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Meeting Matt

Diya, Zach and I were assigned Matt Alston as our I&E 342 mentor. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the first time that I had heard Matt speak about innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke — he also came to speak at my Duke in Silicon Valley course over the summer of 2020 — which made hearing the progression of his story all the more intriguing and informative.

The Matt from Duke in SV was fresh out of leaving his PM role at Uber, and in the early stages of fully defining which problem he was aiming to solve through his startup. What I appreciated most about what Matt shared then and in our most recent meeting was his “why”: “More of the moments that matter” was the perfect line that encapsulated his desire to make a product that encouraged forming authentic connections. I believe that, due to his “why” being something that he valued even outside of the workplace, it was easy to find motivation for his startup idea. I hope that in my future pursuits of a venture, I can attest to the same experience.

Matt and his partner, Melissa, knew that people would be seeking connection more than ever following continued isolation in 2020. Their initial idea was a consumer social event space that ideally would be launched following the slowdown of COVID. As they developed initial versions of their app and sent it to friends, they had challenges with ensuring the app was viewed as a necessity to a user. This subtle recognition, they learned, would help with piquing interest in the platform, and above all, ensure continued use. Overall, they found that not many agreed with the problem statement, “I’m looking for new friends”. Rather, people frequently search for new experiences that could then lead to finding connections. After understanding that they wanted to generate a secondary reason for using the app initially and use their real purpose – finding friends and building connections — as a byproduct. The decision of Matt and Melissa to begin their product launch by asking his family and friends for real feedback helped them reach this realization sooner rather than later.

Matt delved deep into the importance of understanding human psychology to accurately distinguish real and perceived motivation of users: sometimes a developer may meet a need of a consumer, but until they themselves also recognize that, it’s difficult to generate interest. It’s this balance of “being ahead of the curve” but also not too far off that an entrepreneur needs to carefully tread in order to create an innovative, yet relatable product. In a way, it was as if their “problem” was fully understanding the customer’s needs and effectively meeting them. By this time, however, they had realized that COVID wasn’t going away anytime soon, and it may be worthwhile to pivot in a new direction.

Since deciding to shift focus, the duo have been talking to potential customers and attempting to find founders who have tried and failed in their consumer niche. I find this decision especially tact and necessary: avoiding past founders’ mistakes will help optimize time and resources spent on a project.

Overall, learning more about Matt’s journey with his startup, especially the lessons surrounding understanding the customer experience, was incredibly informative. I am excited for our next discussion and what there is to learn next.