Why be acquired by a tech giant when you can become one?
Five months ago, we interviewed Renji Bijoy, the founder and CEO of Immersed. Little did we know that in just half a year, he would team up with tech giants like Intel and Qualcomm, launch the sleekest VR headset on the market, and take the company public with $70 million secured in additional funding.
When I saw the announcements, I immediately reached out for a new interview. What happened behind the scenes? How did a startup like Immersed suddenly start working and competing with tech giants in the VR race? Let's find out.
From SaaS to hardware
Immersed is the most loved app for coding, designing, and working together through virtual reality offices. Renji launched the company in January 2017, and after three years of research and development, they experienced explosive growth when COVID-19 changed the remote working landscape forever.
Although the sudden shift to remote work has significantly accelerated Immersed’s growth, there was still one major bottleneck that prevented them from achieving widespread adoption—using a VR headset is like having a large brick on your head. While this hasn't stopped their early adopters from using the app for 40 hours a week, it's a deal breaker for the remaining 99% of workers. In fact, I personally tried working with the Meta Quest 2, and I couldn't use it for more than one hour without feeling tired, nauseous, and experiencing eye strain.
Since starting the company seven years ago, Renji has been waiting for a tech giant like Meta to release a lighter and sleeker VR headset that would facilitate the adoption of Immersed. "In 2017," he recalls, "Mark Zuckerberg pitched that everyone would be wearing augmented reality glasses by 2020. We are now approaching 2024, and this is still not the case." Indeed, Meta is instead focusing more on gaming.
Renji realized that waiting for tech giants to get their act together wasn't an option. So, he took matters into his own hands and launched Visor, a VR headset optimized for work and focused on what truly matters to their users—higher resolution, minimal latency, and an astonishingly lightweight design. "Our device lacks all the gaming functions and doesn't have controllers," explains Renji. "However, it enhances the things that matter when using it for work. It's lighter than an iPhone and has a thin and sleek design so you can wear it in a coffee shop without feeling embarrassed."
I believe this is an excellent example of the importance of thinking beyond the limits of existing solutions and asking the right questions. If Renji had solely focused on acquiring users in the VR space, they would have never reached this point. However, when thinking about how to onboard the next 100 million professionals to work in VR, it was clear that they couldn't rely on someone else to solve this problem for them.
The unexpected partnership with Intel
One of the most interesting parts of the story is how all the pieces have come together at just the right time. First of all, 2023 has been the year when it finally became technically possible to build something like Visor. Renji notes, "The hardware had been in the back of my mind for five or six years. But if we were ever to create a hardware device, it would be now because 4k resolution per eye is finally available as of 2023. You don't even see pixels anymore."
As chance would have it, Renji also got to meet the right partners to bring this vision to life. It all happened by chance at South by Southwest, a major tech conference in Austin, Texas. "I was on a panel with the Intel CEO," says Renji. "It was just the two of us and three other panelists. So I got to spend some time behind the scenes, talking about the things that we were working on."
That's when he pitched the idea of Visor to the Intel CEO. To his surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive. "This is literally what I've been pitching!" he told him. "Users already have computers with way more computing power. Why wouldn't you just leverage that to make the headset much smaller, lighter, and thinner?"
Why wouldn't Zuckerberg work on something like this instead?
"Let's talk about Mark Zuckerberg for a second," says Renji. "For the past two decades, Facebook has been subject to Apple, Google, and Microsoft's platforms. If AR/VR glasses are the next big thing after phones, he wants to own that whole platform. If he's dependent on a local computer, he will still be subject to the gatekeepers like Microsoft or Apple." And that's how a startup like Immersed gets to take its place.
Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger presenting Visor at the Intel Innovation 2023 Keynote
This is also a good reminder that, as a startup, you have the chance to compete in a space dominated by giants by finding a significant gap in the market. This is why it makes me laugh when the first question that investors ask founders is "Why can't Meta just do this?" Just because they have the capital to do almost everything, that doesn't mean they can do everything. They have different needs, different requirements, and different constraints than startups.
The great thing about Immersed is that it not only has a team of incredibly talented individuals, but they are also really committed to their mission. The team had such a strong faith in the company that when things got tough four years ago, they went without pay for six months before Immersed raised another round of funding. And it's that commitment that has brought them to where they are now. And it's also because of it that they rejected several life-changing acquisition offers.
"We were going down the acquisition path with a few tech giants," explains Renji. "It would have been a life-changing exit for me and the team. But instead of getting acquired by a tech giant, why not build the next one? Even though we've been in the space for seven years, we feel like AR/VR is just now starting, with tech giants pouring billions into the space. The Apple Vision Pro will also be released next year, and I think that is going to be a catalyst event for the industry. And I don't want to exit before this thing gets started. If I did, I know that I'm only going to get back into the space."
So instead of getting acquired and enjoying the results of this 7-year journey, Immersed is going public with $70 million secured in additional funding. "By going public," says Renji, "it's easier to take in a larger amount of capital to work on hardware because VCs can eventually sell their shares and don't feel as locked up in our company."
But more importantly, going public enables Renji to repay the thousands of people who believed in them. In fact, Immersed is financially supported by over 5,000 users/followers who had such faith in them to invest $12 million in the company through their community rounds on Wefunder. Renji explains, "Our friends and family have supported the company through community rounds for the past several years. Their investment has appreciated significantly, and we want to give them the opportunity to decide whether they want to keep their money in the company or use it to pay for their kids' college or whatever matters to them."
In just five months, Renji and his team have pulled off the impossible. They launched Visor after partnering with Intel and Qualcomm, secured massive funding, and decided to go public. If you want to follow along, you can find Renji on LinkedIn and Twitter. Who knows what he will be doing in the next five months!
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