MEET Hovhannes

Hovhannes Avoyan is founder and CEO of PicsArt, a social photo-editing startup that has more than 600 million downloads and 130 million monthly active users. He launched the company (his sixth) to build a supportive environment for creativity after his young daughter was bullied online about her drawing abilities; she pursued her passion into adulthood and now works in the arts.

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

I’ve learned to adapt to stress, rather than overreacting and treating it like the end of the world. I try to recognize that stress is a given and just accept it as quietly and calmly as I can. Failure is part of the game just as much as success, and if you’re not ready to fail sometimes, a startup probably isn’t the place for you. Even the strongest startups go through moments where something big goes wrong. Every company I’ve founded has had at least one near-death experience, where we lost a major customer or something else happened and I thought it was the end. After a couple of those experiences, you learn to manage your emotions. You start to recall other times you failed and then things improved, and you realize you’ll get through this time, too.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

Starting a company takes so much time and energy, and people spend a lot of time worrying about whether they have the right balance of business and personal life. But I think it’s better to strive for work-life synergy. I’ve never been one to go completely offline when I’m on vacation, for example. If I don’t know what’s going on with my business, I won’t have peace of mind. But I don’t let work ruin my time away. I might have a nice breakfast, check my email, spend some more time with my family and then take a call in the afternoon. It’s very organic. Vacation can also be a good time to do some of the strategic thinking that is harder to focus on when you’re in the middle of all the daily tasks. I just don’t feel a need to create a wall between work and the rest of my life. It’s all my life. What’s important is that I’m thoughtful about how every part of it coexists.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

A few years ago, I started to spend 15 minutes every day brainstorming. I pick a topic and write down 10 ideas. It might be something personal or something for the business—like how to increase growth or improve marketing or make a key product change. Often it’s whatever was on my mind when I went to bed the night before. If I start the day by putting down some ideas about how to fix whatever problem I’m facing, I won’t worry about it all day.

Brainstorming is also important because I think creativity should be part of your job, especially as a startup founder. I always write down at least 10 ideas to help me build that creative muscle. The first four or five are usually easy to come up with. But then it gets more difficult. I might write down some crazy ideas just to fill up the list—and sometimes, the ideas that seem crazy at first end up being the best ones.

What don't you know that you wish you knew?

This is the biggest company I’ve ever built, and I wish I knew more about the next stages. Every new experience is an opportunity to level up—I learned a lot during the acquisitions of my previous companies, for example—and I’m interested in how PicsArt will grow. I do try and learn what I can ahead of time, by talking to people who have been in the position I’m in now. I ask them what worked and what didn’t. Every company is different, and I know what was successful for them may not be for us. But I think it helps to get their perspective. It’s also just nice to hear how they felt when they were in my stage. Even the most successful CEOs were new to this once and had the same feeling of, “Okay, what do I do next?”

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I read a lot, so there are usually several things on my Kindle. I read technical books on topics like AI, which is what I studied in college, and I love classics like Sherlock Holmes—detective stories or anything that makes me use a completely different part of my brain. I also read a lot of books for the business, on topics like growth hacking or performance marketing. One of my favorites is Blitzscaling, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh.

When I find a good book, I often share it with my managers. If we have an issue on our road map to deal with or I see a shortage of skills or knowledge in a certain area, I’ll make a recommendation. There’s a list of probably 20 or so that I share regularly—like The Power of Habit, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Good to Great and Blue Ocean Strategy. For someone on the Product team, it might be The Lean Startup, which is about how to quickly test your ideas—building a minimum viable product and going live as soon as possible, then iterating from there. For marketing people, I often recommend Crossing the Chasm, which is about the transition from your early adopters to the mainstream.

The idea isn’t to follow any one book like it’s a textbook. It’s to gather multiple perspectives. Each new book gives you new thoughts, ideas, understandings. I think if you want to keep growing, you need to keep reading.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

The first examples that come to mind are features I insisted we add to our app that ended up not working out. I tend to be pretty data-driven in making decisions, so I usually learn I’m wrong when the numbers show it. You can’t base everything on data, of course; sometimes you learn from mistakes or go on your intuition. But data doesn’t lie, and it can convince me to change my mind.

Sometimes you do have to give something time, even when the numbers are going in the wrong direction. It depends on the feature. If it’s a strategic change we think is important for our community and the future of PicsArt, we’ll give it a few iterations and try to solve for issues with usability or presentation. But if it’s something simple like the color of a button, we can switch it back quickly. Either way, there comes a point where if the data shows it’s not working, I need to say, “Okay, let’s roll it back. I was wrong.”

What unit of time matters the most and why?

The time frame I think in most often is a year. It’s not so long that you get distracted or demotivated, but it’s long enough to build something really valuable. I tend to be more interested in the marathon than the sprint. I’m a long-term thinker and planner. And once you’ve decided what you want to achieve in the next 12 months, you need to work backward. Review the plan each month, make sure you’re 10 percent closer to the final destination. If you want to do something by Q4, you have to start working in Q1.

Hard-won advice