Imagine a digital avatar and you may think of a video game, virtual conference, or social media feature. Genies CEO, Akash Nigam, has a different vision of what digital avatars can be. By his LinkedIn profile, it looks like Nigam has it all. He’s the CEO of a hot tech company in Los Angeles and Tokyo. He and his company are constantly being featured in the media. His company even works with celebrities like Cardi B and J. Balvin and has several high-profile billionaire investors.
But this isn’t a story about Genies the company. It’s a story about pressure, expectations, and what defines success. It’s a story about mental health and what can happen when you don’t meet expectations. In the tech world, we value the IPOs, the “unicorn” ideas, the latest, most slick Wakandan-like technology. But what about the people behind that tech? We’ve idolized them as geniuses – people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who dropped out of college to form iconic companies. Their names have gone down in computer history.
Akash Nigam was similar in that he dropped out of college to pursue a tech startup. There, his story differs.
“I was born and raised in a very academically studious Indian family… in the heart of Silicon Valley,” Nigam said he faced pressures in general and from both of his parents. Nigam’s parents graduated from the rigorous, Indian school system and were held to high expectations. “So I grew up in that kind of household,” said Nigam. He performed well in school but “I was kind of born…maybe, I naturally was just not fully obsessed with school, I think, as my parents probably wanted me to be.”
The pressure of “Stanford or bust” loomed over him. Nigam doesn’t blame his parents. He has an amazing relationship with both of them. However, growing up feeling different than his parents and not meeting their expectations put pressure on him, who was naturally more socially intrigued “I played soccer all the time and my dad actually told me…there’s three S’s that you have in life, you can be Social, you can play Soccer, and you can Study. And he was like you can pick two of those three, and underneath my household, you have to study very rigorously, and you’re pretty good at soccer so I suggest you do that too.”
Nigam wanted to be social, he was in high school after all. But when we tried to socialize he started to feel like a different person. “I was never really myself anytime that I was around people. I just felt different from everyone else, like I wasn’t able to relate. I had social anxiety and I would compromise by being extra extroverted. I’d be extra loud, try extra hard, and I just never really felt comfortable. I always felt like I was gonna be judged by the way I interacted with people, got in my head a lot I felt super insecure” he said.
In college, Nigam’s social anxiety continued and even escalated. The Genies CEO had a close-knit group of friends. He had met a lot of people. Still, he felt like he couldn’t be his true, authentic self. He wasn’t able to relate to people or society in a way that made him feel comfortable to be himself. This led him to build his first series of social apps. “I was building all these social apps and in hindsight, I think subconsciously, the reason why I gravitated towards the social consumer space was because I felt more myself behind the keyboard,” he added. “…when I was behind an app, on a social network, or on the internet, it was much easier to let my guard down, be vulnerable and open, and talk to people. Whether they were people that I knew in the physical world or people I didn’t know in the physical world…I was just able to be more expressive and build deeper relationships because I felt more comfortable without the intimidations of the real world.”
Nigam built social apps to try and improve social behaviors and social mechanics. He wanted to optimize social interaction and experience on the internet. He experimented with chat features, disappearing photos, chatbots, the list goes on. “I was constantly trying to optimize for social interactions on the internet, again because my internet self was more closer to my ‘authentic Akash’ versus my physical self.”
A lot of the apps failed until one started to work well. It was called Blend. Blend was working so well in fact that Nigam decided to drop out of college as a senior. “When I dropped out of school I lost all of my friends,” said Nigam. “None of my college friends agreed with my decision. I felt judged. Everyone basically thought that I was telling myself I was going to go build the next Facebook. I felt ultimate betrayal from people I needed support from the most..”
The young executive was receiving positive press coverage for Blend from outsiders looking at the company. In his private life, things were going differently. “For a family that held education to the highest standard, dropping out of school was one of the most earth-shattering things you could do. My dad didn’t even talk to me when he found out. My mom was disappointed, I could tell that even my sister felt kind of embarrassed. ” Nigam thought he put his family in a tough position to have to explain to their friends, peers, and relatives from the Indian community why their son had dropped out of school.l, “I felt super alone and went through a severe depression. That moment in life changed me forever and I still carry some of that baggage till this day” revealed Nigam.
Overnight, it seemed like he had lost all his friends. His family shied away from him. Nigam did feel some support from his mom, but the family relationship was clearly strained. “Indian families, like mine, worshiped education and that was kind of the status that we’re supposed to adhere to throughout our entire lives and all of a sudden I’m doing the complete opposite,” added Nigam. “I dropped out to pursue a passion, but the sacrifice included severe loneliness, severe anxiety, and severe depression. I even started losing some hair…”
Akash Nigam was only 22 years old.
Blend, the social app he dropped out of school for, became his refuge. “My only escape from sadness was working on Blend. And I think because of our obsession around it, it actually started to do decently well,” said Nigam. “We ended up raising a $2.7M seed round, and as soon as that happened, there was this immediate sense of acceptance from my family and friends. It felt good to be surrounded by love and support.” Nigam highlighted.
It seemed like life was starting to turn around. “I was back in the graces of my family. I was back in the graces of some of my close friends, but honestly, still felt super alone… being a founder is probably one of the loneliest jobs that you can have because it’s just you against the world,” said Nigam.
After raising the seed round, Nigam moved to San Francisco and things began to go south again “The first three and a half or so years were horrible,” he remembered. Blend’s business did not scale the way that it was supposed to. We went through two or three different pivots, a few of our initial seed round investors were not supportive… they were not happy with the way that the game plan was unraveling and that we were pivoting. Nigam added.
“As a child, I was known for being so extroverted and energetic and happy and fun, to the only place again I could find this, was trying to improve the social mechanisms and trying to find authentic connections on the internet; trying to find people that I could relate to.”
Nigam met other founders who he felt he could relate to about the business. But he became self-conscious and insecure, “the founder landscape is really competitive… we were a bunch of struggling dropout kids…” At that point, Nigam had pivoted the business four or five times. “It was almost like people were saying these guys are a joke. It’s like these guys can’t figure it out. That time in San Francisco was some of the roughest years of my life.” Luckily, Nigam had his co-founders at his side, “we were resilient. My co-founders are probably the people that I have closest to my heart.”
What Can Avatar Do?
Nigam and his co-founders kept building from one social mechanism to the next until they landed on virtual identity. Nigam and the team saw what Bimoji was doing and how avatars were starting to take off. Digital identity was “basically our last hurrah,” shared Nigam. “I was like guys if this pivot doesn’t work, we should just pack it up and call it. You know we’ve tried as hard as we can, it’s been multiple years at this point, we should just pack it up and call it.”
“And there was something around avatars, virtual and visual identity and just living in another world that clicked. It made me reminiscent of the AOL days… I was very insecure in school and it was hard to be myself, but the time that I could be most myself and say what was on my mind was behind the keyboard on AOL with no other thing than just my username being my identity.”
Suddenly, the avatar was more than looks. It could be “the tool, the ability for an avatar, to be able to encapsulate your entire emotion, and then be able to use to communicate to other people across the digital landscape in a way never done before.”.” He started to realize his avatar had served as his emotional surrogate during those hard times.
The team set out on a mission. “We realized what this could do for everyone in the physical world. Everyone is dealing with something and can’t fully be themselves in certain situations. An avatar and digital world could change that. We wanted to build this for people like us, people like myself.” Nigam decided to build out the concept of what an avatar could do for the therapeutic mind.
Genies’ Genesis = Avatars
Nigam and the team began to build the avatar company that would become Genies. “The first layers of people that started using it were celebrity adopters, but truthfully if you look at the way that they were using it, they’re really using avatars, to be able to do things that they were uncomfortable, incapable or sensitive about doing with their physical self.”
“It started kind of on the surface where people would use their Genies for album releases and song drops… but now you have people that are using their avatars for all big moments, and these avatars end up building their own identity and alter ego, almost showing a different authentic side of the person’s personality”
added Nigam. “From the day that we got to virtual identity and understanding what visual identity could do for people, we started talking about Genies as fantastical representations of one’s self. We were not talking about it as an avatar system, not as a human system. When we were talking about it, it was as a creature system. It’s like, you shouldn’t have to be limited by the things that are available to you in the physical world and choosing a face and blue eyes and standard hair… if I want to be an inanimate object, literally want to be a rock, I could be a rock. If I wanted to be a unicorn, I could be a unicorn. Why? Because that visually encapsulates the emotion of who I am at that moment.”
“The way that we’ve started to build out the creature system and the way that we’re building out Genies, in general, is all coming from a sense of how can this solve the insecurities, the emotion deficiencies, the lack of ability to be vulnerable in the physical world?”
People are known to act differently online than they would in real life. In Ready Player One, a character hides their gender in the metaverse only to reveal their true identity later in the story. Nigam sees this as a potential for what Genies avatars can do for people. Nigam said, “not only will people as avatars be able to speak their mind and find other connections but be able to therapeutically deal with things that they’re going through in the real world.”
Like many people, Nigam has struggled during lockdown due to the pandemic. He highlights, “the people that I related with the most were people at work because they got to see a true, authentic side of me. Building is what I love doing. I love building social mechanisms and studying social behaviors and analyzing the way that people communicate together. And when we went on lockdown, you take a lonely job and you make it even lonelier, you kind of step into severe, severe depression. I’ve had thoughts of suicide, I’ve had suicide moments for sure.”
Thankfully Nigam sought help and saw a therapist virtually that helped him work on his mental health. “I think that’s the key when you can talk about things in a safe place. You feel so much better about yourself. The internet was initially created to be a safe place to speak freely and make authentic connections. Today, the internet has kind of gotten away from that with social media platforms like Instagram where people are flexing to try and be two notches above who they really are in the real world.” he reflected.
Avatars As Emotional Surrogates
To this tech CEO, creating digital avatars is the beginning of living in an open, honest, truthful, and vulnerable world that will help with everybody’s mental health. “We’ve been living in an internet era where mental health has been stigmatized, and one of the most I think, underrepresented discussions, and it’s only recently that people are starting to come out with their struggles and start to really understand the negative impacts of it all,” said Nigam.
“I think millennials have popularized physical fitness and are going against the fast-food era. I think Gen Z is definitely popularizing mental fitness, and they’re very aware of the negative connotations that come with the internet. They’re constantly doing things like Instagram detoxes and seeking out nature as well.”
Nigam hopes Genies can create safe places in existing parts on the internet through their SDK and eventually owning their own anonymous world where people can be themselves. “I do think that an avatar probably is the best tool and mechanism to deal with mental health,” Nigam said. “And I’m encouraged that more people are coming out to talk about it…it’s really been one of the hardest struggles of my life.”
“I think that’s why I’m so passionate about Genies’ mission. It’s because it relates to myself, but it also relates to anybody that’s suffering from anxiety, depression, any mental health issues. Which I think most people of this generation suffer from at least one of those” said Nigam.
He adds that gaming culture and internet culture were once considered weird, unnatural. “Everything’s getting flipped on its head,” said Nigam. “Why? Because people are being born into a digital world and it’s becoming normalized to accessorize your online reputation and self. At the end of the day the youth runs culture, the youth runs trends. It’s no longer weird to make “internet friends.”That’s what gives Nigam hope that people will give power to avatars and their digital identities.
Genies could have been another tale about a college dropout who chased his million-dollar idea. But by Nigam being open about his struggle with mental health and how he found solace in his virtual identity, he’s leading the way for many of the founders that are creating the metaverse(s) and might be struggling as well. His honesty and transparency is something more founders and brands should emulate.
The Genies CEO harnessed his anxiety and depression to create a company that is breaking records and helping creators connect with Gen Z in a unique new way. For him and his company, creators are the new brands. He adds, “our digital goods economy is driven by creator moments, which I think will be a driving force in the metaverse. The luxury brand for the digital world has yet to be created, and we hope to tap into that with our open source marketplace.”
For Nigam, the metaverse starts with mindset, and now that he’s come to terms with his struggles he’s ready to unleash Genies to the masses, letting them enter the metaverse one digital avatar at a time.