy, old and likely to catch fire so I started building my own video projectors from old projector parts and handheld TVs – which also meant I could be more creative with video and motion graphics. The business grew as did the number and quality of the projectors. Eventually a few of us were doing ‘visuals’ for bands, clubs and festivals all over the UK.
It was being surrounded by young, carefree and uninhibited students that made me realise none of this was being documented by mainstream TV. I bought a video camera with my student loan and started making a documentary about 1st-year students – I eventually sold it to ITV who commissioned another follow-up series and I built up a production company with full turnkey HD broadcast post-production services. We moved the company to London and produced prime time content for BBC, ITV and others. We produced hundreds of commercials, movie trailers, music videos and motion graphic sequences. We also became the biggest short-form, online video company for lifestyle publishers, generating over 400 hours of fashion and beauty content.
It was from there that the idea of making those videos interactive sparked. It was clear that video was extremely powerful but remained completely disconnected from the web space around it. This is where I returned to my passion of engineering a solution to a major problem. I used evenings and weekends to engineer the world’s first in-browser motion tracking engine – the foundation to everything WIREWAX. It was from here that the platform developed into what it is today. I soon sold off the production company and the focus is now maintaining WIREWAX’s position as global leaders for interactive video.
How do you identify a real business opportunity?
Throughout my career I’ve simply adapted an existing concept to satisfy an evolving demand. Whenever there is an opportunity to improve an offering, reach a wider customer base and develop something even more powerful it just makes sense to follow that path. There’s nothing clever or particularly skillful about it – entrepreneurs and successful businesses have been doing just that since the beginning of time.
Of course, you have to calculate the risks and weigh up the challenges ahead but you have to take that first step to get there in the first place. It’s not about being ballsy and jumping straight in, the opportunities have to be clear and you have to understand your prospective customer and their motivation for wanting to pay you for the business you’re planning to build – only then should you give it everything you can.
What skill or ability is most important for an entrepreneur and why?
I wouldn’t claim to know the secrets to success, everyone has different skills and abilities that work for them in different ways for different businesses, there are no hard and fast rules as far as I can see. I know people who have been very successful and they’ve done things very differently to how I would have done it – it’s just whatever works for you.
Thomas Edison said his inventions were nothing more than 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration and there’s a lot of truth in that for me, but then again, apparently Edison stole all his ‘ideas’ so I guess we can’t take too much from that. Determination certainly plays a big part and it always feels like there are more frustrations and barriers than open doors and easy solutions so you have to be prepared for that.
I feel like we’re only at the very beginning of what we’re hoping to achieve at WIREWAX so I have no doubt there’s a lot of learning still to come.
You know someone who wants to start a business but fears leaving their job. What do you say to them?
If that person has the right idea, the understanding of the difficulties ahead and I’m sure they have what it takes to see it through, then yes, I would always encourage them to take the first step towards making their own dream a reality. All the best ideas, inventions and things we all remember have come from those who have stepped out of their comfort zone and made it happen. There’s no guarantee it will work, of course, but you’ll never know unless you try.
Are there people who start a business for the wrong reasons?
Of course. None more so than what we’ve witnessed in the tech startup scene over the last few years. There is an unprecedented gold rush right now – young people are given unrealistic expectations and with incredibly easy access to capital and other resources to fund their ‘ideas’ with the sole intention to ‘sell to Google’. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that proposed exit strategy.
I’m sympathetic to those whose dreams come tumbling down after being promised so much. The frequent news about major acquisitions of tech start-ups (that seem to be worth little) at outrageous valuations certainly don’t help and only serve to create unrealistic aspirations fueled by greed.
The tech startup scene is an isolated anomaly but I always believe business ideas should be based around an appetite in the market and an unambiguous revenue model. Whatever happened to building something consumers want to pay for? That seems to have been lost somehow.
Tech startups are a high risk investment – we’re constantly being told that less than 10% will make a return for investors – but those returns can be sizeable when they finally yield. That creates a very warped culture unlike any other industry where the overwhelming failure rate is seen as collateral damage for the handful of successes that bring in those big numbers. It’s capitalism being rather ugly, which is fine if you understand what you’re getting involved with, but brutal if you don’t.
I guess this is being addressed by new government initiatives and a shift in focus in and around Old Street (London) to encourage young people to come up with good business ideas and to learn how to code them. I’d like to see more of that, of course, but I believe a balance needs to be found between writing code, tangible product design and engineering too. I’d like to see the government and industry promoting and supporting organisations like Hackspace which give people access to the tools to experiment much more outside of just software development too.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Sometimes you don’t think it can get any tougher.
It gets tougher.
Surround yourself with people that help get the tough stuff done.
Can you recommend any books or resources that helped you along the way?
It’s always fascinating to read how others have found their way to success, of course, and learning about how others achieved success in the face of adversity can certainly help you appreciate that perseverance down that rocky road can get you through. But, as I’ve said before, those methodologies worked for them, at that time, for their business. No story can prepare you for your own challenges or unlock secrets to make a quick success yourself. No one ever became a successful entrepreneur because they replicated someone else’s experiences told in a book.
However, knowledge is the most powerful thing you can have in your arsenal so there’s only positives that can come from absorbing as much as possible. My only advice here would be to find a resource that helps you achieve the things you want and drink it up as much as you can.
What’s the best part of your job?
I’m lucky to enjoy the vast majority of my job at WIREWAX but there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing a bunch of extremely talented people working together, like clockwork, driven by a common goal to create something magical.
What’s your biggest fear?
WIREWAX is the global leader in the space so we’re the ones to beat. We’re always the first to market with new features and answering the calls of the market but that makes us vulnerable. We can spend years developing and testing a new tool for it only to be copied by an inferior technology. However, at the risk of this sounding like one of those ‘challenges become opportunities’ clichés, there is nothing better to drive everything forward than knowing we need to always stay out in front and constantly evolve and improve to maintain our position. This drives innovation and those fears become rewards.