Alan Smithson is on a mission to save the world – and he’s brought his teenage daughter along for the ride.
A DJ by trade, Smithson invented touchscreen technology for the music industry in 2010, allowing performers to use interactive consoles on stage. But after trying a virtual reality (VR) headset at a camp organized by Google’s Eric Schmidt, Smithson says he was transfixed.
“I immediately thought that this was the future of human communication – and I wanted in,” he says.
A year later, he and his wife founded Metavrse, now North America’s leading AR and VR consulting and product development company, which initially created VR experiences for music festivals, then launched a photo booth application, before most recently focusing on an app that allows shoppers to view products virtually in 3D.
Meanwhile, Smithson’s daughter Abi, then aged 9, was inspired by seeing the “ugly” tan lines on her mother’s feet to create a new type of sandal that leaves a heart-shaped tan line on the top of your foot. With the help of her parents, Love Sandal was turned into a viable online venture – with Abi, now 13, as CEO.
Abi holding a pair of her “love sandals” at a China Start pitch event in Beijing
Today, father and daughter are both in Beijing with CKGSB’s China Start program, a five-day China immersion program for start-ups and growth companies to learn, partner and pitch.
Smithson first got connected with China Start on LinkedIn, where he is a leading influencer in the VR and AR space. Meeting with potential Chinese investors is a big draw for many participants, but Smithson said he was attracted to the program for another reason.
“If it was just about investors, well, we can raise money anywhere,” says Alan. “But the fact that they were bringing us in to meet with JD.com, Fosun and others meant that we had incredible opportunity.”
Alan Smithson and daughter Abi during a visit to JD.com
during the Beijing leg of CKGSB’s China Start program
Smithson continued, “We had a session with CKGSB Dean Xiang Bing this morning and it was a real eye opener to discover not just how big the Chinese market is, but how dedicated the Chinese are to growing through technology – that’s really what drove me to come to China. In North America, there’s much more of a short-term focus on quarterly earnings, but people here really look long into the future.”
Daughter Abi’s company Love Sandal manufactures its footwear in China, but this is her first trip to the Middle Kingdom. “I honestly had no idea what to expect when I came here,” she said. “I knew that I’d have to pitch in front of lots of people, but every time I do it I get better at it. Sometimes, you have to improvise if you make a mistake, but the trick is just to keep going and you’ll get through it.”
The China Start program takes in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, combining classroom learning with pitch events in front of a room full of investors and visits to leading Chinese tech companies such as Tencent, JD.com and 3NOD. Abi has had to take a week off school to make the trip east, but is keeping her fingers crossed that it will pay dividends: “I’m hoping to get a partnership with a Chinese investor, so they can take care of the manufacturing and distribution here. If everything works out, I’d like to do lots of traveling between Toronto and China in the future!”
Alan also has big plans.
“My ultimate goal with Metavrse is to create technology that will create an education platform for the future,” he says. “That platform will be global and I want it to teach the fundamentals of success through entrepreneurship. Metavrse is there to serve three things: to provide us with the capital we need, the technology and the connections. China Start is a great way to get the capital and the connections for that, as well as the introductions to the people who have the technology that we’re going to need in the future.”
Abi Smithson (left) listens to CKGSB’s China Start Program Director Ji Bo
during an investment pitch workshop
Alan continues: “The way we need to educate in the future is through mindset, not via skillset, and I think by doing that, kids can really unlock huge potential and we can develop more people like Jack Ma and Elon Musk, who can create value on a global scale.”
But having taught Abi – by her own admission – “literally everything” she knows about business, the learning between father and daughter is still a two-way street.
“QR codes are massive here,” Alan says, “But in North America they’re non-existent. On our first day in China, Abi noticed the difference in the way China and the West do QR codes and perfectly explained how we got it entirely wrong back home. Every day I learn something new from her!”
And she may not be the only familial source of knowledge for Alan and wife Julie, co-CEOs of Metavrse.
Abi says her younger sister Holly, 10, is already showing promise. “She always has lots of new ideas for companies. I don’t know whether she wants to go into business yet, but she definitely has the mindset.”