StartOut Founders Over 45: Jamie Van Doren’s story of NeverEnding perseverance
By John Kregler, StartOut
We believe in the power of all LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, no matter where they are in their journey. Often, founders with years of experience share stories of struggle, overcoming adversity and fighting to get where they are today. Jamie Van Doren is no different.
Jamie (he/him) is a founder who lights up the room. He’s worked his entire life — despite many roadblocks — to emerge as the founder and CEO of NeverEnding Inc. Through his online platform, Jamie brings the world of animation directly to users so that anybody, regardless of who they are, can become their very own content creator.
Jamie, could you give us some background on where you came from?
Sure! My background is probably a bit different from your typical tech entrepreneur. While most of my family is in the midwest, my mom and step-father moved to Southern California. I grew up extremely poor and experienced inequality and income disparity first-hand. We were the family that usually got the box of food from the Fire Department on Thanksgiving or Christmas. My step-dad didn’t work, other than selling drugs. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a lot of stability in my life. My family was homeless for almost a year when I was 13. My mom and step-dad lived in his car, and I couch-surfed, spending nights wherever people would let me.
I eventually reached out to my grandfather, and he paid for my mom and me to fly back to Michigan. It was still very isolating. I went from being identified as “Mexican” in California to being identified as “white” in Michigan. And I was also wrestling with my sexual orientation in a pretty conservative small-town community.
Eventually I made my way to Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I am now. It took me a long time, ridiculous amounts of hard work, and constantly proving my skills and competence, but I eventually made my way from being a restaurant server to being a Chief Marketing Officer for a $6.5 million company. Now I’m the CEO of a cool and innovative software startup at the intersection of gaming, entertainment, and social media. It’s been an incredible journey!
How did you break into entrepreneurship despite those challenges?
I’ve always known I wanted to run a company. Throughout my life, I’ve seen market opportunities in different sectors and industries and come up with creative solutions. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel I had the network and proven experience to make the leap and spent a lot of time focusing on getting into the C-Suite.
I knew that as a gay, mixed-race Latino, without an Ivy League education and no network of wealthy friends and family, I needed to have credibility based on my accomplishments. So I focused on achieving that.
When I left my CMO position, I was at an inflection point. Either jump back into the industry or make a larger leap of faith and start my own company. I have a passion for gaming and entertainment. I believe that how we see ourselves in the media we consume impacts how we see ourselves in the world. And I saw a huge opportunity.
People are disaffected by current social media platforms. I would argue few of us enjoy the shallow interactions of sharing food pics or political memes. I think people are hungry for a better way to express themselves.
So that’s when NeverEnding Inc. came into the picture?
Yes, exactly! As I said, I love video games and entertainment, which also includes animation. Cartoons were a fantastic escape for me growing up!
I thought what if anyone could create animated videos? What if instead of doing a YouTube video or Twitch Livestream where you are on camera, you could create an idealized or just fun version of yourself and have that cartoon identity in front of the camera?
We have already experimented with semi-anonymous personas. I mean, how many people use their actual picture or real name on Twitter? NeverEnding is the next logical evolution in crafting a unique social identity that isn’t limited by what you look like, your physical body, your gender, socioeconomic status — anything. With NeverEnding, you can be anything.
But more than that, we’re creating the tools and the space for people to express their ideas and feelings creatively. A child who dreams of being an astronaut will be able to use NeverEnding to create and share cool webcomics about traveling to Mars. A college athlete who has never been seen as more than a “jock” or the color of his skin, can create an animated pop-rock music video starring him and his friends.
NeverEnding is about giving people the tools to express their own unique stories.
What’s kept you motivated through the challenges of launching a startup?
We have a mission. NeverEnding is bigger than me. What we’re building will upend entertainment and traditional social media which is going to create huge opportunities for way more people. Every time I have a bad day — and as a startup entrepreneur there are a lot of those — I remember what our customers have said to me about why what we’re building is important.
There’s a gentleman who has been an early fan of what we’re building. He’s had a series of strokes, and he can’t easily write and doesn’t feel fully comfortable on camera anymore. But, he wants to be a content creator. He has great story ideas but no way to bring them to life. He’s told us that NeverEnding is going to be a lifeline for him, and allow him to feel reconnected with his passion.
There’s a young lady who is in the Navy. Her brother is autistic, but they love playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons together. They play virtually. Sometimes her brother struggles to be verbal. She thinks NeverEnding could be a great way for him to communicate the pictures in his head, without the pressure to describe them verbally in rich detail.
Then there’s me. I have to be successful, I have to succeed — there is no other choice for me because my success sends a message. I don’t want other underrepresented or disadvantaged kids to feel like they can’t make a difference because of how they grew up or who other people told them they are. They need to know, without any doubt, that the obstacles in front of them can transform into the ladder that helps them reach untold heights.
Where do you see yourself and NeverEnding going?
Ultimately, I want us to have billions of viewers and millions of content creators on the platform collaborating, making money doing what they love, and sharing amazing ideas and stories. I want to see studios like Netflix and Disney coming to creators on NeverEnding for their next blockbuster or binge-worthy hit. When that happens, amazing stories featuring minority voices, like Encanto and Soul, won’t be revolutionary — they’ll be the norm.
We’re still in the product development phase, but we’re releasing features as they’re developed so that we can get continuous feedback from the market.
With just the 2D Avatar Builder, we were able to grow to over 20,000 users in a really short time. We recently launched a Scene Creator, where you can build a scene from a library of background, props, creatures, and, of course, your avatars. You can add speech bubbles and other effects to tell a visual story. By May you’ll be able to export those scenes as webcomics.
We’re also working on a feature that will allow you to do live streaming using an animated avatar in place of your image. So, if you want to create a YouTube video or stream on Twitch, you can do that like a dragon person, a glamorous rockstar, or whatever you can think of!
We have a clear path forward and clear milestones along the way. As long as we continue to collaborate as a team, listen to users, and create an amazing product, we’ll be successful.
And if we’re successful, we’ll have changed the world.