An Interview with entrepreneur Giovanni Contini
Recently, The Hippo Collective announced a dual mission. As a publication, the magazine seeks to provide a platform for talented, eloquent and driven writers so that they may propose their opinions, views and ideas. In turn, The Hippo Collective seeks to promote young, exciting and innovative artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs.
It is very rare to find someone as accomplished, young and promising as Giovanni Contini. While a second year student in Japan, Giovanni has already assumed the roles of CMO and CEO for Italian startups and personal businesses. I spoke with Giovanni in Milan for The Hippo Collective about his career and future business plans. Oh, and his studies. Enjoy!
The Hippo Collective: Hello Giovanni. Could you please introduce yourself and talk about your early business ventures?
Giovanni Contini: My name is Giovanni Contini and I am Italian. I have lived in Milan for most of my life. Last year, I moved to Tokyo to complete a degree in Global Japanese Studies. Through this course, I have been learning about Japan’s history, language, and business mentality. I started working when I was in high school. My first business experience was a sort of game. I didn’t start it as a serious business, I was just looking for something to do. I ran several Facebook fan pages and I had a smaller version of 9-Gag. I started with soccer fan pages, in particular about A.C. Milan. I ended up having two million fans.
THC: As you do…
GC: It sounds crazy to say it aloud. I didn’t intend for it to become so big. In traditional education, they teach students about the ‘salary man’ model. They tell you that your time is worth a certain amount of money and that the more you study, the more your time’s value increases. Through this Facebook experience, I met people who told me that if I posted a certain item on my page, they would pay me. I thought that if he or she is paying me to post certain items on a platform, then I could create a similar platform and earn even more. So it’s all about trying to figure out how to improve the system.
I started and continued these activities throughout the first couple of years of high school [Italian high school traditionally lasts five years unlike the four year model in the U.S.]. After which, for several reasons, I lost everything. The main concept I learned was that the business world was a jungle and that people were jealous of your accomplishments. There were many hackers attempting to break into my computer in order to steal my pages. It was a lot less secure back then. Nowadays, if hackers were to enter into my account, Facebook would protect my pages. It was quite a shock to lose everything since I was making a considerable amount of money, especially for a high school student.
THC: What did this negative experience teach you?
GC: It should have taught me not to trust everyone. Nevertheless, I still like trusting people. Now, I need to get to know you a little bit but after that, it’s fine!
THC: You spoke about utilizing Facebook as a ‘game’ to create profit. How can other young people empower themselves through using Facebook and other forms of social media? How easy would it be for users now?
GC: I believe it was very easy for me because I started in the right moment. I began working when Facebook was still gaining popularity [in Italy].
THC: Just for reference, what year did you start these activities?
GC: I think it was around early 2010. Back then, in Facebook you had to create ‘notes’ and subsequently you had to post images. That’s when memes became popular and that was new. I think that I caught on early that memes were going to be important. I was becoming especially knowledgeable about the ‘notes’ part of Facebook. There were several evolutions in the software and I had to keep up. It’s like with normal websites, you have to know how to work with SEO in order to attract more readers. In the end, Facebook simply had its version of SEO.
When people want to replicate what I did on Facebook years ago, I tell them that it’s almost impossible now. Now it’s much more business oriented and you have larger actors, such as 9-Gag, that have taken over for the most part. Several of my friends are still successful. However, for those like me who lost everything, I notice that it had a great effect on our thought process and our business views. Many were my age and are now running other pages and companies or became software programmers.
THC: Are they working on their own or for big companies?
GC: On their own. Once you realize that you can make money without working for someone else, you guard your independence. Some people might prefer a steady routine that comes along with working for a big company. There are many ups and downs that come with independent work, especially with what I was doing on Facebook. That’s the tough part of job!
THC: Does that volatility make it exciting?
GC: Well, it is exciting when it goes up. Nevertheless, it kills you when it goes down. I think that I’m a very emotional person and so it wasn’t very easy to go through that process.
THC: From the Facebook ‘games’ you went to work for a startup that was producing augmented reality glasses?
GC: Not exactly. The switch didn’t come along immediately. I went through a difficult phase in high school where I was very lonely. I just didn’t identify with what my classmates were doing at the time, which essentially involved going out every night. I was the only one who didn’t really take part. I got into a phase where I wasn’t doing anything. One day I had an epiphany and realized that I couldn’t go on this way. I started studying random subjects that I considered were interesting. I also worked for others through internships. I tried to figure out why and how those I worked for were happy with their careers and personal lives. I explored the world of photography, which I came to love. The most important aspect of this period was that I was studying many different subjects. I just went out and bought university manuals.
THC: Did you use the internet to study?
GC: No, EdX and other such services weren’t around yet. I just bought the most complex and challenging university books.
THC: On which subjects did you focus?
GC: I really like design, astrophysics, architecture and programming. Another important element was attending big events and shows in Milan such as the Salone del Mobile, MADE Expo and SMAU. SMAU is a very small tech fair in Milan. Attending that fair changed my life because I met the people behind GlassUp. I was lucky enough to go with an acquaintance, a guy called Joesph, and through our work with GlassUp, we developed a very strong friendship. It definitely helped with the loneliness that I was experiencing. Joseph and I fell in love with GlassUp because they were presenting a unique product.
THC: Was this before Google announced their (unsuccessful) Google Glass project?
GC: Yes! We told them that we were interested in their project and that we wanted to work for them. We even said we would work free since we were interested in gaining experience. I had no clue what a startup was! I thought I was going to work for a traditional company and expected to be delivering coffee and making photocopies.
THC: Instead, did you find a couple of guys in a basement somewhere?
GC: More or less! The company’s office was in Modena, so Joseph and I had to travel there frequently. Since my friend was completing the International Baccalaureate degree at the time, he told them that he was studying marketing. Next thing we knew, we were co-Chief Marketing Officers! I had no idea what that meant. Therefore, the next day I went to the library and read up on the subject.
At the time, I just said yes. Later, I realized that Richard Branson [founder of the ‘Virgin’ empire] had done the same. He just said ‘yes’ when an opportunity presented itself and worried about the details afterwards. I really like that mentality! I just started studying up and everything was fine. The company became very successful from a media-presence point of view.
THC: Is it still active as a company?
GC: No, not really. Augmented reality is a very challenging industry because the field is rapidly evolving. We are essentially creating augmented reality’s foundations from scratch. That is why many similar companies that are very visible in the media never really seem to produce much or when they do it’s usually in the business to business market.
THC: Do you think that companies such as Oculus or Sony will be successful with their virtual reality (VR) products that will be available on the market relatively soon?
GC: The current big limitation with VR is that it causes users to suffer from motion sickness. VR tricks your brain into thinking that you are moving when really you are standing still. That said, I think that Oculus’ products, Sony’s version etc., could be successful. However, the best application of VR might be in another field. For example, these products might be very useful in a medical environment. A doctor could use VR to practice performing surgery or other medical interventions. That said, the entertainment industry will definitely attempt to implement VR. I think that augmented reality is much more promising than VR.
THC: How interesting! You said that your friends are moving into the programming industry and I know people in San Francisco who are doing the same. Do you think that your friends are making this transition to support technological progress? Or do you think that they hope a large tech firm will buy them out so that they can retire early?
GC: I think that this issue divides the community. Some of the people I know are entering into the programming market to make money. They understand that programs such as Facebook are very profitable and they want to do the same. However, some are not focusing on money. There are different positions. I think that once you know how software works, you just stick with it. I imagine that’s the way it is with many industries.
THC: Of course. Thank you very much Giovanni. That concludes the first part of our interview.
The Hippo Collective would like to thank Giovanni Contini for taking the time to speak with us. Stay tuned for part two coming soon! Thank you for reading.