S1T2 co-founder Tash Tan on what it takes to build a million-dollar business in an industry where no one is an expert—yet

Tash Tan

There’s no doubt the Australian business community is excited by the prospect of virtual reality, but finding a company that’s actually embarking on projects that use the technology right now is a challenge. 

Smart50 2016 alumnus S1T2 is focused on becoming a market leader in the VR space, and there’s plenty of room to grow, with the company’s founders telling SmartCompany that nobody is an expert in the rapidly-changing technology yet. 

Tash Tan and Chris Panzetta launched their interactive experience company, “Story 1st Technology 2nd”, right out of uni, and the $1.7 million company now delivers branded installations for companies like Adobe, Ford, Samsung and the Sydney Swans Football club.

Tan spoke with SmartCompany about searching for talent in an emerging industry, and what makes a “dream brief” for the business that’s focused on changing people’s behaviour through new tech.

Before this, I was at uni. Myself and my business partner Chris thought immediately after uni, “we both have things in common, I think we can make stuff together”.

We started in traditional storytelling but moved it into virtual reality.

The evolution of the business in itself was a challenge. To say that you do film or video, well many other people would probably shout the same thing. We sat down and said, what’s our strength?

We realised we had a knack for telling stories, as well as for emerging technology. Things that people weren’t playing with as much, we seemed to be nimble enough to use those things.

I think everyone understands the foundational appeal of virtual reality: immersion. The idea that you can use this technology to take the audience one step closer to your brand.

But as for whether people are using it the right way, it’s hard to criticise—anyone who claims to be an expert is not

We look at VR as a new means of storytelling, but for others it could be a game, rather than a story. Really, VR is cinema and gaming combined, and we have to understand the nuances.

In terms of how we pitch a concept or idea that nobody has ever seen before, it’s as simple as just really telling people what we’re going to do.

We did something with Adobe [The Adobe Heart Tree], which was the idea of reading your heartbeat and the idea that at the essence of everyone is the idea you can communicate. We did a sculpture a couple of years ago, Affinity, [for Alzheimer Australia], where you held your hand to one of the neurons at the base and they lit up.

What you want to do for those [briefs] is explain them to the client in the most simple of manners. Just tell the client what you’re going to do.

The brief for one new project coming up is: “How can you raise awareness of malnutrition in the Pacific Islands to try and change the cultural understanding of eating healthily?”

It was such a beautiful brief, because that’s what we want to do—use our skills to solve these problems. If you look at the research on obesity and malnutrition, it’s places like the Pacific Islands that suffer the most.

Even for us, I’m very wary that whatever we do, it’s not like we can make a change overnight. It’s more about “how do you change behaviour?” It’s a challenge and a responsibility.

I’d say finding talent is a very complicated thing.

There are many talented people in Australia but how we personally find people is we tend to hire new graduates. Part of the reason is they haven’t been exposed to that methodology of business. If you work in a corporate business, certain ideologies play a part.

We use “T-shaped people”. We’re working with people who are broadly skilled and also specialise [in a field].

How does someone become a T-shaped person? Well, it lends it to the idea that they are inquisitive and they explore a lot. From a practical perspective for our business, that’s awesome. I guess they’re a blank canvas, and with grads, you can just say “this is the way we work”.

We’ve had problems when we tried to work with people that have come from other organisations. The first thing we had to say is “forget everything you’ve learned”.

It’s weird because my story is coming straight from uni, and I never experienced the corporate environment myself, but we have one of our colleagues, for example [who came] from a really, really high paying job. 

He was fed up with things in the corporate world. He said “I have no idea what I can do with you guys, but let’s figure it out”

The business has always got its days, like everything, but the real excitement in building any company is that you can control your fate.

And then there’s the people that work with you—you can inspire them in the way you think is best, as opposed to working for a corporation.

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