Ask for forgiveness, not permission — It’s okay to break the rules. In fact, it’s our job as entrepreneurs to break all the rules and make our own. You think Mark Zuckerberg was a rule follower? Heck no! He’s currently in the process of asking for forgiveness from basically the entire world, but you have to admit he’s built Facebook into one of the biggest tech behemoths in modern history. For early stage founders, finding the most efficient, effective ways of doing things is imperative to your survival as a company.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Lim of On The Shelf.
Matt is a co-founder and CEO of On The Shelf, a platform helping people make safer, smarter decisions when it comes to grocery shopping in the age of COVID and beyond. Matt started his career in consulting before pivoting to help early stage startups improve their digital presence. He’s worked within a variety of industries ranging from retail and consumer packaged goods to technology. Matt graduated with a B.S. in Economics from Indiana University and is currently pursuing his MBA from Columbia University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thanks for having me! I started my career back in 2015 when I joined PwC as a consulting analyst fresh out of undergrad. I didn’t have a good grasp of what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted to work on interesting problems; consulting seemed the obvious choice given its transience and variety. After a few years, I felt as if I hadn’t grown as much as my peers in adjacent fields — sure, I had worked with clients in a multitude of different sectors, but I didn’t think I built any skills besides making pretty PowerPoint slides. There was also an element of restriction and bureaucracy that constantly weighed me down. I wanted something less “strategic” in nature and more “execution”.
I decided to head back to school to pursue an MBA, and it was in the classrooms of Columbia University where I discovered the startup scene. I started working for an early stage startup part time and fell in love with the lifestyle; this was the type of variety I was seeking! I wasn’t just making fluffy nonsense PowerPoint slides! I decided to dive into the deep end of the world of entrepreneurship and start On The Shelf alongside an amazing co-founder, and we’re swimming towards launching our first product in a few weeks.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Grocery shopping is not typically thought of as a disruptive concept, but COVID-19 sure is. Think about the last time you went shopping; was there a line to get into the store? Did you find everything you needed, like paper towels or disinfectants? Or perhaps you were confronted by an “anti-masker”? These are just a few of the many new problems that have surfaced as a result of COVID-19, and chances are we’ll be dealing with them for quite some time. Grocery shopping in and of itself is an experience, one that requires using all senses to feel good about purchasing each product. These days, consumers are too nervous about these uncertainties that they are foregoing trips to the store and instead turning to mediocre alternatives like online delivery. I say mediocre because online can’t replicate the sensation of picking up and feeling an apple or getting the right bunch of bananas; you’re depriving yourself of those sensory experiences.
Novel problems require novel solutions, and that’s where On The Shelf comes into play. We act as an information hub for concerned shoppers to stay up to date on relevant information concerning their local grocers. Information such as the availability of inventory, updated store policies, and more can be accessed easily in real-time. We also offer incentives for shoppers who make repeated trips to local grocers in order to help small businesses. On The Shelf eliminates all of the uncertainties of shopping in the age of COVID-19 and instills the confidence to physically shop in-store.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I tried starting a company with one of my close friends. Pro tip: don’t go into business with your friends unless they bring complementary skills to the table that you don’t have. I naively thought that our close personal relationship would translate into a great working relationship, and holy moly I was so wrong. My friend and I had similar skills, and when it came time to build parts of the company that neither of us knew how to do, we got stuck. I remember being so stressed out about the possibility of having to fire my friend that I couldn’t even talk with him outside of work. Luckily, we hadn’t invested much time and money into the venture, so we decided to shut everything down and thus save our friendship. Now, whenever any of my friends approach me about starting a business, I immediately shut them down and tell them to find a different bridge to burn. The team is such a critical component to the success of a startup, so make sure to think hard about the way you formulate one!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Can’t agree with you more about needing help along the journey. I’ve had a handful of amazing mentors that have kept me afloat; Andrew Esstman and Carly Bigi are two individuals who come to mind that have made significant impact on my professional development.
When I was still with PwC, I had the fortune of working with Andrew on a six-month project helping a client undergo a “large scale digital transformation”. In reality, we were there to babysit two business units and relay their requests and problems to the company’s IT team. We were understaffed, overworked, and in the middle of rural Georgia, so our best food option was the local Applebee’s. Needless to say, this was hands down the worst client interaction I had experienced. However, this was also the project where I learned the most, and I attribute that to Andrew’s mentorship. Andrew was an enabler, pushing me to develop my skills at every available opportunity. For example, he was technically responsible for leading and facilitating meetings with the heads of the two business units, but he would often push me to take charge of the client interactions. He gave me actionable, constructive feedback that I still frequently reflect upon. Andrew ultimately helped me cultivate my own personal style of leadership that I employ to this day.
Carly and I crossed paths at a networking event in late 2019, where she was invited to guest speak on a panel featuring professionals in the retail world. Carly is the founder and CEO of Laws of Motion, a womenswear startup that uses data science to create perfectly fitting clothing inclusive of all shapes and sizes. Serendipitous timing led to Carly hiring me as an intern, where she took me under her wing. She possesses so many qualities of a successful founder: intelligence, charisma, and pure enjoyment of turning “no, that’s impossible” into “we can do that better than anyone else”. When I was initially contemplating the concept that would later become On The Shelf, I was concerned with certain feasibility aspects. What if I didn’t get enough users? How could I get VCs to invest in me? These were questions that kept me up at night (and frankly still do sometimes), but Carly convinced me to adapt her mindset of breaking the impossible down to smaller, more achievable components. Instead of worrying about getting enough users, think about getting my first 10. Then 100. Then 1000. So on and so forth. I no longer accept “no, that’s impossible” as an answer, and I have Carly to thank for that.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
As you mentioned, disruption is typically associated with positive change, as it typically results in some net benefit (more time saved, money saved, etc.). However, sometimes those benefits come at a certain expense.
I think the fashion industry has seen some disruption in recent years, most notably with the introduction of Rent the Runway. Fashion has always been an ephemeral concept, with new clothes coming out every season. However, the wasteful disposal of clothing has led to the industry becoming one of the leading polluters in the world, forcing both businesses and consumers to rethink their habits. Rent the Runway capitalized on this at the right time, offering their novel rental clothing services allowing people to stay trendy without having to worry about waste.
Regarding a not-so-positive disruption, I personally think grocery delivery platforms like Instacart raise some concerns. Consumers sacrifice an important (and in my opinion sometimes necessary) experience for convenience. I’d like to analyze this from the perspective of both shoppers and grocers. For shoppers, you run the risk of not getting everything you request. Especially in recent times, shortages have resulted in deliveries with anywhere from 40–80% of requested items. Additionally, and maybe this is just something I care about more than the average shopper, you forego an important experience of holding products in your hands. For example, when I buy bananas, I look for certain bananas based on how ripe they look. With delivery services, you completely neglect this and are given products that may not meet your expectations. On the other hand, these services crowd out local, small businesses that can’t afford to compete on price with larger chains like Whole Foods. Smaller businesses compete on service and quality of goods, which can’t be experienced by the shopper on these platforms. So while this example of disruption gives us the benefit of not having to leave our apartments, we lose out on experience and quality.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Learning never ends — My grandfather used to be the principal of a school in Myanmar. Immigrating to the USA forced him to give that career up and instead find work in various forms of manual labor, yet he still strongly valued education and a sense of continued learning. He wanted to pass this trait onto me, saying that I should approach life with a never-ending sense of curiosity. Well 公公, you did it, now I spend hours getting lost in Wikipedia holes because even though I was originally curious about a specific type of tree, I now absolutely need to know the origin of the phrase “knock on wood”. In all seriousness, my grandpa’s words have significantly impacted the way I approach life. Take On The Shelf as an example; I’ve had limited professional experiences working with grocery stores, but the problem we’re solving is something I’m passionate about so I’ll learn anything and everything about the industry. Also for those curious, “knock on wood” comes from German folklore. People thought supernatural beings used to live in trees, and so “knocking on wood” would invoke them to aid whoever knocked on the tree. The more you know!
- “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” — While the original quote belongs to Maya Angelou, one of my previous managers used to offer this advice up all the time and it has resonated with me. I’ve noticed that this is especially true in the context of pitching. A few months ago, my co-founder and I had the opportunity to bring on a potential investor / advisor for On The Shelf, following an introductory pitch. Instead of beefing up a PowerPoint deck with our financial models, plans to exit and make billions of dollars, etc. we decided to take a more conversational approach. We knew he was an owner and operator of a few local supermarkets, which was perfect for our use cases. By listening to his concerns and learning more about his company, we were able showcase the fact that we genuinely cared about solving his and the rest of the industry’s problems with On The Shelf. There’s no way he would’ve remembered our PowerPoint presentation, but the fact that we made him feel confident in our ability as founders resulted in him joining our team.
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission — It’s okay to break the rules. In fact, it’s our job as entrepreneurs to break all the rules and make our own. You think Mark Zuckerberg was a rule follower? Heck no! He’s currently in the process of asking for forgiveness from basically the entire world, but you have to admit he’s built Facebook into one of the biggest tech behemoths in modern history. For early stage founders, finding the most efficient, effective ways of doing things is imperative to your survival as a company. As an example, On The Shelf requires a large number of users entering information in order to stay relevant and helpful. You better believe I’m doing everything I can to get those users, including putting up promotional fliers in grocery stores, which is against most store policies. Even if only a few people see those posters before they get taken down, those small numbers add up over time and will help grow our user base. Do anything and everything it takes (short of illegal activities) to ensure the survival of your company, even if it means having to apologize every now and then.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I’ve always had a passion for fashion, and I think there’s going to be a ton of innovation in the industry in the next decade due to the spotlight on eco-friendly alternatives. Given the opportunity, I want to work on something at the intersection of tech, fashion, and sustainability.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
When I became a design consultant, one of my first onboarding experiences was to watch Rory Sutherland’s TedxTalk on perspectives. He discusses one of the central themes of design thinking: approaching problem solving from various perspectives, including rational, logical frameworks as well as psychologically driven viewpoints. We called this “reframing the problem”. Prior to this, I had only thought about problem solving from a logical perspective (e.g., crunching numbers in Excel models, using data to derive conclusions, etc.). But these answers would often solve a symptom of the real issue at hand.
One of my favorite reframe stories has to do with a former colleague assigned to help a technology company downsize its customer service team in order to save costs. If you were to look at the financial models, you’d see that the customer service team was severely underperforming and costing the company a pretty large chunk of money in lost customers. Logically then, it would make sense to fire the worst of the group and try to recoup the costs. However, by reframing the problem and looking at it from the perspective of the customer service worker, the team noticed an issue that wasn’t captured by the financial models: their environment set them up for failure. A lack of the right tools, no accountability between managers and associates, and a downright boring office space was leading to unmotivated workers, which was the real problem that would be prevalent no matter how many associates you fire. By introducing a psychological component and looking at the problem from the lens of a new perspective (i.e. the customer service associate), we were able to provide the best long-term solution.
Highly recommend viewing the TedxTalk (link here), at least from 6:10–9:11 (my favorite part).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson
I love this quote. As an ex-boxer, I can personally say that getting punched in the mouth will make you forget what the word “plan” even means. In a less literal sense, I think this quote is extremely relevant to the startup community. It’s important to remain flexible in your endeavors, as there are so many unknowns that you won’t be able to account for. As an example, On The Shelf was originally envisioned to be a list management tool. We thought people would appreciate a planning tool that helps them track groceries to buy. We had built out an entire six-month roadmap with interesting features we thought our customers would enjoy and use. The “punch in the mouth” occurred when we started talking to customers; nobody wanted to use our app as they thought it wasn’t useful enough. However, by talking to more customers, we got a better sense of what would be useful, resulting in the current iteration of On The Shelf. I’ve learned that as an early stage founder, it’s important to roll with the punches; you can plan for what you think is going to happen, but once things go awry (and they will!), you have to lean into it and make adjustments in order to survive.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As an Asian American, I feel like our sense of community isn’t as strong as some of the other minority communities. COVID-19 brought a wave of anti-Asian sentiment, with over 2100 hate crimes taking place from March to June according to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. Across the globe, we’re seeing movements tackle several forms of injustice; from BLM, to Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, to Belarus’s protests against authoritarianism, people are banding together and standing up in one form or another. However, I don’t see the same sense of unity shared amongst Asian Americans, and I’ve even been subjected to racist remarks by Asians of different ethnicities. It’s my hope that we can form a similar sense of community to tackle broader issues of systemic racism against Asians in America.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!