with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Angus Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO of Start Beyond on taking learning by experience to new frontiers, putting guardrails on innovation, and creating useful technology for tangible real-world problems.

Angus is the CEO and Co-Founder of VR and AR studio, Start Beyond, which was named in the Top 10 2023 AFR Most Innovative Tech Companies as well as in the Top 20 Australian Startup Employers.

They’ve delivered more than 1.2million AR and VR learning experiences and work with the likes of Accenture and Meta, as well as US-based VR software giant, Strivr, and Australian companies like Westpac, University of Technology Sydney, St John’s Ambulance, and Woolworths.

Angus started out in writing, directing and producing television, documentaries, theatre and short films for Southern Cross Austereo and Nova, working with artists such as Bob Geldof, Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

He was named a 2023 Australian Top 50 Small Business Leader, and is the Chair and Co-Founder of the Australian Metaverse Advisory Council (AMAC), and is also a recent first-time author, having released Viewer Discretion Advised in 2023.

In this episode we talk about:

✅  The pioneering work he did in radio a decade ago by bringing a visual element to a live broadcast

✅  Recognising when to act on the tension between gaining enough experience and launching his own business

✅  How he has taken learning by experience to stratospheric heights while putting guardrails on innovation, and

✅  His thoughts on where education is going to be in 10 years’ time.

Thanks to Sam Dybac and her team at The PR Hub for introducing us to Angus.

Connecting with Angus Stevens

You can connect with Angus via LinkedIn and the Start Beyond website.

Books and resources

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“The best question you can ask is, “What can I do to help your business be better? How can I help you with your role or to do your role better? It's so simple, but it's so good.”

On pioneering visual radio

  • We thought how do we capture the personalities of the on-air talent that has already got this great relationship on air? How do we then find ways of taking something that's happened on air that the audience has already heard and make it into something that would motivate you to bother going to the website to look at the video and to actually engage with something separate to what you've already heard.
  • We very quickly realised that we needed to make content short, so not five minutes, but 60 seconds long, which today is obvious.
  • We went from 20,000 monthly views to 4 million. We essentially did that by what is now Instagram threads or TikTok. We were doing that within our own player in format.

On making useful technology

  • Strategy is choosing what not to do. You could do everything and you'll get nowhere. And when it comes to what I do with VR and AR, there's all this technology out there, but just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. 
  • There's a whole bunch of people within the industry who come at it from a technology point of view and because of that, they're excited about what the technology can do. But they don't think about actually how the audience or the user is going to feel based on what they do. So they just make stuff for the sake of making it, but it doesn't have any value or merit. So I always use that lens to make sure that we were actually doing something that's worthwhile.
  • You can make stuff that gets all the awards, but no one cares less. And so it comes back to, is your audience just to be able to puff your chest up and show that you've done something that's really new and cool? Or is your audience actually the people who need to buy it or need to engage with it or feel something from it?

On making the jump into his own business

  • I'd worked in small agencies and I'd seen how businesses run at a small level. And then I'd worked at Austereo and at Nova and I'd seen how they run at a national level and where you've got 600 plus employees. And so I understood business from both sides of the table.
  • I was early forties, I've worked for so many other people and every time you do that, you have to make a choice about whether your values are being compromised or you're investing your time in essentially making someone else wealthy. There's so many different variables that come with that, but fundamentally what it came down to was I did not want to be beholden to someone else for my destiny.
  • I just thought life's too short; if you're not going to do it now, when are you going to do it? But, you've also got to be pragmatic. I had two young kids.
  • You need to have enough runs on the board to be able to know that if you're going to do this, there's calculated risk.

On the benefits of VR/AR learning

  • It’s just the goggles and you, so there's nowhere to hide and you're just in whatever that environment is. The beauty of that is not only can you transport the user to anywhere, the classroom becomes whatever that content is inside the VR headset. So you can transport the user to any location, but then also you can shift and play with perspective.
  • We know that people learn the most through experience; there's no faster way to learn than to do. The beauty of VR is that it allows you to do so essentially without the physical or emotional risk. So you can try things out in VR and then learn from that to then take into the real world. So you can learn how to deploy theoretical things that you've been told in virtual reality and thereby learn by doing and have a visceral effect.
  • Whereas with augmented reality, the beauty is that it adds a layer of information onto your existing situation, so it visualises this really complex theory in a way that people can then make tangible and understand. It takes these concepts and makes them into a 3D real world application. We're primarily visual and auditory learners but we've just had to use reading and text because it's been the most accessible way until now.

On facilitated VR learning

  • There's different degrees of complexity, and based on those complexities, it will then determine how much you need to then have additional support with it. For example, we'll build out self-contained modules where you just pop on the headset, you learn what you need to know and it's so self-contained that you don't need a facilitator and you can just go out there on the floor and you're off.
  • But then there's other stuff where if you're looking at, say, managers and how they are navigating scenarios, you’re able to encourage the user to actually start to think differently about the choices they've made and how they've behaved and then from that to actually learn from it. That can be pretty confronting, so you want to have a facilitator after it to be able to debrief with and work through that, otherwise it can become counterproductive. If you have people questioning how their behaviours are without having that support network to then work through what they need to do so as to use those behaviours in a more constructive manner and you don't have a facilitator, then you sort of strip someone down without giving them the tools to build themselves back up.

On the future of learning and education

  • Currently, there's hype cycles around VR, AR and AI and there's going to be just a continual evolution in the same way that we had the first iteration of the internet.
  • Incrementally, we're going to see more and more experiential, immersive learning scenarios and education is going to become increasingly a mixture of totally immersive learning in VR and AR as well as remote learning where you've got shared experiences, where people are chatting to each other. This flat screen 2D environment that we're dealing with now is just going to slowly whittle away and ultimately in 10 years’ time, people are very rarely going to be doing any traditional 2D video calls. They're going to be doing it in a spatial environment.
  • Headsets over the next 10 years are just going to become like a pair of glasses, they're going to get lighter and easier. There's also so much 2D fatigue of a screen , like with Zoom meetings, everyone's sick to death of it. People want to go back to face-to-face.
  • The other thing is that off the back of COVID, travel budgets aren't the same, so how do I get this middle ground of not needing to fly but still having the immersive meeting?
  • He said that the way that AI currently works is much like how he dances at 3 am: with blind confidence in their ability that is unjustified.
  • Let's be clear; AI is taking its information from the internet and we know that the internet is not a source of truth. We know that the internet has truth in it, but it also has a whole bunch of stuff which isn't true. So there has to be ways of putting guardrails on AI to make sure that it's able to filter out in a very black, white, yes, no, binary sort of sense, what is truth and what isn't. And it cannot do that without influence and at the moment, there's already unconscious bias that's playing into the AI.
  • So I think what will happen is that in the future, authenticity and trust are going to be the two major factors and that will become the currency.

On training for aggressive customers

  • So many businesses are finding that their workforce is feeling fatigued, that there's issues around mental health and resilience. The flip side of that is that their customers are really aggressive and there's this universal stress that's being felt at both ends of that dynamic.
  • We're actually building out at the moment, a piece which is around how to manage aggressive customers and how to identify them for retail and hospitality. So being able to notice the traits of a bulldog type customer or a fire type customer or a chameleon type customer and see these attributes and then be able to de-escalate it before they get aggressive or before they snap at you or, or before they lose their marbles. In that way, you’re able to calm the situation down, allow the worker to remain in a positive headspace and de-escalate. So stuff like that excites me because I know that the learning and the technology will deliver those results. So to know that we can build something like that and know that there's a need in the industries for it, it's like the perfect sort of business. You're doing something where you're going to make a buck, but you're going to do stuff that's going to help people as well.

On writing his first book

  • Your business evolves and you get further and further removed from that creative process, but it doesn't mean it doesn't stop. So that storytelling energy I'd placed into the business, the book was a great outlet for me to be able to be myself. 
  • I encourage everyone at work to have pet projects on the side. I think it's really important because I think it invigorates you and thereby invigorates your work both creatively, in your day job, but then also on the creative side outside of your day job.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  •  If you share the pie, the pie gets bigger.

Deal hope,