While major news organizations consolidate their resources, RYOT is in the midst of a growth spurt.
In the past year, the production studio, which focuses on newsgathering and reporting in virtual reality and 360-degree video, has secured an Oscar nomination (for Best Documentary Short) and been acquired by The Huffington Post for between $10 million and $15 million, making it part of Verizon's collection of media companies (which also includes AOL and Yahoo). To date, it has made more than 200 VR films that have been watched millions of times, and it has grown its staff from eight people to more than 40, with more expansion on the way.
Co-founder and CEO Bryn Mooser has helped steer RYOT from its start in 2012. He sat down with CNBC.com to discuss the company's growth, the importance of virtual reality in the news business and offer his thoughts on necessary qualities for today's entrepreneurs. (Mooser's comments have been edited and condensed.)
When did you come up with the idea for RYOT?
I started as a humanitarian aid worker. After the Haitian earthquake, I moved there. And it was there that I saw an opportunity to create a media company with a purpose at its core. We launched in 2012 with this simple mission to give people an interactive news experience.
Three or four years ago a friend showed me a virtual reality camera. The day after he showed it to me, the earthquake in Nepal happened. My friend took the camera, and we figured out how to stitch the footage together, put it in a headset and show it to people. They wept because they were standing in the rubble of Katmandu. People wanted to line up around the block to see it, and they were transformed by it. From that moment, we bought a bunch of cameras and gave them to our employees around the world and had them start shooting.
What advantages do you gain from being part of Verizon's growing media empire?
Verizon has an extraordinary tech team, who I think are best in class. Together with them we launched a 360 [-degree video] player that you can embed in all articles. It's mobile first. We've got this support that's extraordinary. And when you add in the reach of AOL, Yahoo, The Huffington Post, it was a no-brainer to become a part of this team.
How is RYOT reimaging journalism and disrupting the news business? What does VR add to the story?
360 video and virtual reality is just the first phase. The real disruption and real change will come next year when you start to see the experience become fully immersive. You've got an opportunity to transport people to where news is happening. There are really exciting things coming when you combine live streaming and light field capture (which means you have depth to what you're looking at). We've built something with Verizon that uses eye tracking and Apple Pay. So if you're looking at, say, the aftermath of an earthquake, you can look at a box on the screen and make a donation directly out of Apple Pay.
How influential do you think VR will be in newsgathering in the years to come?
VR is part of a suite of things that are happening about how stories are told and interacted with. We're moving into a near future where people have their phones and have more opportunities than ever to watch content. When you start thinking about what you're going to do on your self-driving Uber or on the Hyperloop, you realize you're going to be watching things and learning.
What projects are you working on now?
We're also launching a virtual reality news show that I'm real excited about. That's going to start in late October. We're also continuing to pursue breaking news in virtual reality. Right now we're putting out about three 360 videos in a week. In the next month or so, that'll be about one per day.
That's because of more platforms being out there and more people watching the content. As new platforms emerge, we want to be sure our content is the most watched content on them.
Virtual reality is still a long, long way from being embraced by the mainstream audience. Is the number of people who own headsets big enough to support the investments you're making?
Our new news show is built for VR headsets. We want to be innovators. We want to be the ones out there to put the stake in the ground. Nobody's out there doing a global news show in virtual reality. Luckily, we've got a big audience with The Huffington Post, AOL, Yahoo and Verizon, so we're going to scream it from the rooftops and get as many people as possible to watch the show. Part of it is experimental, but we're going for it. Every episode will take you to three VR news stories every other week.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs looking to follow in your footsteps?
I think you have to have an incredibly thick skin. You have to be really passionate. And you have to fail a lot — and when you fail, you have to pick yourself up and learn and change and adjust. Anybody who three to four years in is still doing the same thing they thought they were going to do when they set out, is not paying enough attention.
Also, there's lots of sacrifice. Before we sold the company, there were eight of us literally living at the office, not only because we were working around the clock but because we were putting every dollar back into the company. Every dollar we spent on rent was money that could be spent on film, and it only took one film to give us our big break.
Did you have a mentor when you were younger that gave you a dose of inspiration?
I'm fortunate to have a couple of extraordinary mentors: Todd Wagner, Jason Calacanis and Elon Musk, who is a dear friend and mentor of mine. I met Jason through Elon and met Todd through friends. Those three guys taught me everything it took to get to this point. The thing they all have in common is passion and perseverance. Jason told me many times to pick myself up and try harder and do better. And I certainly got to watch Elon do that with the extraordinary work he's doing to change the world. And trust me, it takes a lot to change the world.
— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com