A Roller Coaster of a Ride: From DIY Entrepreneur to Leading Student Venture Development at Yale

Entrepreneurship can be a difficult, but often rewarding roller coaster ride. One moment, you could be flying high and the next, you might be at the very bottom of a dip. And depending on the coaster design, you might go full circle. So, are you up for the ride?

In this edition of Venture unscripted., podcast host Josh Barker sits down with Matt Gira, Director of Student Programming at the Tsai Center of Innovative Thinking at Yale and Founder of Station, to learn more about how he took his venture from “zero to one,” and what that roller coaster journey looked like for him.

Listen to the podcast video below or keep scrolling to read the podcast recap.

A DIY Start to Entrepreneurship

Matt’s entrepreneurial journey started at Hope College with a very unexpected DIY project, Bluetooth Mason jar speakers on Etsy. The premise? They were perfect for people who wanted Bluetooth speakers without a super techy design.

Despite some success, he learned that product development and marketing was much harder than he thought. Scaling up was difficult to do and, to his admission, he went into the venture with too many assumptions and not enough testing.

As summer was winding down, his DIY speaker business slowed down too. But Matt and his roommates were an innovative bunch, full of ideas they wanted to explore — specifically underwater drones.

A Roller Coaster Journey

Around 2015, aerial drones were taking off. They were new and exciting — but what if they could be taken to the next level of underwater exploration? This is the direction that Matt and his roommates took. The research was fascinating and the pitch development process was exciting.

So they put together a 3D printed prototype with zero functionality, collected all their hopes and dreams, and pitched the venture in a student pitch competition in Detroit, Michigan. To their surprise, they made it to the final round. The biggest feedback they got? Pursue this venture.

Eventually, their pitches morphed into a bigger startup called Fathom. But as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Matt realized he needed to get out of Michigan and took an internship opportunity at Yale. At the same time, Matt and his team got accepted to a program called Emerge Accelerate, a pre-accelerator summer program that handed them a check for $20,000 to continue to pursue their concept. 

However, after tons of conversations and trying to build their underwater drone, the project wasn’t coming together like Matt and his team thought it should.

“It broke down every minute and it would be an $800 part to fix,” Matt explained. 

He and his team created several different versions when BBC and Discovery News got wind of the project. Now, things were picking up. “We got 800 emails overnight,” said Matt.

This was the validation he needed to launch this concept off the ground. Matt took the company through a huge kickstart campaign, raising $200,000 in about six days. And with a team of engineers at his side, they embarked on a massive redesign of the drone.

Later, he and his team won another pitch competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan called 5×5 Night. It was a big moment that launched them into another big step into making their venture a reality.

First Time Founders

But it wasn’t long after the initial hype died down that Matt learned how much harder manufacturing was going to be. Their team collaborated with a partner only to discover it wasn’t the right partner for them. Hard earned money felt like it went down the drain. They needed a plan. They had to deliver something. So back to the fundraising they went.

“But we were a VC’s nightmare,” Matt explained. “We were a B2C company building hardware with no recurring revenue. We were a nightmare to pitch and looking back, what were we trying to pitch? It makes sense why we got all these no’s.” 

Along the journey, Matt connected with the CEO of an aerial drone company and was introduced to Techstars Detroit. Within a few months, he and his team got into Techstars’ accelerator program and were able to start securing funding again, as well as filling several gaps from a knowledge standpoint. At that, Matt and his team were able to deliver, finding a manufacturing partner that supported them and invested in the venture.

As they took the next steps, Matt confessed that he and his team were still naive first-time founders. They didn’t continue to market and kept filtering through emails coming in based on media mentions they received. Despite high search rankings, they had no strategy on how to stay there. They weren’t building off the success they were generating — and as new competitors were entering the market, they were dropping down in the rankings. 

“We didn’t realize we needed to be continuing to do that, and we could have done it better,” Matt explained. “We would’ve built content, done different strategies at different levels, and continued to engineer because we weren’t selling at that moment, just pre-sales,” he stated.

After manufacturing 500-600 units, they moved them all. However, it was clear they were going to run out of cash. Matt and his team needed to fundraise again, knowing that revenue was a big deal. As they put a ton of money into marketing during the Christmas season, things felt okay. It was a nice neutral for the company… until December 26 — their biggest return date of the year. Almost every single unit came back for different reasons.

“Everything you can imagine from a startup perspective started going wrong,” Matt explained. 

They’d been on this four-year haul, a complete roller coaster of a journey, but it was time to make a tough call. The company shut down in 2019. 

Key Takeaways for Future Entrepreneurs 

After all the ups and downs, Matt took away some very important lessons in entrepreneurship that all innovators can take note from. 

His number one recommendation? Make sure your marketing engine is up and running. If you can create good content, do it. And understand your funnel so you can make sure you fill it up and generate recurring revenue.

The second lesson: Consider whether you want to produce a super high-tech product right out of the gate as a first-time founder. A lot goes into that. Setting realistic expectations and goals is key. 

And most important, figure out your business model. In Matt’s case, his team didn’t have a way to scale the company. They didn’t have a way to simplify their product or build up their brand. Without a method or framework, it’s hard to create sustainable growth. 

So, what’s next?

After the underwater drone company, Matt got word of an opening called the Innovation Fellow at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at back Yale. After applying, he got the job.

In his time there, he’s been able to move up in the ranks and is now the Director of Student Programming where he oversees the Venture Development Programs. Anything that helps students build their own ventures, he’s got his hands in it — whether it’s a nonprofit, for-profit, hybrid model, or small business. And from his previous experiences, Matt can connect with students from all walks of life.

“It’s a full circle moment for me,” Matt explained. “I was an intern in this program and now I oversee the whole thing.”

The Tsai Center often provides a large portion of funding to students, tons of workshops, 10 weeks of being able to work full-time on their venture, mentorships, and overnight retreats. Then students cap off the experience with a huge pitch-off.

Want to learn more about the Tsai Center and the CITY program’s curriculum? Click here to listen in.

Now, Matt’s thinking of creating a venture that helps support startups in smaller ecosystems, similar to what he had in his first year or two at Yale.

“It’s been a mind shift, but a really healthy one,” Matt explained. “I want to help scalable non-VC backed startups.”

He’s still working through what exactly that looks like, but Matt is creating a ton of content, expanding on business basics for startups, and really investing in this idea. Most recently, Matt built a free five-week accelerator program that is fully virtual and realized how incredible the experience has been. And it’s only going to grow from here.

Continue Learning

Want to learn even more advice, tips, and stories from Matt Gira? Listen to the full story by watching the podcast video below.

For more Venture unscripted. podcasts, click here.

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