Don’t be afraid to fail. I sure wish someone had told me that no matter what I do, I’m going to fail at some point. A ball will get dropped. A client will be upset. An idea will fall flat. An employee will quit. You’ll need to fire someone. Your project will end up going sideways. Any one of these things are highly probable when you decide to run a business.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, deeply affecting the livelihoods of many, many people. But disruptions can also prove to be opportunities. Some individuals have viewed this unprecedented turn of events as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Ford.
Matthew Ford is an award-winning event producer, entrepreneur and the founder of Bonfires — a company that provides hands-on coaching, workshops, retreats and curriculum to help people create the life they want, one step at a time. His own life was interrupted when COVID-19 eliminated a million dollars of business in a single day. Seizing the moment it provided to stop chasing a dream he never wanted, Matthew now helps people interrupt their own lives to ask the question, “What am I made for?”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to get to know you better. Tell us a bit about your childhood and backstory.
Of course! I was raised in the metro Detroit area (no relation to the Ford family). I went to Southfield Christian School from K-12th grade and was very involved in all things sports, music, theater, church, etc.
I went off to college, only to realize that I wasn’t quite ready to get a degree. So, when the opportunity for me to work for a nonprofit in London, England, came my way, I jumped!
I worked overseas for two years and had the privilege of traveling the world from there. I eventually returned to Michigan, where I chipped away at my bachelor’s degree in music composition from Rochester College. When I graduated, it was 2008. There was nothing for me career-wise in Michigan, so I headed to Los Angeles with just 5,000 dollars, no job and no connections. My brother and I shared a one-bedroom apartment out there.
Would you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and share how it was relevant to you in your life?
“Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
This quote has inspired the work that I’m doing now. I truly believe that, for many of us, so much of life is spent striving to be something that everyone else wants us to be. In other words, we chase down a dream that was never ours. And when we finally get to that place and achieve that dream, we realize we never wanted it in the first place.
So, if we can stop and do the work of finding out who we’ve always been, we can discover our true calling and offer that as a gift to the world.
Is there a particular book, podcast or film that made a significant impact on you? Would you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The film Touching the Void is easily one of the most profound movies I’ve ever watched. I don’t want to give away too much if you’ve not seen it, but it’s the true story of one man’s miraculous survival in a life-and-death situation.
The main character’s profound ability to keep moving and make decisions in the midst of excruciating pain, and against seemingly impossible odds, has inspired me and my journey as an entrepreneur. Because of his persistence and will to survive, I’ve been able to apply a similar mindset to the way I approach business. To quote Joe (the main character), “You gotta make decisions. You gotta keep making decisions, even if they’re wrong decisions, you know. If you don’t make decisions, you’re stuffed.”
This mindset has helped me avoid the paralysis that can come from feeling overwhelmed by the many decisions you have to make as a business leader. It has also kept me moving forward, even if I occasionally have to take two steps back.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the pandemic began?
In 2009, I moved to California. Shortly after that, I got a job as a producer for an experiential marketing agency. It was there that I really developed my skills as a producer and leader in the industry. We worked with some of the largest entertainment brands in the world.
Call it the entrepreneurial bug, or call it lunacy, but I decided to jump ship in 2016 to start my own agency, called OA Experiential. We helped brands create once-in-a-lifetime experiences for their consumers, mostly at large cultural events (think San Diego Comic-Con, SXSW, Coachella, etc.).
We grew quickly — over 5 million dollars in revenue in just two years — and had a pretty incredible roster of clients, including NBC Universal, FX, Hulu, Fox, Harley Davidson, Adidas and Red Bull.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the pandemic?
If you want the truth, the pandemic forced me to realize that I never wanted to be in the industry I was in. It forced me to take a hard, deep look at myself and make some tough choices, which led to me laying down the business.
While we did lose 1 million dollars in revenue almost immediately due to our industry shutting down, I believe that eventually I would have ended up where I’m at today because my heart was never truly in it for the right reasons. It’s crazy what you’ll do when lots of money is involved!
Tell us about the specific “a-ha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path.
I’ve had various business coaches throughout my time as an entrepreneur. I believe they are imperative to growth, strategy and, most importantly, self-awareness. The coach I was working with when the pandemic started, strongly encouraged me to document what was happening as my business was slowly going down the toilet — and to write what was coming up for me. She said that if I found it helpful, I could potentially share it with others.
I took her suggestion to heart and began writing like crazy. As I wrote, I realized that I had the bones of a curriculum for people to work through. There was something about it for me that stood out as well…Most of it was inspired from my time outdoors. As someone who’s always been recharged by unplugging from the world, I felt like the name of the curriculum needed to reflect that. That’s when the epiphany happened.
I’ve always loved connecting with people around a fire, so I looked up the definition of “bonfire.” It sounds obvious, I know, but right there in black and white was the framework for my curriculum. It’s a fire used to burn the trash, to send a signal and to celebrate!
How are things going with this new initiative?
Things are slow but steady. We currently have 30 people going through our second “Beta” round of Bonfires. It’s all done virtually at the moment through Slack, weekly video content and a few Zoom calls. The Beta rounds have proven to be profoundly insightful and helpful for making Bonfires the best it can be. We anticipate offering the course again in April of this year.
As a way to bolster our presence and growth, we’ve also launched a one-day virtual workshop (in conjunction with Business Made Simple University) called Hero on a Mission, and we offer business coaching.
Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped you get where you are? Would you share a story about that?
My business coach, Christine Owenell, helped me discover the idea for Bonfires. However, my wife, Allison Fallon, truly pushed me and encouraged me to get this off the ground.
In April of 2020, Allison helped me create the space and time to write the curriculum. Not only did my wife encourage me to go for it, but because she’s an author and writer herself, she worked with me to make the writing stronger, clearer and more compelling. Without her, the Bonfires curriculum would not exist!
Can you share the most interesting thing that’s happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I think the most interesting thing has been the amount of work that I’ve ended up turning down in the past couple of months that would have kept me in experiential marketing.
I truly believe that when you set your intentions in a new direction and are laying down things of the past, your past is going to show up in the most appealing way possible to keep you in it. Since launching Bonfires, I’ve turned down close to 600K dollars in business because I knew that saying yes to the money also meant saying yes to a dream that was not my own. It was saying yes to making my family second. It was saying yes to a life I did not want. Sure, the money is appealing, but at what cost?
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization,” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ll never forget going through some very difficult passages when I was running OA Experiential. Because I was ashamed of some of those “problems,” I chose to try and deal with them on my own. What I ended up discovering was that as soon as I asked for help from some of my other friends who were running companies, I learned they too had experienced similar challenges and actually had a lot of insight to offer. Had I been willing to ask for help sooner, I could have felt less shame and wasted a lot less time on the problems at hand.
- Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. If you aren’t continuing to grow and develop as a leader and entrepreneur, then you can’t expect your team to grow and develop. Your team needs you at your best. I strongly advise coaching, therapy, a group of advisors, workshops, weekend trips to dream and plan…whatever it is that helps you be at your best. Make it your number-one priority!
- Don’t be afraid to say no. Someone once told me that those who are hard to attain, are hard to maintain. If there is a project or client that you sense will not be a good fit for the business, say no. Even if it’s a multimillion-dollar contract. Your sanity, values and mission are worth far more than money. Additionally, your team will respect and trust you more!
- Don’t be afraid to delegate. So many times I’ve told myself, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” That’s a lie. You’ll never grow a business with that mindset. (Believe me, I tried and had to let it go!) If you don’t trust the people you hire to get things done, you need to either hire people you do trust or forget ever seeing your business grow. (This does not apply to solo-prenueurs.)
- Don’t be afraid to fail. I sure wish someone had told me that no matter what I do, I’m going to fail at some point. A ball will get dropped. A client will be upset. An idea will fall flat. An employee will quit. You’ll need to fire someone. Your project will end up going sideways. Any one of these things are highly probable when you decide to run a business.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Please share the strategies you’ve used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period.
My wife and I are in the throes of having just recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville with a 6-month-old daughter and a one-year-old Goldendoodle. I’d be lying if I told you I had stayed disciplined in my daily routines!
That said, I can say from experience that exercise, meditation and choosing to stay in the present moment have kept me grounded in the most stressful of seasons. The more I’m able to be present in the moment, the less fear and anxiety I have about the state of affairs in our country and world. I’m sure the modalities will look different for everyone; however, exercise and meditation have helped me stay in the “now.”
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?
I would love nothing more than to see people from all races, backgrounds and ideologies go through a Bonfires retreat in the wilderness together. I believe that if we can stop the dehumanization and spend some time together, we’d realize we’re a lot more alike than we are different. Call me naive, but I believe that could bring a lot of good and healing to the world.
Which person in the world would you love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I’ve always been inspired by Richard Branson as a leader, innovator, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He’s the perfect balance of clever and kind! As I have much bigger plans for Bonfires, I’d love to share my vision with him to see if he just might be inspired to partner. (You never know, right?)
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!