Posted on July 19 2017
Today's interview is with graphics engineer and entrepreneur Stephanie Hurlburt. Stephanie previously worked at Oculus and Unity before co-founding Binomial with Rich Geldreich, a software company which is building Basis, a texture compressor.
Newnham: What were you like as a kid? How would your friends and family have described you?
Hurlburt: I was kind of an oddball as a young kid, but one who was pretty good at getting along with people and who had a small group of friends and neighbors I hung out with.
When I was in sixth grade my favorite outfit was bright pink leggings and a very baggy shirt with tons of goldfish on it because I thought goldfish were the best thing ever. In fact, I thought they were so awesome that I would write long stories detailing my fantasy adventures with my pet goldfish. I was obsessed with art, and writing, and science, and math.
And as I got to high school age, I got more into psychology and politics and social justice. I also became less off a kid who drew pictures and wrote stories all day and more of someone who worked way too much. I ran the speech and debate club, the art club, I studied piano, I did dance (ballet/tap/jazz), I ran a local community activist organization; I took as many advanced classes as I could.
Newnham: And when did you first get excited about tech?
Hurlburt: I took a year off college after my third year, for many reasons. That year was pretty hard. I wasn't sure if I should continue school or not. I had been focusing a lot on math before I left, and my boyfriend at the time suggested I study computer science. So I enrolled back in school in computer science, hoping I'd like it and hoping for a better life, and it turned out to be pretty cool too!
Newnham: Can you tell us a little about your background and your work at Unity and Oculus?
Hurlburt: Of course! So I went back to school for computer science, and took two years to finish my degree. My school was interesting in that it let students organize their own classes if there wasn't a good match for them, so I organized a C++ and OpenGL class. I put the curriculum together and everything; it was great that they let me do that! It wasn't a very long course and I was balancing it with lots of other things in life, but my professor noticed and recommended me to a former student who did C++ and OpenGL for a living. I applied for a government job and bombed that scary interview in a big way. I went down to meet this former student of hers and that turned out to be a very friendly place which seemed really creative (with a great interview, too) so I took that job.
So I worked there for a year and a half-- it was mostly a creative advertising shop, but there was a small technical team that helped them build special installations for clients using customized game engines.
I learned that my favorite part of that work was the low-level programming tasks. I love people and I love art, but I didn't like doing it professionally. I loved how the low-level work was very concrete and measurable-- I made your program faster, I made this installation work, I added this effect-- while being very creative work in a different way. It was also valuable and not easily replaceable work. My favorite thing was optimizing-- I'd get a piece of code and my job was to make it run faster. It was like a fun puzzle-- balancing different techniques with keeping in mind how the hardware worked.
So then I got a job at Unity building game engines! I moved all the way to Denmark for that. I focused mostly on graphics and engine optimization, and worked on a variety of tasks to make graphics and the engine better. And then after that, moved to Oculus to help them build a custom engine for virtual reality art creation.
Newnham: Awesome. So what led to you starting Binomial and can you tell us more about it? And can you tell us about some of the highs and lows of running your own business?
Hurlburt: Although I loved the work itself, I was getting burnt out and had also gone through several bad experiences in both tech jobs and my personal life. I didn't think I could handle a stressful full time job, and at the time I wasn't sure which jobs wouldn't be stressful (admittedly, I wasn't thinking too clearly at the time).
I needed to rest so badly I wasn't even sure I could keep up a full time job. So I made the decision to try contracting. I talked to tons of people to feel out the situation and see how possible this could be, and it became apparent that it was indeed possible. I also ended up meeting someone who would later come on-board as my co-founder! As time passed, we realized that some of our clients could use a specific technology we knew we could build so we built a little prototype and talked to a whole lot of people and did presentations and blogged about it, and within a few months we had customers that we willing to pre-order it so we could finish it!
The lows of running a business: I think our biggest "lows" were always around poor planning of consulting gigs. For a good while we funded ourselves through contract work, and I didn't quite realize the motto that one must have: ALWAYS have backup options. I didn't realize clients would sometimes pay very late even though that wasn't allowed in the contract. I didn't realize how long negotiating took, or how sometimes I'd get overwhelmed with gigs but their start dates would be later than I needed. Looking back, I'd fix this by always having backup jobs and keeping a pipeline of work so that I'm not always scrambling to set up a new gig as soon as one ended.
Another "low" was also not a low in some ways-- it was just the sheer amount of people I talked to in the first year of our business. It was in some ways very inspiring, but it got overwhelming at times. Doing so much outreach and talking to people built up a ton of business for us, but looking back I'm not certain it was necessary. I could have been more choosy with who to talk to, instead of taking every single meeting offered to me and talking to every single person I could manage to. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20 right?
The highs: Many. It still amazes me. I currently live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle out of choice-- currently living in San Diego, not far from the beach. I don't go to an office, I work from home. Our customers are great to work with. We have a ton of flexibility, and are very relaxed and happy overall. We never took any investor money and we have a lot of freedom in how we run our business, and no one telling us how to do things or what schedules we have to meet.
A big high is also realizing how giving back to the community is actually good for business, and how just being myself has been good for business. I like being independent, and not feeling like I have to watch my mouth or else I'll make my company look bad or lose customers. I used to hold back a lot of what I did from fear of that. I speak out about issues I care about now, am critical of the industry, and have tried to organize a lot of initiatives to help others. That kind of work feeds my soul.
Newnham: And what advice you might have for other women looking to start a startup?
Hurlburt: Your network is your safety net. Build it up. Talk to lots of people.
You will meet a certain brand of person you'll be tempted to work with-- they'll make you feel bad about yourself in some way, but they will have power and offer to help. Trust your instincts, ignore them, and keep looking for people to meet. There are lots of people out there, and you need a supportive group-- not people that put you down.
I got out of an abusive relationship at the same time as building my business, and noticed a lot of parallels in my personal growth related to this point. Similar tactics that keep you in an abusive relationship can also lure you into a bad business deal or bad person to do business with-- thinking you need someone or something or else you'll be ruined, not standing up for yourself, not thinking you are worthwhile and smart and successful, thinking everyone will be bad to you so you might as well accept what you have. I had a lot of these thought patterns, and practiced pushing them away. It's a big world out there and there are great people-- you might have to work to find them, but you can do that work.
I also recommend considering "bootstrapping"-- what I did to start my company. Find a way to fund yourself that isn't taking investor money. Run a freelance business, work a low-stress or part-time job while building it, do side contracts, sell pre-orders, get contracts to build your product while you keep IP and control-- something other than investment money and giving away control. Get creative. Don't build a product without knowing exactly who your customers are and who you're building it for.
Along those lines, beware of business advice. Many people will tell you bootstrapping can't work because they just heard someone else say that, don't believe they can do it, or want a part of your company. Instead, pay attention to what income you're bringing in from projects and customers, and what leads you have. That's the true measure of success. Don't think you need to grow. It's fine to stay small-- a small team can support itself for ages off of minimal income (compared to what a big team needs) and, in software, it's completely possible to not need a big team. Ask for informational interviews with people you admire who you feel do things the way you want to do them-- buy them a lot of coffee and pastries and pick their brains.
If you decide you must get investment (some companies do need it) then make sure you trust your investor a lot. Investors have a notorious bias against women, on top of being controlling and hard to work with. I recommend seeking out angel investors and networking with entrepreneurs to hear about how investors are really like to work with. I don't know much about finding investment because I have a strict "no investors" policy, but maybe this little heads up helps.
Don't be afraid to collaborate with others, but also be careful who you bring close to your business and who you work with. When you find good partners, be generous and fair, but feel free to take things slow. Rich and I worked together for months as two independent contractors before we officially started the company, and that was an extremely good idea. After months of working together we knew we clicked well and had the same goals. Sometimes after months it doesn't work out. Take things slow with collaborators and wait before you split your company with them if possible.
Be ethical and give back to your community. If you hire someone, don't just swallow advice the world tells you about what you have to pay them or how you have to treat them. Always pay more or equal what they ask for, split equity generously if they work closely with you long term, make sure the people who interact with you are happy and actually feel things are fair. Treat them like they could be your boss next year. Give back-- mentor others, don't just talk to experienced people, host events, teach others. Karma is real. It's still odd for me to think about, but business has always spiked for us after we did something generous for the community that got noticed.
Be confident and positive. Be truthful, too-- but realize that your interaction with people is limited and they lack a lot of context. Make sure you are leaving the right impression on others.
Tech matters, but relationships with customers often matter more. If you have a good relationship with a customer, it will open lots of doors.
Newnham:There has been a lot of focus recently on some of the negative issues of working in a male-dominated field. How have you found the industry and what advice do you have for female founders who have concerns about how they will be treated here?Hurlburt: While working in the industry, I had several bad experiences. I think the game industry is particularly bad-- my first job in advertising was not bad in terms of sexism, I had a really supportive team that shielded me from it, and the rest of the company was designers with lots of women on staff.
There were still problems with sexism, I'm sure, but I was treated well in my team. I remember going to my first SIGGRAPH and stopping dead in my tracks in shock-- "Why are there SO MANY men here?" I thought. That's when I first realized how male-dominated the gaming graphics community can be. I was unfortunate enough to experience pretty bad sexual harassment and discrimination after that point (while still at full time jobs), at various places-- not always in the jobs themselves, but in the industry at large too. However, I was also lucky in that I got some amazing jobs, though, and that gave me good experience.
Looking back on it, a big mistake I made was not having a "Fuck Off Fund." Have you read that article? You should, go Google it. I didn't push back many times because I was broke and felt trapped with no options. Networking is related-- if I had networked more, I wouldn't have felt so trapped.
So compared to that, being a founder has been a breeze. :) The networking your ass off part and being choosy with who you work with is absolutely crucial. Not taking investment money truly helps. Having lots of back up ways to fund myself helps, and putting in the work to do that. Taking the rule "only work with nice people"-- including customers!-- also helps.
Newnham: What tech are you most excited about right now and why?
Hurlburt: Well, compression tech, of course! :) We've really made a breakthrough in texture compression algorithms and I absolutely can not wait to see what possibilities that unlocks for others. And we have some deals in the works with really big tech players that can make a big impact. That's the beauty in low-level tech-- it enables so many possibilities. Realistic virtual reality worlds, augmented reality, uses of your phone you never thought it could process before, changes to the way your hardware's built, advances in what art we can create, savings in storage to make content more accessible and reduce wasteful negative impact on climate change, so much.
I'm also very excited to see how game engines will advance to better accommodate virtual reality. And I'm excited to see how GPU hardware continues to evolve-- I think we are so lucky to be alive during a time when such a core piece of hardware is still rapidly changing.
I'm also excited to see ethics in tech examined closely. Privacy is extremely important. Preventing abuse and creating healthy social experiences with tech is important. Not building business models completely off of collecting and storing data on users is important, not abusing that is important.
And I'm excited about advances in CPU hardware! I love seeing CPUs take a turn toward having lots more threads, and can't wait to learn more.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time – what advice, If any, would you offer a younger Stephanie?
Hurlburt: Since I was a teenager, I had it ingrained in me that I just needed to work hard and persevere. I had this view that hard times and abuse were a normal part of "making it." I shaved potentially years of my life off with this philosophy, years I will never get back. My health degraded. I lost friends. I got very hurt. So I would hold that Stephanie by the shoulders and tell her that there are good people out there, and maybe you'll be more successful finding them than trying to change people who abuse you, professionally and otherwise.
I would tell her that she should be thoughtful about interacting with people in a polite way-- but that acting like yourself attracts people who want to work with you. The key is making sure to stay positive overall, even if you take breaks to call out darkness. Old Stephanie was too worried about the people that would repel.
I would tell her not to isolate herself and instead, to be social and keep a strong network.
I'd tell her that there's going to be no "making it" moment. That you can be happy while still having plenty of obligations, bills to pay, occasionally getting close to broke. That you can be happy while sleeping at night and taking lots of time to rest. That you have to choose to be happy and that you won't stop working toward your goals if you do that, though if you're burnt out you'll need some time to recover.
I'd have her read the parable The Mexican Fisherman and The Investment Banker.
I'd tell her to continue drawing and writing and making art and being involved in her community as much as time permitted. I'd tell her to maintain and cherish friendships.
I'd tell her to make time to be happy every day.