How Actors Zach Avery & Phil Haus, Thrive and Succeed As Celebrity Turned Entrepreneurs With Ming Zhao
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, understand your own strengths and weaknesses, strive to be better, learn how to say no, and learn not to trust everyone with a “good idea”.
I had the pleasure to interview Zach Avery and Phil Haus. Zach Avery is an actor, known for participating in movies like Fury (2014), Curvature (2017), Farming (2018), The White Crow (2018).
Phil Haus is an actor and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. Haus is best known as the co-founder of Pheed, a social networking app. Haus appeared in a leading role in Diego Hallivis Game Time (2011), TV Series Punk’d (2012) and Comedy Central Series Onion Sportsdome (2011).
LayJax Ventures is an early-stage fund founded by Zach Avery & Phil Haus. LayJax invests in companies across multiple sectors, primarily Consumer & Technology. It employs a ‘founder-first’ philosophy for its investment approach and is fueled by the belief that the ingredients for a successful founder or founding team consist of a rare balance of artistry, business acumen and maniacal work ethic. LayJax leverages its unique network and skill-sets to help its portfolio companies scale during their most important growth stages.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Zach and Phil! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better.
PH: Our pleasure, thanks.
ZA: Great to be here.
Can you share with us the backstory of how you came upon this career path and to where you are today?
PH: We met several years ago through our now close friends the Hallivis Brothers (Julio & Diego Hallivis), a talented director/producer duo. Zach and I had both worked on films with them and became buddies via their introduction.
ZA: I think both Phil and I can say we came upon this career path with a few strokes of luck, good timing, surrounding ourselves with the right people, and of course also enduring many bruises and hard lessons learned along the way. I had my first financial success when I graduated college and was living in Chicago. I partnered up with a few buddies and we were able to raise enough money to open up a health food restaurant concept in a city that we thought would be receptive to it, which it was. The business was doing well, but ultimately my heart was not in hospitality — I knew I wanted to be an actor, and it became very clear that in order to have any real shot at it, I had to be in Los Angeles. I sold my equity stake, moved to LA with my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) and began investing small amounts here and there alongside the guidance of some trusted friends that were experienced investors and whom I believed knew what they were doing. Luckily, they did know what they were doing, and a few of those small investments grew into a lot more — Not all of them though, definitely took some “L’s” too. At the same time, I began working with an acting coach, eventually linked with a good manager, and started going out on auditions.
Los Angeles was quickly becoming a hotspot for start-ups and innovation, trickling down from the madness in Silicon Valley, and had just been starting to be dubbed as ’Silicon Beach’. Companies like Snapchat, YouTube and BuzzFeed were planting big footprints here, and it seemed clear it was just the beginning of LA being taken seriously as a stomping ground for tech and startups. Having spent some memorable times at the Pheed House with Phil and his team, which I’ll let him elaborate on further, there was an entrepreneurial creative energy building up that was inspiring, and something I knew I wanted to be a part of in addition to my career path as an actor. With a few wins under my belt, I began making some small bets investing in the startup space. One thing I’ve learned as an investor is patience is an important element to be mindful of, so while I slowly navigated my financial moves, I was pursuing acting at full speed — going on hundreds of auditions, receiving hundreds of “No’s”. You don’t make it in this business with thin skin, any business for that matter, but entertainment in particular. I got used to rejection, and instead of taking the “No’s” personally, I used them as fuel to get better at my craft and improve my approach. Thankfully, I finally got to add some “Yeses” to the mix and have been able to play some great roles alongside actors that I admire, have learned from, and have had a blast working with.
PH: When Zach and I first met, I had pivoted a bit from pursuing acting (and bartending) as my means of income. I met a tech investor and entrepreneur named O.D. Kobo through a mutual friend. Kobo had created a technology that was truly inspiring, he was the first to develop pay-per-view capabilities on mobile. I saw an opportunity to help build and scale it in an impactful way and he asked me to join as co-founder. Together we hatched what would eventually become the social networking app Pheed, which launched in 2012. I opened up the Pheed House — a creative hub for artists and creators in Beverly Hills. This was before Vine, before the era of the “digital influencer” and pre-Instagram video. We built a skate ramp in the backyard with the help of pro skaters Paul Rodriguez and Stevie Williams and created somewhat of an oasis for all things creative. We were lucky to have garnered support from artists like Snoop Dogg, The Game and Miley Cyrus, as well as millions of users. Four months after its launch, Pheed became the #1 downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play Stores, ahead of Facebook and Twitter;it was eventually acquired in 2014 after just 18 months of operation by America Movil. While I was out in Israel for the negotiation of Pheed’s acquisition, I co-founded the ‘Yo’ app, something that was meant to be a joke at first, but hilariously and unexpectedly became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon.
After the surreal experience of ‘Yo’ being taken as seriously as it was — even receiving substantial investments from the likes of Marc Andreessen and Morgan Stanley economist Joachim Fels, I wanted to make sure I kept one foot in the ‘real world’. I began learning the ropes of commercial leasing at CBRE with a focus on tech, venture capital, startups and media. With that skillset I’ve gained valuable insight into effectively scaling companies at all growth stages and am still active in that sector today. Zach and I, both having gone through our own entrepreneurial successes and heartbreaks, shared similar investment philosophies pertaining to the rare qualities required in order for a founder (or founding team) to bring a company from the grueling early stages of the startup grind all the way through profitability or exit. We started investing in later-stage opportunities via SPV’s, but eventually concluded our real passion lies in getting involved at the earliest stages — where we could add the most value from our shared experiences and unique personal networks. This timing coincided with the births of my daughter Layla and Zach’s son Jax, who were born 2 days apart in 2017, and thus LayJax Ventures was born with them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
PH: A long time ago, when I was (admittedly) a ‘frat boy’ sophomore at Duke, I randomly met Ashton Kutcher while on a vacation, we shared some fun times and remained buddies through the years. I’ve always looked up to him like a big brother and he has been a true friend to me. When I was considering moving out to LA, he let me crash at his place for a while and showed me around. All that stuff people see about him being ridiculously smart, sharp-witted, good-hearted and funny — he’s actually like that — at times it’s unbelievable to be honest. Just through the example of the life he leads, he has fundamentally expanded my own conception of what’s possible and desire to be the sharpest possible version of myself, both personally and professionally. I will always be grateful for his friendship and aspire to affect a fraction of change for the better that he has in his own path.
ZA: Man — I am grateful for so many people who have helped me along the way, but one that left an indelible mark was my stepdad, Bob, who unfortunately has passed. He taught me the value of surrounding yourself with people who elevate your thinking and challenge you to be a better person; the importance of letting your accomplishments speak for themselves rather than being a spokesperson for them. The notion that no matter how busy life gets on the professional side there is no excuse for not making real time for the ones you love. Oftentimes people, particularly successful ones, use career and work demands as a veil to circumvent the inevitable difficulties that come with close relationships. In reality though, that’s the easy way out. Bob was always adamant that the difficult or uncomfortable route is usually the one that will bring you the most fulfillment in the long run. A quality work/life balance far exceeds what may seem absolutely pressing in the moment. He lived by the golden rule. Lastly, I remember him always reminding me of the necessity to stop and smell the roses sometimes because this life is special but can be fleeting, and we all need to remember to enjoy it. Simply put — I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am if he had not come into my life. The best way we can honor the people who’ve made such memorable impacts on us is by perpetuating their legacy through our own actions.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
ZA: When I was trying to navigate as an actor fresh to Los Angeles, it was a very different landscape than it is today. Online submissions of auditions were just becoming a thing, YouTube was in its relatively nascent stages, there was no ‘verified on Instagram’ or easy way to just tap and submit an HD audition on your iPhone. You come out here and there is no “right” way to do things. You try and find a manager or agent, you try and scrape whatever footage you can get from a student film here or small indie role there for a reel, but it’s not easy. I met a guy who called himself a manager, was convincing, and probably was a legit manager at some point. He lined up an audition that required me to go on tape, I was excited, it was my first legit audition. At that point in time I was admittedly not talented enough, I had literally just gotten to LA, had only done theatre before then, and was not familiar with the concept of “over-acting”. The manager recorded the audition and submitted it via his YouTube channel. I never got to see it before he submitted it…. The audition was awful, I couldn’t believe how bad, to be honest; and it was on his YouTube channel. Then, soon after that, he literally just disappeared — to this day I have no idea what happened to him. I tried emailing and calling him, I wanted to get the video off of his YouTube channel, but it’s still up there. I’ve flagged it, emailed YouTube support, no dice, that f*cking video will be probably be up there till the end of time. There I learned the very important lesson that these days, you need to be mindful of what you put out there for the world to see, as well as who controls that content. I will never make that mistake again.
PH: When I was starting out with Pheed, I was a relatively green entrepreneur. With the fast success we were experiencing, prospective suitors for acquisition circling and all the headlines in major publications that Pheed was receiving, I found myself in rooms with VC’s, entrepreneurs, journalists, influencers and seasoned businesspeople. At times, the quick success got to my head a bit. I mean — ‘The Social Network’ movie was still fresh in the ‘culture’ and I may have caught a bit of that ‘buzz’ in the ether — acted like I knew more about certain topics than I did, and ultimately probably said some stupid shit to some very smart people. I chuckle at it now, chalk it up as one of many lessons learned, but one thing that I try to employ today is keeping my mouth shut when I don’t know what I’m talking about. To be honest, I think I lot of people could benefit from a dose of that reality. By no means am I saying I’ve perfected that art, but it’s a truth I’ve certainly realized and taken to heart. I often encounter the same sort of trait from the other side of the table today as a VC, especially when speaking with first time founders; and while I have empathy for their position, it’s ultimately one of the main warning flags I look for that would make me pass on a prospective investment.
As celebrities, you have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. In fact, perhaps most people who tried to follow a career path like yours did not succeed. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but know that their dreams may be dashed?
ZA: Don’t be fooled — what you see when you finally do see people reach success, in any field, is the tail end of a grueling, relentless, heart-wrenching grind. You don’t see the rejections, the fails, the fights, the embarrassments, the tears, the wrong decisions. That is something that many people fall for — the illusion of the short cut — the “quick success”. I’m not going to wax poetic about it here, there’s already enough Gary Vee’s out there shouting everything you’re doing wrong and what you need to do better; but there’s also a reason why there is somewhat of a uniformity when it comes to the advice that many accomplished people dole out. I’m convinced you have to be a little crazy to endure and navigate anything entrepreneurial to fruition — crazy can be amazing and it can also be tragic, that relies on a combination of work ethic, luck and timing. There may be the exception every now and then — someone who skyrockets to the top — but from my vantage point, even those people are eventually forced to face their faults, shortcomings and reactive tendencies. Where there’s a will there’s a way, there’s a reason that’s a cliché phrase — because it rings true — it just may unfold in a different way than you’d initially envisioned. If you truly love something though, you find a way to keep running towards it, period.
PH: I’m no celebrity by any means, although please believe you will be seeing me down the line as a supporting character actor; but what I had initially envisioned as my path changed dramatically when I was not getting the caliber of roles that I wanted after (like Zach) going on hundreds of auditions, spending years in acting classes after college, and at the same time wanting to build a family with my amazing wife — wanting to forge a lifestyle that would best provide for my family. I didn’t land the types of roles that Zach had…so I pivoted. My path changed with my first experience as an entrepreneur; my long-term goals of being an actor had to factor in the reality that in order to achieve what I viewed as my dreams and aspirations, I needed to be smart about how I spent my time. My advice is that no matter where you are in your pursuits — time — specifically how you choose to spend your time, can be your most rewarding commodity, or your biggest enemy and source for regret. Luck will certainly factor in, but chance favors the well prepared. Life is (God willing) a long game, and I believe it’s a facade that we can’t put certain things on hold in order to secure a stronger foundation for them down the line. I love what I do now, and while Zach is establishing a strong presence in entertainment, we’re both building something in LayJax that we love and hope will be able provide us, our families, and the incredible founders that we’ve partnered with, success in longevity. Whatever your idea of success is, it will always continue to shift. I believe that’s something entrepreneurs, who all encompass the ‘crazy trait’ that Zach just mentioned, experience — whenever we achieve a goal, our mind is no longer satisfied, it’s expanding, asking “ok, so what’s next?” Success in longevity can’t be defined by any milestone, it’s an evolving journey — the pursuit of happiness.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. You have been successful as both a celebrity and an entrepreneur. Most celebrities don’t make that transition successfully. We’d love to learn your secret. How do you do both?
PH: I’ll defer to Z on this one.
ZA: Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, understand your own strengths and weaknesses, strive to be better, learn how to say no, and learn not to trust everyone with a “good idea”.
In my work, I focus on how one can thrive and care for oneself in three areas: body, mind, and heart. You are a busy leader with a demanding schedule, can you share with our readers two self-care routines, practices or treatments that help your body thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.
PH: First, do more yoga. I’ve had back issues for years from old sports injuries. I realized that when the back pain gets worse, it’s because I didn’t put aside at least 15-min every day to give it the proper attention. When your schedule gets so busy it’s easy to let certain things that seem non-essential fall to the back burner — but suddenly, those things become the back burner (dad joke, I’m a dad though). Your body is an instrument and needs to be tuned; even a tuned guitar that’s left idle for a bit will require a tune when it’s picked up the next time. Second, rest is a weapon. I wish I was a bit better at maneuvering that weapon, I’m still trying to figure that one out, but I’ve read enough articles and listened to enough podcasts to be resolute on the fact that there is nothing more important than fitting in at least 6 hours of sleep every day. All these years I used to pride myself on being able to be ‘high-functioning’ on 3–4 hours of sleep, come to find out there are direct correlations with lack of sleep to heart issues and Alzheimer’s. Easier said than done though, that’s for sure; it’s something I’m definitely still working on but a novice at.
ZA: Sweat. Every day I make sure to fit in some sort of activity that gets a good sweat going, no excuses. Whether that be running, rowing, circuit training, pickup basketball, hiking — whatever it is that gets me moving, blood flowing and feeling more alive; I find this to be a critical component for balancing my days and working toward a goal of long-term health and wellness. It’s like watering a plant in a garden: you don’t see the benefits from one day of watering, you don’t even see the results after a couple weeks, or a month of watering for that matter. But day by day, month by month, if you keep the water coming — commit to sustained nourishment — your garden will thrive. Second, my diet. My motto when it comes to food has always been “garbage in equals garbage out.” Just entertaining this mantra makes it easier to transform the thought of too much sugar or too many carbs to be unappetizing, and to perceive a fresh, cool, crunchy vegetable the same way I used to view a piece of candy. Thoughts are powerful, but it doesn’t just happen overnight. That said, I think it’s also important to let yourself get a ‘cheat day’ in every now and then — stop and smell the roses — then keep pushing. I try to eat a balanced, whole food diet as much as possible, it has become a central pillar for ensuring that my mind and body are firing on all cylinders.
Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
ZA: Anyone living in LA would be insane to not take advantage of the hiking and outdoor opportunities that we have at our fingertips. I love being able to take my son Jax on my back and go for a hike with my wife and our Rottweiler Lucy. There’s something about looking down over the expansive and sprawling city that is one of my favorite ways to refuel, recharge and help my mind thrive.
PH: The best way for me to help my mind thrive is get to the ocean. I believe saltwater is the ultimate healer and try to get in water as much as possible. I’m pretty sure my dad is part fish, because for as long as I can remember, no matter how cold it was, if there was saltwater, he would be in it and would encourage me to do the same. Now it’s wired in me and there’s nothing that recharges me like a dunk in the ocean.
Can you share with us two routines that you partake in to help your heart or spiritual side to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
ZA: My mind feels like it’s always racing, I have a difficult time sitting still. One of the more fulfilling, challenging and spiritual routines I’ve tried to incorporate into my life is 10–15 minutes of meditation each day. I can already feel the ‘eye rolls’ from readers, as it seems everyone is spouting about meditation these days, but I think that’s because the increased pace of life in general continues to ramp up with new tech and everything becoming conveniently personalized; meditation intuitively feels like the best counter balancing tool to address those very real factors.
PH: Every morning I start my day with a cold shower, as cold as it can go. I know that sounds bananas, but this routine has helped me physically and spiritually. I’m faced with a decision each day, still half asleep, the last place I want to be is out of bed: turn the shower handle all the way to get the hot water, or only slightly and take on the freeze — consciously stand there and endure temporary discomfort for a sustained burst of energy. I choose the latter every time and it’s better than coffee. I also haven’t gotten sick since I started this practice, my guess is because I’m exposing myself to a jolt of cold each morning, conditioning, but I’m no Wim Hof by any means. This mind game though — of choosing the difficult of two options — is a how I prefer to start my day, literally and figuratively.
When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services that you absolutely cannot live without?
PH: Besides yoga, which I already touched on as a wellness practice that’s become essential to my livelihood, one of our LayJax portfolio companies ‘Dream Pops’ is a favorite product that checks off all the boxes for me, couldn’t live without them. I also love ‘Elements drinks’, easy to just add to water.
ZA: Past the daily sweat that I touched on above — I am going to have to mirror Phil on this one and say Elements Drinks — highly quality adaptogen product that is effective for anywhere your schedule may take you; keeps you healthy and energized when you have to push through those long days/nights while staying on you’re A-Game, without the caffeine overload.
All of us have great days and bad days. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?
ZA: There is no place I’d rather be than on a film set, working on a project that has substance and a challenge. If I can do that and also spend quality time with my wife and son, that’s what a ‘great day’ looks like for me.
PH: A great day for me is where I get a workout in early, have a chance to spend time on something creatively fulfilling, hang out with my friends, and spend time with my family. It’s often difficult to pack all that in one day, but if all those ingredients aligned, that would be my ‘best day’.
In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?
ZA: I try not to fall victim to feeling down. Feeling down is a choice, taking stock of how you entertain and apply attention to your thoughts can be a worthwhile exercise. That said, we all get smacked in the face by life sometimes, but even in the worst moments I try to keep in mind all the things I’m grateful for and look toward the future rather than dwell in the moment.
PH: I subscribe to a similar approach to what Zach just mentioned when it comes to ‘feeling down’. If I’m feeling down it usually means my mind and body is somewhat idle, so I try to shift attention toward something that contributes to my well-being rather than give credence to a ‘victim’ mindset. If something particularly difficult occurs that’s not work-related, maybe I’ll add to the mix some sort of physical activity with a little bit of cannabis, this is California after all.
Is there a particular resource, a practitioner, expert, book, podcast that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?
ZA: I enjoy Armchair expert with Dax Shepard, I respect his journey as an artist and entertainer; but more so, his hunger for knowledge outside entertainment and his willingness to grow and learn from the experts that he interviews in other fields. Personally, there’s nothing I love more than having an informed conversation/debate about a topic that I care passionately about with someone who has a completely different perspective than I do. Dax often takes this approach on his podcast and has no interest in arguing with his guests; instead he aims toward truly understanding the other side of the coin and walking away with (at minimum) more insight into the topic than he had an hour prior. He dives deep into a plethora of subjects on his “expert on expert” episodes — I think a lot of people are already tuned into that one, but if you’re not it’s one I’d highly recommend.
PH: Joe Rogan’s podcast has added a lot of value to my life. I love the wide array of guests he brings on — doctors, experts, comedians, athletes. He gives them a long time, 2–3 hours, so the listener has an opportunity to understand and learn about them in a way they couldn’t do in any other form of media. In a world of soundbites and talking heads, I think the type of venue he’s created is the key to bridging divides and allowing people with conflicting perspectives to most effectively converse, or expose faults in certain arguments. It’s tough to maintain a bullshit stance or argument for 3 hours — that became clear when Joe had Candace Owens on the show, or recently when Chris Kresser got dismantled by James Wilks. Joe’s interviewing style brings out the best and worst of people in a fascinating way. Some of my favorite interviews with him are sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Ms. Pat, and anytime Joey Diaz or Andrew Santino are on. My favorite book is ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield.
Do you have a story about the strangest, most bizarre or funniest wellness treatment that you’ve ever experienced?
ZA: The full body cryotherapy was bizarre; definitely fun and invigorating, but being completely encapsulated in almost 300 degrees below zero for 2–3 minutes is a memorable ‘wellness treatment’.
PH: I’ve had two pedicures in my life, but one of them was the one where those little fish peck at your feet, that was gnarly.
You’re both high achieving creative authority and leaders, and yet, you may have family and loved ones that require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the high powered executive at the door, and become a loving caretaker at home?
ZA: My family is my greatest source of comfort and most powerful inspiration to be the best version of myself every day. It’s not difficult for me to necessarily switch to that “different side”, because they refresh me. That said, it’s not always easy to balance the two, the reality of my career is that I need to travel for extended periods when shooting, which can be difficult. Through navigating these waters with my wife, we’ve resolved on the fact that 2 weeks is the maximum we can be apart. So, if I need to fly them out to be with me if I’m shooting outside of LA, we find a way to make it happen. My wife Mallory is an amazing mother to Jax (and our other son on the way), and my best friend.
PH: Having people who know you more intimately than anyone else, and love you for you, is something that is an awesome gift, but it does come with a healthy dose of humility. It’s important to have a partner that can both challenge you when you’re not being the best that they know you can be, while still being the ultimate source of love, happiness and fulfillment — I’m lucky to have that with my wife Jess. She’s an incredible mom and an accomplished professional in her own right. I have tremendous appreciation for the joy that she, my daughter (and son on the way) bring to my life, they’re my biggest inspiration.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
ZA: Barack Obama. He “humanized” the presidency in a way that fascinated me the entire time he held office. To be able to dive into his experience during and especially post presidency would be high on my “breakfast bucket list”.
PH: Elon Musk. He’s a ‘once in a generation’ mind — the Einstein/Edison/Newton of our time. Although, he’s honestly my second choice, Obama would be my first too, but Zach’s already at breakfast with him.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
ZA: @zachavery on Instagram and Twitter.
PH: @phil_haus on Instagram and Twitter.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success in your great work!