Tony Mugavero is an experienced entrepreneur and executive with a background in media, business, and computer engineering. He is currently the Founder and CEO of Rad (FKA Littlstar), a consumer media app that delivers a premium immersive network experience on PlayStation, Smart TVs, and mobile devices with content from Disney, Fox, Showtime, NBCU, and more. He’s also the co-creator of Ara, a decentralized blockchain system for digital content.
Tony co-founded Galvanize, one of the biggest co-working and education companies that was acquired by K12 for $165 million in January 2020. Prior to building Galvanize, he was the Founder/CEO of MoovAtom, a simple API for providing cloud-based media encoding and delivery, which was successfully acquired in 2012. He was also a Co-Founder of the music discovery app GigBeat, used by over 1 million users.
- You’re an average of the five people you surround yourself with.
- Life is like chess, not checkers. Thinking 100 moves ahead is how you “win.”
- When you change your trajectory, remember that the power is in your hands. You’re not a victim of circumstance in the world, you’re an agent of change.
BRYAN WISH: What’s the One Away Moment you want to share with us today?
TONY MUGAVERO: It’s so tricky because I think there’s probably a few moments that have changed how I think about things and my trajectory in life. There was a real moment that I think I was working – I was trying to go to school. I was DJ’ing, working at UPS loading trucks, 18 or 19 years old, and I had this group of friends that we were all working at UPS together. We all went to the University of North Texas for the first couple of semesters. I lived with a couple of them in an apartment. We were roommates as we were going to college. I had a girlfriend. It seemed like all the right things were in place. But as I noticed, staying in that group – I was living in Louisville, Texas at the time.
Going to the University of North Texas in Denton which is north of there. I started to look at the people around me and started to think, “What are these people doing in my life? Are they raising me up or are they bringing me down? Are we just going sideways? What are we doing here?” I wanted better for myself but started to notice that there were things around me that just felt natural because you evolve with your friends from high school and you have the things that you like to do together and whatnot. Then you start partying. It all started to look like, even though it was fun and it was people I was familiar with, it started to look like a toxic environment.
I had this moment and it just woke me up. It was when I became a manager at UPS. I was thinking UPS could be like a place where I could grow and become more senior and make a lot more money which nothing wrong with UPS but also, I was interested in computers. There was something not lining up. I knew I wanted to grow but something wasn’t lining up there. As I was talking to my friends and roommates, we were diverging on where we ultimately saw our lives going in the future. Again, people want to do what they want to do but you want to be around people that are going to push you up.
You’re the average of the five people that you surround yourself with all the time. As I started to look at how all of these things were. I was going to the University of North Texas, kind of trying to study business. Computer information systems were the degree that I was starting to study there. Then I had this group of friends that I felt really just wanted to party and maybe less ambition around entrepreneurship and wanting to push things up. My girlfriend, at the time, wasn’t super ambitious. Just kind of living life and had no real roadmap. All of those things culminated at about the same time and deciding that I was going to leave UPS. I just went in and quit. They were upset about it. I had become a manager. I was 19-20 years old managing like 40 people. A lot of them were loading trucks and half of them were drug addicts.
Then I started to look at, “I need to get my school stuff on track.” I was partying too much. I failed out of school. I was doing so poorly at UNT that I got kicked out. They were like, “Go get your stuff together at a community college, and then you can come back when you get your grades up.” I took that as a signal of this is the wrong trajectory. I need to figure this out and put that into action.
So I went to a community college for a semester. Instead of going back to UNT, I went to SMU which is a smaller, private, more prestigious college where I could study proper computer engineering. Around that same time, I broke up with my girlfriend. It wasn’t working. I continued to live with a couple of the roommates that I had when we started going to SMU. We got an apartment together closer to the school.
My parents were like, “What’s happening? You quit your job, you got kicked out of school, you lost your girlfriend.” If you look at all of that happening at one time, it looks bad. It looks like I’m going in the wrong direction. In my mind, I knew what I was doing. I needed to get out of the environment of I’m working in a warehouse and thinking that’s going to be my career path. I’m going to a school that is okay but I need to be getting after it and going. I paid for SMU myself, went to a great school, and hustled on the side. I waited tables and I was a teaching assistant at SMU. Then I was DJ’ing. I had three jobs while I was going to SMU.
As I started to get to the end of SMU, went to New York and loved it. There was that one part of my life where I said, “What are things that could be holding me back?” You start to look at the hard decisions. The hardest ones are like these people I’ve known forever could be my friends; they could also be family. Looking at what your environment is and what could be holding you back and making decisions about who you have in your life. At that point, I decided I needed to leave Dallas if I was going to escape all of this.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like there was this internal grappling inside of you where you just knew you had to move through a messy situation. Growing up in Texas, was your life pretty traditional in the sense of a happy family, nothing crazy? What was your environment like growing up?
TONY MUGAVERO: It was super normal until I was 7 or 8 years old. That’s when my parents got divorced. People can manage through all of that but it also creates a lot of lack of understanding for a kid that age. Don’t know why things are happening the way they are and you see things not working out. Then you’re shuffling between parents. They might get along but you’re constantly dealing with that. That creates all kinds of miscommunications and points of failure for how to grow and live your life and what’s right and what’s wrong. Oversight on should you be doing certain things? Should you be hanging out with certain people?
All of those things start to get shakier and/or go away. It created a situation where I got lulled into thinking that these certain things were normal. I’m like these are the people I’m around and this is my environment and it’s normal. I think that’s a natural thing for everybody. You grow up in a town, you grow up with friends, you grow up with your family. That becomes your framework for normal. It wasn’t until I started to analyze that and say, “Look around. Is this normal compared to what everybody else has? Are people doing things better? Can I be a better person?”
It even comes back to when your parents tell you, “Choose your friends wisely or I don’t think you should be hanging out with so-and-so that’s running with the wrong crowd” or whatever. Those things matter. Putting yourself or as a parent, putting your kids in very intentional situations can completely change their trajectory. It can change their framework on how they view the world, how they should be spending their time. I missed that. I was missing that. Nobody was holding me accountable. My friends weren’t holding me accountable. I saw that as going in the wrong direction. I had to start holding myself accountable. That’s the only way that I’m going to be able to take full control over this. It was fine. I had food on the table and a roof over my head.
I was going to college and working even though I was paying for it myself. It was a very strong kind of moment of clarity really around the couple week period of leaving UPS, breaking up with my girlfriend, starting to separate myself from the toxic things in my life. I think that put it into my head that I have to be very intentional about where I’m putting myself and who I’m surrounding myself with. That ultimately has been a guiding principle for everything; entrepreneurship and creativity and how I think my kids now. Like trying to be very intentional about it. Not just letting the world happen.
BRYAN WISH: Do you think your parents’ divorce finally set in when you were a little bit older and realizing you needed to be more intentional?
TONY MUGAVERO: Totally. I was learning throughout high school and early college that I was going to – I was able to do things like work and get a paycheck and pay for my things because nobody else was giving that to me. I had a paper route when I was 11 years old so I could buy more video games because my parents weren’t buying them for me and I wasn’t making enough on allowance.
As soon as I turned 16, I started working at Kroger bagging groceries. I always kind of had that mentality of I need to work to be able to take care of myself. I think that trajectory and my environment, two ways could go. You either take care of yourself or you let it keep happening to you and wait for everybody else to take care of you. As I started to get into broadening that thinking out to every aspect of my life, in terms of being intentional and being able to take care of myself and thinking about the environment and is it good for me, who I’m hanging around, that all started to come together around 2000.
BRYAN WISH: How old are you now?
TONY MUGAVERO: 43.
BRYAN WISH: I think there are two ways you could have gone. You could have kept going down that path that you knew wasn’t right just because it was comfortable and that’s what you knew. So you kind of put in the key and broke away from the chains. Obviously you felt that internal feeling. You broke away from UPS and you said you needed to transfer to a school that’s going to give you a chance to explore your interests a little more with focus capacity. You went to SMU and started getting involved in computers. Take me and the audience down that rabbit hole.
TONY MUGAVERO: I always enjoyed playing around with computers. My parents introduced computers to me pretty early on. We had Atari and Nintendo and then we had an actual computer. My dad showed me how to write little basic DOS basic programs on a Windows machine to just make sound from the computer or have it do basic math. I thought that was fascinating. In 6th grade, the elective I took was Commodore 64. Programming a Commodore 64. We made a rocket ship take off on the graphics of a Commodore 64.
It’s so old school. The green and black screens. Throughout high school, all my electives, I took computer programming. I knew I wanted to do something with computers. When I went to UNT, it was business computer information systems. It was like a hybrid. We were taking economics. Half of it was business courses and half of it was computer courses. It wasn’t going deep enough into the computer side of things.
As I thought about what I can do that’s more technical, SMU was the only proper computer engineering program in Texas at the time where it wasn’t computer science. Computer science is a lot of programming and theory. Computer engineering has a hardware component to it. We were building circuits and crude but physical circuits, emulating Pentium chips in software. It got really deep on the hardware side and the engineering side of things. We were getting into chemistry and circuits, electricity, how resistance works, and how you flip logic gates. That was all interesting to me going a little bit deeper. As I started to realize that understanding things from the very base level of a computer up to how that manifests to the real world and how humans interact with computers, that chain was always really interesting to me.
BRYAN WISH: I was listening to Obama and Bruce Springsteen talking about masculinity. His dad gave him a basketball, so he explored basketball. It’s so interesting how these little messages we get as kids come into our life. You built this foundational knowledge around computers. When did you just know you had to keep exploring? How did you take that spark and start applying that in the early parts of your career and getting involved in opportunities on campus, off-campus to really kind of pour this knowledge in to continue learning? What was next?
TONY MUGAVERO: When I transferred from UNT and started going to SMU, I immediately felt like I was playing in a different league. It felt more serious. It felt like immediately I was surrounding myself with people who had a different trajectory. I felt I should be doing something. We, being me and my two roommates. I wanted to start a record label. We had a little music studio. I wanted us to have a website. We were doing design for artists, local artists, and helping produce their albums. I started going into this mode of how do I apply what I’m learning in school to starting to play around with web tech and start to get some things out into the world that people can play around with. It wasn’t hard tech at that point. I was still going to school and the web was still trying to figure itself out. It was the beginning of Web 2.0 in 1999. It was still pretty early days.
Websites were still crude and slow and clunky. That was a pressure that I started to feel changing schools and being surrounded by that. It felt like I should be trying to do something. My mind naturally went to entrepreneurship. I was doing things creatively with electronic music. I was fascinated with synthesizers. We were using purely computer-based music creation.
Very early in that wave of electronic music and pure, in-the-box kind of creation of music in the computer and then putting that up on websites and using Flash to do crazy animations and things like that. That’s kind of where I started my first real company. I went and registered a sole proprietorship just so that I could get the organization formed and then it turned into a couple of people who wanted to get involved. We turned it into an LLC. That was the late 90s. I went and started my first real company with my name on it.
BRYAN WISH: I resonate with what you said about being in a different league of the people you’re around, the motivation levels, and just saying, “I can make something of myself too.” I sense a very self-empowering experience as you honed in on what you believed and cared about. At this beginning point, that first tipping point of starting the business, where did you feel the most challenged at the time technically? Were you able to see a vision for what was ahead of you?
TONY MUGAVERO: Starting a record label and tech being the foundation of it was a good first experience. We did some contracts to release some records, different record labels, and doing deals internationally. There were some good learnings there but when I graduated from college in 2003, that’s about the time where I started thinking I needed to live in New York. I got a job straight out of college and it was like working for a satellite tracking company for the transportation industry. Not really related to media. It was tech.
Then had a little over a year there and that’s when I started looking around for jobs in New York. I found one that was for video streaming and writing live streaming video transcoders in 2005-2006. The internet was just barely able to handle video streaming at that point. Things were still very expensive. I was working for other companies and I kind of always had this streak in me that I knew I wanted to do something for myself. I knew working for another company would give me good experience.
As I was working for this streaming company in New York and I had moved there, I was DJ’ing at night and going into work exhausted the next day. I’d DJ until 4:00 in the morning and then have to be to work at 8 or 9. I started to think, “How am I going to merge these worlds and get some focus and clarity here?” That’s when I started to think that I need to start a new company that is tech-centric, that uses my skillsets around actual engineering, media, technology. I started a C-Corp there called Moovatom. It was like a developer API. Really kind of developer-centric. That was in 2008 when I started thinking about it and then 2009. I built the whole thing as a single founder. That’s a tough place to be as a single founder trying to build the whole thing, trying to get customers.
That was the moment I was like, “This is a C-Corp. This is technology-centric. It’s a real startup. I’m going to look at potentially raising some capital and getting some customers.” That was more of the moment of, “Oh wow, this is a whole different ballgame. I just got slapped in the face with what real startup life is about.” Building everything, getting customers, talking about raising money, marketing. All those things came crashing down as a hard reality check.
BRYAN WISH: It must have been a very defining and learning experience. Did you know what to do? It seems to be a clear pattern of this intuitive sense that you have or sixth sense that comes over you and you’re like, “I should probably think about this or move here or leave this relationship or combine my interests.” When you realized you needed to figure out how to merge marketing and raise money and customers, how did you navigate that?
TONY MUGAVERO: I went to school for pure engineering. There’s a lot of business aspects that I don’t think I fully understood. Trying to learn kind of on the go, like hit the ground running. That was a real challenge. There was no book learning that I did. It was I have to engineer this stuff but then I also have to learn how to sell and learn how to market and learn how to raise capital and correspond via email. All of those things were new to me and I said the best way to learn is to start doing them and try to learn along the way, try to read as much as I can, learn as much as I can. I think that was kind of like hard knocks lesson.
It was getting out there and start doing it and learn along the way. Being self-taught, to some degree, but also trying to consume books and I’d go to events and listen to people and how they talk about doing some of these things. Then put them into action. There’s no better way to come up with a guess, put it into action, learn from it, iterate on it. You can read all you want in a book but the market is constantly changing.
Books get written after the fact. Books get written by people who lived in that moment and learned from that moment and then they write a book about it. The next things are always coming and I feel having a combination of those things, learning about classic problem-solving in the sense of either business or computers but also just constantly being on the ground and trying to live and learn.
BRYAN WISH: I’d love for you to share what you’re doing, how the company started and pivoted to get to where it is today, and what you guys stand for.
TONY MUGAVERO: We started as a VR company. We were kicking some ideas around initially about aggregating social media content. We did a couple more agency-type deals where we were aggregating a bunch of social media posts into one place. Everybody wanted something different. It didn’t seem scalable. We started to shift our focus to immersive and VR because we thought there was going to be a real challenge there and hard technical problems to solve. We started building up this platform for immersive content called Little Star.
Immediately, got a bunch of big studios and broadcasters onboarded and had some really good early partners and good hardware partnerships with Sony and Google, and Daydream. The rise of VR, the modern VR era. A lot of resources flowing into space. A lot of people are excited about it. Just like everything, the market shifts, and changes. Consumer behavior is going to be what it is and it’s hard to change. People putting VR headsets on every day for hours at a time isn’t a thing. It’s still not a thing.
We had to look at that and say there’s some exciting potential here. It’s taking a challenging black box of content distribution and making it easy for the content creators and the hardware companies to marry all of these things together and get experiences in front of consumers. We started to look at that abstract and say, “What are we good at?” We’re good at technology and hard distribution problems. We’re a trusted partner with content companies and hardware companies and we have a direct-to-consumer relationship. How can we leverage all of those things given that the VR landscape is changing? Taking its time.
It’s going to continue to take its time. It’s clear. That’s when we started to look at what can we do to make ourselves reinvent ourselves? We started to play around with blockchain technology in 2017/2018. Then we broadened our scope to start to support other forms of content like traditional video content. We introduced live streaming and watch parties and various things over the last couple of years.
There wasn’t a good answer to the question, “Why us?” In the VR space, there was a good answer to, “Why us?” We were initially the only place that you could do some of these things. We could stream 360 videos across devices. It was like an OTT VR play. We were the only company that could do it for a while. Over time, as that fell away or the VR industry went sideways a little bit, we started to say, “What’s our answer to why us?”
As we introduced a bunch of these new features and we went through a refresh on the rebrand, we just changed the app name from Little Start to Rad which comes from radiance. We’re thinking how can we anchor this to stars? We updated the brand and started to incorporate new content types and then really as the modern evolution of blockchain and NFTs started to come to the forefront and gain excitement again. We said we can do immersive. We’ve done blockchain.
We can do traditional video. There’s a lot of companies that are now coming to us and saying, “How do we do this? How can we get into the blockchain space as a content company?” We’ve recently, in the last few months found ourselves at that same intersection of trust again where we know how to build hard technology. We know how to distribute content. We know how to work with hardware partners and content partners and get things out to consumers. All of those things have culminated into our kind of refreshing the blockchain work that we did and bringing essentially the ability to package up content as NFTs for movie, TV celebrities.
We still have a streaming platform. It’s on the PlayStation and Google TV and mobile devices and the web, etc. We’re not changing that distribution model. It’s just how it’s packaged up and sold. Blockchain creates an interesting opportunity around scarcity and collectibles and verifying that somebody owns the content. Consumers don’t care about blockchain, the technology. They just want to know that they’re getting something cool. They’re getting something that nobody else has: a more efficient, economic model. That means they’re getting exclusive content. That’s all the consumer cares about. It’s a good, strong foundation in technology. That’s how we work with the content and the hardware companies. From a consumer perspective, it’s trying to package those things up in a clean, simple, cool, vibey, the content has a voice.
The first things we’re doing are with Calboy who just did a song with Lil Wayne, Nightmare, who is one of the biggest EDM artists, Elliot Sloan, a five-time X Games gold medalist in skateboarding. There are a couple of other ones that are coming as well. That’s like hip-hop, EDM, skateboarding. We’re working on some E-sports stuff and cannabis culture. It all kind of is coming back into a sense of clarity and a sense of purpose.
The original sense of purpose was we found ourselves as a trusted party between hardware companies, content companies, and consumers that were doing something different from a content perspective. We’re doing something different from a technology perspective. Then we’re packaging that up into a simple and easily accessible interface for consumers. That abstract holds today. That’s kind of been our core DNA that I think we provide a lot of value at that intersection of trust.
BRYAN WISH: To tie today’s moment back to when you were 18 or 19 years old, the thread is making those harder decisions, trusting that intuition, and understanding what you needed to do for you to get to where you want to go and be very intentional in the process along the way. You followed this curiosity for the last 20 + years. This isn’t just luck. This has been a very intentional process where luck and persistence and hard work are coming together. Do you feel or sense that?
TONY MUGAVERO: Yeah, it’s really about thinking about skating to where the puck is going. Thinking about what is coming and how different parts of the world fit together for people and what their behavior is doing and trying to essentially think about if I’m going to be there when the time comes, how do I position things now? There’s always this forward rolling.
I don’t like to spend too much time in the future just thinking about the future because the moment is now. All that matters. But also thinking about those things as natural and if you’re a builder, a creator, and you see where things are going or where you want them to go, then there’s no better way to get there than to build it and position yourself to be there when the time comes. It’s a little bit of a game of Chess, not Checkers. Think 100 moves ahead and see which one plays out and how you win. At least that’s how my mental model has developed. I still do try to live as much in the now as possible.
BRYAN WISH: The entrepreneurial challenge of living in the present, trying to see 100 moves ahead and understand where to put time. Well said. When you look 30-40 years out from where you are today if you were to define legacy or meaning and say, “This is the life I wanted to live or what I’d want people to say about me,” what does that look like to you?
TONY MUGAVERO: I think one of the things that I realized in the journey and my change at that moment in changing schools and career trajectory is that you’re not a victim of circumstance in the world. You are putting yourself in positions, you can view the world in two ways: Either be negative about it or you be positive about it. I chose to be positive about everything. Try to lift people.
All the people around me, I feel there’s a duty that I’m a good person in their circle. I’m always trying to learn and be better so that as I’m around other people and giving input into their lives, I’m trying to do that positively and trying to lift and elevate. People, to some degree, get frustrated with me because I’m constantly cheerleading. Even in tough situations, trying to say like, “It’s okay. It’s happened. Here’s what we need to do to get through it and we’re going to get through it.”
People’s natural reaction is to get negative and people love to co-miserable and complain. Complaining is very easy. You go into a complaining spiral especially if you’re doing it with somebody else or 2 or 3 people and you all are complaining. That just ends up being super negative. In technology or relationships or business, whatever it is, I’m trying to spend all of my energy pushing things up. Why would you ever spend any energy being negative or trying to tear things down or trying to intentionally discount things or even discount things that you don’t even know that you’re doing it but just undermine things or always look at the worst-case scenarios that can happen?
Some people just live their whole lives looking at the worst-case scenario. They plan their lives around the exceptions. Like the things that are remotely never going to happen. Planning your whole life around that just puts you in a cage. In every aspect of my life, I’ve tried to position how I’m learning and what I’m doing and what I’m putting into the world to the people around me that I’m trying to lift. In 40 years, in 50 years, that’s what I feel I want people to know that I put into the world. Like the last thing you want to have is no one shows up at your funeral. They’re like, “That guy was a dick.”
BRYAN WISH: Where can people find you?
TONY MUGAVERO: On Twitter, I’m HesSoTony. Also, on Instagram. I’m never on my Facebook. LinkedIn. My full name is John Anthony Mugavero but everybody calls me Tony. I have lots of connections on LinkedIn. If you want to connect with me there, you can see who I know and who I can connect you with potentially or how I can be helpful from a business perspective. Those are the big things on social. I’m Tony@rad.live if anyone wants to talk about doing content deals or technology. I always like to be helpful. I was a teaching assistant and I’ve been a mentor for a year. I’ve done a handful of those things.