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5 Lessons From Oculus Rift's Founder

Even if you don't have a clue about virtual reality, there's still a lot you can learn from Palmer Luckey.
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You may not care about virtual reality, but there's plenty to learn from Palmer Luckey, the creator of Oculus Rift. 

Facebook recently acquired the startup for $2 billion, but beneath that headline is the story of a teenager who found success solving a problem he was passionate about. And despite being inexperienced, he found success in a space where dozens had failed before him. Here's what he can teach you.

Pursue Your Passions

Luckey started Oculus Rift when he was only a teenager. Sure, he may be 21 and worth a few hundred million today, but his road to success began modestly, by focusing on one of his personal passions, head-mounted displays.

Originally inspired by science fiction novels, Luckey spent his teenage years learning all he could about virtual reality. While most high school kids were trying to be popular, Luckey was taking community college courses at California State University, becoming a hacker.

At 16, he started investing money from side jobs into collecting rare head-mounted displays. After amassing dozens of them, the story goes that he began building his own headset. It's a classic tale of solving your own problem, and Luckey was able to build a fantastic solution to a problem people cared about.

Own Your Niche

Virtual reality is incredibly geeky. It's been idolized for years and celebrated on series like Star Trek, but within that niche is a community in love with the idea of virtual reality. And just because nothing had come along to deliver on that promise, it didn't mean that people stopped caring.

Luckey's big break came when he met John Carmack. Carmack is a legend in the video game world for having created the hugely popular Doom franchise. Something of a virtual reality enthusiast himself, Carmack took Luckey's prototype and built a game on top of the OR platform, which ultimately helped the startup raise $2.3 million on Kickstarter.

In focusing on a niche, you can unlock a passionate base of customers who will help turn your idea into a success. Amazon started with books, and GoPro started with surfers. Facebook started with college kids, and Apple started with computer nerds. Think about it.

Creativity Has No Age Limit

Luckey doesn't have a formal degree in virtual reality, engineering, hardware, or entrepreneurship. He had never built a company and had no experience selling one. But that didn't stop him from remaking virtual reality.

The blind ignorance that youth provides is a powerful force. With experience comes excuses, self-doubt, and, worst of all, fear. As people age, they begin to feel that they have more to lose, which moves them away from the fearless mentality they had as young adults.

Luckey proves that you can accomplish what everyone says is impossible. It's a story that Carmack, who eventually became Oculus Rift's chief technology officer, Marc Andreesen, a board member who led a $75 million round of Series B funding in Oculus Rift, and Mark Zuckerberg, who purchased the company, could all personally relate to.

Don't Forget Where You Came From

With success comes the opportunity to alienate your past. The jury is still out on what will happen to Oculus now that it's joined Facebook, but it already faces an uphill battle in regaining customers' trust. 

The reason is that Oculus never shipped its headsets to its Kickstarter backers. The gaming community is also reeling from the acquisition news, as most despise Facebook. Most of probably won't have the chance to turn down a $2 billion acquisition offer, but this is a great example to learn from, as it's easy to forget who made you successful when there is money on the table.

Raising Money Means Selling Your Company

Raising outside capital isn't really about making your business more successful, or even more sustainable. By adding "investors," you have agreed to provide them with a return, and with high-growth technology startups, a return only happens when you sell the company or take it public. Unfortunately, there aren't many successful stories of hardware companies' initial public offerings, so no one should be surprised that Oculus Rift decided to do the latter.

A lot of entrepreneurs forget their investors are there to make money. Yes, the exceptional investors will help you make decisions that are best for the business, but ultimately, they just want a return on their capital.

Last updated: Apr 8, 2014

MARC BARROS

Marc Barros is the co-founder and former CEO of Contour, a hands-free camera company. Shortly after graduating from the University of Washington, Marc co-founded Contour in 2004 and led the organization from a garage to a multi-million dollar company. Contour products were sold in over 40 countries through action sports retailers and national chains, including Best Buy and Apple.




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