Published September 16, 2008
Volume 16, Number 9

Fun Mobility's Adam Lavine Ushers in New Era of Self-Expression 

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

There is one thing you can say for sure about Adam Lavine: he is not a late bloomer. His entrepreneurship might not have started as far back as the childhood lemonade stand, but it was certainly in evidence by the time he was a college student supporting himself with juggling gigs.  In the classroom he developed a passion for computer animation, turning a class project into a successful business that he and partner Dennis Chen ultimately sold to a publicly traded company in 1997. In a few months he will be celebrating a decade as founder and CEO of the duo's second start-up, FunMobility, a pioneer in personalized multimedia communication, and he has barely hit 40.

"What we do is pretty amazing," Lavine comments. Leading the charge in new mobile phone applications, FunMobility "allows people to consume multimedia content anywhere, anytime," he explains. The possibilities go far beyond what many traditional users could ever imagine.  "We are moving to a new era of using mobile phone content to communicate with each other," Lavine asserts.

FunMobility's early applications of ringtones and wallpapers have broadened into animated comics and other imaginative forms of expression that are easily shared with others. "The urge to communicate is a pretty fundamental thing, and this is a very fun way to do it," he observes, adding, "It's an untapped area that's very interesting to explore." 

Pushing the Content Envelope
Although the company's core demographic is consumers between the ages of 16 and 25, the goal is to integrate its applications into day-to-day mainstream American life. Any apprehension about the novelty is quickly vanquished by the convenience factor. Suppose, Lavine says, you forget an important occasion, and there is no time to shop for and mail a store-bought greeting card. FunMobility enables users to create their own mobile greetings, complete with music and images, on the cell phone and send them off instantly to whomever is on their list. 

Still, that example is fairly conventional. SMS, short message service, a form of text messaging on mobile phones, is opening up entirely new opportunities for communication—and profit. According to one newsletter on marketing to Generation Y, teens and young adults, from ages 13 through 24, send more than 50 text messages per week. More than half use SMS for social networking; a little less than half use it for flirting or dating. Some, albeit a much smaller fraction (10 percent), have even used it to terminate a romantic relationship. Enlivened with pictures and other user-created content--videos, music, graphics, or slideshows—a message becomes a unique, meaningful, entertaining experience for both sender and recipient.

The power of this mobile content is one of the reasons behind FunMobility's just-announced venture with Rock the Vote, the organization that promotes political participation among America's young voters, and mobile carrier AT&T. The latest offerings in the FunMobility catalog feature pop singer Christina Aguilera delivering the RTV message in a series of downloadable ringtones and wallpapers.

It is an effective tactic. "We know that mobile content, whether it's wallpaper from a historical Rock the Vote campaign or a ringtone from a supporting artist, encourages today's youth to engage in the political process and show their support for the upcoming election," says Lavine. These creative ways of linking young people with their favorite images music, and recording artists transform mobile content into a highly prized and visible badge of self-expression. 

Performers Expressing Themselves
It's not surprising that Lavine and Chen have wound up with so many touchpoints to the entertainment industry. Lavine, a New England native, comes from a family of musicians; his grandfather taught organ at Yale University, which named the impressive H. Frank Bozyan Memorial Organ in his honor. His wife of 14 years was a piano performance major when they met in college at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Eager to share the limelight, he points out that partner Dennis Chen also plays the piano and guitar.

A talented piano player himself (he started lessons at age five), Lavine is also a big fan of the ukulele. "George Harrison once said that the world would be a happier place if everyone had a ukulele," he remarks. "It's a great instrument. It only has four strings, so kids can learn very quickly." 

Acquiring skills as a magician and a juggler added to his repertoire as a performer. When he was 19 he confidently set off for a summer in Japan, where he landed a job juggling in an amusement park that was part of a Disney-like chain. "I went through tryouts and got the job, which was well paid," he recalls. "It was considered exotic for them to have an American juggler."  A side note to the episode reveals his independent streak: "I forgot to tell my mom I was going." It was only a few days before his departure that he called home and mentioned the trip. One gets the sense the family, which includes an older and younger sister, was accustomed to his pursuit of adventure.

Back at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from which both Lavine and Chen graduated with honors in 1995, a class project in 3-D computer animation turned into his first technology venture. "I was working with Dennis, and initially we thought, 'Let's try to be the best in the class,'" Lavine relates. Expectations were raised as the photorealistic images their software produced started drawing rave reviews. "This was striking eye candy that got people's attention. Everyone wanted to create this kind of thing for themselves."

The outgrowth was Specular International, a 3-D graphics and animation software company that did business with media giants Disney, ABC Television, and Industrial Light and Magic. Specular was sold to MetaTools, a publicly traded company in 1997, and Lavine spent two years working on streaming 3-D technologies there before leaving to found FunMail, FunMobility’s predecessor, again with Dennis Chen, in 1999. This time, they decided to set up shop out here in California, a frequent destination from their Specular days.

With FunMobility's current headcount of roughly 110 employees, Lavine no longer has to do the kind of business traveling he did in the past. In his leisure time he has trekked all over Europe and logged time in Thailand and Japan. "I like Japan a lot," he say. "My wife is Japanese. It's a culture and a country I have a strong affinity for." The couple has two school-age children and find the Tri-Valley "a great place to raise a family." 

For fun beyond music, Lavine enjoys racketball and swimming. To keep up the fun quotient in the office, he has been known to break out the juggling torches at company parties. Both Lavine and Chen recognize how fortunate  they are to see so many of  their talents and passions converge in  their work life, where the business they have created is their own form of self-expression.


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