Hovhannes Avoyan started PicsArt, an app suite and social network for making and sharing art and pictures, after his daughter got bullied to tears for putting her art online. Now the network has over 100 million monthly active users. We talked to Hovhannes about his inspiration and his development process, and how he applies his positive approach to his own company.
Location: San Francisco
Current Gig: CEO & Founder, PicsArt
One word that best describes how you work: Efficient
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: MacBook 13"
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was born in the Soviet Union and it was shocking when everything collapsed at once. We went through several tough years in an economically disadvantaged position with no electricity, no heating, and a shortage of food and basic needs. Growing up this way helped me build a resilience that is crucial in the startup world where there can be a crisis any day, at any time.
I've been a serial entrepreneur most of my career as well as an investor in other startups. Over the years, I've founded several companies - the first was an enterprise software company founded in 1997 - and sold five.
PicsArt is my sixth company. I started it after an episode of online bullying led my daughter to tears after she shared artwork online. I wanted to build a safe space where all creatives could share their work without fear of judgement and come together to collaborate in meaningful ways.
Take us through a recent workday.
I like to start my day with a 45 minute workout. It gives me energy for the rest of the day. When at work, I try to spend less time in meetings and more quality time focused on strategic things. I love working on product ideas with the product team. For example, I was intimately involved in redesigning our Challenges product, in Q4.
I also participate in beta tests and group chats with our PicsArt VIPs (our influential power users) to understand their usage patterns and friction points in our product. That has helped me and our product team deliver a much better overall in-app experience. Also, I use PicsArt to make art every day and connect with other creatives on PicsArt.
I often stay online late into the night coordinating daily catch-ups as our global team works across various time zones. That said, I also make sure to keep a work life balance and spend time with my family.
What apps, gadgets or tools can't you live without?
Smartphones (I have several iPhones and Android phones) because I am always testing our app. I am a very active user of PicsArt. I have 4687 followers (at this particular moment) and try to post regularly. I've gained these followers thanks to my work alone; we have never promoted my personal account to our users.
I also use Google docs for writing, and our drawing tool Color for idea sketching.
What's your workspace setup like?
I have a very open space office in San Francisco's financial district. I like keeping an open environment within the office and tend to stay out of the conference rooms, interacting with my team. I'm OK with team members coming to my desk at any time to have quick chats about strategy or priority. Being accessible, whether in the office or not, is a big part of how I operate.
We recently moved to a new office as I wanted a workspace that was a little less formal and enabled teams to be working closer together. We also created a few lounge-type meeting areas to inspire creativity and thinking, and lowered the number of formal conference rooms. I believe this will increase interactivity and creative thinking.
What's your best shortcut or life hack? It can be niche or specific.
What doesn't kill (your energy and desire to succeed) makes you stronger. I am always looking at the positive aspect even in a hard time. Being resilient and stress resistant is the most important hack for a startup entrepreneur - use your methods for stress relief. I am a fan of meditation and working out.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I am very happy to have always have smart and passionate people around me. I've worked with some of my management team at my previous startups and brought them with me to PicsArt. Others that were hired later have quickly become part of our PicsArt management family.
As we have several remote offices, our team must have a very high level of trust to make things work smoothly and efficiently. To build this trust, we work very transparently. Our culture follows the adage "ask for forgiveness, not permission". We take risks and make decisions that we hold ourselves accountable to, rather than waiting for someone to decide.
At the same time, we know when to delegate to those who can do the job better (and have the time and skill set to dedicate) when it make sense.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I use Google Drive, mostly Sheets and Docs, for my personal organisation. At the company level, we use Jira to manage tasks and manage projects across teams.
What's your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
Annual team reviews! I don't like being that critical with people, and don't like to be overly formal with people that report to me. I see it more like friendship and formal reviews don't fit that model. However, as we are getting bigger and bigger, I understand that sometimes formality is necessary for scaling the organisation.
How do you recharge or take a break from work?
I like cooking, playing tennis, swimming, travelling and meeting friends.
What's your favourite side project?
Last year I had some health issues, so this year I decided to work on my fitness and make it like a project. Daily workouts, diet, meditations and overall more positive thinking.
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
I am trying to read two to three books per month. I've recently read books about AI, machine learning and neural networks. I was an AI researcher back in the '90s, and it has felt like almost a dead science until recently. Now it's a super hot topic and I'm trying to stay on top of the trends. We use many AI tools in PicsArt, and we have very large datasets so this research is not just a hobby, but also important for our future developments.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
I'd love to see Mark Zuckerberg answer these same questions. I don't know anyone else who has achieved such success in such a short period of time.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
"Failure is not the opposite of success. It's part of success!" to quote Arianna Huffington. I learned the same throughout my career too.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Be creative! It takes practise. It is a muscle you should keep training during your entire career and life. That is why we created PicsArt in the first place. Kids are creative because this is a part of their learning. We should all keep learning and be creative - this will make us better when things get tough and lead to a better overall life!
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.