Women in Business Q&A: Ryan Pulliam, Co-Founder & CMO, Specular Theory

08/08/2016 04:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2016-08-08-1470644210-4588611-RyanPulliamLandscape.jpg
Ryan Pulliam

Ryan Pulliam spearheads business development and marketing for Specular Theory, a Venice, Calif.-based studio that creates virtual reality content and develops immersive technologies to drive the next generation of storytelling. She brings extensive agency and client-side experience in digital marketing and brand strategy. Her ability to tell stories and integrate across multiple platforms has been a valuable asset to her clients, ranging from startups to Fortune 100 brands, celebrities and musicians. As a next-generation thought leader on digital media strategy and a gatekeeper to large networks in the entertainment, technology and new media sectors, Pulliam is consistently creating opportunities for long-term growth and value from customers, markets and relationships. In her role at Specular Theory, Pulliam focuses on delivering customer success and building relationships based on a deep understanding of needs and technology requirements.

Pulliam is a published expert in the Seven Pearls of Financial Wisdom, which was named Top Business Book in 2012 by The Library Journal. She has been a speaker on a number of industry panels, including Further Future, TEDx, Singularity University and CES and is also a member of The Women's CLUB of Silicon Valley. Specular Theory returned to Sundance for the second year in a row this year, with Perspective, Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor, which also screened at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Their recent work includes an eight episode 360 series for YouTube creator MatPat that invites fans to immerse themselves in the real-world environments of eight hit video games.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am an entrepreneurial spirit and have always followed my passion. This path has led to a number of life experiences that have made an impact on the way I work and live.

My parents instilled a solid work ethic and confidence in me that gave me the roots I needed to stay grounded and wings I needed to help me fly. In college I worked in live TV, which taught me how to tackle problems and to make decisions quickly and decisively, as there was no margin for error. There were no "do-overs."

Working for startups not only taught me how to fail fast, but also to wear many hats and embrace challenges as opportunities to grow. I believe that you need to understand and embrace your own strengths and weaknesses in order to bring out the strengths in others. Leadership is the byproduct of working hard and working smart.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Specular Theory?
I didn't have the technical background to create VR content, but I knew I had the passion and expertise to help drive it. Having 12+ years experience working with brands and agencies was the perfect compliment to my business partner's background to start this company. Prior to Specular Theory , I worked for various types of companies but media and marketing have always been common denominators. I studied journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder and worked for ESPN after graduating. I later moved to San Francisco, where I worked for a number of startups in the tech industry. I've always loved brainstorming all the ways products or brands can connect to consumers in authentic ways. There's something about this "win-win" scenario that I love. When it comes to having products that people love and being able to build businesses from those products in a genuine way, both parties win.

I used to spend a lot of my free time coming up with different business ideas and brainstorming marketing strategies around my fictitious brands or products. I would tackle every aspect of a marketing campaign from the concept of the idea. I started copywriting and creating taglines for different ideas and products, creating social media campaigns to mobile and merchandise platforms. It's fun to think of all the ways content and media can be used to integrate and add value in your daily life.

When I first tried virtual reality (on the Oculus DK1) I was blown away. I could immediately see the potential for brands and advertisers and understood its applications for consumers. And then I began realizing this was much bigger than that. It has the ability to transform and transcend our viewpoints and when used for good, can have a positive impact on humanity.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Specular Theory?
Everything is challenging when you have a startup. I definitely would not be here without my amazing business partner, our CEO Morris May. I'm sure we both would be working in VR either way, but Specular Theory would be a very different company, if not nonexistent. I sometimes joke that Morris did everything he said he was going to do and I did everything I said I would never do to get where we are. The real challenge is finding someone who has the talent, drive, commitment and passion that you need in order to start a company. The highlights come from seeing our idea become a company. We spent two and half years working together out of Morris' house in Venice without pay or having an office. Now we have employees and an amazing team and have outgrown our office.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Work hard, learn as much as you can (I am a voracious reader and have an insatiable appetite for learning) and be passionate about your work. Be fearless and fail fast. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Women have a harder time doing this for some reason, but it's really a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help when you need it.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Success is a marathon, not a sprint.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Time management is key. Fortunately my business partner and I share the same passion for kiteboarding, which is a core of who we are and what we do. It can be challenging finding the time to be social but I am fortunate enough to have a career that I love and friends who support me. When people hear me talk about "work" it's not work to me -- it's a part of who I am and it's what excites me. I can talk about VR 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Every person defines balance differently. When you are passionate about your work, there is a built-in work/life balance that comes from that.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women have a number of strengths and superpowers to take advantage of and tap into. I have learned a lot from men and women alike, and believe you should learn from both. Women have a tendency to be perfectionists (which is a great attribute but it can also be a detriment) and can be more passive when there is no reason to be. Be confident in your decisions and be willing to speak up. Take advantage of your female traits and use them to add value rather than replace or retract value.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I'm a big believer is learning from other people - whether it's from their successes or their failures. Having great mentors and advisors are especially helpful when building a company. It's a valuable resource for everyone, but especially entrepreneurs. There are so many things you have to learn and build in addition to making a great product. Everything from raising money, to corporate structure, strategic partners and developing growth strategy - there's only so much you can learn on your own. Being a part of communities like MaiTai Global and Summit Series have made a huge impact on me both personally and professionally.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
In present day, I really respect these female entrepreneurs who have all led or disrupted industries: Sara Blakely (Spanx), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss (Rent The Runway), Susi Mai (MaiTai Global) and many more.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
I want to continue to grow our company and keep pushing the boundaries in VR. Personally, I'd like to level up in kiteboarding and land bigger jumps.