We talked to Adam Billyard of Polystream on bringing fresh interactive experiences to players and viewers alike and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Adam Billyard: Like most families, I can imagine, overall, we are doing OK. I live on the south coast of the UK in Brighton, and it’s been a relief to get outside into the fresh sea air. My wife is from Lyon, and we usually spend our summers crossing the Channel. Although we both miss visiting friends and family in France, we’re also thankful that everyone is doing OK.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Polystream.
Adam Billyard: I got into computers right at the beginning in 1976 and have been in love with technology ever since! Atari published my first game in 1981, and all through my time at the University of London, I was writing games and getting them published. After graduating, I received an invitation from the university to do a Ph.D. in computer science in Visual Programming, which led me to join Canon Research’s European Research Labs in Guildford, UK. In 1989, I was one of the first employees through the door where I continued developing 3D graphics technology.
The technology advanced, and Canon spun us into a startup company called Criterion Software to develop and market it as “RenderWare.” From there, well, I’m proud to say we had a pretty significant impact on the games industry. I think at one point; we were supporting over 500 games in development, and around 70% of all the games that came out on the Playstation 2 were all built using RenderWare, including the best selling PS2 game of all time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Criterion grew to more than 200 employees and was eventually acquired by Electronic Arts in 2004.
Fast forward to 2014, and Polystream came to life in a small café during a breakfast with Bruce Grove and myself, after mutual friends had suggested we should connect. I’d been experimenting with a novel method of streaming content from the cloud and was finding it very hard to find people who understood why what I was doing was so exciting. Bruce had recently returned from Silicon Valley working at OnLive, the first direct to consumer cloud gaming platform. I told him what I was doing and asked him why anyone would stream the way OnLive was. After a decade of working on their technology, it’s fair to say he knew exactly why, so he was curious and also perhaps a teensy bit skeptical about my novel new method. I’m sure he was tired of the cloud gaming naysayers, so instead, I showed him my small demo of a spinning teapot, streamed from Amazon into that café on a reasonably standard laptop that moment, he understood the significance of the technology. Suffice to say; we instantly got on. Polystream was born.
How does Polystream innovate?
Adam Billyard: As a student, I read an excellent book called Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Even though its writing is from 40 years ago, it tells the story of a small team that designed and built a new minicomputer to compete with the IBMs and captures a tech startup’s buzz. A key takeaway for me was that the team never stopped considering how insanely difficult what they were trying to build was but just kept pushing and pushing. If the team had stopped, it would have lost the nerve. The mantra of “How Hard Can It Be” is a core belief at Polystream and helps drive us to try new things every day.
The other innovation element for us is not to be afraid to hack together things that are *not* beautiful but allow you to play around and learn. We discuss, disagree, and reiterate – we cover a lot of whiteboards at Polystream! The point being that we can cover a lot of ground by removing the fear of failure – some things don’t work out – but once you have an artifact that you can reason about, it helps suggest new paths of discovery.
Our newest product, called Fantom, allows anyone to drop into a running game world as an invisible spectator with presence and agency. A recent company-wide two day Hackathon ran to enable everyone (engineers and non-engineers) to team up and hack together cool new features /ideas. Even though it was all conducted over Zoom, it was an enormous success to get everyone involved and reiterating that building new stuff is just about doing it.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Adam Billyard: Bruce and I started the year planning three months of travel as we were about to start an investment tour to whip up our Series B, and of course, by early March, we had to react quickly to the world being on lockdown.
Our immediate focus was to help the team get set up to work from home. As you can imagine, our business’s engineering side has many people, each used to working with three monitors and giant PCs all hooked up to the best internet and data centers we can pump into our HQ. It’s not been ideal, but we’ve also worked hard on creating a culture where candid conversation can happen, where everyone digs deep and helps each other out, and where our “How Hard Can It Be” mantra ebbs out into other parts of our working lives.
The office remains open in a COVID-19 secure way for any six people to have a socially distanced whiteboard session, but overall, we’ve transitioned pretty well into working remotely. We have set up a calendar of activities to keep morale high so that not every Zoom call is work-related, which can be someone on the team teaching others how to play the guitar and guest Zooms from magicians that we can invite our friends and families to join in.
We’ve also focused on implementing wellness services like Spill so anyone on the team can chat about how things are going with trained professionals in a very respectful way. There was a delay in the investment tour, but we’ve made it work virtually, and in fact, we stand to end the year in excellent shape. Together, we’ve gone from coping to feeling back on track and looking ahead.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Adam Billyard: Like any startup, we have to make difficult choices about everything, but we have learned from day one that no matter how difficult it might seem, if we surface our options early, are honest, and task each other to make what feels like the right decisions, no matter how hard, it helps us stay focused and pushes us on to the next thing.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Adam Billyard: I love running in the hills behind Brighton with my dog Pixel. I try to get out every day, but running in the dark of winter morning can be hazardous. At the end of a long day, I relax by cooking – and am very lucky to have learned a great deal from my wife when it comes to both food and wine, to the point where I can say after 20 years, my cooking isn’t terrible!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Adam Billyard: We plan to stand on the shoulders of giants! Yes, I know every startup says that, but whether our competitors are as mighty as Google and Microsoft or are fellow startups, we are an exciting new subsegment in our market. We offer our customers something that is both of value and genuinely innovative. Our product is a showcase of our core technology and is the first of many more to come.
Your final thoughts?
Adam Billyard: What I learned from my early days at Criterion, and now Polystream, is how important it is to build a team of people you enjoy working with and never to assume your ideas have “been done before.” It’s been a challenging year for everyone. Perhaps the whole world feels a little more startup. But the team I’m working with keeps pushing to not only deliver incredible things but already strive to be the best versions of themselves, and this continues to inspire me.
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