When Hovhannes Avoyan was a child, he fell in love with chemistry and concocted hazardous experiments in his family’s home. During his first year at university, he used punch cards to program machines that were “half the size of a building,”—aka the world’s first computers, which led him to artificial intelligence design, and then to graduate school at AGBU’s partner, the American University of Armenia (AUA), before he formed the first of many private companies.
Today, the tech whiz manages PicsArt, one of the world’s leading developers of mobile apps. Now, this issue’s thinker takes us inside the mind of this inventor, scholar, and all-around tech upstart.
Q What were your interests in school?
A My first love was chemistry; I was always doing dangerous experiments at home. I also loved math and physics, and in high school I did well in these subjects. When I started university, I began doing research projects and earning money to do programming. There were very few people at that time who had access to these computers. We had big machines, half the size of a building, which had less capacity than my iPhone has now. I was using punch cards!
Q What was the first thing you developed?
A It was an artificial intelligence system called Expert Systems, which could simulate expert reasoning based on rules and knowledge databases.
Q How did your family encourage your interests and ambitions?
A Everyone was very supportive of what I was doing. I was bringing good money home; as a student, I was getting more compensation than graduates of the university. I was spending days and nights at work, and they helped me with that, too.
Q What are the biggest differences between working for a company and doing your own projects?
A I never worked for a company in the traditional sense. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the people I was working with on my research projects invited me to join this company. We always had ownership over what we were doing.
Q What are the most difficult challenges you’ve faced in your career?
A Especially in the early days of a start-up business, you have to survive all the ups and downs. There were many times we were almost dead; we thought we should close the company, but through hard work and determination we persevered.
Q What professional achievement are you most proud of?
A Creating several companies and attracting the best people. PicsArt is my fifth start-up, and I’ve helped create 600 good-paying jobs in Armenia. I’ve had real fun working with the best talent in the country, and many people who worked for me created their own enterprises later on. Fourteen companies have been created or managed by my former employees.
Q How has AGBU helped you achieve your goals?
A AGBU’s partnership with AUA is shaping generations and was very important in helping me transition from a Soviet way of thinking to a Western school of thought. I learned a lot from AUA faculty about being open, proactive, progressive, and learning the Western language and culture. The second benefit was getting graduates from AUA to work with the team.
Q What is the most interesting thing you’re working on now?
A Our mobile applications. We are currently number five on the top charts for iPhone, and for Android we are in top 40 or 50 apps in the world. We have about 140 million installs. We are also working on a social network for artists and creative people to help them get discovered and find friends who share their aspirations for art or photography.
Q How has being Armenian influenced your career?
A Back in 1991 and 1992, we had tough times after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were in survival mode; we had to build a resistance to all kinds of crisis, which has helped me. Also, Armenians have a very big diaspora. I have lots of friends in San Francisco and Los Angeles who have provided me introductions and advice.
Q What three things are most important to you?
A Family is the most important. Whatever I do, I do for my family. Second is my team, because it’s another family. The third is to do something really creative, cool, and extraordinary.
Banner photo by Vartan Tsulikian