What Dad's No-Video Games Rule Taught This CEO About the Ad Business

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Growing up, Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro and his father bonded over a household rule many kids today would find utterly painful: No video games... unless you build them yourself.

Stephen Shapiro and Aaron Shapiro
Stephen Shapiro and Aaron Shapiro Credit: Stephen Shapiro

Shapiro's father Steve was formerly a professor of electrical engineering at Stony Brook University and a researcher studying artificial intelligence and pattern recognition. Those concepts were still early then, but they've become big business areas for Huge, a digital shop that's part of Interpublic Group of Cos.

Steve Shapiro had a strict no-screen rule for the kids — unless it was his IBM Personal Computer XT.

"Even when I was growing up, my parents were [some] of the last people to get TVs," said the elder Shapiro. "And by the time [he and his wife Terry] had children at home ... we saw kids glued to the TV set."

So when Aaron asked for video games, Steve urged him to learn how to make his own. And he did.

Aaron recalls his father "always imbued in me a strong culture ... about the power of technology and how that can make an impact in people's lives along with this major ethos around creating things and building stuff."

Aaron began learning to code around age 9, and eventually worked up to riffing on Asteroid Blaster and the classic business simulation game Lemonade Stand.

But what Aaron said he remembers most is the make-it-yourself mentality his father taught him by urging him to build instead of buy. "Huge never once had an acquisition; We've only grown organically," he said. "The value of when you build something from scratch that's your own — it really helps strengthen the culture and it's something that really makes something foundationally much stronger because it's really genuine to who you are as a person, and what the organization really is."

Steve's research background also helped inform how Aaron approached Huge. As a scientist, said Aaron, "you're constantly creating, experimenting, re-learning, testing, evolving. That method is a very similar kind of thing to what we do at Huge."

Today, Aaron and Steve are reading a mammoth artificial intelligence textbook called "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach" — a father-son book club for a work that probably garners far more readers when it's mandatory college coursework.

Sam (9), Benjamin (7) and Alex (4) Shapiro
Sam (9), Benjamin (7) and Alex (4) Shapiro Credit: Stephen Shapiro

"A lot of the beginning of the book is exactly stuff that I actually lived through," Steve said, noting that despite the book's lengthiness, it's been "tremendous fun reading this." The two began devouring it about two months ago and regularly check in to chat about the subjects in the book.

Today, Aaron has sons of his own, ages 9, 7 and 4. His oldest, Sam, has recently taken to programming and tinkering around on his own website.

Though many kids are obsessed with playing Angry Birds on their parents' phones, Aaron's own household is also screenless unless his children are using a laptop to code.

Of course, not every kid is going to appreciate the DIY rule.

When the kids beg for phone games, "My answer is, 'Start programming and make it yourself. Then you can play it all the time.'" Like father, like son.

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