Q & A with Matt Olson
Matmon Internet, Inc.
THE TECH WORLD seems so 21st century that it’s hard to remember there were forward-looking tech companies here way back in the clunky old 20th century. Matt Olson’s Matmon Internet, Inc., is a prime example of a tech startup that has withstood the test of time, and the lessons he learned while building and positioning and sustaining a company through good times and bad are sure to resonate in this difficult moment we’re all living through today.
You’re a bona fide tech pioneer here in Arkansas. You started your company when you were still in college, right?
Yep, it was 1996. I was 19, still at UA Little Rock. I called my company Webmasters.
How long had you been into computers at that point?
I knew all about computers long before I got one, because I had a friend who knew about computers. It would have been 1993 when I convinced my mom and my aunt to go shopping to buy me a computer of my own. I remember we drove from Hot Springs to Little Rock and went to Office Depot. I got a good deal on a Hewlett Packard computer with a little HP inkjet printer as well.
Were they using computers in school in those days?
Not a whole lot. There was maybe a computer lab, but the Internet really wasn't widespread yet. The turning point for me came in about 1994 when a man named Mr. Reed established a thing called Wolf-net in Lake Hamilton High School, because we were the Lake Hamilton High Wolves. Mr. Reed was from Texas and had been studying to be a doctor. But he ended up getting into IT and doing this special program at our school.
I took Wolf-net as an elective class, and we brought the Internet to the school—to every classroom. We ran CAT5 cables up and down the halls of the school pushing up those little ceiling tiles and taking wires, throwing them across the halls. We saved the school a quarter million dollars in one year by wiring it ourselves. And over the course of two years we did the entire school, kindergarten through high school.
Wolf-net was when the light turned on for me. I had to have these elective classes because my standardized test scores were terrible. I don't do well on standardized tests. I mean I hear someone flipping their page and I'm just distracted. So with Wolf-net, I went from teachers saying to me, “What are you doing in the hall, Matt, why aren't you in class?” to, “Hey, Matt, can you come help me with my computer?” I felt important.
And when that switch happened, I saw the power of knowing something that no one else knows, and then learning more about it. So I was driven, and I think there are a lot of people in my industry who are like that—driven to be part of something that isn't already documented or taught in colleges, and that no one really knows yet. I'm that person who likes to do the things no one has done before.
To figure it out on your own, you’ve got to learn and work with people, and that's where I really do my best. Back then, we called the www for World Wide Web the “Wild Wild West.” Because we sort of felt like we were the pioneers going across America. In the Internet world, we were building things and going places that most people hadn't done before.
Tell me how your company Webmaster became Matmon.
Boy, that’s a story. At UALR, my speech teacher had an MBA, and he already had an incorporated company. So I did a speech on website design, development, how the Internet works, what it was. It was really cool, way ahead of the times. And he—his name was Mike—approached me and said I already have a corporation and it's called Matmon. His mother was Jewish, and he wanted to celebrate that. So he had looked in the Hebrew dictionary and found the word Matmon, which means “hidden treasure,” and he’d named the company that. The story was that we unleashed any given organization's “hidden treasure” through Internet marketing.
He had formed the company to deal in real estate, but after hearing my speech he decided, Oh, let's start a web design business and I’ll try to get Matt to buy into it. Instead I said, “I'll do sweat equity.” So we became 50/50 partners, and he went out to start selling to clients.
Then he realized he couldn't really sell. All he really could do was accounting—counting the money, so to speak, which we didn't have. So he would set up a sales meeting and bring me to explain everything. So then I'd end up selling it, and then I'd go back and produce the website. It worked for about a year. Then we got an investor called Marty Martin Yellow Pages, a Yellow Pages advertising company that helped clients in more than three states. They had some really big customers. The company was run by Bruce Martin, who owned 10 percent of our company with that investment. And that's when we got our first office, right next to Bruce’s office in North Little Rock behind McCain Mall. Bruce was thinking that maybe some of his Yellow Pages clients would buy websites from us, and he was right. His client Arkansas Printing was one of my first customers, and they’re still a customer.
But “Matmon”? Early on, after Mike left, I thought many times about changing the name of the company. It’s just sort of weird since my name is Matt, and I always have to explain it.
So what was your vision of the company you wanted to build?
I wanted to build an E-commerce system, like a platform where someone would buy into it and I'd become independently wealthy before I was 30. And my vision was just to try to have some intellectual property, and to have a big enough business that someone would say, “Hey, you’re amazing, we’re going to invest in you, let's go bigger.” I guess I was always that rock star wannabe hoping to get picked up by a big label. I didn't really know much about business. I just liked doing what I was doing and kept my head down and did it. I was more of a craftsman.
Were you aiming at companies as your clients, or individuals?
We were going after companies that needed a website. And when I first started, I had to explain why they needed a website. I would say, “Here is what the Internet is.” That's how I started my sales meetings. I had a picture of a little cloud, and a phone, and a computer, and the computer was connected to the phone, and the phone was connected to the web. And then they would understand. I did that for years and years, telling why they needed a website and how it would work.
When did everybody start getting it?
I think I had the feeling that they were starting to get it in around 2005. That was when people started to understand that people will order things online. People will use the web. People are looking at their company. It's almost like companies tried to ignore it a long time. And then finally I felt like they were over that. Of course some companies still tried to ignore it, but this pandemic is waking even them up. With COVID, companies are finally going, Man, we do need a website, we do need to be using the Internet more.
Now that you’ve brought it up, you’ve guided your company through several moments of real crisis, haven’t you? Tell me about that.
We’ve been through 9/11, the big tech bubble of 2000, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, and now this. And we thought that maybe they would affect us, but none of it really did. And I think that’s because of some strategic decisions we’ve made over the years about who we are and who our clients should be.
For a while there my business vision was, I'm going to service agencies. They have clients, they need websites, let's go after the agencies.
You mean ad agencies?
Yeah, I wasn't really considered an agency. At the time I was a web shop—a web development shop. A lot of companies still consider me a web development shop. But today I define us as a full-service marketing agency. One of our clients is an insurance carrier in Minnesota and it had a full web team on staff. And I said to them, we can do all these things for you. They're like oh no, no, no, we have all that internally. Well, after working with us for about four months, they got rid of all those people because they started realizing those people literally didn't know what they were doing and they couldn't come together collectively to make it actually happen. Then we came in and took the project that they’d worked on for three months and we did it in three weeks.
And it looks good, and it works, and they can edit it. Lots of things that they were stressing out about we do day in and day out. So here’s the key: We’re a full-service marketing agency with a digital backbone. Advertising agencies around town can't say that. No agency in town that's been around as long as we have can say they started in web development and then morphed into an agency.
So that makes us a little bit unique and gives us an advantage. If someone wants a marketing agency that's really good with web, and Internet, social, and digital, then they see the value in using Matmon.
How many people do you employ now?
We have eight. Nine with one sub-contractor who’s been on payroll for a long time but works from home.
But to continue from the previous question, what wears you out is going from project to project all the time. Because it's like being a gig worker—you’re only as good as your next gig, you're only as good as your next project. And I realized about 20 years ago that I can't go gig to gig. So my goal was to get into the retainer business. I've got to have clients that need me not just for the big projects, but all the time. And so I started trying to figure out how to come onto a big project and hold on as long as I could with all of the politics involved and all of the other agencies servicing them.
What was good was that I would come in as “the technology,” no agency’s threat. But then the agencies would get the big checks, and I would get the little checks. And the guy with the big check would then need to give me the assignment. And by the time it got to me it was already almost late, and then they'd say, Hey, I need it done tomorrow. So I finally figured out I couldn't service other agencies because they would always blame everything on their clients. I would get the job done and they’d go, Oh, I know you're waiting 90 days for your money, but we're still waiting on ours from the client too. And I was like, what? This is not acceptable.
What has saved our company—and this gets back to surviving hard times—is getting out of the project-to-project life and finding a way to earn a retainer, a service retainer. That was the best move we made. Because in the lulls when people don't have that project work, the retainer clients don't just fire everybody. And a lot of times the last thing they do is get rid of their website. So in many hard situations I’ve been able to be the last man standing.
Sounds like the best way to weather a crisis is to position yourself for it before it happens.
That’s absolutely right. Keep your rent low and take extra good care of your clients.
So tell me how you bring ongoing value to these retainer clients.
I've always talked about the similarities between building a website and building a house. People realize there’s architecture, there’s engineering, there’s design, there’s development. If you go to build a house you're going to an architect over here, a contractor over there, and various sub-contractors. But all of the website elements are in one house with us.
The future of Matmon is being always of value to someone who is building and crafting a major digital project that involves branding, as is so vital in business today. We can be the go-to because we know the technical parts, the artistic parts, the planning parts, and the strategic parts.
But I have to say, those projects can wear me out. I lose a little bit of my soul to every brand project I have to do, because we don’t phone that stuff in. At Matmon, our tagline is “Let’s make you awesome,” and if you phone it in, or take the first tagline that sounds good, people are going to say, “Uh, it’s not awesome.”
If I'm going to get involved in somebody's brand project, I want a tagline and a vision for that company that really resonates with their target audience. And for that you have to dig deep into their target audience and start talking to them, which I do. I do everything I've got to do to be able to say, “I’m not just guessing here and giving you a tagline. I'm telling you I've talked to everybody in your company, I've talked to your clients. I have found out what your value proposition is to all of those. And here is where I see you.”
We did a branding project for Garrett Excavating, one of the biggest dirt moving companies in the states. What they do is take raw land and turn it into flat land that has the water flowing right and everything. And they're pushing trees, they're pushing boulders, they're blowing stuff up, whatever they’ve got to do. But they're moving that earth. It took me a little while to figure out what their tagline was, but it now sounds easy: Garrett X, Best on Earth.
Thanks to a well-established brand vision, I don't have to go to them every time we decide something and go, “Do you like the way this looks and what it says?” I don’t have to do that because I already know who I'm talking to, and how to say it, and what moves them. And then it makes it so much easier for me to be their agency, to be put on retainer, to be their go-to.
You’ve learned a lot about business along the way. What advice would you give to people starting businesses, or running companies that are struggling these days?
I was thinking about that last night—what does it take? It takes being there every day and staying steady. That's an important thing that most people don't understand, whether they run a company or work for someone else. If they show up every day and they care about what they're doing, they're going to be successful. I've had so many clients tell me that their biggest problem is getting people to show up. No telling how many times I've called people back in the course of my business and they're like, “Oh, you called us back. Our web guys never call us back.”
Another thing is to be creative. It's hard to find a tech person with the ability to go, “What about this? How about we do these things? If we did this, we could do that.” Instead, it’s just, “What do you want me to do?” There is a void in creativity in so many things we do that causes everyone to just do the same.
I'm talking about company, clients, marriages, raising kids, all of it—you got to think out of the box. In business, I think a lot of times people think they can just Google whatever it is they need to get done. How do we make more money? Google it.
What’s the next chapter for Matmon?
It’s tapping into machine learning, algorithms. We’re finding ways to make the computer figure things out so fast that digital marketing and advertising is the exciting future for us. Traditionally, when you buy ads there’s a certain part of you that knows you might lose money. But you’re getting clients, and starting word of mouth, so even though a lot of times the ad doesn't pay for itself you take on these long advertising contracts and just continue to write the check, write the check.
Well, we shake it up. We get in there and go, “That's not a good check to write anymore, let's get you out of these things, let's shift your money into digital.” Basically, the future of advertising is going to be the ability to put your client in front of the perfect audience. In the past, getting even close to that has taken research projects and a lot of human power. In the future, we’re going to say, “Hey computer, go find my clients. Here’s my initial ad, here are all my ads. Put them all over the place.”
And the computer will take those ads and it's going to learn while it does it. And it's going to say, “Hey, you know what? You've been marketing to men, actually we found out that it's women.” Not only that, but you thought it was men between 50 and 60, and it's actually women 30 to 40. We don't even need to know why—the computer just figures it out. But maybe it’s because the woman is working for the man who assigned her to do the website stuff, to find the companies, and do the research, and read through the web. And so really you were talking to her, not him.
So how do we stay in front of that person who has been tasked with finding a solution, and using the web to do it, and finding the website we did for a client? And why do they want to do business with the website we did? And how do we stay in front of that person so they remember us? All of these things come into play. We want to be found. We want to be remembered. We want to resonate and have the best compelling value, and if we do all of those things our clients win.
Many times, great companies have a bad online presence and are getting their butts kicked by competitors that are doing really well with web and digital advertising. But after my team finishes their process, our clients typically find themselves far ahead of any competitors, and they can see how our work affects not only new business, but brings hiring and company-culture benefits as well.
So it's really powerful. For me, my target client is the big company who has a small company kicking their butt. Because when they get fed up with it, when they're finally like, “All right, I'm ready to kick some butt,” it’s like waking up the sleeping giant. When they wake up, I want them to know, “Hey I'm here for you. I can make you awesome.”