Why I bet my career on Bigscreen and VR

Why I bet my career on Bigscreen and VR

By Kyle Russell, BigscreenVR Chief of Staff

Previously published on Kyle's blog, Collisions.

Over the past decade, I’ve been on a journey through the startup landscape: optimistic TechCrunch reporter, investor at Andreessen Horowitz, go-to-market at a rocketship, and then building my own venture-backed company. This week I concluded nearly five years of being a startup founder by joining BigscreenVR as Chief of Staff. 

I’m taking on operations, finance, and marketing to scale the world’s smallest VR headset to $100M in revenue within two years. Exciting — I genuinely love getting to work at the frontier of technology — but everyone knows, hardware is hard.

As I started reaching out to folks for perspective on my path forward in recent months, friends and peers suggested chilling out. Take a few months. Reset and find yourself. Get a big tech job and make some real money for a while.

But I also kept hearing about red flags that gave me genuine dread of the prospect of working within some of these organizations. Politics, roadmaps getting whipped around by executives late to trends, and lots of people building things who don’t seem to be particularly pleased that they get to work on the gadgets and operating systems and interactions that will shape the daily lives of billions of people over the coming decades.

Then I had a call with BigscreenVR’s founder, Darshan. We talked about my time across the different pivots at Playbyte, and how the experience differed from what I was hearing about opportunities I was exploring, and how I felt the cliche entrepreneur fear that I had made myself “unemployable.”

We kept talking. Over hours of calls, we discussed what Darshan and his team were doing in VR. I had known about the launch of Beyond last year, and assumed that behind the scenes BigscreenVR was undergoing the same rapid transformation I had witnessed at a distance at Oculus and Magic Leap as they raced to capture the opportunity for virtual and augmented reality in the mid-2010s: growing to 1,000 people overnight, losing focus, lots of managers.

None of my assumptions were true. 

BigscreenVR, including manufacturing and customer support, has a lower headcount than my previous employer Skydio did when I joined to launch their first drone in 2017. A decade since Facebook acquired Oculus and kicked off the headset race, BigscreenVR is likely the only company building VR hardware profitably.

Losing focus? Try laser focus. BigscreenVR has two products: 

  • The Bigscreen app, a staple on multiple VR headsets (including Meta Quest) for letting you play games, watch movies, and hangout with your friends in a virtual living room

  • Bigscreen Beyond, the aforementioned premium PCVR headset that manages to pack incredible OLED displays into a device a quarter the size of the latest-and-greatest Meta Quest 3 and Apple Vision Pro

But the thing I was most impressed by was the passion for VR and building something great among the team. These aren’t people who transferred over from Instagram analytics because they thought it would look good on annual reviews.

The people building hardware and software at BigscreenVR have been at it for a decade. They’ve worked at other companies building headsets only to see great efforts put on the chopping block for not lining up with the buzzwords of the day. They have something to prove — about themselves, but also about the potential for VR as we envisioned it ten years ago. Folks at BigscreenVR are locked in because they get to build the future that’s being ignored.

Awesome. But I couldn’t help but also look at BigscreenVR with my “former VC” hat on. OK, so they’re building something cool — but what are the prospects for a VR hardware startup in 2024?

Some fun context is that 8 years ago, I was a deal partner at Andreessen Horowitz and got to help BigscreenVR run with its early momentum by driving an investment in their seed round. So I know the extent to which Darshan has been a visionary, building absolutely fantastic products as soon as underlying technology has provided the means to make advances.

But I have also seen the extent to which he’s a pragmatist. Even when backed by a16z and then True Ventures, he didn’t splurge on an office and perks and impressive events to woo additional investors ahead of genuine need for capital. Darshan is a builder who doesn’t mind staying lean when circumstances call for it.

And circumstances have definitely called for it! The most successful teams in VR from an ROI-perspective have fewer than 10 people and make relatively simple games for as many VR platforms as they can reasonably address without significant changes. Before getting into hardware, that’s exactly what BigscreenVR did, racking up millions of users when Meta supercharged the market with Quest headsets.

But in 2020, Darshan realized that something was happening that was making VR worse for his most engaged users. Everything pointed to Apple and Meta getting locked in a battle to ship the iPad for your face, a heavy all-on-one device that’s great for infrequent casual use and demos to friends and family, but worse for actual hardcore time spent in social apps like VRChat or racing and flight simulators.

So he decided to spend some meaningful (to BigscreenVR) capital building a true next-generation VR headset. Setting out with a design philosophy that “every gram matters,” he assembled a team that in truly insane time turned around a device that YouTuber Optimum crowned “5 years ahead of everything else” in form factor — in a video made nearly a year after its initial release.

For the right users, the value is undeniable:

So Darshan has been able to build a super lean team with a killer software app for VR and a truly differentiated hardware product that runs in a different direction from the incumbents spending tens of billions of dollars to make and expand the market. The niche their product owns lends itself to insanely high engagement and willingness to spend for a great experience. By not pursuing defense applications they’re free to pursue cost-effective production. 

And by focusing on the killer form factor as early as possible and being patient with incrementally solving user problems and adding capabilities as they become commoditized, they might just beat Apple and Meta to one day having a device everyone plugs into their laptop (now with a high-end GPU for running local AI models, go Nvidia!) to be productive or watch a movie on a plane.

As a builder and operator: yeah, I can work with that potential.