If there’s one valuable lesson that tech entrepreneurs have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the ability to pivot — to adapt to ever-changing circumstances — is crucial to survival and success during tumultuous times.
Liam Nguyen (’22) and the winding route that his startup company has taken offer one such example. Nguyen is the son of a serial entrepreneur. “I grew up watching my father start and build businesses,” he says. “It’s been my childhood dream to follow in those footsteps.”
After graduating from UC Riverside, Nguyen settled in Southern California and found work writing code and developing software. In 2019, he joined Los Angeles-based VR startup Pixel Canvas as CEO, but worried that his lack of business acumen would hold back the prospects of the fledgling company.
“I didn’t want to ruin things for the team we’re building,” he says. “I wanted to get a stronger business background to avoid making mistakes in the future. I did a lot of research and found that Anderson had the strongest entrepreneurship MBA program.”
Nguyen is in his second year of Anderson’s fully employed MBA program and is using Pixel Canvas as his capstone project under the school’s Business Creation Option (BCO). “The idea that I could be learning business skills at Anderson and immediately apply that knowledge to my company — while getting academic credit for it — is amazing,” he says.
The accounting and finance base that he’s acquired at Anderson has already paid dividends. “One of the defining things that UCLA has helped me with is running and operating a cash flow,” he says. “Just being able to say, ‘Okay, where am I making money? Where am I spending money?’ and then being able to do a forecast over the next couple of months so I know what are the metrics, what are the key performance indicators that I need to hit to keep the business running on a weekly basis — that’s stuff I had never known before.”
His education has already added value to the company and its clients. “I’ve been able to step away from software development,” he says. “Now I spend most of my time doing sales or business development. My technical background enables me to have deeper conversations with our customers and my team.
“I’ve learned that, being an entrepreneur, you have to wear so many hats, and for every hat that I add, there are professors at Anderson I can reach out to and bounce ideas off of,” he says. “That’s invaluable because it’s saving me months of stumbling around. I’d probably be making thousands of dollars in mistakes, but because I can consult with experienced people, I’ve been able to escape some horrible mistakes.”
“I grew up watching my father start and build businesses. It’s been my childhood dream to follow in those footsteps.”
— Liam Nguyen (’22)
Nguyen describes Pixel Canvas’ first product, a video game called Reiko’s Fragments, as “a virtual reality versus mobile horror game,” in which a VR gamer tries to escape a haunted house while friends playing with their mobile phones try to scare and then kill the player. The company launched Reiko’s Fragments with plans to join the gaming conference and convention circuit as a key part of their marketing strategy.
But suddenly, Nguyen and Pixel Canvas (and everybody else on the planet) encountered a real-life horror story: the COVID-19 pandemic. Traveling to and mingling at conventions to promote Reiko’s Fragments was no longer viable. Instead, Nguyen found himself navigating the hastily organized virtual-event circuit.
“When COVID hit, it was difficult because digital events aren’t as immersive or impactful as live events,” he says. “The video conferences that we were seeing were missing basic functionality: the reason why we would go to a conference or a convention in the first place,” he says. “There was no networking with other attendees. I couldn’t talk to anybody, and I couldn’t enjoy the event with my friends.”
Nguyen saw an opportunity, and the company pivoted. Pixel Canvas decided to use its video game expertise to build a digital world that allows users to feel like they’re actually attending in-person events, like a convention, complete with fully interactive booths, keynotes and enhanced attendee networking.
“As people coming from a gaming background, online engagement is what we grew up with,” he says. “I made some of my best friends playing StarCraft and League of Legends. We thought: We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to take the lessons we learned from playing video games and reapply them to virtual events. We already have a team of amazing developers, let’s give this a try.”
Pixel Canvas found encouragement and support at Anderson. Trish Halamandaris (’92) has run the Venture Accelerator at UCLA Anderson since 2018. Housed in the Rosenfeld Library, the state-of-the-art accelerator supports early-stage founders like Nguyen who are about to launch or have launched and need assistance to become operationally efficient: everything from “customer acquisition, fundraising, legal and accounting advice, and how to legally distribute equity — all of the operational executions that early-stage startups need to know and execute with excellence, to mitigate losing time and money in their go-to-market efforts,” according to Halamandaris.
Pixel Canvas passed a key proof-of-concept test when Halamandaris engaged the company for Demo Day, the Venture Accelerator’s annual showcase, where 10 Accelerator companies have the opportunity to give five-minute pitches to an audience of angel investors, venture capitalists, faculty across the UCLA campus and Anderson alumni.
In “normal” times, Google hosts the event at its campus in Venice, California. In fall 2020, Halamandaris enlisted Pixel Canvas to “create a personalized virtual event, including live networking opportunities for the companies and Anderson community,” she says. It was successful because “those who attended saw this beautifully rendered 3-D environment, where they could engage and interact.” And as a result of this event, Pixel Canvas is closing its first round of fundraising among the connections it made that evening.
The UCLA Anderson Venture Acclererator's Fall 2020 showcase was powered by Pixel Canvas
Halamandaris was impressed enough with Pixel Canvas’ efforts to provide the introduction that led to one of the company’s next major projects. The Gerald Loeb Awards for business and financial journalism are the most distinguished honor in the field. Established in 1957 by a founding partner of E.F. Hutton, the Loeb Awards came under the stewardship of UCLA Anderson in 1973.
Jonathan Daillak, UCLA Anderson’s director of social media strategy and executive director of the G. and R. Loeb Foundation, has administered the Loeb Awards for the past 11 years. The months-long process of nominations and judging has traditionally culminated in a well-attended, corporate-sponsored awards show at the Capitale space (in the historic Bowery Savings Bank building) in New York City.
But the pandemic lockdown struck just as Daillak was about to fly some 80 journalists to UCLA for preliminary judging in the 12 award categories. Daillak immediately pushed back the timeline of the event, hoping that they could convene in person in the fall. When those hopes disappeared, he took Halamandaris’ suggestion and went to Plan B: Pixel Canvas.
“Given that it involved an audience of acclaimed journalists, it was a gutsy move to have complete exposure at such an early stage. Pixel Canvas succeeded in delivering a differentiated and visually stunning event.”
— Trish Halamandaris (’92)
“The platform just seemed so innovative to me,” Daillak says. “I knew it wasn’t glitch-free, and I knew there were things that needed to change from how the Accelerator used Pixel Canvas to what we needed. I also knew that we had a duty to give the journalists that were Loeb finalists — and, ultimately, winners — the special moments they deserved. So I thought, ‘That’s okay if it’s not perfect. It’s going to be better than just having people sit there on a Zoom call.’”
A series of Zoom meetings followed as Daillak and his creative and technical teams met with Pixel Canvas. The Loeb brain trust decided to trim the show to one hour and then tutored Pixel Canvas about the myriad elements that make the Loeb Awards event unique. In turn, according to Daillak, “Pixel Canvas understood the significance of their role in this collaboration. They took a virtual reception and event space and made it feel like you were in a real-life space through their 3-D immersive magic.”
In November 2020, with approximately 400 reporters logging in around the world, attendees navigated to floating kiosks and, by pressing a button, listened to summaries of each nominated story. Journalists and editors jumped into “group rooms” and enjoyed a modified watch party, complete with video and text chat. When the winners were notified that they were being honored in their category, they jumped into the live stream to accept their award and make a speech.
“Given that it involved an audience of acclaimed journalists, it was a gutsy move to power this prestigious event and have complete exposure at such an early stage,” Halamandaris says. “The risk and exposure were high, and Pixel Canvas succeeded in delivering a differentiated and visually stunning event.”
Daillak is already hard at work readying the 2021 Loeb Awards. His plans include the possibility that the event might need to be virtual again, which means figuring out how to improve on last year’s success. “We got pushed into the future by the pandemic,” he says. “You’re either going to move with technology or technology is going to move without you. We all had to learn how to approach our work and our jobs in different ways.”
Nguyen, too, is looking ahead. He recognizes that, in the near future, in-person conventions and conferences will start up again. “We’re now seeing how effective we can be at bringing people together, collaborating and exchanging ideas completely digitally,” he said. “We’ll always have physical events, but we can hit a much larger audience by taking care of people who, for whatever reason — they’re busy at home or it’s too far or they couldn’t find a hotel — can only access the event digitally.
“The reality is, digital events aren’t happening only because physical events are closed,” he says. “In fact, I would consider COVID a catalyst for pushing the event industry 10 years forward.”
Pixel Canvas is also planning to roll out a completely self-service platform targeted directly to event organizers. “It would operate more like Squarespace” (which designs website templates) “so people can create their own event from scratch, with ticketing, different booths and an attendee networking service out of the box,” he says.
Thus far, Pixel Canvas is self-funded through revenue from the company’s video game and through the digital event productions. “We have not raised a dollar to date,” Nguyen says. “We’re fortunate that we’ve earned enough money to keep running. That said, the Anderson Venture Accelerator introduced us to a number of incredible investors, so we’re in the process of moving forward to be able to take in investment.”
Nguyen is scheduled to graduate from UCLA Anderson with his MBA in 2022. Pandemic or not, it’s a safe bet that Pixel Canvas will be consulted about digitally broadcasting the graduation ceremony for those unable to travel to Westwood.
“That would be amazing,” he says. “If they let me, I would do it in a heartbeat.”