Ten years ago I quit my job and started a company backed by Tetris entrepreneur Henk Rogers. What followed was a whirlwind 12-months that started with Henk pitching me and my cofounders 3 startup ideas to choose from, meeting and interviewing Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, and almost 10x-ing our capital raised before we ultimately closed down the project.
Blue Startups "Wild Card"
In August 2013 I was working full time as an AVP at Central Pacific Bank and I decided to apply for the Blue Startup Accelerator. But I didn't have a startup idea. I applied as part of "Henk's wild card" team. A concept Henk and the Blue Startups team cooked up that would allow individuals or teams to sign up and get chosen by Henk to take one of his ideas and IP and try and build a company.
I recruited my friend Mario, a talented designer, and my friend and Mario's brother Mark connected us with his engineering friend Alan. We agreed to apply as a team and we got accepted. Along the way we welcomed a 4th cofounder, Tarik, to join us.
We still had no idea what we were going to build together.
It was time to meet Henk.
Henk has an energy. A boundless excitement and twinkle in his eye. A purpose-driven man who oozes success and yes, wealth. But not in a showy, over-the-top way. Henk invests in things like space exploration and building a moon base on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was doing Elon things before Elon.
The first time I met Henk was with Mario, Alan, and Tarik when we walked into his office to hear the three ideas he had for us to choose from. Henk's office is on a top floor of a gorgeous Honolulu office building, with floor to ceiling windows and a 360-degree view of the pacific ocean. Once we got over being gobsmacked by the view, we heard Henk's pitches.
I forget what they all were, but I remember it came down to a photo geotagging and interactive social app idea (like pokemon before it exploded - yeah, I know) and this photo memory app concept. We went with the photo memory app concept as there was an existing patent Henk had and it felt more relatable and interesting to us.
Most of Henk's company names stem from "Blue" something. Blue Planet Software, Blue Planet Foundation, Blue Lava etc. So we incorporated as Blue Photo Stories.
But we landed on the product name of "Ritify". Riti means memory in sanskrit. And it was an available 6-letter domain. So we had the team, we had Henk and his idea, and the name. Now let's talk more about the idea.
It was simple: Henk loves photos and he loves to share them. But what he found frustrating was the first time someone sees a photo, especially of someone they love, they often have a priceless reaction that's not captured. We wanted to capture that reaction, starting with audio. We also wanted to help catalogue the memories of photos in a family photo album for example, as a means of family legacy and story preservation. How can an older generation pass along their intimate knowledge of photos from their high school years for example? Think about it, you wouldn't know anything about your grandpa's photos without him telling you.
So that was the core premise, and the means for us to capture this was an iPad application.
In another blog post, I'll tell the deeper story about our journey, why the experience was a win but the product a failure.
But let's get to the good stuff.
We had this idea that it would be cool to show the value of the product by having Henk and Alexey look at old Tetris photos and we'd record their reactions. Then use that for marketing and promotion. There was one section in particular that I'll never forget.
We showed Alexey a photo of him and Henk in the Honolulu Headquarters of Tetris (see below). His reaction when I asked him about who he was standing next to was priceless...
My eternal partner. What a statement. Shared with such sentiment and love. We should all be so lucky as Alexey and Henk!
Things I learned from Henk
I was reflecting on some things Henk taught me. Here are a few:
- Take meticulous notes on your own letterhead, with designs and dates. Henk's personal notes were a work of art. Intricate drawings, articulate notes. Way more detailed than my notes and well documented.
- Be yourself. Henk is his own man. Henk has a unique flair and wardrobe. His white fedora that's hand customized, his tailor-made blazers with Tetris emblems on the lapels, his graphic tees. He's like a mix between Casey Neistat and Richard Branson. Equal parts artist, creator, and eccentric billionaire.
- Bet the house. Henk was convinced in the validity of Tetris. So convinced he risked everything to to make it happen. He bet big on the right hand.
- Find your business soulmate. Alexey and Henk have a special bond, a bond forged through fire and triumph. They respect each other and complement each other. The moment when I was sitting with Alexey and I pointed at Henk's picture, you can hear the tenderness in Alexey's voice.
Henk and Alexey, I salute you both. I feel privileged that I got to work with Henk. Even though our startup never took off, I learned a lot and thanks to Henk and Blue Startups it led me to some great relationships and new opportunities.
I'm super stoked to watch the Tetris film. I'm a sucker for business novels and films, and this one has some extra special meaning.