Inside DIRT: Ryan Anthony
DORD Founder Series
By Diana Vilic
By Diana Vilic
Mathematically, it’s stupid to be a founder. Your chance of failure is greater than success, and there are only so many Facebook’s, Ubers, and Airbnb’s in a world saturated with ideas. We have to wonder what makes someone push through hardships, improbable possibilities, and mental drainage? So we asked.
Ryan Anthony is the Founder and CEO of DIRT, Creative technology expert, and inventor of a patent-pending neuro/AI delivery system.
Describe your current project/venture.
If we look at all the content we consume -- the apps we use, the games we play, the shows we stream, really anything we use or interact with in our daily lives -- our emotions are omnipresent. But when we look at the technology behind these products or experiences, the measurement of emotion is largely absent in the design and development process. Traditionally, examining these has been incredibly complex, but recent innovations in wearable tech and sensor technology offer huge strides toward making emotion measurement tools accessible, cost-effective, and, most importantly, private and secure. At DIRT, we measure the signals our bodies transmit that show how we respond physiologically to content. We’re focused on the emotional aspect of what we’re engaged with, and how our bodies and brains react to it. Why? We’re producing and consuming more content now than now ever and, just like a chef is always perfecting the exact ingredients she’s using to help people love her food, creators want to understand how their work can best connect with their audiences.
Where did your passions come from?
Growing up I wasn’t what you would call an ideal student. I had a million questions that outpaced the answers I could get. We didn’t have a search engine at our fingertips quite yet, and while that left me a little lost it also taught me to trust my sense of wonder and rely on my imagination. Ultimately, I learned that my inherent curiosity was not only okay, but also could steer my whole life.
In the past 5 years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has improved your life the most?
I went through some pretty heavy times in my professional life that caused me to think deeply about my purpose. Brief bouts of depression pulled me into self-doubt and negativity because I wasn’t being honest with myself about the circumstances I was in. I was giving a lot of my power to other people without realizing it, and that was taking a big toll. After years of resisting, I started working with a therapist who specialized in mindfulness.
I learned to fully embrace my curiosity and give myself the latitude to explore my challenges more fully, without judgment. That allowed me to believe in the power of taking risk and make some huge personal leaps. Which, of course, ported into my professional life. Once you allow positive change to take hold in one aspect of your life, it starts to come to bear in other places, too.The amazing thing is that being open to change has this funny way of attracting people who are on the same wavelength; you find these tribes of incredible people, which leads to conversations that spawn even more new ideas.
And you quickly learn that, while new thoughts can be scary, they challenge us to think deeply about why we’re following all the old rules. Once you start to question convention, you realize there are so many new possibilities we can chase, so many better outcomes we’re responsible to help uncover.
How has a failure or apparent failure set you up for later success? What's your favorite failure?
That’s great. So many people would ask: what’s your biggest, or worst, or toughest failure. I love “favorite.” Okay. When I moved to San Francisco from Michigan in 2011, I had no idea what I was going to do or where I wanted to go professionally and personally. I ended up working with a handful of early founders, advising on everything from branding and positioning to marketing, product design, distribution -- really anything I could help with. Very much a headfirst “Roll up our sleeves and let’s go!” mentality. And I chose a very unorthodox approach in how I engaged with most of my clients: I didn’t get paid until my involvement made them a clear return, essentially operating like a VC with no money, leveraging the work I did in previous endeavors to help them grow. In theory, the idea was great, but the business model was… lacking. As in, lots of great ideas, but not much pay and many meals of ramen and canned tuna. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I was learning about a wide range of things that ended up proving to be helpful later in my career and very much ported into the work I’m doing today with DIRT. I got a first-hand look at the journeys of brilliant entrepreneurs like Peter Dehring from Peak Design, who built a company by aligning great people around a mission and purpose, simply putting the customer first, always. I learned the value of embracing the present -- the work, life and success we can aim to find in the moment -- instead of worrying about what happened in the past or over-indexing on what theoretically might take place someday.
What's some bad advice you hear in your industry?
The concept of ‘hustle culture’ hurts my soul. We glamorize people that work themselves to the bone because that’s what they think it takes to find success. I think we retrofit the narrative to show how that’s worked for a very select few, without acknowledging how dangerous that path is for most of us. We seem to be a society fixated on hyper-growth and hyper-scaling to maximize profit. And there’s a current, potentially toxic set of rules that says there’s a right and wrong way to grow.
One of the things we’re focusing on at DIRT is how to best align our company mission with our vision so we can forge our own path. Counter to a lot of the “advice” out there in the business world, and especially in social media, I’m not just focused on driving the bottom line. I’m also deeply accountable to how we scale, the intent of the work we take on, the growth of our employees and customers, and the opportunity for change we can help impact.
How do you overcome self-doubt?
I grew up in a small town. I always saw that as a good thing, but when I moved away I realized the omnipresent feeling of judgment I felt hanging over me; that I wasn’t good enough for the rooms I found myself in. True or not, it was always at the front of my mind. Eventually, confronting those feelings of self-doubt helped me understand where it was coming from: fear. Now, through some of the research we’ve done, I know that fear is a constant in every decision we make. We like to think we optimize for happiness, the best outcome, but the truth is we’re always trying to limit pain. Confronting my relationship with fear helped me understand that my self-doubt is entirely in my own head. Today, the thing I struggle with most isn’t self-doubt, it’s checking my perspective and testing my intuition.
How do you cultivate trust in your intuition or self, even when no one believes in you or your idea?
One of the fascinating things about intuition is we tend to look back to reveal when it was right. But I think a better measure is, was it helpful? The goal for intuition -- for letting your talent or experience guide your instinct -- shouldn’t be that it’s always correct. The aim is that it leads you down a more informed path toward something new, unique, interesting. Through the kind of work we do at DIRT, the research and the data, I’ve learned the value of trusting in the process and detaching from the fear of failure or judgment and the dangerous stagnancy that so often accompanies it. You may have an idea that seems batshit crazy. That’s intuition talking. Now, how are you validating it with your talent, with your experience, with the input of others? That’s opportunity knocking. If you can find ways to test your intuition so you can trust it, that’s a path to delivering more of what you want to make in ways that are way more likely to connect.
What's something you want people to take away from your story?
I think we’re incredibly influenced by the environments we grow up in, like it or not. So the relationship between belief and meaning is an idea I think a lot about. If we’re told at a young age that we aren’t smart or good at something, if we hear that enough times, it becomes a belief. And these limiting beliefs hold us back from reaching our full potential. Let’s not necessarily call it happiness, but belonging; the knowledge that we deserve to be here.We all have permission to experience life and do amazing things. But first we have to confront our limiting beliefs, the walls that have been built around us and hold us back from becoming our full selves. All I want is for people to know is they’re not alone. That these walls aren’t external, they’re internal, and they’re made of sheetrock; you can break them down.
What does your victory look like?
It’s simple: we all win. I want every child to be born with access to health, education, and a fighting chance to live a fulfilling life. I want everyone to be able to believe in themselves and be rewarded for having that faith.
What is your why?
As they say on airplanes, put your mask on before helping others. Focus on getting you right, that’s enough. You’re of little value to the world if you don’t know who you are and what you’re here to do. That’s the hard part. So I’m trying to chase my passion and be open and welcoming and, above all, kind.
How do you deal with perfectionism?
That’s not something I struggle with. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite: my process is an absolute mess. I’m more interested in why we’re so fixated on delivering perfection. To me, it’s a dangerous goal we’ve been taught to aim for and feel the need to chase. And we’re setting ourselves up for failure from the start. When we aim for the pinnacle, even if and when we achieve it, okay, then what next? I’d rather acknowledge that there is and always will be a curved path between the poles of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ And the journey is going to be this amazing tide we can ride, instead of swimming against it.
How do you deal with irreversible decisions you can't change?
I’m fascinated by the illusion of control. We put so much weight on the outcomes of minute experiences, but they’re actually rarely binary. Everything we do is part of a massive ecosystem. And the aggregate impact matters far more than any individual choice. Can we make unique mistakes? Of course. But the perception that single decisions have everlasting permanence is largely an illusion. If you lessen the impact of any one moment and allow yourself to have a longer view, you can be more objective and move forward without being sucked down by the gravity of screwing up.