Welcome to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Hussein Al-Baiaty. Today, we’re diving deep into the world of entrepreneurship and discussing the key to exceptional growth. As entrepreneurs we all want to achieve rapid growth and success, but with the high failing rate of startups, it can seem like an impossible task. What if the secret to growth is as simple as learning to listen? Today we have a special guest joining us to share their insight on the topic and reveal the key to unlocking exceptional growth for any business. Please welcome author, Matty Wishnow.
Hello. Welcome back to the show, friends. I’m here with my friend Matty Wishnow, who just launched the book, Listening for Growth: What Startups Need the Most but Hear the Least. Matty, thank you so much for joining me today.
Matty Wishnow: Thanks for having me, Hussein.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, man. Writing a book is a journey. Congratulations on finishing up and getting it out in the world. What are you most excited about this part?
Matty Wishnow: Well, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I actually miss the writing. I’m a little bit wistful for the writing part it was, I’m not surprised at how much joy it brought me, but I’m very fulfilled, because I’ve – honestly, before I was an entrepreneur, I used to have dreams of being a writer or being a journalist. To be able to scratch that itch again, in middle age has been so rewarding. Without question the idea of having that out there for friends, and colleagues. I would say most importantly like younger founders or aspiring founders who are at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey for them to be able to interact with it and to have a dialogue about it, whether it’s with peers or even with me. I didn’t publish the book with the idea that it was going to be definitive or the end of the story so much as I wanted it to be the beginning of a conversation.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s really powerful. I’m glad we got there, because I want to go back in time a little bit, and perhaps share a little bit of your childhood, where you grew up, who influenced you, who taught you these things early on and how have you been able to adapt them as you grow older? For me my father was a huge influence in my life, of course, my mother and siblings, but my father was an artist. So I always look for a story in people where someone came along and influenced them in some way, because I love paying homage to those beautiful people that come into our lives.
Beginnings and Influences
Matty Wishnow: Well, that’s a lot. Thanks for asking. I grew up in the northeast. I was born in New Jersey. Then through college and after college ended up like a lot of people in New York City. I lived in Brooklyn and then Long Island City Queens for a long time before landing in Austin. I would say, growing up, I was actually a bit of a reluctant reader like a lot of boys in the 70s and 80s. I collected baseball cards. My first real joy of reading was reading first about baseball and baseball statistics and like the godfather of that is a guy named Bill James who reinvented the way people think about baseball statistics, but more importantly, as a very like [inaudible 00:03:46] writer and a wonderful storyteller. He would talk about baseball in a way that really brought me in and inspired me to read.
Then as I got older, I started listening like a lot of adolescence listening to a lot of music and reading about music a lot. A lot of the authors I was reading were writing in short form. They were writing essays. They were writing reviews. They were writing stories. It wasn’t really until later on that I started reading long-form novels, and nonfiction, but my formative inspiration where people writing about sports, and people writing about music. I would say even in college, my life took a detour, whereas I went in dreaming of one day maybe being like a sports or music journalist.
After college, I was deposited on this unexpected path to entrepreneurship. I’ve had many inspirations as an entrepreneur, but in terms of writers, it’s Bill James writing about baseball, it’s Greil Marcus, Bob Christgau writing about music, Lester Bangs writing about music. Then there’s the number of and breath of novelists or nonfiction writers. I could go on forever, but that’s not really how I ever saw myself. I never dreamed of writing the great American novel. I wanted to write readable, incisive, conversational things about topics that interested me and that I had something to contribute to.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah. That’s so powerful. It sounds like you got into reading, but of course, the sport of baseball it’s attractive in so many different ways, but if it can attract you deep enough to start reading about it, that can obviously start to move those components in the mind, where you start to, anytime you want to know about anything, you go read about it, right? So the deeper you got into music and older and of course, entrepreneurship. I don’t care who you are. Entrepreneurship requires reading. It’s a requirement. It’s forever.
It’s like, one of those things I feel that has really helped shape who you ultimately become. It doesn’t matter how we learn it, right? It could be a person, or people, but obviously, certain writers had an influence on you. Rightfully so that you wanted to become one of them, right? Insightful, someone that can add value to someone’s life, but here we are talking about your book, how amazing, but between you writing a book and you feeling all inspired and getting into the entrepreneurship world, how did you get into that? Where did that unfold? How did you start learning the things that you started picking up?
Matty Wishnow: Well, I am truly an accidental entrepreneur. I never like I said, leaving college, I thought one day, I would maybe work in music journalism. After college, my first job was working at a record label, but while I was in college, I had taken a couple of courses, this will date me, but I took a couple of courses in what they called Hypertext Markup Language. In 1994 or 1993, HTML was not part of the computer science department. It was part of like English, the English department, or sometimes even the art department because it was thought of as a different way of writing stories or creating digital art.
I had a bit of a propensity towards early web design, and early web development. I was also a lifelong record collector. The peanut butter and chocolate of my Reese’s pieces entrepreneurship story is in 1997 which was around the time when the first CD stores on the internet were popping up. It was when Amazon was just a bookstore. It was in the time of CD now in music Boulevard.
I had a couple of friends who were more entrepreneurial than I was. I suggested the idea of a music store that focused more on vinyl and more on independent releases: the type of stuff that I either listened to or collected and within a year between my nominal understanding of web design, web development, and the internet and my interest in music, friends and I launched something called insound.com, which was really the first indie record store. This is before vinyl made a comeback. It was really the wild, Wild West of the internet like a 1.1 or maybe 2.0. It was a lot of fun.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Tell me what happened? You guys got into this very early on internet thing that hardly anyone really knew about or if they did, they were in your world, right? Like just dabbling, trying to figure it out, so you and a couple buddies get along, you’re like, “You know what? There’s this idea. There’s a lot of indie artists out there. I like that stuff.” Again, you’re mixing what you want to do passion with this entrepreneurial opportunity. What happened next?
Matty Wishnow: Insound was almost a decade of my entrepreneurial journey. On the one hand, it taught me everything that I know about digital marketing, about search engine optimization, about user experience design, about product development, and engineering. It taught me about customer service. It taught me about supply chain management, I never went to business school. Everything I learned about how to run a business and how to provide a digital service and how to transact, I learned on the job, trial by fire between like 1998 and 2004 or five.
What I also learned was how hard the microeconomics of direct-to-consumer entrepreneurship was. The basics of Insound were I buy an LP from a distributor for $13. I sell it for $20. That’s $7 of profit margin. By the time all of our costs were accounted for we were losing money on every order, right? I had to figure out how to take a low-margin business, a business that was probably less expensive than opening a physical record store, but was still not inexpensive, and how to make that if not profitable at least break even, because within two years of us starting Insound, there was like the dot-com bust and we really had to learn about cash management. That was invaluable to me.
One of the ways we sustained Insound, which ended up becoming really – Insound, for a long time was a big fish in a small pond. It was very early to the reconsideration and reclamation of vinyl in the market and Insound was like the biggest online record store for, if you were into like indie rock, or punk rock, or new, but more experimental left-of-center music. It was a wonderful experience, but in order to sustain it, I started a digital agency, because I had learned so much about digital marketing that record companies, movie studios, they would ask, they would say, “Hey, how do you market digitally?” I started my second startup was underneath the Insound Limited Liability Company. That was called Drill Team. Around the same time, we also started a record label. There I was like 25, 26 years old running, helping run a web store, a digital agency, and a record label of which I knew very little about any of those subjects like two years earlier. Yeah.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s what entrepreneurship does, right? It takes you from one thing to another, until you really start to hone in, and like really craft those skills and start to package them in different ways. Again, the breadth of knowledge that you start to uncover by just trying things is irreplaceable. In your book, you talk a lot about this idea of healthy growth versus any other growth, right? In those years in the years after that, what did you learn about this idea of healthy growth? How did you start applying it, especially to your startups? Because, as we know, there’s a lot of startups that don’t make it past that first year, so you guys going from two to almost 10 years in business, as you’re figuring things out very early on in the .com stuff, but then post that, obviously, to take all that knowledge and apply it to more work. But I want to know, this idea of healthy growth. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Matty Wishnow: Of course. Well, thanks for asking. To fast forward after I sold my original startups, after I said farewell to my first babies. I moved to Austin and started an agency called Clearhead. Clearhead was born with the knowledge that I had cultivated through my first startups. I felt much more informed and practiced and likely to succeed with Clearhead. I had clear goals. I understood what the market needed. I understood like how I wanted to lead, what type of culture I wanted to build. You make a lot of mistakes as a young entrepreneur.
I’d say, the first 10 years when I thought about growth, what I was thinking about was fairly elementary. I was thinking about, how do I grow the top line of my business, so that I either can attract investors or generate enough profits to continue to reinvest? I was thinking about growth in fairly traditional ways. Meanwhile, the greater startup market began to think about growth in Titanic almost dysmorphic ways. When I started Insound, the idea of having like a one, or five, or $10 million business seemed amazing to me, but within a matter of months the prevailing discourse was that millions were not enough, that you had to build billion-dollar companies.
It was really early on, I began to suspect there was something wrong with how people were talking about growth. Yet, I thought it was resolvable. Then at Clearhead, I have to pay a lot of homage to my partners and my team. We did everything right. Over the course of five years, we built a company from nothing to an eight-figure business that was highly profitable. We were named one of the best places to work in Austin. I received a lot of really positive feedback and recognition. We retained employees at a very, very high rate. People didn’t want to leave Clearhead. We not only achieved every milestone and goal that we had, but we exceeded them. Then within five years, we sold the company in what was a life-changing event for almost everyone involved.
Now Clearhead was actually in what we would call the growth space. When I talk about the growth space, people who work in this digital know growth is really like performance marketing. Then also design, whether it’s product UX or digital design that is geared towards improving the performance of key metrics, whether it’s like order conversion rate, or customer satisfaction, or average order value. These were all things that I learned at Insound. It takes me back to your first question you asked me, which was like, who did I like to read growing up? I look back, I used to read writers who wrote about statistics, so very rigorous mathematically inclined writers.
Then I used to like to read writers who wrote about highly creative things and very passionate, emotional, metaphorical terms. Clearhead was the merging of those two things. It was a business built on design for performance. Loosely that space is sometimes talked about as optimization, but it all fits within the growth world of startups. 20 years into my entrepreneurial career, I was… began to think about growth, not as just like, “Hey, how do I get my startup to grow?” I began to think about it as like how do you harness data and design to make a digital product or design grow. I was really immersed in this concept of growth. However, and I know this is a long road to answer the question.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Oh, no. I’m happy to hear all the story because it’s really interesting to me.
Growing As An Entrepreneur and a Person
Matty Wishnow: What I never really asked myself, at any point along the way was, “Am I growing as a person, as a founder, as an entrepreneur, as a husband, as a father?” By this point, by the time at Clearhead, I was married, I had children. To what extent was I growing my startup? To what extent was my startup helping me grow? Was any of this stuff healthy? I was immersed in growth, but it wasn’t until after I sold and exited Clearhead that I begin to have these more existential questions like, wait, how are people defining growth? Is it healthy? Is there a world where in your startup and you as a founder can grow together or is it necessarily that the bigger your startup gets, the more it swallows you, or if you pursue personal growth, it comes at the expense in some way of your time and investment in the startup? That was a question that really haunted me and stuck with me after I left Clearhead and was thinking about, “Well, here I am, middle age, how do I want to spend the next half of my life?”
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Wow, I love how that revealed to you, there is something deeper that really needs this idea of growth. We put our heads down, especially as entrepreneurs, right? Because I feel like reach our potential in some way shape or form, but it’s really the potential of what the business can do for others, customers, all those good things. Somebody holds a mirror up sometimes or we end up looking at the mirror and going, “Okay, wait a minute, what’s going on?” That pullback, that pause for the moment, this idea of, yeah, just taking a break and taking a breather and realizing where you are. Tell me like, how did you then with where you were in this moment of transformation did you start to develop this idea of listening for that growth? Did it happen internally? Can you tell a little bit about that story?
Matty Wishnow: Yeah. Theoretically, like the top of my mountain, right? I had small startups, medium startups, medium-large startups. I was at a point where I was, I could really do anything in the world. I had been deeply, deeply immersed at Clearhead in how to drive growth through design, design thinking. We had even systematized it at Clearhead. We had developed a practice that we call GPS, which posited that growth was driven not through how much you do, or how clever your ideas are, or how much you hustle, but by the extent to which you solve the problems most worth solving. We systematize this. Where do good outcomes come from? They come from successful experiments. Where does successful experiments come from? They come from smart hypotheses. Where do smart hypotheses come from? They come from the problems most were solving. Where did the problems most were solving come? They come from smart goals. We worked growth this way.
Okay. Every step of the way, it required us to listen. I’m using the term listen, metaphorically here. You had to listen curiously, but you had to listen to evidence, you had to not be biased, you had to be open to facts. You had to listen to statistics and data and user feedback, just because your ideas seem good on paper doesn’t mean that it is a valuable idea. I have failed so many times with things that I thought were the coolest ideas I ever had, that I’ve been humbled into knowing that if you don’t listen, you don’t find the truth. If you don’t find the truth, you don’t change. If you don’t change, you don’t grow, because healthy things grow. I would say for a long time, I was using the idea of listening for growth, as really a metaphor for how you employ evidence-based thinking to the growth of a design or the growth of a digital product.
After Clearhead, I realized that the thing that I wasn’t listening to enough, it was the question that stuck in my closet, which was, where do goals come from? I understood every step of the way, but when I went back to where – I didn’t have an answer and it was, it was very clear to me that I hadn’t listened to what I as a person, as a founder, as an entrepreneur, what I most desired in life. I didn’t like a lot of founders, I think you put your entrepreneurial uniform on and you forget about the things that nourish you privately and personally. Your startup begins to own you more than you own your startup.
It was with this revelation that I said, I need to hear myself. I’ve lost the capacity to hear what I want outside of Matty-entrepreneur, Matty-father, Matty-husband and that startups succeed in correlation, yes to the problems they solve, but founders succeed to the extent that there is high correlation and overlap between what they desire and what their startup desires, and that the more you listen for how you want to grow. The more you design your startup around that, the more you can have growth that is not just financially lucrative, top line, and bottom line, but the more that will correspond and nourish what you most want to be in this world, because there are some people that only want to be entrepreneurs. There are some people that want to be millionaires. I am a capitalist and I am an entrepreneur. I have been in business to make money and to accumulate wealth on some level.
On the other hand, there are other parts of me that deeply desires other forms of fulfillment, whether it’s social fulfillment, whether it’s personal fulfillment, whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional. I cannot tell you how many founders and entrepreneurs I know who’ve either repressed that or don’t understand the extent to which your startup can rob your personal desires and how damaging that can be. Here we are in 2022 and the revelation I had was that people who just a few years ago, were considered like tech heroes. Nowadays, they look more like tech villains.
The number of CEOs that I knew that seemed like they were on top of the world five years ago, are burnt out now. The number of startups that were funded with 10s or hundreds of millions of dollars that are now out of business it’s astonishing. It’s fair to ask in spite of how much data we have, and how smart we think we are about growth hacking, as they call it. How informed we are about lean startup and about the Amazon way and the Google way. If we are so smart, why is there still so much burnout, so much waste, and so much failure in entrepreneurship?
My prevailing hypothesis is, because we have lost sight of what growth is, and because we have insufficiently defined a path where in growth can be mutually beneficial between the entrepreneur and her/his startup. When I talk about healthy growth, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about long term, sustainable, mutually beneficial growth where in you can use facts and feelings to nourish both your startup and yourself.
Man, it’s so powerful, because you’re 100% right. That when we really weave our intuition or passion through those problem-solving abilities and skills that we garner over time as entrepreneurs, that fulfillment aspect is I feel like such a huge key, but it takes a realization, it takes some time to really hit some walls, right? Hit some challenges that I feel like can wake us up sometimes and realize, okay my personal health, what I seek in this world, in this time on Earth, just as important as all these growth hacks and all these things, but how do I apply them to myself and reach a level of self-preservation and all this… good ways of thinking forward? How do your principles of healthy growth and apply to different types of business scenarios? I know you talk about startups, but you also talk about traditional organizations. How would those principles apply?
How Do The Principles Apply to Different Types of Organizations
Matty Wishnow: That’s a great question. I think the difference between a founder and entrepreneur versus like a leader or what I would call an in-trepreneur is it’s actually less difference than you would think. In other words, whether you run a department, whether you run a product, or whether you run an entire company, there are still goals, problems most worth solving, solution hypotheses, experiments and outcomes. It’s just a matter of how much control you have over them and how wide the aperture is. As a founder, you have a high degree of control and you’re looking at a wide aperture of a business. If you run e-commerce for an existing business, or you run user experience for a startup, you have perhaps less control over the whole thing, but what you are working on still has those basic dimensions to the work you do, right?
Within a startup, you can sometimes have the benefit of beginning with greenfield, whitespace and you can begin at the outset by listening for your desires, connecting your desires to goals, understanding what obstacles or problems stand between those goals and the outcomes that you seek. Whereas if you work for an existing business, sometimes you’re inheriting pre-existing mission vision values, pre-existing goals, right? In either scenario, however, there’s the opportunity over time to reconnect the activity that you had inherited or what you’ve been working on, and say, “Okay, maybe it’s a new quarter, maybe it’s a new year. It’s time to look at desires, goals, problems, hypotheses, experiments, and outcomes.”
Again, with startups, you can be starting with a blank slate, whereas an existing business, you might be inheriting a roadmap or a set of assumptions, but if you are a leader, or if you are an entrepreneur, or if you are an executive, you have the capacity to rewrite the train, right, to remove it off the path that was on and move it onto the path of healthy growth, we’re in you are listening every step of the way. Through that practice of listening to all of those things at a certain point, what you’re doing is, you’re conducting a series of experiments very much akin to how lean startups operate.
However, those experiments are now constrained by problems most worth solving, and by a set of desires of purpose. For me, that was always the thing that was missing from contemporary startup thought, which is, where are the constraints? Where are the humans in this? Not every startup has $100 million. In startups are not founded in ether. There are people involved in this. To me, startup mindset and entrepreneurship are our frames of mind. They’re more similar, ultimately, than they are different. The same tenets of healthy growth apply. It’s just a matter of at what level, how much rigor, how much fidelity, and how much control you as an individual have over the determination of healthy growth.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Wow. It’s so powerful, man. In this whole scope of you going through your entrepreneurship journey, this is just a quick question to just get an idea. You thoroughly, I mean, you thoroughly know this idea of growth and healthy growth, but the ideas of listening and how to embed them and where to embed them. Where do you think you pick that up like at what point in the business did you really start paying attention to this ability?
Matty Wishnow: Obviously, the idea of listening to data, listening to evidence. That’s a metaphor that is used occasionally out there in the world where you hear about people listening to your customers, listen to the data. Obviously, that’s nothing I invented. In the Clearhead world where, what we were doing ostensibly was designing user experiences and products and then comparing them to other variations. I began to realize how hard it is in contemporary society to listen to evidence. There is so much of a push towards confirmation bias or echo chambers, or there’s just so much noise out there that the idea of really just sitting and listening to facts and truth is harder than – and by the way, there’s also more information than ever before. It’s an extraordinarily hard and precious skill.
Now, when I was writing the book, I began thinking about, well, what is the practice? What is the skill that is most required for growth? It’s not exactly empathy. It’s not exactly curiosity. It is at its core listening. It’s availing yourself to openness to taking in, as opposed to your eyes, your mouth and your nose, all of which you can close. You can close all of those things. The ears, you can never really fully close, even when you plug them you still hear something. The ear is an open organ. I thought of the idea of listening is a great metaphor because it implies both an openness, but then also a tuning. At a certain point, you have to say, this sound based on everything I hear, is the true tone that I need to pay attention to.
Then something really resonated. I’ll make an obvious call back to where we started, Hussein, which is, I’m a lifelong listener of music. Music has been the soundtrack to my entire life. I lived in a house full of records. I listened to music hours, and hours and hours a day. It just felt every single sign was pointing me to the practice of growth that I have defined in the book, which is fairly rigorous like it’s fairly specific. The metaphor, the practice, the activity, ultimately, is about listening.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, man. I’m so glad that you brought us all the way back because that was my intention for that question was to really reveal to the audience the power of listening and where it came from for you. I think those early days of whether it be baseball and just learning and reading and then of course, music. Music, I mean, it played a huge role in my life in my teenage years, of course. The depth in which you took that, right, because you took that and then you put that passion into starting that early on business with CDs and vinyl and then you apply that to the next thing, and the next thing, but really, those like a sprinkle of this idea of paying attention to the sounds.
In your case again, it’s a metaphor, of course, but the sounds of trends, internet, what’s happening? That was like the initial stuff. Then of course, going deeper with the data, the craft of how you actually take that data and make it something. Then obviously you kept growing into that space of really leaning into. In a way I feel like you really had to pause to – like you said earlier really listening to yourself and then put the two together to have this this balance which again, man I just appreciate this full circle.
The book is called Listening for Growth: What Startups Need the Most but Hear the Least. I love that so much. Matty, I learned so much today. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences with me. The book is going to be, I think a hit for me as a startup person, a person who loves business, and damn, an artists like I was swimming through that book, man. It was like 60% in about two three hours in. I was just – I wasn’t reading word for word, but I was skimming through it, but I was like wow this is actually really fun and easy to read. To all the listeners out there, I highly, highly suggest my man, Matty’s book, but besides checking out the book where can people find you, sir?
Matty Wishnow: Yeah. Well first of all Hussein, thank you for reading it. It’s gratifying to hear that it was readable and entertaining. Thanks for that and thanks for the listeners for listening. You can find me on Twitter @mattywish. You can find me on LinkedIn as Matty Wish, as well. Then you can also find more about the book and the writing I do about music and sports on the side at mattywishnow.com. LinkedIn probably first, Twitter probably second, and then mattywishnow.com that’s where I live online.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Well, thanks again Matty, for joining me today. I appreciate you. Good luck on this remarkable book. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we chat. Have a great rest of your evening.
Matty Wishnow: Thank you, Hussein. You, too.