I met Matt a little over 6 months ago after reading some of the revealing and personal stories he shared about his journey as a founder. The more that I’ve gotten to know Matt, the more I’ve realized that he is one of the most interesting folks in the startup world. Before he co-founded Dishcraft Robotics, Guerrilla Capital or his current company, Transform, he was an EMT in South Central LA, a hotshot forrest firefighter, a paramedic in NYC and an award winning journalist. He is someone who as Thoreau once said has “gone to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I’m thrilled that I could bring you this short interview with him.
(If you’re interested in what Matt is doing these days, he is currently looking to hire a Chief of Staff. IMO, this is an amazing opportunity to learn from Matt and get in early at a company with world shifting potentials details here)
1) Dishcraft Robotics, Guerilla Capital and now Transform. All very different businesses, how do you pick a new business idea to which you’re willing to dedicate yourself?
I had been thinking about launching a new venture firm with a pretty radical idea for building something truly scalable. Ultimately I decided to pause that opportunity. VC is super competitive and I wasn’t in a place to build out the platform I wanted at the time. That firm was going to be Guerrilla Capital, so for now, Guerrilla is just the name I give to my small angel investment budget.
One of my angel investments was in a company called notevil.ai and they were tackling deep fake detection. The founder, Yousif, and I were working very closely together and in fact had launched a company called Work Vacay that was a combination of We-Work and luxury Tahoe cabin life. Working together on notevil.ai and Work Vacay we became convinced we wanted to build a real scalable business together but for various reasons notevil.ai wasn’t going to be it. We ended up listing out 18 different business ideas and rated each on a variety of factors, market risk, financing risk, engineering/science risk and “give a fuck factors” with that last one being most heavily weighted. One of our ideas was income insurance for government workers, this was right around the time of one of the last government shut downs.
On the day before “decision day” I asked if there were any other ideas to add to the list and one that came up was combining deep fakes with video chat. Basically enabling people to be their best selves whenever they want. It was just one among many ideas though until we had a discussion with Shaun, Yousif’s dad who had a lot of experience in the space. Out of the blue I asked him “what if we send facial markers during a video call but have the recipient’s phone do all of the processing to turn it back into the original person, would that save bandwidth?” Shaun thought about it for a second and said “yeah, I think we could save 99%-99.99%”. At that point I started jumping up and down and making squeally sounds. I had worked at AWS and knew how big of a problem bandwidth and server side infrastructure was for video chat. In that moment I realized the world changing opportunity we were on the cusp of. We have a real advantage in the space as most people working on this technology at the time were either academics, weirdos, criminals or nation states but we were product guys with the right background. I realized pretty quickly this was our opportunity to build something that wasn’t just cool but was impactful. I remember thinking that this must be how Travis Kalanick felt when they first saw how people responded to UBER.
2) If you were starting a new venture firm today, what would you do?
Part of my journalism career was as an intern at Fox News. One of the things I picked up from that experience was how powerful the visual storytelling medium was. At Fox, you didn’t need to hear or read anything but would still walk away connected to a story.
As an angel, one of the things I’ve realized is how bad some founders are at telling their story and doing it in a way that resonates with investors. I think one of my secret powers is as a storyteller and I’ve seen how powerful it can be when I sit down with a founder and literally go slide by slide with them re-writing their story in a more compelling way. If I were to launch Guerilla Capital, I would invest very early on in founders who are underdogs and have very compelling personal stories and who are solving challenges that the bottom 99% of society are facing. These conditions contain all of the elements of the traditional hero’s journey.
I would help them craft their stories but through documentary instead of traditional decks and share these visual stories broadly. Distribution is hard but once I get these stories out into the world and create an emotional bond between the viewers and the companies, we’d make it possible for the audience to invest. The audience can then be tapped for helping the startups. As I produce updates for each company, the founders could ask for help “We need an aerodynamics engineer” or “we need office space in Brooklyn” and then leverage the full power of the audience.
Guerilla capital would be very hard to pull off but if we could get the flywheel moving, it would be a very powerful, fully scalable model for venture. A highly engaged audience becomes a highly engaged investor base becomes a highly engaged customer base and this in turn drives great founders to us for exposure and access to the audience.
You know Guerrilla warfare is all about winning the hearts and minds of the people, not dominating through strength of arms. Its the broader support of the community that makes Guerilla’s successful. Thats what I would build if I were to launch a firm today.
3) What do you think the Sandhill firms should do differently:
I think big VCs should set aside budget & create stealth entities (a la scout funds) by which GPs can angel invest in super early startups. These “relationship building checks” would avoid the VC signalling problem that plague traditional VC seed investing while also giving them earlier looks / access to companies.
In theory, scout funds are supposed to do this, but they don’t work out that way in practice.
4) What are the last 3 books you’ve read?
Range by David Epstein — about the value of generalists vs narrow specialists.
Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger — about building up Disney
Nobody’s Victim by Carrie Goldberg — about online harassment & the dark side of the internet
5) What is the one book you tell everyone they should read?
Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages by Carlotta Pérez — a dry but insanely insightful explanation of the patterns by which new technologies change economies, societies & the world.
Thanks to Matt for sharing his thoughts! As a bonus, here is the tweet/personal story he shared that got me interested in learning more about him in the first place. Enjoy!
Alex Cohen @anothercohenUnpopular opinion: being a startup employee is riskier than being a founder