Alysse Soll interviews Ashley Crowder for WiST
By Alysse Soll, WiST Board Member, President NewModel Advisory, LLC
This Engineer’s Roger Federer 3D Hologram Changed an Industry
Yes, I Can
Ashely Crowder is the Co-Founder and CEO of VNTANA, a Software platform that is changing the face of e-commerce. Her journey is far from typical but not surprising for a woman who gets a kick out of challenging the status quo.
Growing up, Ashley loved math and science and, admittedly, hated writing. “My dad was in construction and I loved hanging out on the job sites, learning how things were built from the foundation up. I pursued a Bachelors and Masters of Engineering at USC and loved everything about it.” Engineering is a male dominated field. Not surprisingly her whole career has been in traditionally male dominated fields like aviation, oil refineries, manufacturing and now, technology. “I am one of those people who gets an adrenaline rush from challenges. If you ever tell me I can’t do something, I’m definitely going to do it. Yes, I can do this job. Yes, I can launch this company. Yes, I can grow VNTANA into a SaaS platform that changes the face of e-commerce.”
Like so many successful software companies, as VNTANA was solving its own problem, it hit on a solution to automate an entire industry: the very definition of disruption.
In its earliest version, VNTANA was a managed service, providing turnkey holograms for enterprise clients like NIKE, Adidas and Intel to engage customers at sports, retail, trade shows and live event sponsorships. While Hologram solutions are wildly popular—what company doesn’t love to make their celebrity endorsers or new product launches larger than life—they required significant 3D assets to create. Generating 3D assets takes time, money and management. Usually a company has 3D manufacturing design files to build their product, but these are too complex to use on a website or in an AR or VR experience. A 3D designer must manually optimize and convert these files to meet web, AR and VR specs, which is time consuming and expensive. Manual 3D file production averages one week and costs about $2,500 per product (depending on the file’s complexity). For enterprise clients with tens of thousands of products, this is not feasible.
As mobile phones became more powerful and added AR capabilities, VR headset adoption increased and web began supporting 3D, Ashley recognized a larger market opening for 3D assets. Noting significant retail research (Shopify, Macys, Houzz) proving AR and VR increases e-commerce conversion rates between 11% and 30%, Ashley recognized the need to automate the creation and distribution of 3D assets to leverage the power of 3D assets in e-commerce at scale.
While building the automation solution for VNTANA as a vendor, they piloted the software with key clients for proof of concept. As they iterated their tech based on the pilots, they built a SaaS platform to fully automate the 3D process from end to end. VNTANA automation software cuts 3D manual production costs by 80% and production time from one week to 30 seconds. With VNTANA, enterprise clients can now create thousands of 3D files for web, AR, VR and holograms and fully participate in the AR, VR revolution in e-commerce—and in the process contribute to building the “Automation Nation.”
Systems Networks and Social Networks
As an engineer, Ashley’s formal training was focused on networks — systems, structures, math and science. That was the extent of her networking experience. “They taught us math and science, but they never taught us the business side of personal networking.”
As every entrepreneur can attest, networking is the key to growth. Ashley recalls that one of her early female investors pushed her to network as part of her job description. “I never realized how important networking was until that moment. It’s essential to getting clients, growing your business and obtaining funding. This is how you meet and generate meaningful bonds with mentors, colleagues, clients and investors.”
“Building a network of people you trust and people who trust you is essential. I try to give back to others as much as they give to me.”
Q and A with Ashley Crowder
Ashley is a study in how to successfully navigate the startup world. Her ability to strike the optimal balance between her left brain (engineering, analytical, methodical) and her right brain (creative, artistic) generates that rare but necessary combination of “trust but verify.” She puts significant trust in herself, her team and her peers but also uses this very important network to verify that she is moving VNTANA in the right direction.
WiST: VNTANA gained initial traction in the sports vertical. How did you successfully navigate the sports space? The teams, leagues, media partners and sponsors?
Sports was a natural starting point for VNTANA. Holograms are a perfect solution for sports sponsors who seek to maximize their player endorsements and fan engagement, which really drove our growth in the sports world. At the 2015 US Open (Tennis), sponsor Mercedes Benz engaged VNTANA to create an interactive hologram of their endorsed player, Roger Federer, as an immersive fan engagement experience. Over 8000 fans participated, significantly improving their sponsorship value over prior years. This was our proof of concept in the sports space and opened the doors for relationships with enterprise brands like Lexus, NIKE, and Adidas to generate experiential products across their global sporting events.
We learned a few very important lessons. Clients don’t want to take a risk on new tech unless it is proven. Everyone is in a rush to be second. Our US Open case study became the proof we needed to validate our role in the sports ecosystem.
We continued to grow providing turnkey hologram solutions to Fortune 1000 brands around the world and became known as leaders in the mixed reality space. When these same brands had questions on how to create 3D assets and get into other areas of AR and VR, we were there to help answer questions and consult on best practices. It was a natural transition to start licensing them the software we had built for ourselves to better create, manage and distribute 3D assets not just for holograms, but for their e-commerce platforms. Since VNTANA was a trusted vendor and partner, they were willing to engage with the tech we created to solve our own problems as a solution for theirs.
WiST: VNTANA incorporates the sophisticated technologies of AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality). How are these technologies transforming the world?
University research studies show that when you experience something in AR and VR your brain registers it as an actual experience versus studying or reading a book and your retention rate is 70% higher. So, it’s not surprising that AR and VR are transforming every industry.
AR and VR drive deeper user engagement, and deliver more data with greater insights, resulting in stronger analytics. We chose to focus on e-commerce, a natural extension of our core strength in 3D asset generation. Our roadmap includes a variety of technologies that enable consumers to better visualize how products will look. VNTANA software makes it easy to process, manage and distribute 3D assets across web, AR and VR. For example, with VNTANA tech you can create a 3D asset and use our API to use it in an AR experience where you hold your phone over your foot and see digital overlay of how a sneaker product will look. This tech has led to drastically increased conversion rates and lower return rates, which are key metrics for successful e-commerce engagement.
WiST: As a young CEO, what attributes do you see as key to becoming a successful leader? What has been the most difficult trial in building a professional team, gaining their respect and leading their collective success?
Building an amazing team, deciding early on what culture you want to build, and hiring the RIGHT people for this journey is critical. I have learned the hard way that a resume is not a great indicator that someone will successfully operate within your culture. We need to be prepared to say no to that “perfect resume” if the culture fit is not apparent.
We are a young company and need to grow strategically, efficiently, effectively and under a shared vision. This means optimism and autonomy. We have a mantra, “Never say ‘no, because…,’ say ‘yes, if…’’’ For example, don’t say “no this can’t work, because we don’t have enough memory.” Flip it around to “yes it can work, if we add more memory.” This positive, problem-solving mindset is simple but highly effective.
We practice Servant Leadership, which essentially promotes development of people on your team, open communication and community building. I want to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, with different skill sets, so we can solve a problem. We all win when we solve hard problems.
Process can be painful, but establishing process is a necessity. After a few missteps with early hires, we landed on the practice of Top Grading (taken from the book) which is a strong formula for recruiting that puts much needed structure around the interview process. It has been working for us ever since!
WiST - As a millennial woman and successful startup entrepreneur, what advice do you have for a founder dipping her toe in the start-up waters?
If you have an idea, don’t be shy! Share it, socialize it, test the market, get validation. If you build your concept in a black box and keep it to yourself, you eliminate the benefit of peer review and feedback which is so critical to a startup.
Learn to love criticism. Seek out and listen to critical feedback about your idea so you can improve it, make it better. We continued to run into the same 3D asset problems again and again, client after client. It was listening to our client’s issues that lead us to building our robust software platform that helps create 3D assets today.
Network with peers. In a peer group, you can share openly with other founders, and people in your ecosystem that can share their knowledge and experience. As you are building your incredible team, look to them as your peers who will share your highest highs and the lowest lows. You need their support…and they need you.
WiST: What does success look like to you?
Investors invest in you because they believe you can grow your company into a winner. My success is their success.
I believe VNTANA will be the one-stop shop to generate and distribute a 3D version of anything for e-commerce. That’s what success looks like to me.
A special thanks to Ashley for sharing her story with the WiST community. For Ashley, “Yes, we can,” is her motto. Inspiration comes in all forms.
To learn more about WiST and become a member, visit www.womeninsportstech.org.
To learn more about VNTANA visit www.VNTANA.com.