Matt Richardson of Alltrue: “Be the customer”

Be the customer. Early on, you have to ask yourself if you and your friends would buy the product at the price point, and then you need to ask what would frustrate you about the product and the experience, and what would delight you about it. If you’re honest with yourself, this is the easiest, […]

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Be the customer. Early on, you have to ask yourself if you and your friends would buy the product at the price point, and then you need to ask what would frustrate you about the product and the experience, and what would delight you about it. If you’re honest with yourself, this is the easiest, most cost effective way to heat-check your product.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Richardson.

Matt Richardson is the Co-Founder and CEO of community-based company and leader in socially-conscious e-commerce, Alltrue. Matt leads the team that brings Alltrue’s community and ultimate lifestyle experience to life — supporting women globally through membership, valuable content, and environmentally-responsible products.

Matt and co-founder Brett McCollum launched the brand, formerly known as CAUSEBOX, in 2014. Under his leadership, Matt’s team curates a lifestyle membership working with over 400 brand partners to deliver the best in home, fashion, beauty, accessories, and more to over 300,000 members each season. In 2020, Matt and his team successfully employed nearly 5,000 artisans across full and part-time roles, producing 663,000 handmade products and paying artisans for 962,000 hours of fair wages.

In 2019, Matt was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs for helping thousands of artisans in countries including Kenya, Peru and India earn a living wage.

Matt graduated from Claremont McKenna College and enjoys adventuring outdoors in his spare time.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Thank you! I grew up in Silicon Valley, about 20 minutes south of San Francisco. The mythology about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is well documented, but I had never heard the word entrepreneur until sometime in college. All I thought about was basketball growing up. I spent every adolescent summer starting businesses of some sort, but I was simply designing my summers around my basketball schedule. I was obsessed with basketball so I needed a lot of flexibility, and it didn’t make sense to work for someone else.

I started where most people start, with a lemonade stand. I transitioned to merchandising the free section of craigslist, then moved onto selling and spreading garden mulch before building a little residential window washing empire with my close childhood friend and current co-founder, Brett. The two things I remember most about that period were: how much better I got at knocking on doors and soliciting business after doing it over and over again; and how good it felt to buy myself a burrito in between jobs.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I became a voracious reader during my sophomore year of college, and during that period I encountered Walden by Henry David Thoreau. As I was finishing the book I let my school know that I’d be leaving. I spent the next year hitchhiking around Eastern Europe and then South America, and lived out of a hammock and survived off of the hospitality of strangers. Thoreau’s thinking affected me profoundly and still does. There are several passages in that book that stirred me to action, but here is the one that comes first to mind: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” In the years since that adventure, I’ve maintained the same pursuit of a deep existence.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, ‘making a difference’ is a matter of how you move the world in one direction or another. In some small way, we are all making a difference, positively or negatively, and we are accountable for that movement. During the sojourn described above I met a man who showed me a painting he had been working on for 3 years. It was a kind of abstracted pointillism, consisting of over a million dots. He’d sit in his cramped living room every single night and spend an hour adding dots to the canvas. From afar the dots came together to make a snowflake. When I asked him what it meant, he said: “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.” I still think about that. Everyday we vote for the kind of world we want to live in with our actions and inactions, no matter how big or small. A snowflake can set off an avalanche.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Alltrue is a membership that sits at the intersection of conscious commerce, content, and community. Our mission is to make a socially conscious lifestyle more accessible, by creating content that makes it easier to discover the brands that are working hard to improve the world, and by selling their products affordably and conveniently. Our flagship product is our seasonal subscription box, consisting of a customizable curation of 6–8 products that span all lifestyle product categories. We also have a market where our members can purchase hundreds of sustainable and ethical products and essentials at amazing prices. We’re currently making significant investments in content, and in features that will bring our community of several hundred thousand members together, online and offline.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Prior to starting Alltrue, Brett and I had started another small social enterprise, a stationery business that was aiming to improve literacy in the developing world. We had a lot of heart, but we had no marketing budget. There were a lot of other companies like ours starting up — brands that were trying to do business in a better, more honest way, but we were all struggling to grow and have the kind of impact we aspired to have. So we built Alltrue as a platform to serve the brands we wanted to see thrive. The goal was to create a Superbowl-like moment for these kinds of brands, by concentrating a huge amount of content and distribution into a seasonal burst. The subscription box has been delivering this experience for brands, and we’re now building all kinds of other ways to tell important brand stories.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I’ve never had trouble taking initiative. But I have a different affliction that I’ve learned to manage, which I can offer some insights about. I have a few ‘Aha’ moments everyday. Too many ideas and too little time, to the point where it can be very distracting. I’ve watched this affliction really hurt other companies which start sprawling too soon and become unfocused. If you collect URLs, and have notebooks full of ideas, and you’re doing too much all at once, get a co-founder who is a grounded, pragmatic executor. I have one. Things at Alltrue would have spun out of control before they ever took flight if I didn’t have a co-founder who balanced out my strengths and weaknesses.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Building off my last point, there’s the classic Abraham Lincoln quote: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” I think first time founders should spend 2/3 of their time at the outset looking for the right person(s) to start their company with. The reality of solo founders is so far removed from my experience that it’s unfathomable. I appreciate it but don’t understand it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

We started the company out of the closet of a foreclosed bank, and we fulfilled the product out of a Public Storage unit. We hired a team from the craigslist gig section to help us package the product and prepare it for shipment. During one excruciating but exhilarating week, I slept on the floor of Brett’s apartment and we worked 22 hour days for a full week. Public Storage closed around 9pm, but we were falling far behind on fulfillment and we had a lot more product to ship. We taped a back door of the Public Storage complex so that it would look closed but couldn’t lock, and we snuck back in after-hours and set up a makeshift fulfillment center in the underground parking lot from the hours of 11pm to 4am. We packaged products with a few loyal craigslisters in this way until 4am for several consecutive days, and we delivered on time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

We always include a magazine in our seasonal boxes that tells the story of the products inside. At the beginning it was just a folding flyer — but that was a big deal at the time. I wrote the thing and worked with a designer on it, and I was very proud of it. When we started fulfilling our very first box, I was at the end of our assembly line making sure that every product was in the right place, and I’d put the product info flyer on top products and tape the boxes shut. After we’d gone through half of them, we took a break and ate some pizza. I read the flyer while I was eating and found a careless, glaring typo in the sub-header right on the front. I felt sick but we were a brand new startup — our members would have to give us a free pass. (The cost of replacement felt existential). As I was rationalizing the error, I opened the flyer and found no less than ten typos on the inside. I opened my laptop and discovered that I had sent an early draft of the file to the printer. The pizza party was over. We unpacked every box and removed every flyer and waited a week for the reprinted flyers to arrive. It was the pain of paying for this insert twice, when we had absolutely no money, that really killed me. It taught me something about having discipline at every stage of product development and production. I’ve since been accused of majoring in minors.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My dad. The early days were very challenging to navigate because we had no money. What money we did have at the start came from an investment he made in Brett and I, not in the business, which he didn’t understand. He spent a lot of time in the trenches helping us navigate some of the early challenges, helping us put things in perspective. I remember calling him when we reached a huge milestone that essentially meant we’d have to phase him out as a formal advisor to the company — it was a very bittersweet moment, but one that we’d both hoped we’d eventually reach.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We have been working closely with an Artisan cooperative in Jaipur, India since we first started, and have grown the team to more than 800 skilled workers. Recently we began working with an organization that helps people with impairments find employment, one of our recent hires was came to us through the organization. When he was a baby, he had an accident that injured his spine, causing nerve damage to one hand and one leg. His mother helped rehabilitate his hand with regular massages, however his leg remains damaged.

Before he joined our team, he had been working as a menswear tailor, but lost his job due to COVID-19. He told us he loved to sew, but because of his injury, he hadn’t yet been able to work with one of the foot-powered machines we use in our workshop, so we hired him onto our Quality Control team, away from the thread and needle.

One day, we found him sitting at one of the sewing machines during his lunch hour. He was trying to sew, but struggling to stitch a straight line as the machine was too powerful to control with his leg. But he was determined. Every day, he practiced, asking for pieces of fabric to try his skill on. After just 2 months of practicing, he was stitching masks. Now, on any given day, you can find him smiling at his sewing machine, creating the pouches we use as packaging for our artisan goods.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Read books and watch documentaries.

Assume that you could be wrong, and that you are almost certainly partially wrong.

Have civil, open-minded conversations with people who disagree with you.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

1. “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.” I came across this quote recently and I felt very seen. I think that no matter what someone tells you beforehand, it will be difficult to internalize the truth in this statement until you’re in the middle of it. Operating a company affects you very deeply, and it’s very hard. After a certain point, something new will make you want to quit every day, and that will compound very quickly. When you start, you really have to know why you’re starting a company, and it should be for a good reason, because you’ll need to remind yourself everyday. I generally think that the ‘Shark Tank effect’ has led to a glamorized idea of the reality that most founders live through — and there is a certain euphoria during the high points and successes, but you need to be ready for a roller coaster, and you need to be good at managing your own psychology.

2. Figure out how to make your unit economics scale in a programmatic way. If you don’t know how much it costs to acquire a customer, and you don’t know your customer lifetime value, and you haven’t worked out a predictive sense of how those things will evolve — you will have a hard time investing in dependable growth, and it will be hard to build your business. I also don’t think this should be outsourced, I think the founder needs to understand these things and the things that influence them. These variables will constantly change, but you need to work hard to figure them out, stabilize them, and constantly improve them.

3. Be the customer. Early on, you have to ask yourself if you and your friends would buy the product at the price point, and then you need to ask what would frustrate you about the product and the experience, and what would delight you about it. If you’re honest with yourself, this is the easiest, most cost effective way to heat-check your product. You’re usually more right than wrong, because understanding good value is pretty intuitive.

4. Segment your email list and collect phone numbers. Everyone waits too long to organize information about their customers or prospective customers. If you are diligent about setting this up early and optimizing it regularly, you’ll get compounding benefits over time.

5. Learn how to hedge your bets and investments in different product launches, forecasts, and big business decisions. I think that entrepreneurial risk taking is glamorized, and too little attention is paid to how often inventors are wrong. When you hedge your bets you can afford to be wrong more often, which means you can survive for longer, which is the name of the game. There is a science to hedging, and hedging comes from a place of humility, which in my experience, pays off over the long run. Learn how to think about hedging. You won’t be able to hedge everything, but you should hedge as many big decisions as you can — and after a hedged bet saves you, don’t forget it, because it will train a very advantageous instinct.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Go backpacking, go somewhere very, very remote and sleep under the stars for a week. It really makes it difficult not to care about the future of our planet.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Banksy. I think he is one of the great artists of our time on a few levels.

How can our readers follow you online?

Business: / @alltrue on Instagram

Personal: @mattryanrich on Instagram.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

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