From A $100 Experiment To Launching In Walmart
This article was published in the Fall 2019 issue
by Jon Cheney, founder/CEO, Seek
On January 1st, 2016, inspired by the turn of a new year, I made a decision that changed the course of my life forever. I had been thinking about the difference I felt in my life when consuming vs creating. Our culture is teeming with ways to fill our time: social media, TV, movies, music, endless news, games, and more. I was feeling fatigue from endless scrolling and clicking “Play next episode” day in and day out.
I realized what I found the most joy in was when I was in creation mode. I’ve always loved filming and editing video, creating things to share with others that hopefully bring joy. I love spending time in nature (especially on a river), creating memories with friends and challenging myself to get on harder and harder water. I’m a pianist/composer and the joy I feel every time I come up with a new melody or finish recording a new album was a feeling I wanted to chase more.
I decided to start something new and begin creating an idea I had worked on in my head over the previous months. So on January 1, I jumped online, registered a new Utah LLC called Treasure Canyon, and set off to create something that would allow me to create and spend time within my passion for the outdoors. I dug up the post from Facebook that marked the beginning of this journey.
I had been working in the education tech space, and I wanted to do something at a different pace. I had an idea to build an adventure race. I wanted to involve tech, and I wanted people to have amazing adventures and create incredible memories. With the fatigue I felt from the digital world, my goal was to bring people out in nature where they could experience more of the real world. So I launched a company called Treasure Canyon. I called up my friend, Mike Snow, told him my idea, and he was in. We would hide treasure in the mountains, create clues, and let people go find it. Who doesn’t want to go on a good old-fashioned treasure hunt?
We headed down to Tai-pan Trading, found a really cool-looking mason jar, went to the bank and took out 100 golden $1 Susan B. Anthony coins, and found a great place to hide it up in Provo Canyon near Bridal Veil Falls. We launched a Facebook page and started inviting all of our friends to like the page. We put up a few clues and announced on the page that we would release the final clue on a Saturday morning in February. The day came, and despite snow covering the area, about 30 people showed up for a chilly treasure hunt. A young dad with 2 of his boys (who we had never met previously) managed to solve the clues first and he found the $100. After seeing the joy that we created and the memory that this dad and his boys had enjoyed because of our efforts, we were hooked. We immediately began planning the second treasure hunt for $200. This continued until we held an event with a $10,000 cash prize and $15,000 of additional prizes from Maverik, Gatorade, Altra, Goal Zero and many other incredible brands.
We wanted to scale. But we knew that what we were doing wasn’t scalable. Even though we used some mobile technology for certain clues, it still required intricate planning and ultimately, we were carrying treasure chests up mountains to find good places to hide them. After some productive whiteboard sessions, we decided that in order to expand, we were going to have to get a lot more digital: we were going to make an app. It would be kind of like geo-caching, but with better prizes, organized events with sponsors, and amazing competitions all over the world.
Shortly after we began this process, the world changed with an app you may have heard of called “Pokémon GO.” It was an overnight hit. 500 million downloads less than 3 months after launching. Over $200M of revenue during its first 30 days. People thought that the world had changed forever with this new reality that was taking the world by storm.
I observed this phenomenon, and I believed that this game was a fad. I knew that it would come and go, but what inspired me was the core technology it was based on — augmented reality. I believed there was a lot more that could be done with it. So we hired some very smart people and “Seek” was born. Seek would be an app that allowed people to go around, just like Pokémon GO, except that instead of finding Pokemon roaming the streets, users would find treasure chests. In each treasure chest was the chance to win real prizes and cash. It was a fast hit. Seek garnered media attention and had active users in over 115 countries within the first year. Seek began to bring on some big clients — Samsung, Universal Pictures, Six Flags and more. These brands were wanting to capitalize on the frenzy that seemed to have taken over the world.
Unfortunately, as I predicted, Pokémon GO fame fell almost as fast as it grew. And as they fell, interest in location-based augmented reality dropped for us as well. Our customers were moving on to the next big thing, so we asked them what they would like to see in the world of augmented reality. There was a pretty good consensus among our customers that location-based AR was just a bit too much work for users. Requiring people to go walk around their neighborhood to see AR content wasn’t easy enough for the average person, and they wanted to get in front of more people. Brands wanted to be able to publish a cool AR experience and have it live more than a day or two inside of Snapchat, and they wanted customers to be able to easily find it and share the experience with friends. We saw an opportunity and decided to make our first big pivot.
What I heard was there needed to be a central location where people could view, share, and discover AR content. In other words, there needed to be something like YouTube, but for AR content. The entire Seek team got together to discuss the future of Seek. At this point, Seek had over a dozen employees, and we had raised over half a million dollars. We knew that this was going to take a lot of work and some more funding, so we went to our investors, brought on some new ones, and began the journey of launching the next product — Seek XR. In short, it was designed to be exactly what we wanted it to be, the YouTube of AR. Six months after the initial idea, we launched. This brought a whole new wave of media attention, contracts with big brands, and more investment. We believed this was going to be the next billion dollar idea.
About 3 months after launching, daily download numbers were disappointing. We were bringing in hundreds per day — not tens of thousands per day, as we had projected. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The content was awesome — fun, engaging, and new — and brand content wasn’t boring and static, but interactive and imaginative. Everything looked good on paper, but we knew something was missing: content creation. Up to that point, content was being created by ourselves and by other AR developers (of which there were very few). YouTube is so popular today because creating video content is easy. Anybody with a smartphone can point and shoot, upload to YouTube and then share with their friends. We believed that if we could get influencers to create AR content and share with their networks that we could go big. So we set out to build tools that would make creating AR content easy and available to the masses.
We did it. We created the tools, we found influencers, we published more content, and while we saw an increase in usage and downloads, it still wasn’t enough. Something still wasn’t right. So we took a step back and after a lot of discussion (followed up by some research), we realized that over 95% of people couldn’t even define “augmented reality.” If the world doesn’t know what it is, then how can they go looking for it? We never even considered this as a possibility because we were so engrossed in our AR world and in our vision that we failed to realize that consumers didn’t know as much as us. We originally thought that because of Pokémon GO, the world understood this technology enough, but we were wrong.
At this point, Seek was running low on cash — very low. We were going to have to close some big deals, raise some serious money, or shut everything down. We had some investors lined up that were ready to put in enough to help us on our journey to begin educating the world on AR, but every single investor fell through. We had big contracts that were supposed to land, and they didn’t. We had a $120k payroll, and $6k left in the bank. It was do or die time. I felt immense pressure from all sides — investors, employees, customers, my inner self — and I didn’t know what to do.
During that extremely difficult time, Thane Brimhall (Seek’s CTO) came to me with an idea. Through building out our previous solutions, we had built a lot of cutting edge technology that solved real problems the AR world was facing. Thane came to me and said, “I think we can launch a product to help e-commerce brands sell more products through AR, and we can do it all on the web.” I wasn’t very excited about the idea at first and kind of dismissed it. It wasn’t as sexy as “the YouTube of AR” or “Pokémon GO for brands.” But I started doing some research and discovered that some experiments in AR for e-commerce had already begun. Brands like Overstock, IKEA, and Wayfair had put AR in their apps, and the early stats that were coming back were astounding — 80% increase in sales conversion, 25% decrease in sales returns, increased customer happiness, and more. They were real results from this nascent technology. But all of these companies were still stuck with a big problem — the app. Thane’s solution would bring those same benefits, and they would all happen right on the mobile web. I went back to Thane, told him that he might be onto something, and we formulated a plan.
We went to our investors with that plan, and convinced them to keep paying just 4 Seek employees (down from over 20) so we could prove this out. The plan had to work or we were done. I believed in it, and I began talking to potential customers. The brands I talked to liked the idea; they were in. We pre-sold the idea to a few brands and got some early commitments (without cash) that they would look at it post-launch. We only had $10,000 left in the bank, but we were ready to launch. The product worked and it was time to show it off to the world. I jumped online and found an e-commerce conference where we could launch SeekView and get the first sale. I emailed the investor pool and asked them if they thought we should spend the rest of our money on this conference. Several said “no”, and a few said “yes.” In the end, they left it up to the team. We were all in, and we went for it.
Fast forward to today, about a year after the initial launch. Seek just launched in Walmart a few weeks ago. Over 10 million people are using Seek’s technology every month to make better buying decisions. Seek is helping dozens of major brands on five continents improve their customer experience through the world’s best web-based AR solution. Seek’s solution is easy for consumers: try it out on Overstock.com to shop for furniture and see what it looks like in your living room before you click the “Order” button; or head on over to walmart.com/LEGO to see LEGO sets come to life through the camera view on your phone. Seek is having a significant impact on e-commerce brands and retailers — any company with a physical product can benefit from what Seek does. Allowing customers to see a product in their life before they buy leads to better buying decisions and happier customers. If you want to learn more, you can do so at https://seekxr.com.
In the next three months, Seek will hire as many people as it had to let go last year during that pivotal time when Seek faced almost certain death. When we first hid that $100 near Bridal Veil Falls, I had no idea that Seek would become a B2B SAAS company, but it all came together when my co-founder and I walked into Walmart a few weeks ago and saw our technology live. We high-fived each other, took some pictures, and then got back to work to head towards the next win. We had created something that helps the world be a better place, and that felt good.
The overarching joy I have felt through this entire journey has come from focusing on creation instead of consuming. Seek has grown over 30% per month since launching the new product last year, and while that is exciting, it pales in comparison to what I know is coming as we continue to create, innovate, and serve our customers. I hope my story (which has much left to be told) inspires someone to find within themselves the opportunity to reach for their dream and jump into the game of creating something that isn’t there today. I look forward to reading your story.
Read the rest of the articles in the Fall 2019 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine