Episode 357 – EmberGen CEO – Building a Business
Episode 357 – EmberGen CEO – Building a Business
Janga FX was founded in 2016 by Nick Seavert, an entrepreneur who is well versed in both startups and real-time VFX. Janga FX was initially bootstrapped with credit cards, software sales, and many thousands of man hours instead of outside investments. The company’s core motive is to provide real-time VFX tools to artists and designers who work in video game or film industries.
The first tool by Jang FX called VectorayGen was released in 2017. EmberGen is a standalone real-time volumetric fluid simulation tool built for generating flipbooks, image sequences, and VDB files.
In this Part 2 of Allan McKay’s interview with Nick Seavert, the Founder of Janga FX, Nick talks about his first job in the industry, the beginnings of Janga FX, its first software VectorayGen and the launch of Ember Gen.
Janga FX Website: https://jangafx.com
Janga FX on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtRjzr2QlxJcoQQ2c74dJpw
EmberGen Website: https://jangafx.com/software/embergen
Janga FX and Otoy Collaborate on EmberGen FX: http://www.cgchannel.com/2020/04/otoy-and-jangafx-team-up-to-create-embergen-fx/
Nick Seavert on Allan McKay’s Podcast: www.allanmckay.com/289.
[03:34] Nick Seavert Introduces Himself
[05:28] Nick Talks About His First Mentor
[13:16] Nick Discusses His First Jobs in the Industry
[16:43] The Beginnings of Janga FX
[20:35] VectorayGen as the First Software by Janga FX
[28:54] Nick and Allan Discuss Working Remotely — as a Whole Company
[37:26] Nick Shares Some of the Features and the Launch of EmberGen
[40:20] The Influence of Customer Feedback on EmberGen
EPISODE 357 — EMBERGEN CEO — BUILDING A BUSINESS
Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 357! I’m sitting down with Nick Seavert, the Founder of Janga FX. You might be familiar with Janga FX from EmberGen. We’ve had Nick on the Podcast before (www.allanmckay.com/289).
Please take a moment to share this Episode with others. Also, please feel free to reach out with your opinions, as well as ideas for other guests.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:13] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[47:39] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
EMBERGEN CEO — BUILDING A BUSINESS
[03:34] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Nick: My name is Nick Seavert. I’ve been doing VFX for the past 12 years ago. I started in games, modeling Half-Life 2. My main thing is video games in general. Throughout the course, I found the tools weren’t to my liking but at the time I didn’t know what I was doing. I got involved in a couple of startups with a mentor I met on the internet (sounds shady). I did that for 4 years, and failed in a couple of businesses. I was getting back into VFX as a hobby but figured the tools were still not too good or fast enough. I figured if my particle system in Unreal Engine is in realtime, then my tools could be in realtime. I hopped in and learned everything I needed to learn. I started Janga FX. For the past 4 years, we’ve built our team. During that time, I maxed out my credit cards, had to get a studio job working on games. Then, I left the studio and started on Janga FX again this August.
[05:28] Allan: My first big job was working on Half-Life back in ‘96. I always find it fascinating when people mention this game. I wanted to talk about the mentor part. They’re such a huge influence on someone. But you mentioned traveling somewhere after meeting your mentor online. I think a lot of people give up instead of taking an initiative like that.
Nick: I believe it was 2012 and I just graduated high school. I accidentally clicked the wrong link and it took me to a forum about business. I picked up a book called The Millionaire Fastlane. It was the best book I’ve ever read!
[07:02] Allan: I haven’t read it because the cover had a stock photo.
Nick: I’ve met the author [M.J. DeMarco] multiple times now. I’ve been on his Podcast. He helped me go down this path. I met one of the guys on his forum and was talking to him for a while. And this guy invited me to New Mexico. I was hesitant, but I sold my graphics card (it was the only thing I had that was worth anything) to buy a one-way ticket. And the rest is history.
[08:04] Allan: I have a whole circle of friends like Pat Flynn. I do mastermind groups with them. It’s interesting that you went all in. What was it that sparked his interest in you, to teach you?
Nick: I think it was just ambition. I would not leave him alone. “I need this! I need to get out of my town. If I don’t, I’m going to be stuck in this rut!” And it was my first time on a plane, first time leaving my state. It was completely new to me. It was the best thing I could’ve done. It was fun. I was out there for 4 years!
[09:29] Allan: Four years! Wow! If you’re half in / half out, you’re not going to make it. Anyone whom I’ve known to be successful, they were committed. What’s that expression, “Burn the boats, storm the shores”? Two questions: How did you get in contact with him? And what did you learn? I never thought I was a business person but looking back, I was that kid selling all my toys at Christmas. What did you get from that?
Nick: I contacted him through this forum. He actually had an application up there. He thought I was a great fit. I was one of the top 10 people. A lot of people just wanted to make money. From me, the question was, “How can I provide value? How can I learn to be a producer?” That’s how I got on his radar. From there, he taught me a lot through farm work. He lived on a farm. The best times weren’t in the office, making sales funnels. It was on the farm, taking care of the chickens or whatever. If you want to raise a family or a farm, it’s a process. Having me do all the hard stuff (digging holes in heat) taught me that you have a huge truck of shit and a small spoon to eat it with. It’s the best way to put it! With Janga FX, I’ve had some tough months. I didn’t if we could pay people. [12:19] Accepting the fact that you don’t always know everything and that you’re always needing to learn and adapt. That’s the best thing I was taught. And to keep on going! You can’t stop. You can’t quit. The point where it gets the hardest, they call it the Desert of Desertion. You’re in that stage where no one listens or understands you. But you have to keep going until you get that traction. But that’s the best thing I’ve learned.
[13:16] Allan: In a way, it’s like Karate Kid: “Wax on, wax off.” I think perseverance is critical. You were invested and weren’t afraid to do the work to get there. I think it’s the most critical thing with building a business. You’ve done the hard work early on and it’s part of it. You mentioned you did a few startups. What happened to that? I know you worked on the game No More Room in Hell.
Nick: Yes! It was a big team of passionate people. It wasn’t one of the startups. That was purely a project of love. The first startup that I got on was called LiquidOff. I know they raised some money and they were on some science show. It was a spray that you spray on your clothes and it repels water. They also had this machine that made your phone waterproof. We ended up losing money in that company, and it was a huge starting experience. I can’t say it was my company. I was one of the first employees. I did learn a lot: how to run it, how to get investors. The other startup I did was called Persona Factory. We created customer avatars. That didn’t work out. When I saw it failing, that’s when I started Janga FX.
[16:43] Allan: One of my friends is an investor. He doesn’t invest in any company that hasn’t had any failures before. If you don’t experience failure and come back from it, it’s a huge red flag. When you started Janga FX, were you clear about what you wanted to do?
Nick: For sure, it was 100% about games at the time. We are pivoting into film, but we’re still doing games as our bread and money. I had the plans for EmberGen but I wanted to get a simpler software out. I needed to find a good team. I struggled for a while, but I had a vision and I had a really simple product called VectorayGen. I got some traction with that. It was enough to bring people on. From there, my co-founder suggested we rewrite the software from scratch. We did that. A month later in 2018, we had our first major studio purchases. From there, we worked on VectorayGen for a while longer but we were ready to start EmberGen (at the end of 2018). The workflow for games with EmberGen is impeccable. It’s so fast, which is why so many studios adopted us. I just didn’t know how to get there. I knew enough about building a team. I found my people on Discord, actually. It’s been a fun ride!
[20:35] Allan: Did you see VectorayGen as a way to build funds?
Nick: Totally! It was just there to make a bit of money. It didn’t do that but it had the company running. It kept the lights on. We had that. It was promising. We had some months when it did really well. I moved to North Carolina and worked a day job as a VFX artist. I told them I owned a software company when they hired me, and they were understanding. One of the reasons I got that job was because I moved to North Carolina in a week.
[22:20] Allan: I think the fact that you’re willing to go all in every time shows your commitment from day one. With businesses, you sometimes need to test the waters with something smaller. If it succeeds, you can go all in. The other part of that is when you see the hole in a market, it shows you a better way. While you were working the day job, was that a chance to practice what you were doing?
Nick: Absolutely! Which is why I was thankful for getting that job. They let me test my software, as long as I did my job. I got to use EmberGen in it, before it was even out there. There were a ton of things I learned! It was really cool. The art director would be standing behind me saying, “Can you fix that?” And I’d say, “Yes, I can!” It was just so cool to be able to do that. I’m sad I’m not there anymore.
[24:55] Allan: I’ve always been obsessed with what makes studio work. It’s always about some software being able to get them over a wall. That was the case with Krakatoa. It built up overtime because we were pushing it for every need. When you’re working production and applying software and testing the scene, that’s when you become successful. When was it time for you to pivot and go all in with EmberGen?
Nick: Our team was growing and I felt that we finally had the talent. I didn’t want it wasted on VectorayGen. We just got an RND guy and I told him to start on EmberGen. It was more an executive decision. There was a lot of planning involved. We planned it out for a month, working with all the problems we’d faced in production. There were so many fluid tools out there but they weren’t doing what we were doing — nor were they targeting our market. Another thing about being able to lead a team: We’re running a very successful software company at this point but I’m not a software developer. I actually went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book called C++ in 24 Hours and taught myself. I didn’t know anything. It’s really such a grassroots thing. One thing after the other.
[28:54] Allan: With the white boarding process, how did you communicate?
Nick: We used Discord for that. We did weekly calls. Everyone at the company is remote. They’re in Belgium and Norway, the Czech Republic wherever in the U.S. Anywhere!
[29:34] Allan: So you’re the odd one with the timezones?
Nick: Yes! Most of our programers are in Europe. We used what used to be called Realtime Board, now it’s called Miro. It’s this huge digital white board and you can post videos and pictures. We got everything out over a bunch of calls. And we started on the product.
[30:27] Allan: I’ve been working with this one startup and they have a physical white board. It connects to Zoom and Discord as well. It syncs up to everyone’s devices. Coming from VFX perspective, you already know the business and its needs. Having done that research, what were the things that interested you?
Nick: Working as a VFX artist for the past 12 years, I saw the needs. I had the idea since 2012. That’s when I was really frustrated with the solutions out there. I didn’t know what to do yet or how to build a business. After going through the business mentorship, I felt so bad for VFX artists waiting for better solutions. That was my next big thing. Of course, working my day job, I saw the tools and the buying process. Experience is paramount. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I have a lot of experience. I’m having to learn a lot about film stuff right now. Other pipelines have the same concepts. You’re Houdini for this and FumeFX for that, and Cinema 4D for something else. We learn a lot from our customers. I had to get a white board to write it all down.
[34:16] Allan: At home, I have 6 white boards and a digital one as well. Every room is a different project. You’ve touched on this: The most expensive thing on any project is man hours. That’s why I laugh when someone refuses to buy a plug in because it would essentially save someone thousands of dollars. You wanted to build a tool that would give resolutions. Do you think it was the fact that GPU’s stepped up and it was a matter of good timing? I was at ILM at the time when they started developing Plume. Do you think it was the right time with technology?
Nick: Sure! There was a program I saw in 2009. It was a 3D fire simulator. It proved to me that we could do what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have the team building skills at the time. I think 2014-15 was the ripest time to get started. That’s when GPU’s were powerful enough. But now, they’re so much faster. At this point, with EmberGen, it’s a memory bandwidth problem. If they want to give us 20 TB in the next GPU — we need that if we want to run games in real time! This is the perfect time. It might become the Microsoft story: Right time, right place, right graphics cards. Everything lined up! I think we could’ve started a year earlier, but if we did that we wouldn’t be where we are today.
[37:26] Allan: I want to jump in and talk about some of the features. How did you know that you were onto something that was going to work? And what were the big challenges in the beginning?
Nick: I think the big challenges for us (almost everyone on our team has almost a PhD degree), I don’t think the computational physics were the hard part. The hard part was getting it to be a tool that actually rocks; where users can actually say, “Holy shit! This — is awesome!” When we first launched it, users would testify that as soon as you started it, there was an explosion. It’s already simulating, you don’t have to set anything up. It’s already doing cool stuff. That’s what we wanted our users to see. All those reactions were the first time I knew it was going to work. EmberGen launch story was pretty fun. We were doing a contract to keep ourselves afloat. When I quit my day job, VectorayGen just stopped selling that same month. I have no clue why it did that! We had to release the alpha of EmberGen — and it was a huge success! That’s when I felt good. Three some years doing this. But the rest has been a blast and a joy!
[40:20] Allan: How much from customers’ feedback has been of the biggest influence?
Nick: There is this one guy Andreus Glad. He used to work at Dice. His feedback alone has helped us develop a lot. It’s so helpful and he uses it in production everyday. From there, all of our customers have been helpful. I got on a bunch of demo calls with major studios. I asked for their candid feedback. And we got so much good stuff. By the time we launched, people were blown away. Our whole company is built around feedback channels. After studios buy licenses, I check in for more feedback. We implement feedback within a couple of weeks.
[42:29] Allan: I think that’s brilliant though! A big mistake that a lot of companies make is that they tell people what they want. The more you’re in tune with customers’ needs, the more it tends to their necessities.
Nick: The great thing about me is that I used to be like that. I would tell people what they wanted but I quickly learned. You need to listen to your customers. I’m not afraid to talk to them now. Just being super down to earth is helpful. We’re a small company and we want to save people a lot of money with our tool. Listening to customers and being honest with yourself is crucial. You don’t know what you don’t know. As long as you continue to accept that, you will learn endlessly. Eventually, you’ll figure it out. And one day, you can be as good as Allan McKay.
[45:15] Allan: I think that’s really great advice: You don’t know what you don’t know but as long as you go and figure it out — or find someone else that can — it’s a huge strength. You could do it all, but it would distract you from the bigger picture.
Nick: I think I quickly learned I wasn’t the one coding this. I had a call with one of the co-founders of Etsy. He told me there would come a time when I needed to start delegating. I chose the CEO route and searched for more people. I’m trying to learn coding in my spare time, but I’m more than happy to pay people who have more experience than me. They’re way better and basically geniuses. It’s so great to be able to have that self-awareness.
[47:21] Allan: That’s so great! Where can people go to find out more about EmberGen.
Nick: www.JangaFX.com. You can search for EmberGen
[47:33] Allan: This has been so great, man! Thanks for taking the time to chat!
Nick: Absolutely! Thank you very much for having me!
Okay, what did you think? I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Please take a moment to share it with others, or to give me your feedback.
I want to thank Nick for coming back to do the Podcast. Next week, I’ll be interviewing Tim Miller, Film Director, Animator, Creative Director and Co-Founder of Blur Studio, about the history of launching Blur, its legacy; his ongoing collaboration with David Fincher, his directing Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate – and creating Love Death + Robots. It’s going to be a great one!
Until then –
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
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