Ben Houston might not be a household name; but if you’ve been to almost any major movie in the last 10 years, you’ve probably already been blown away by his work.
As the founder and CTO of ThreeKit, the Vancouver native spent almost 15 years creating visual effects technology that was used in the Harry Potter, Star Wars and Marvel franchises, among others. But as if that legacy wasn’t impressive enough, consider that he’s now changing the way we shop online.
Ben and ThreeKit have moved their focus from the big screen to the small screen — in this case, cellphones and laptops rather than the movie theater. They’ve used their visual effects knowledge to create software that can help e-commerce companies better show off their products.
Here’s how it works: imagine that you’re buying a coffee table from Crate & Barrel (one of the company’s clients). With ThreeKit’s software, you can not only turn that coffee table to view it from all angles, but you can also change the materials and even see what it would look like in your home, thanks to augmented reality.
Even though this all feels pretty out-there — and yet long overdue — Ben himself is a down-to-earth guy. And that’s even after G2 Crowd CEO Godard Abel led a $10 million seed round for ThreeKit this year.
When Ben came in, there was no hard sell. Instead, he talked about the challenges of having a 14-year-old startup, the product’s potential, and why he left the glamour of the visual effects industry to help companies sell products in 3D.
Scott: What is ThreeKit? Let’s get into how you created it, and what was the moment where you were like, this is a thing?
Ben Houston: ThreeKit actually has its origin about 15 years ago. We used to make software for the visual effects industry. We had software that helps 3D artists achieve their artistic vision and reduce the cost of the visual effects works. Our software has been widely adopted. It’s been used on hundreds of films, including the Marvel series, the Harry Potter series, the Star Wars series.
We were doing that for a good long time, but then what happened is that we made this one tool that allowed you to do 3D on the web. It was very accessible: it’s very similar to Google Docs, but for 3D content. And we immediately got pulled into product visuals. Clients approached us like, hey, that would be great for doing visuals on the web.
We all of a sudden realized there was a huge market there. We weren’t brilliant: we sort of got pulled into it. And then we decided to pivot the whole company after that. Because the e-commerce market is huge. The visual effects market, while it’s sexy, cool, it’s actually not that big. And we’re down the value chain: so we make software, we sell it to visual effects firms, visual effects firms bid on the movies, and they get squeezed a lot. It’s a challenging market, there’s a limited size. But the e-commerce market, there are so many people that need better visuals to sell.
We do three different things. One, we do virtual photography: we use visual effects technology and we can make an image that looks real, and you have a lot of control over that. And it works really well for, say, Crate & Barrel. They have a lot of different couches, available in hundreds of different fabrics, and dozens of different leg styles. We can make all of those combinations, and we can do that incredibly cost effectively.
The other thing we do is interactive 3D, and for some clients that’s really important. You can turn the product around in the web browser from any angle.
And then the third thing we do is augmented reality. It’s like a Snapchat filter that you can put on the ground. And we do that on both iOS and Android.
What we did for CÎROC is we have a bottle customizer, so you can actually go to the website and then you can personalize that bottle. You can add emojis, you can put your name on it, you can put ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then they’ll actually create a bottle just for you with that wrapping.
Scott: I’m looking at this like, you can literally build new things on this all the time.
Ben: One of our clients is in the ski binding business. They actually use it to preview their products before they make them. So with our software, you can have what looks like real-life shots on your website, and the product hasn’t been made yet.
Creating (e-commerce) superheroes
Scott: What about this space drew you in?
Ben: What our platform does is it really gives artists superpowers. They can create up to billions of different combinations with a very small team. It allows you to do things that were just not possible in any other way. And we also have a business interface in our platform that makes it very easy for merchandisers to use, so it’s not just a 3D art tool for your art department: your merchandisers can also take control of that process, because we allow them to manage their SKUs [stock keeping units] and then have their ERP [enterprise resource planning] data, and then feed into the images that are produced.
Scott: Imagine if small businesses had the ability through you to run campaigns to all of their customers who have previously purchased items, using your services that enable automated variations of in-home lifestyle shots.
Ben: Yeah, and they’re going to have more engagement: ‘That looks exactly like my living room, and that’s a great addition, I really should buy that carpet.’ Pixel people and use that as an ad. Or it’s your abandoned shopping cart, and it’s suggesting you should have bought these because look how they go together.
We put a bunch of this together and we’re calling it Virtual Photographer. It really reduces your photography costs, because before, people would pay up to $500 a shot. You have to keep doing the same color couch with all your other arrangements. And if you’re going into a retailer, the brands will provide a few lifestyle shots, but the retailer doesn’t want to stick with only that brand in the lifestyle shot; they might want to combine their bestsellers from here, the bestsellers from there. And this allows the retailer to do those combined product shots across the different brands, without having any of those products physically there.
Scott: Had you been involved in companies where you were raising capital and the venture side?
Ben: No, unfortunately, I’ve been running this for the last 15 years!
Scott: So what was that like for you? How did you come to the point of deciding to raise?
Ben: This is not a normal raise. We didn’t go out seeking to raise. What happened is Godard and his associates found out that people were buying our software. And we got in touch, and he expressed interest. I knew that I had limitations. I love technology, I love computer graphics, I’m very good at that. I am not really a business guy. I don’t know how to raise, and I don’t know how to scale a company, but I do know there’s an opportunity here, and I know that Godard’s team can help realize that opportunity in a way that I couldn’t. So it’s not really a raise, it’s more like a partnership.
Scott: I’m going to bring in resources and pay for it.
Ben: Basically, yeah. Let’s take it to the next level — because he sees that same opportunity, but he’s coming from the other side. He knows how to realize the business side of it and the executive leadership and the operations. And my team can bring in that technology and very deep knowledge.
Scott: I see your situation as, we started a business that was self-funded, and we were so good at it somebody wanted us to do it for something else. We did that. We showed we could do it. And then the right person came in and saw financial prospects.
Ben: Yes, I think that’s observant. I think we are actually an opportunistic company, and I think we kept trying, we kept persisting. Some people have said luck is the perspiration of hard work. I wouldn’t recommend starting a company and then working for like 14 years — but we were making money.