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Masters of the Turnaround: “Think you are invincible and you become invincible” with Film Producer Maureen Fan and Jason Crowley

Mark Pincus taught me about objectives and key results, or “OKRs.” He said to choose a goal that you are 60 percent likely to hit because you need to think of crazy ideas to make it happen. At Zynga, we often complained, “but that goal’s impossible!” However, it unlocked our creativity and helped us achieve […]

Mark Pincus taught me about objectives and key results, or “OKRs.” He said to choose a goal that you are 60 percent likely to hit because you need to think of crazy ideas to make it happen. At Zynga, we often complained, “but that goal’s impossible!” However, it unlocked our creativity and helped us achieve more than we ever thought we were capable of. This naturally jived with me because my mission in life is the mission I created for the company: “Inspire you to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder.” I believe people have more potential than they realize — if they just realized it, they would go for it. When something seems impossible, I believe I can do it, and go through the exercise of brainstorming how I’d get there. For example, did I ever think John Legend would join us? We shot for the moon! Did I think I’d ever be working with a big time director? Have the most famous living animator as my company’s advisor giving us feedback on animation? Win an Emmy for every project we’ve worked on? I just believed it was possible so that I could go after it.


Aspart of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maureen Fan.

Maureen has held leadership roles in film, gaming, and the consumer web. She was most recently vice president of games at Zynga, where she oversaw three game studios, including the FarmVille sequels, which contributed to 40% of the company’s revenues. Previously, she worked on Pixar’s Toy Story 3 film and at eBay in product management and UI design. Her most recent collaboration, “The Dam Keeper,” directed by Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, was nominated for the 2015 Oscar® Best Animated Short. She received her undergraduate degree in an interdisciplinary program in computer science, art and psychology from Stanford University graduating Phi Beta Kappa and earned her master’s degree in business from Harvard University.


Jason Crowley: Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?

Maureen Fan: I love animation because it brings you back to your 5-year-old self. Remember when you were 5 and believed you could be anything and do anything? Something happens when you grow older and society pressures you to conform to values of fame, fortune, and beauty.

When I experience animation, however, I am brought back to that 5-year-old. I feel invincible and am inspired to pursue my potential. That’s why we chose the mission of Baobab: to inspire you to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder through immersive animated entertainment experiences.

Imagine a little girl, too young to be by herself, crying on a park bench. In a film, you’d feel sorry for her but you wouldn’t get out of your theater seat to help her. In a game, you’d talk to her but maybe it’s to complete a quest, become a hero, level up. In real life, you’d talk to her because you genuinely are concerned about her and want to help. At Baobab, we believe we can create experiences that have the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivation of life — where you interact because you care, not to win.

Jason Crowley: Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Maureen Fan: Society can put you into a bucket. What does it mean to be a woman, follower, leader, extrovert, introvert, a suit or a creative? I resisted being bucketed to create my own path. Each time, my desire for the goal helped me to overcome resistance to change.

At Stanford, I designed my own major, mixing computer science, art, and psychology, because I wanted to become an animator. However, my parents told me I’d be destitute if I pursued a career in entertainment, and urged me to join eBay as a UI designer. I later became a usability engineer before creating a new role as cultural anthropologist for tech, traveling to different countries, studying commerce and determining how eBay should adapt its offerings in each one. I eventually turned this into a product strategy role.

However, I still dreamed of doing animation, so I took animation classes nights and weekends and drew daily. The plan was to apply for an MFA in 5 years, but the deadline passed. My parents urged me to apply for Harvard Business School, and I got in.

At first I was going to decline because I wanted to do film. My boss at the time advised against it, saying that Hollywood wasn’t as sexy as it seems. I was determined to find this out for myself. I emailed everyone in the Stanford alumni database in Hollywood and designed my own internships program. I took any opportunity, including assistant to the talent manager of Zach Braff, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Paul Dano. I learned that everything is business at the end of day, so I went to HBS. I was voted to be co-president of its entertainment media club and landed an internship at Pixar for Toy Story 3 in production.

Even at Pixar, there were buckets! My business school background made me a good fit for production finance, but I wanted to do production. An amazing manager helped me design an internship where I got to shadow different departments rather than stay in one.

I joined Zynga when they started, because I wanted to be a part of creating a new industry. At Zynga, people were seen as either suits or creatives. I rejected this notion. I devised a new mission for my FarmVille 2 team — “Change the company. Prove that quality drives business metrics and that quality is created through collaboration.” I proved that a balance between both the creative and business yields a superior product. The business people had to share power with creative, while the creatives went through business training so they could help come up with solutions to achieve our goals.

However, I still loved animation, so nights and weekends I worked on a short animated film with my friends who had been art directors at Pixar. Our short animation, The Dam Keeper, went on to get nominated for an Academy Award.

When VR came about, I realized it was the perfect medium for animation. I decided to create my own path again — to start an animation studio. It’s founded on the same principle — that we need a balance — of business and creative, technology and art. Neither works without the other.

A recent challenge:

Did you know that women are 40 percent less likely to get funding than men, even when they use the exact same pitch deck. Stanford showed that by presenting the same pitch deck using a male voiceover versus a female voiceover. Actually, at the beginning some investors and partners thought I was my cofounder Eric Darnell’s assistant, until I spoke. I knew I had to ignore the statistic to become more confident during meetings. I researched what I was up against from unconscious bias and determine which of those biases to address with how I pitched. Yet I ignored some recommendations. For example, I had heard that being less attractive or married helped VCs take you more seriously. Some might wear a wedding ring. At the time I was not married but I refused to wear one because I felt that was inauthentic. Several VC friends also encouraged me to take out the idealistic parts of my pitch. I refused because I am idealistic. If they don’t believe in me, I don’t want them to be my investors.

At another point, I wondered if I should let a man take over Baobab, if it would give the company even 0.0001 percent chance more of finding success, knowing that he would probably walk into business meetings and be taken seriously right away. I decided to remain CEO because I believed my love for what we do was more important, but it was deflating that the thought even had to go through my head.

During these times, I remind myself of our mission, what I’ve done to get here, how it’s been my dream forever to do animation. How lucky I am to be able to do this (though as a woman I know I’m not supposed to say I’m lucky and instead say that I deserve this). I also lean on my cofounders, advisors, and other entrepreneurs who are either going through the same thing or have been through it before. I’ve created a network of people to support me.

Jason Crowley: So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

Maureen Fan: Our latest animation, Crow: The Legendfeatured John Legend, Oprah, Constance Wu and more.

Securing a John Legend or an Oprah is difficult, especially when as a startup you have little money. We dreamed big enough to approach them. They joined our cast and exec producing team because of the themes of Crow: The Legend. Directed by Eric Darnell (Antz!, Madagascar), award-winning Crow: The Legend is inspired by the Native American legend of community and sacrifice about how the crow got his black feathers and voice.

The Co-Producer Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), shared that many Native American youth were sent to re-education camps and forbidden to tell stories like this that should, in fact, be a vital part of American storytelling. The cast agreed including Diego Luna, Tye Sheridan, and Liza Koshy.

But in Baobab fashion, the fun didn’t stop there. We created a #GenIndigenous Virtual Reality Fellowship with Native Americans in Philanthropy in partnership with Indigenous media organizations Vision Maker Media and Longhouse Media.

The #GenIndigenous Fellowship is focused on emerging talent, fostering the sharing of techniques and building networking opportunities with Indigenous media makers enthusiastic for rapid prototyping in VR.

When the distributors originally overlooked us thinking no one would care about animated narrative experiences in VR, we persisted to put our project Invasion! on headsets. As a result, we became the top downloaded VR experiences across all headsets. We secured a film deal and won two Emmys based on that IP — for Invasion! and Asteroids!

Alvy Ray Smith (cofounder of Pixar) at first told me he couldn’t be our advisor because he didn’t believe in VR and didn’t like games. I convinced him to at least meet with me. Once he tried on the headset, he was sold and agreed.

Persistence and grit pays off.

Jason Crowley: So, how are things going today? 🙂

Maureen Fan: Things are going very well and we are the leading immersive studio.

We’re honored that entertainment tastemakers recognize the quality of our work. We have won 2 Emmy’s for our work and have had our work showcased at Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, Venice, and Annecy Film Festivals.

Consumers have reacted enthusiastically to our stories, characters, and immersion. We have the leading VR narrative interactive experiences. Crow: The Legend went viral and made the YouTube trending category for 5 days, garnering over 3 million views in less than 2 weeks. Even the AR filter that we released became the #1 AR filter on Facebook

Hollywood has recognized the value of our stories: We are the first studio to have IP go from VR to traditional movie format. Usually it goes the other way around, where IP goes from traditional Hollywood to the latest technological format. We announced a partnership with Roth Kirschenbaum Films (Maleficent, Snow White & The Huntsmen, Alice in Wonderland) to turn Invasion! into a traditional feature film.

We continue to attract and work with amazing talent. Crow: The Legend stars John Legend, Oprah, Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat), Diego Luna (Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie), Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), and Liza Koshy (popular digital artist with over 17 M YouTube subscribers). Emmy-winning Asteroids! starred Elizabeth Banks and Ingrid Nilsen. Emmy-winning Invasion! starred Ethan Hawke. Lupita Nyong’o has signed on to star in Jack.

Not to mention our team — Eric Darnell, my cofounder, co-directed and wrote all 4 Madagascar Films (>$2.5B in the box office) and Antz! Larry Cutler, cofounder and CTO started at Pixar as a technical director on Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc and went on to become the Global Head of Character Tech at Dreamworks Animation. He is also a judge for the Oscar technical achievement awards. Our advisory board consists of Alvy Ray Smith (Pixar co-founder), Glen Entis (PDI/Dreamworks Animation co-founder, former CEO of Dreamworks Interactive, CTO of Electronic Arts), Glen Keane (directing animator of Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, etc), Mireille Soria (President Paramount Animation, former co-President Dreamworks Animation), Kevin Lin (co-founder and COO of Twitch), Albert Cheng (COO and Head of TV, Amazon), etc. Our investors include the likes of Hollywood (Comcast, Chernin, Shari Redstone, 20th Century Fox) and technology (Horizons, Samsung, HTC, Peter Thiel, Mark Pincus), etc

We’ve built amazing technology that allows us to create interactive narrative content and have high end animation running in a real-time game engine. We used Unity to make Crow: The Legend and achieved a storybook look that people couldn’t believe was done in a real-time game engine.

I’m also proud that we’ve built a company that prioritizes diverse viewpoints. For example, Crow: The Legend is inspired by a Native American legend about community, sacrifice for the greater good, and diversity. The diverse cast all joined the project as advocates of their own minority communities and believe this mythic tale needed to be shared to help heal. Indigenous worldview focuses more on community, which often contrasts with Western worldview which focuses on the individual.

Jason Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

Maureen Fan: 1. Think you are invincible and you become invincible.

Mark Pincus taught me about objectives and key results, or “OKRs.” He said to choose a goal that you are 60 percent likely to hit because you need to think of crazy ideas to make it happen. At Zynga, we often complained, “but that goal’s impossible!” However, it unlocked our creativity and helped us achieve more than we ever thought we were capable of..

This naturally jived with me because my mission in life is the mission I created for the company: “Inspire you to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder.” I believe people have more potential than they realize — if they just realized it, they would go for it.

When something seems impossible, I believe I can do it, and go through the exercise of brainstorming how I’d get there. For example, did I ever think John Legend would join us? We shot for the moon! Did I think I’d ever be working with a big time director? Have the most famous living animator as my company’s advisor giving us feedback on animation? Win an Emmy for every project we’ve worked on? I just believed it was possible so that I could go after it.

2. Go into robot problem solving mode

For one of our launches, it seemed we had hired the wrong firm and were going to get no press. It was too late to switch firms given that it was only a week away from launch. As the CEO, everything is, in a way, your fault. I blamed myself for poor hiring and felt all was lost.

I didn’t have time to wallow, though. I leveraged my heightened emotions to launch myself into robot problem solving mode. I ended up calling several other firms and old publicists that I trusted. They referred me to many other people, and I was able to bring on several additional firms in just a week to triage. We ended up getting tremendous coverage for our launch.

3. Ask others for help, both to provide emotional support and to brainstorm solutions with you.

Your friends and colleagues may be experts in their fields who can solve your problem better than you can. Even when they aren’t experts, they can help you see the problem in a different light.

Dozens of people helped me with my first pitch deck, which was good because pitching for money was new for me, and of course, I was nervous. Entrepreneurs, VC friends, my cofounders all helped me to develop and practice the pitch deck and help me through the pitching process. When crying under the covers at night worried that no one would give me money, I could always call my other entrepreneur friends who had been through the same thing. They could commiserate and give encouragement that it would all be fine, and that the emotions I was feeling were normal and common to all entrepreneurs.

Jannie, my friend and coworker from when I was a UI designer at eBay, helped me make my deck beautiful and sharp. Glenn Entis, my mentor who cofounded PDI/Dreamworks Animation introduced me to my cofounder Eric Darnell (Madagascar, Antz!) because he had hired him into DreamWorks. I found my other co-founder, CTO Larry Cutler when I couldn’t decide whether or not to go to Harvard Business School. I emailed everyone in the Stanford alumni database to get advice and to find internships to give me a taste of Hollywood. Larry was one of the people who had responded many years ago. We kept in touch ever since.

All those who I had worked with in my past came out of the woodworks to help me achieve my dream. People want to help you — you just need to ask

4. Remember all the times you thought you weren’t going to be able to do something and then you succeeded through willpower.

Jason Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

Maureen Fan: Tim LeTourneau taught me most of what I know about leading creatives and just being a leader in general. He understands people better than anyone I know. Throughout my career, whenever an employee, coworker or superior was difficult to work with or needed motivation, I would go to Tim. He could immediately ascertain their feelings and give me advice on how to handle the situation.

For example, at Zynga, sometimes people felt uncomfortable around me because, according to Tim, they couldn’t place me in a bucket. They would give me strange, contradictory advice to get promoted, like, “Dress up more. Speak with a lower voice. You need to be meaner. You’re too nice.”

Tim explained how people reject others who they don’t understand. He explained that I had a carefree side which made fellow creatives like me, as it allowed me to seem playful. Yet, as a product manager and Harvard Business School graduate, I also sometimes appeared very intense, numbers focused and results oriented. In other words, they couldn’t bucket me easily since these 2 sides seem incongruous.

He coached me to have a difficult conversation with the head of HR: “”Sometimes people get confused because I have a creative, childlike side to me. Other times, I’m a hard nosed businesswoman. People have trouble getting me because these two things are opposite. However, I think these two things give me strength. I can relate to the creatives and still drive business success.”

By calling out what people thought of me, it showed I was self-aware, which took away power from others to judge me. Furthermore, by saying that I think it’s a strength, it showed that I owned the traits and chose to be that way. I’ve used this method many times and it’s worked really well for me.

This is only one example. Tim is a people genius and should be President.

Jason Crowley: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Maureen Fan: At Baobab, we tell stories. Stories are how we empathize with other characters. We wonder what would it be like to walk in that person’s shoes. Stories are in our DNA, and many believe storytelling is what gave our species the edge to survive. Stories have an amazing ability to change people’s minds or show us how we are more similar than we think.

We’re also telling stories from underrepresented perspectives. Crow: The Legend is a Native American legend. Native Americans in Philanthropy, our executive producer, taught us that Native Americans were forced into re-education camps and forbidden to tell stories like Crow. Their stories have been omitted from their rightful place in American storytelling, so we hope to shed a light on these indigenous tales.

We’re excited to put underrepresented communities in front of and behind the camera, giving people role models who look like them. The diverse cast, including John Legend, Constance Wu, Oprah Winfrey, Diego Luna, Liza Koshy, Tye Sheridan and Sarah Eagle Heart, all joined the project as advocates of their own communities and believe this mythic tale needed to be shared to help heal. The indigenous worldview focuses more on the community, which often contrasts with the Western worldview that focuses on the individual.

Crow is about sacrifice and community, something I feel we need more of in these times. We also wove in the theme of diversity, how you must learn to accept yourself before accepting others, and that the things that make us different are the things that make us beautiful.

Jason Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Maureen Fan: At any given time, we are working on three projects. We will continue to tell stories that inspire people to dream.

Jason Crowley: What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Maureen Fan: Don’t neglect self-care. You are the light bulb that powers the company. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to work crazy hours and take on all the weight yourself. Make sure you take breaks, even if it’s one day a week, to recharge. This is especially important in any creative industry. Your employees can feel both your stress and your happiness, so you need good energy.

Jason Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what one of your ideas can trigger.

Maureen Fan: Get people to identify the things they fear and hate and then confront them head on. If you find you dislike certain types of people, make a conscious effort to make a friend of that “type.” If you think climate change isn’t real, try to prove yourself wrong and make friends with those who fight to reduce climate change. Hopefully, we learn more about what it means to be human in the process.

Jason Crowley: Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Maureen Fan: “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”

That phrase is about dreaming. My mission in life and my company’s mission is to inspire you to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder. I want you and everyone to realize that they have so much more potential than they realize. Once they realize it, they will go after this potential.

Jason Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?

Maureen Fan: @baobabstudios 
Twitter
Instagram

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