Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Pierce, the founder, CEO, investor, and creative executive specializing in technology and media. He is currently the CEO of Versus Systems — creators of WINFINITE — a proprietary advertising platform that allows content providers to offer real-world prizes in their games and streaming media. Their patented technology is unlike anything else out there, incentivizing users inside games, shows and broadcasts with tangible prizes in real time. With over 20 years of experience, Pierce most recently founded OLabs, a joint-venture between Manatt and Originate that creates, funds, and develops technology companies (Versus is a portfolio company of OLabs). Previously, Pierce was Vice President of Strategy at Originate, working with early-stage technology companies. He has also worked at Warner Bros and the Boston Consulting Group, and is a Lecturer at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (“UCLA”) Anderson School of Management and in the Economics department at UCLA, where he teaches entrepreneurship. In addition, he has also spoken at many well-known conferences including SXSW, Digital Hollywood, Digital Entertainment World, and many others. He is a graduate of Stanford University and he earned his MBA from UCLA.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me, Carly.
The truth is I love good, engaging, stories. I love thinking about how we can use technology to tell stories more effectively, more personally, and in more entertaining ways. At its core, the intersection of technology and media has everything to do with how to make stories better — more engaging, more interactive, and more fun.
I have spent most of my career working in media and technology and I particularly enjoy starting new things — whether that’s creating new revenue streams for larger companies, a new technology incubator for established service providers, or an entirely new business aimed at making games more fun. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great people who can uncover new value.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
You never really get to the third thing on the list — and you need to embrace that early. You will never have the capital or the bandwidth to get to everything on the list of things that you need to do. Inevitably, as soon as you are finished with the first or second thing, assuming you are able to finish, there will be a new first thing — something that requires your full attention right away.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
To the extent that we’ve succeeded, we’ve done so because we have a great team of curious, empathetic people who want to build great experiences for the people who use our products.
At Versus, we believe that every challenge is a collaborative challenge that we can take on together. We know that every solution needs to be tailored to the needs of a particular user — which means we really have to listen to our users. We try to be great teammates to our partners, and to one another. This starts with hiring the right people. Our team is built with thoughtful, curious, empathetic, voices from a variety of life experiences who want to be better tomorrow than we are today.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1) Know the market
Be an expert in the space, and/or find someone who can help you as soon as possible.
Founders sometimes dive headfirst into an unknown field where they perceive a problem, only to find out hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars later how the industry actually works. Entrepreneurship is about disrupting things, but it often helps to do so from a place of deep knowledge. Either build up that knowledge yourself or bring it onto the team as soon as possible.
2) Know your team
This isn’t just about the people you intend to hire — it’s about consciously filling the room with different voices who can and will offer real, honest, critical feedback when necessary, in addition to the support that you will need. No one starts a company alone — or at least, they shouldn’t. Be aware of who your team is — the more varied — in education, in professional, and life experience — the more honest, and the more supportive, the better. You’ll need them.
3) Know your product
You need a real, clear value proposition that will make true evangelists of some segment of the market. You need people who love your product so much that they tell their friends. It can’t just be the terrible thing that’s already in market, plus one. You need to know what’s going to make it truly great from day one. Building things is hard, and execution is what will ultimately separate you from the competition, but you need to be able to speak to the core value of the vision from day one.
4) Know where to get capital
No one likes to talk about this because we want the early stage company scene to be a meritocracy, but it’s not. You will be much better off if you can access capital. Now not all companies need VC money — and for many that type of risk-return profile isn’t appropriate anyway — but almost everyone will need to access some kind of outside capital. Knowing where to get money — debt, equity, lines of credit, loans, etc. are all on the table — is a critical part of success.
If you are in the market for startup capital, make sure you research not just the fund that you’re looking at, but the individual investor. Know what they like to see in an investment — what industries they invest in and why. Have a reason why you’re going to them in particular. The financiers can be your biggest allies.
5) Know that you don’t know everything
None of this is static knowledge — markets, teams, products, financing — all of it can and will change. It isn’t just about where the market is, but where it’s going, and how it changes over time. You’ll need to actively go out and talk to people in the real world a lot — and you’ll have to listen. You need to be humble enough to seek advice constantly and take it when it’s appropriate. Iconoclast founders are part of the entrepreneur mythology but more often than not, the winners are the ones who can listen and improve with every step. The real test is if you are hiring people who are smarter and better than you, and then listening to them for their expertise.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Read widely — not just business books or twitter feeds. Read science fiction and short stories and poems and comics and graphic novels. Play board games. Spend time with your kids. Take an art class. Watch Crash Course. Buy a bike. Ride it. Spend more time with the ones you love.
Your brain isn’t designed to think on the same problems all the time. The best solutions will appear to come out of nowhere when you’re on your bike or in the shower or playing Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a reason for that. You’ll make more effective cognitive leaps when you have broader exposure, when you have more touchstones, and when you’re rested. Plus, you’ll be kinder, more empathetic, and more present.
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?
Magdalena Sandoval, my wife, is the best possible teammate for me. I have had the incredible privilege of having supportive relationships throughout my life from my parents and my sister to my friends, classmates, teammates, and colleagues, but there is no one who supports me, encourages me, challenges me, and helps me to find lost things better than Maggie does.
The most transformative realization of my life was discovering that it isn’t necessary to try to fix or heal or save the people that I’m in relationships with. I should be kind, always, but that’s not the same thing. My relationship with Maggie allows me to be a better version of me. I can seek higher risk-reward at work because I am 100% safe at home.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
While I am proud that Versus has been named one of the best places for women to work, I think that it is critical that we do our best to hire, promote, and empower more women and people who are not usually represented in tech, gaming, and venture. Diversity is an important part of our values at Versus because it makes our products better. We can always do a better job, not just of having our team be more representative of our users, but of being a source of support for women and people of color in tech.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I would hope that my kids, my students, my friends, and all the people I’ve worked with would do their best to be empathetic, curious, and engaged members of their communities. I hope that they resist simple, easy explanations — understanding that the world is complex and that real truth tends to resist simplicity. I hope they embrace people and perspectives that are different because even when new things and new views are hard to hear, they’re worth hearing. People who actively challenge you and your views are a gift to growth. Complexity make us better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
While there are many pressing issues from climate to the integrity of democratic institutions, I think there is a need to expand how we teach critical thinking and storytelling — specifically, I think we need to be better as a society at being able to determine truth from falsehood and we also need to be better at articulating positions using facts. While it is true that there is rarely a single, simple, answer to any major question, facts do exist. I worry that there are a shocking number of ways to obfuscate and confuse and attack — and that all of these things can be aided by technology — but that we as a citizenry aren’t as good as we should be at parsing truth from non-truth. My concern isn’t that we will be persuaded that non-truth is real (although that is extremely concerning) but that there is no such thing as truth, or that the idea of truth is subjective or worse, meaningless.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am @matthewdpierce on twitter, but I am not especially active. Feel free to check in on Versus Systems (www.versussystems.com) for all the relevant updates.