The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Darrell Kong. Kong consults start-up companies in emerging technology with their fundraising strategy, business development, and go-to-market plans.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Kong, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1. What’s your XR story?
When I was coming out of grad school in the late 90s, I wanted to start my own early-stage company. I was just beginning to use the Internet and saw the value of building online networks and communities. During my last year of school, I launched a site that focused on bringing together students in common disciplines like business and law school. This was still early days so although I was seeing some user growth, I couldn’t develop a business model that played out with venture investors. Long story short, I ended up having to shut it down because I couldn’t secure funding.
But through that, I developed a few close relationships with a couple of venture capital funds that had evaluated my startup as a potential investment. When I told these firms I was shutting down the venture, one of them turned around and asked if I wanted to join their investment team. So I joined their team and had the opportunity to understand different technologies on a deeper level.
Nowadays, I advise and consult early-stage companies more than I invest. A lot of companies will contact me about helping them with fundraising which gives me some exposure to different emerging technologies. I had seen some VR companies like Linden Labs a long time ago but wasn’t actively involved in the space until a year or so ago when I was introduced to a Web3 company in the AR space. Initially, I helped the company as an advisor but eventually took an operating role to lead business development which is where I really came into contact with a lot of XR companies.
2. I find it really interesting that you chose to pursue a very niche area of entrepreneurship, specifically with emerging and immersive technologies. Why were you originally drawn in, and what’s made you stay?
The manager of my first job out of college told me to be a student for life. Even though you might be out of college, you should always push yourself to learn more and keep yourself dynamic. It gives you energy, and you don’t stay static and sit on your heels.
I’ve always taken that to heart. Working with early-stage companies and hearing what they’re doing, even though I’m not the inventor or the founder, gives me a heads-up on what’s happening in the market. I know what’s on that leading edge. And, you know, a lot of the time, I don’t know what they’re talking about. It forces me to [stay educated and knowledgeable about trends]. On one level, it’s just kind of good for when I go to a cocktail party, and I can have conversations because I know what’s going on. Again, you want to be learning and improving yourself constantly. Don’t settle, and be sure to put yourself in situations where you can learn more as you go.
3. How have you seen the industry change since you first got started?
Two years ago, I was introduced to a founder by another investor we both knew, who was building a company that merged augmented reality with digital real estate and NFTs. It was a very Web 3 company. And it was one of those things where I totally got the picture he was painting.
I ended up joining his company and led business development for about a year, which is where I got immersed in a lot of different XR technology. During that time, I saw people still dreaming about what they could do with early immersive technologies. You had the Oculus, PokemonGo, and these things that were more experimental being put out there. But when we were there, we were trying to translate our augmented reality into real, authentic commercial opportunities. I was brought in to make a business out of this technology experiment. I don’t know if that’s something that I have seen fully evolved yet; I think it’s still a challenge for the industry to find places where they can apply the technology. They’ve got to get Main Street companies to accept this and start integrating it into their operations, into their marketing, into their sales. But I think it’s evolving, and there are certainly precedents. We spoke with large, multinational conglomerates who wanted to do stuff, and they were getting there. But we hadn’t fully crossed that line when I left the startup. But I definitely see it happening now with different companies.
4. What is your career advice for people in this industry, and what are your additional thoughts about getting people interested in pursuing this career?
From a career path standpoint, if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to find the right idea, something that you want to put the energy and the commitment into because building a company is a heavy lift.
But you know, if you do find something, make the commitment and do it. Whether you’re successful or fail, I find that having that experience of trying, you still learn from it, and it makes you better the next time around. I know plenty of failed entrepreneurs who have actually gone on to investing roles with VC funds. So there’s something to that as well about getting yourself in that community.
From a soft skill standpoint, I would say it’s important to network and build relationships in order to get your agenda done and find people that can support you. You’ll find that once you get into the tech community if you know enough people and you’re nice and friendly with everyone, other people will want to give back and pay it forward. Keep yourself smart and do what you can for others as well. And, eventually, you’ll find the right role for yourself.
5. Similarly, what is something that you wish you’d been told when you were first starting out? I can imagine it’d be daunting to be an entrepreneur and not know what may happen next.
The first thing I’d say is that hardly anyone has it all figured out. Early in my career, I was worried about falling behind other people because it seemed like my peers were getting these great spots or doing cool stuff. But everyone’s on the same journey.
And the other part I would reiterate is that your career and what you do in life is a marathon, not a sprint. I hate to say it, but I’ve probably changed jobs like 10 to 15 times in my life. You have to try different things to find one that you like and that you’re good at. So that when that opportunity comes you’ll find it on your own; or, if you start being known for having skills in a particular area, people will search you out. You just have to be patient to a certain extent.
6. In your opinion, how can we bring in more perspectives and voices into the XR industry, and in emerging tech in general?
I think the opportunities will come as more mainstream companies start embracing XR and applying it in different ways. You’re going to see the number of projects being developed increase, and then you’ll get more companies coming into the space, and then the opportunities for people to get jobs in XR will increase that way. But as I said, I think the challenge is getting more large companies to start experimenting with immersive technologies. There are a couple of companies that are doing interesting things now and starting to draw in other [larger] companies they like.
I’ve worked with a company called Brazil NFT down in South America, and they’re bringing mixed reality experiences to a lot of different companies down there. They’re doing things with the private sector, but they’re also doing government projects like trying to reinvigorate a waterfront area with mixed reality installations so people can walk around and discover these things. That’s a way to draw in more people there, but it’s also building a technology hub down in Rio de Janeiro.
So you also have to have examples to draw in others, like a showcase presentation showing what can be done using XR. I would guess that the entertainment industry down in LA is just right for this. Have an Aquaman premiere, and have like a large virtual reality wave coming over the crowd. There are things that can be done, and they are being done, but it’s slow coming.
7. At XRA, we like to say that XR has limitless potential. What does that mean to you?
XR is really driven by imagination. And people’s backgrounds [building new technologies] are in gaming and media. When the first Matrix came out, it just blew people’s minds what could be possible there. So when you talk about being limitless, certainly the code has to be written and the devices have to be developed. But what we’ve imagined or envisioned XR to be applied to will eventually be built. There are enough smart people in the industry and in the world that if you tell them what direction you want to go, they will figure out a way to get there.
But I think the bigger challenge is someone has to figure out that goal and strategic direction that you go into. Because sometimes that can be too influenced by like, what the limitations are. It’s great with XR, you come across people, and they just have so many different ideas. And the industry is an organic petri dish, right? You throw a bunch of things together, and you don’t know what kind of ideas come up. And a lot of them won’t work. But all you need is like, one thing to work. Before PokemonGO came out, no one thought you’d be able to do something like that on your phone, but then it got hundreds of thousands of people walking around. It was great to get people motivated to use their phones through this augmented reality channel.