The peHUB Interview
For Matt Mireles, 29, life after graduating from Columbia University in 2008 was “hard and lonely,” he says. “I was on my own, trying to make things happen” for his startup, 18-month-old SpeakerText, a Web application that lets users navigate and search through video.
Then, in January, Mireles began writing about launching the startup at his blog, the Metamorphosis. First came an attention-grabbing two-part series titled “How to Start a Company in a Recession” that was republished by Silicon Alley Insider, where Mireles once moonlighted as a writer.
Last month, Mireles wrote a newer post titled, “Face It: NYC Is Not the Best Place for a Startup,” which “caused quite the shit storm,” as one commenter on Metamorphosis noted, adding that from now on, he’d be reading Mireles’s writings.
By this past weekend, Mireles’s newest piece, “How I Judge Investors” had practically become required reading for tech reporters, entrepreneurs and, seed-stage investors, the latter of whom wondered what Mireles might say about them this time.
To learn more about Mireles’s sudden rise to fame and what it means for SpeakerText — in the process of collecting a $750,000 round — I spoke with him earlier today.
You may have the most diverse background for a tech entrepreneur ever.
I definitely have colorful stories. I went to UC Berkeley out of high school in 1999 and dropped out to work on an ambulance in L.A. I went back for two years, then dropped out again to fight forest fires in Montana and Northern California. I then became a paramedic and while I did that, I applied to Columbia, got in, and moved to New York.
You won some journalism awards while you were at school, majoring in international relations. Then suddenly, you decided to found a Web company instead of become a reporter. Why?
I’d started writing for the school paper and racked up some awards and started freelancing for Newsweek, then I picked up a camera one day and my story and photos ended up in the New York Times and I thought I’d go into documentary filmmaking. That didn’t really work out, but it gave me the idea that if I could map text onto video, then life would be infinitely easier. And given what had happened with YouTube, the idea of creating something that could link those quotes back to their video source — it was like, hey, there’s a f**king market right here.
I also did a summer program, a mini-MBA for idiots at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and that got me totally amp’d up on the startup scene.
But you didn’t have any technical background, right?
No, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But during the economic crisis, I made a decision that was half inspired, half practical. I figured my other job prospects as a journalist had just gotten toasted, so I said f**k it, I’m going to turn this into a company.
And have you? How many employees do you have?
My first call was to a buddy of mine from Berkeley, a brilliant engineer who has a Masters in Engineering in Engineering Physics and who’d been a rapper in Sweden. He’s this crazy, awesome dude. I said, Bjorn [Liljequist], dude, what are doing? Whatever it is, stop now and join me on this awesome idea I have. It took a little bit to work him over. Later, we went to an engineering job fair at Columbia, and hired a couple of college kids. We didn’t have any cash, but we said, “How about if we give you an iPhone and pay your bills for a couple of months?” They’re amazing.
And when did you launch your product?
We launched on January 5, at the New York Tech meet-up, in front of 750 people. And halfway through the demo, we got interrupted by applause from the crowd. We were thronged afterward; big companies started calling us. They were asking us all these hard questions, about the scalability of our back-end. We were like, um, funny thing about that.
Not so scalable?
Beyond where we were. People starting telling us all this stuff, like, “this would be amazing for search engine optimization!” It would? “This would be perfect for video ad marketing!” Really?
I love your candor, but how far along are you really?
What we’re doing is creating a new standard of interactivity and another data layer on top of video in a way that’s sort of hard to do. We’re using a combination of humans and machines to do it. I can’t get too detailed about it, but we’re trying to change the way people view video and all rich media on the Web.
And in the meantime, did you start blogging to bring attention to SpeakerText or were you just venting about your experience in trying to get it off the ground?
I didn’t really start blogging about startups. I’d been blogging here and there about other stuff. It wasn’t until December that I started blogging at all seriously about what we were doing. Then I discovered Hacker News and realized that if you wrote something good, people would see it.
Once I got a bunch of people reading, then investors started calling me and getting to know me, then Venture Hacks syndicated my blog, then Silicon Alley Insider. That’s what sort of triggered all this other shit.
Your most widely read post was critical of the New York seed-stage scene. Has that created problems for you, given that you live in New York, or has it mostly been a boon?
I’d say the risk-reward of writing that was weighted heavily in the reward segment. There are some people who got pissed off by it. But in my mind, that’s an effective filter. If somebody is so close-minded and reactionary that they get pissed off by a blog post that says a lot of stuff that’s true, then really, they would have been wasting my time anyway.
Meanwhile, people, brand-name people, have reached out to me, pinged me, tweeted me, gotten to know me, asked to meet me — because of my blog. It’s been sort of ridiculous. I’ve even had people want to work for me because they saw my blog.
Do you have trusted advisors to help you through this insanity?
I have amazing advisors, like Seth Sternberg, the founder of Meebo, and Joe Kennedy, the CEO of Pandora. These are guys I met by happenstance. Seth I met through a mutual friend. Joe came and spoke when I was at Stanford and I approached him afterward and he gave me his business card and every once in a while when I hit a crossroad, I’d ping him and he’d respond to my emails. Both have been superhelpful.
What kind of advice have they given you?
Well, for one thing, Seth was like, “Dude, you need a cofounder. You need complementary skill sets. No one is gong to trust a company with outsourced tech development.” And at a few steps, I’ve asked him: “Am I ready to raise money?” And he’s like, “You are most definitely not ready to raise money. Get a product out there.”
I just feel like there’s so little information available out there for someone like me, who has never done a startup before and has no f**king clue what he’s doing. It’s for this sort of “proto founder” that I’m writing a lot of the time. It’s the person struggling alone, trying to create something. I gather a lot of people get f**ked over by service providers and lawyers and other people along the way because they don’t have Seth and Joe saying, “Actually, that would be a bad idea, here’s what you should do…”
You were in California this past month, meeting with angel investors. How did it go?
When my lease is up in May, I’m moving out there. It was amazing.
In New York, when you pitch investors this big idea, they say, “I don’t know about that. How do we make this a smaller, safer business?” You get trained to take out the ambition and excitement and sort of sweeping-world-change part of your pitch. Then you go meet with Silicon Valley investors and they’re like, “Dude, this is too small. Sounds like a nice business, but you’re not going to change the world with that approach.”
As a first timer clueless hack, being around an abundance of people who can and want to help you, either by introducing you to new investors or employees or mentors or important people inside big organizations — it’s like, okay, dude, this is amazing.
So you’re getting a check finally?
It’s a slower process than I would have liked, and it could all go sideways at any moment, but we’re putting together a good syndicate and I’m pretty confident that it will come through.
Some people might read this interview and s
ay that you’re slamming New York because no one was receptive to your startup.
Some will absolutely say he’s writing about his sour grapes, but whatever. Look, in the Valley, they will tell you that numbers are unimportant at this stage. In New York, you talk with a seed investor, and they want to see metrics and sales projections and pricing information, and you’re like, f**k man.
Hot Potato [which connects friends around live events] had been running around, trying to get funded, then the [funding] deal broke with [location-based social network] FourSquare, and a bunch of people suddenly threw a bunch of money at [Hot Potato].
I’m not going to be another Hot Potato, waiting for five decent angel investors who are under no pressure to fund anyone because they see so many deals. It’s like you’re at a bar and you see two hot girls and 90 hot guys. You don’t wait until you’ve tried and failed to hit on the two hot girls. You look around and say, “This is a f**king sausage fest,” and you go somewhere else.