Recently, I had the exciting opportunity to speak with Matthew Wootton '09 who has recently created his own startup company, called Ivani.
Matt was an ME at Olin, but has done a lot of work in other fields - in fact, he holds several patents in fields unrelated to mechanical engineering. He worked at DRS-SSI in St. Louis after leaving Olin, and before he started Ivani.
Ivani as a Company
Currently, the Ivani team is made up of Matt (Chief Operating Officer), CEO Herb King, Chief Marketing Officer Justin McKinney, Chief Technology Officer John Wootton, and Project Lead Systems Engineer Chris Nissman ('09) [Chris was added after my interview with Matt]. Matt couldn't say exactly what the product is that the team is working on, since the official details have not yet been released, but the overall goal of the company is to have automation in the field of energy management.
Something that is extremely cool about the way Ivani works as a business is that this startup is using what (Matt and) I call the "Olin Approach." The members of Ivani have been discussing the concept of their product with stakeholders--those who would be using, buying, or installing the device--to figure out what requirements they would like to have for the device. To connect this back to Olin, this is almost exactly the process that UOCD (User Oriented Collaborative Design Class) uses when interviewing users; proof that Olin's classes teach you valuable skills.
Within this approach, Ivani's members have been examining the way that most businesses define and solve a problem. In regular business, people often take about 10 seconds to define a problem, and then spend a lot of time trying to solve it. However, Matt pointed out that if you take time to define a problem fully, it often solves itself. In a "normal" job, you don't take time to set up your problem, but, with set up, you can find a better way of asking that yields an obvious solution, and that is what Ivani is trying to do.
The Ivani team is also working to have a different employee/employer interaction based on trust and flexibility. At many companies, the employee is treated as a servant of the higher ups, but at Ivani they have decided that the employer shouldn't dictate when/how the employees work. They have found that there is a huge increase in efficiency by working to your own schedule--in fact up to a 25-30% increase. Working to your own schedule is better than a 9-5 job, helping you work to your full potential. This approach means that employees don't have to come in on a bad day, and when they do come in it's because they want to get work done. When you have energy and are excited about your work, you can be more efficient--and it lets you have more fun.
The History of Ivani
"I can still barely believe the chain of events that started Ivani, let alone the fact that the company now exists," explained Matt. "It's amazing what one lunch meeting can lead to. The short version of the story goes something like this: Justin met John at a panel discussion. Justin introduced John to Herb King (our CEO). John suggests to Justin that he meet me for lunch. I meet Justin for lunch, and in a follow up e-mail I pitch an idea to Justin. Justin passes it along to Herb, Herb asks for some more information on the idea, more information is created/presented. Idea is accepted, Ivani is born!"
John and Justin first met at a university seminar. John then did some consulting work for Justin at King Innovation, continuing that relationship. After several interactions with Justin, John suggested that Justin meet with Matt for lunch. At first, Matt was just happy to meet another contact, but then they started chatting about issues with the current business world. This topic nicely meshed with what Matt wanted to do next in his career.
Justin was well versed in marketing and Matt knew about the technical side.
One of the topics they were discussing was how one of the biggest barriers in business revolves around having (or not having) the right credentials. Matt got around this problem by getting an MBA from an online university while he was working at DRS--according to him, the course was not too challenging, and he got straight As. As someone who had been working in business, Justin thought that it was funny how easily Matt got his MBA. Either way, having this degree seems to help in the business world. Matt and Justin parted from that lunch, and it at first appeared that nothing more would come of this interaction.
However, this meeting was only the beginning. At the end of that meeting, Justin asked Matt if he had any ideas rattling around that would be worth starting a business from. At the time, Matt didn't think so, but upon his arrival at home, a general idea occurred to him. Generally speaking, he was curious how much energy he was using around the house and was frustrated with how various parts were configured. Upon some thought, he came up with a general question that needed answering and a first pass solution. He loosely pitched this idea to Justin in an email--and Justin liked it. Justin then passed it on to Herb, the current CEO of Ivani, and Herb's response was "Yeah that'd be awesome."
So the team started to meet and discuss the terms and conditions. The process of creating Ivani was great because of the people. They had lots of discussion, but a smooth progression--Matt expected there to be hard negotiating but everyone just agreed. In fact, of all of them, it was the lawyers who had the toughest time trying to write up the agreement!
Everyone at Ivani knows their role, and is very capable at it. Matt is no marketing expert, so he leaves that to Justin. Herb and Justin are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the technology, they leave that to Matt, John, and the engineering team. Everyone is happy to be working together to execute on the vision that is Ivani. As an interesting side note, it's never obvious who is and isn't super well connected. There are those who believe that if you are "...fair to the world, the world is fair to you." Or, in other words, "you get rich only if you make others rich." Thus, it pays to listen when technology savvy people pitch ideas backed with strong market data.
It's always a risk to enter a new market, but Herb has been down the entrepreneurial road before, bringing all of the lessons he's learned along the way. Justin leads the marketing team at King and has always wanted to launch a product in new and interesting markets. Matt always wanted to be a part of a team that's out there to get the job done, not fussing about corporate nonsense every step of the way. Overall, Ivani came from pitching the idea, having confidence, and knowing the right people.
Advice for Others?
"If you want to start a business, work through your contacts,' says Matt. "You never know when a business leader may want to do things differently, but doesn't have the resources to make it happen."
Of course, in most startups, you have to worry about funding. In Ivani's case, they were fortunate to have big company support allowing them to focus on the product and not on how they would pay for it. There is also the problem of trying to be competitive in the huge space that is the corporate market.
While work and life experience can be powerful, it's not necessarily the biggest thing.
Matt learned through this process that it is also important how well you learn and fit in to an environment. Also... having confidence in your ideas. If you believe it, you can do it. That often matters more than previous training or anything else. Matt realizes that at times he may come across as quite confident, but he believes you need to balance that with recognizing when you're in over your head.
Overall, the message that I took away from talking to Matt is that you never know what you'll end up doing, and the wonderful thing about Olin is that it teaches you how to learn. And that's often better than any preset knowledge.
Currently, Ivani is still working through the end of the "legalese," and will hopefully be hiring soon! The soon to be open positions are preliminarily up on their website for those who might be curious.