Movies and Social Movements with Sysamone Phaphon of FilmHero

Annie Agle

We recently sat down with tech founder, Sysamone Phaphon of FilmHero (formerly Groupeezz). Raised in a small farm town in central California, Sysamone grew up as part of a large family of Laotian refugee immigrants displaced during the secret war in Laos. It wasn’t an easy childhood but helped shape her world views and entrepreneurial acumen:  

“We didn’t grow up rich or comfortable, but we all learned to hustle, survive and take care of each other.  Out of 16 kids, only 3 of us were able to attend college and I’m the only one who went on to achieve my graduate degree.  I came to the Bay Area for college 13+ years ago, and fell in love with the energy of area.”

A self-described “non-techie”, Sysamone jumped into the tech landscape at the encouragement of her younger brother, a sector acolyte. After dipping her toe in the waters of Silicon Valley, she dove right in, attending workshops, classes, meetups and networking events to gain the technical knowledge and professional circles needed to find an entry point as a founder. After gaining confidence, Sysamone founded FilmHero a film networking app for movie buffs, change agents, and creative folks of all stripes, which was based on an idea her younger brother had for creating a social platform for moviegoers. Like many startups, the idea ended up morphing into something different and more useful:

“Through the testing phase I soon realized there was a more important problem within the film industry that needed to be solved so I pivoted.”

FilmHero GATF Screening

As with most startups, understanding when to pivot is important and recently Sysamone realized this. FilmHero is transitioning into a consumer facing digital platform centered around filmmakers.  The platform will allow filmmakers to access a wide consumer base without going through the red tape of the movie business:

“FilmHero will provide the independent filmmaker a digital platform to distribute, monetize & license their film directly to consumer created movie groups, Independent theaters, film organizations & film communities.  In addition to the product, FilmHero provides screening coordination services for filmmakers’ screening events focused on sparking dialogue about controversial and social impact topics with a call to action through digital video campaigns.”

While FilmHero didn’t originally center on advancing social dialogue or progressive action, Sysamone came to realize the importance and potential of both film and audience-driven dialogue to support causes. This realization sparked a change in company culture that immediately incorporated creative Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partnerships into content production and events:

“Too many people in our society ignore certain issues because they don’t directly affect them, or it makes them uncomfortable. The stories that are ignored usually have controversial, political, or depressing elements that alienate citizens but present the perfect challenge to today’s content producers. Filmmakers have a way of capturing these stories beautifully through film and evoking just the right emotion from their audience to attend to see the film.”

By specifically supporting cause oriented films, Sysamone began to create a community of like-minded storytellers telling issue-based stories in emotionally accessibility ways:

“We want to curate film screening events that spark much needed dialogue and have a call to action. One of our ways of incorporating CSR is through partnerships with nonprofits and activists. By collaborating with one of our new partners, each one of our events and films provides a solution-oriented engagement component that pushes our consumers to support changemakers through the creation of digital campaigns.  We want more people to talk about the issues in the world and leverage media to be more than informational.”

Trumpland screening with Michael Moore

Despite being in its infancy, Sysamone has a provably viable model that taps into the capital-rich network of the movie industry:

“The major movie industry is a billion-dollar industry and the Independent film industry is a multi-million-dollar industry and growing.  There’s plenty of profit-focused consumers to target and acquire, there’s no rush here to attack and push to be a million-dollar company in our first year. Also let’s be honest, we are in the startup industry and turning a profit rarely happens in the first year. For 2016 we tested in both manners- paid and free screenings which both included a filmmaker Q&A and a call to action component.  We know we have the potential to bring in revenue, we validated that with our test screenings. Our pilot partnerships with our filmmakers alone grew our subscriber list by ~60% over two months and that growth was partly due to audience members wanting to continue to make an impact after attending one of our screenings. 

While courtesy of well-developed partnerships and refined program testing, FilmHero, has been off to a relatively rosy start, Sysamone, like most founders, struggles with lack of bandwidth and tight budgets. Most startup founders have an uncomfortable few years of boot-strapping on the lean business model, but Sysamone’s out-of-the-gates successes especially in terms of subscriber aggregation & strategic partnerships have helped her impress upon interested parties both the pain point and FilmHero’s ability to meet a consumer hunger for cause-based media that promotes active engagement as opposed to passive viewership. She also has begun to leverage her new position in the Silicon Valley tech space to encourage other women to take the path of entrepreneurship. 

She shares, “Empowering women and young girls is a personal goal I do daily. I run a meetup group for women to support other women and organize small scale intimate events in various tech spaces that facilitate an environment for women to collaborate, share their knowledge and resources so that we can all thrive and succeed in this industry together. Aside from organizing our own hosted events, we sponsor and promote other women in tech led events monthly.”


What is the best piece of advice you have received about building a startup?

My favorite – “Starting is easy but continuing when it gets challenging is the hard part. Most startups die when the founder is inflexible and gives up. You must be willing to pivot, change, adapt and continue to get up after every failure, multiple times until you create a product that works. Go into this journey knowing that overnight success usually takes about 3-5years.”

What do you hope to accomplish with FilmHero?

I’m hoping to accomplish meaningful success. I’m hoping that what we do brings entertainment & soul satisfaction to our consumers and partners.  Simultaneously making a profit & a social impact would be a great accomplishment.

What is always at the top of your mind when you wake up in the morning?

This is easy…my company. It’s on my mind every second of everyday. 

Filmmakers & Film enthusiasts, if you’re interested in testing the new FilmHero prototype please fill out the FilmHero applicationTo find out more about Sysamone and her FilmHero journey please connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter @phaphons

Photo credits: Darryl Paul Hofer & T.K. Miyazono

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Annie Written by:

Annie is strong believer in the power of community-based leaders and organizations. With a background in addressing cases of honor crimes, forced marriage, and gender-based crimes in conflict zones, she's passionate about empowering the lionhearted humanitarians risking it all in the trenches. She has also worked in the areas of social innovation, CSR investments, policy, and NPO/NGO consulting.

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