How do you recover from being booted out of your own company?

Today’s entrepreneur started a business and I’m impressed by what they built. But he was booted out.

I don’t know how he dealt with it but he picked himself up and started a new business.

That’s what we’re here to talk about.

Matt Cyrankiewicz is the Founder of HooKooeKoo which is a branding, UX and UI design consultancy company.

Mateusz Cyrankiewicz

Mateusz Cyrankiewicz

Hookooekoo

Matt Cyrankiewicz is the Founder of HooKooeKoo which is a branding, UX and UI design consultancy company.

roll-angle

Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, Freedom Fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses, and I have to remember to stop banging my table. I don’t know when you talk if you do that too. I bang my table when I talk.

Mateusz: [inaudible 00:00:22] no.

Andrew: Joining me today is an entrepreneur who started a company and a couple of businesses within that business. I’m impressed by what they built. He was booted out, and I don’t know how he dealt with I, but he picked himself up and started a new business, and we’re here to talk about what he started first and how he ended up with this new company. Do you go by Matt, by the way?

Mateusz: Yeah, I do.

Andrew: You do?

Mateusz: Yeah.

Andrew: How do you pronounce your first name, though?

Mateusz: Mateusz.

Andrew: Mateusz. Where are you from?

Mateusz: From Poland.

Andrew: From Poland.

Mateusz: Born and raised.

Andrew: You go by Matt here because most people have a hard time pronouncing Mateusz. Is that right?

Mateusz: Yep, that’s absolutely fine.

Andrew: And his last name is Cyrnakiewicz. How did I do with that?

Mateusz: That works, yeah.

Andrew: So Matt founded Dropr, which enables designers to show a portfolio of their work online. It makes it easy. It makes their work look beautiful. He also is the founder of table.co, which is a marketplace of experts that you can hire to help you with your investor pitch, design with your brand, ghostwrite, so many other things. Nice network that they’ve built up over there. As I said, he’s no longer at those companies. Instead, he picked himself up. Why do you shake your head as I say you’re no longer with those companies? You did one of these.

Mateusz: I’m still on the board.

Andrew: You’re still on the board.

Mateusz: Part of something I negotiated back then, but yeah.

Andrew: Okay. I’m glad that we acknowledged the headshake. Anytime I get something like that, I want to see it in your eyes, and I want to [inaudible 00:01:55].

Mateusz: Okay. [inaudible 00:01:56].

Andrew: His new business is HOO KOO E KOO, which we’ll talk about where you came up with the name for that business, but it is a full-stack digital product agency. It includes branding, UX, UI, design, development, everything. We’re going to talk about how he did that.

This interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first will help you host your very own website. It’s called HostGator. And the second will help you hire a phenomenal developer. It’s called Toptal.

Matt, how are you able to talk about the fact that you’re no longer with the business? Isn’t that one of those things that most companies force you to keep quiet?

Mateusz: Firstly, no, I wasn’t required to keep it quiet. I did keep it quiet for some time, I guess, for some parts of it at least. And also, it’s been a while. It’s already been three years, I believe.

Andrew: All right. I’m glad you’re able to do this. HOO KOO E KOO, we’re going to talk about what that means. Let’s get into the revenue of that business. How much revenue are you producing let’s say the last 12 months?

Mateusz: The last 12 months would be, we’re a good way to close out around $1 million U.S., but I would say $800,000 maybe.

Andrew: $600,000?

Mateusz: $800,000 for the last . . .

Andrew: $800,000 over the last 12 months?

Mateusz: Twelve months, yeah.

Andrew: You know what? When I asked you before the interview to prep you for this question, you said, “Honestly, I don’t know the number.” I wonder how you don’t know the number. You don’t check the numbers on, like, a monthly basis? You don’t go through your income statement?

Mateusz: It fluctuates a lot. So I do, but I wish it was. That’s one thing about running an agency. It’s very uneven, so month-to-month it fluctuates a lot. So that’s why I can have a window of prediction, but it’s hard to tell even if the year is ending in, you know, three months. I think it’s, like, largely a guess at this point.

Andrew: How many people in the agency?

Mateusz: Right now we have 29 people.

Andrew: Twenty-nine people?

Mateusz: Yeah.

Andrew: And it’s doing less than $1 million a year?

Mateusz: But they’re not full-time. It depends on the projects we’ve got.

Andrew: Got it. So when you need somebody to work on a project . . .

Mateusz: [inaudible 00:04:03].

Andrew: . . . you bring them in for that project. If you don’t have work, you don’t pay.

Mateusz: We build a team. Out of our team, we build a team around the project, yeah.

Andrew: Okay. I’m going to understand more about that business in a moment. Let’s get back to Poland. You grew up there, and you had the most fascinating experience in school. You’ve got to tell people about grades and what your teacher decided to do about that.

Mateusz: Oh, you mean . . . I wonder what your question is about.

Andrew: This is . . .

Mateusz: Is that about my, like, preschool times?

Andrew: Yeah, I thought in preschool your teachers were not allowed to use grades to evaluate the students, which, frankly, I don’t think it makes sense in preschool to have grades, but your teacher decided to do something different that ended up creating this libertarian utopia. What happened?

Mateusz: Yeah, so I think that springs back from the note on, like, my first entrepreneurial events I guess in my life when I was six, perhaps, I think. At the time, it’s basically illegal or not allowed to give grades to young kids in Poland because it corrupts them, apparently. So one of the teachers came up with the idea to reward us because we still wanted [inaudible 00:05:15] for doing well and just something to show our parents. So she came up with an idea to distribute Monopoly dollars within our community there and reward us for doing well at whatever we were doing, and that actually led to the creation of a little economy.

Andrew: No, wait. She would give out Monopoly dollars to students if they did what? What would earn you a Monopoly dollar?

Mateusz: Drawing a good thing or getting the lettering right. I don’t know, whatever you learn when you’re six.

Andrew: Okay, and then you were . . . were you able to use the Monopoly dollar to buy stuff from other students?

Mateusz: Yeah, so that actually created this little libertarian sort of community where you could actually get quite a lot. So for example, I didn’t have a bicycle at the time, but I was pretty good at English and at drawing, so I would draw things for other kids. I would draw, like, little sports cars and dolphins for girls, and they would give me those dollars. Then I would spend those on borrowing a bicycle from one of the guys there to actually learn to ride a bike. So that’s how I learned to ride a bike. I was just using those Monopoly money to borrow a bike at the time.

Andrew: I think that’s fantastic. I would love it if my kids’ school did that.

Mateusz: Yeah, I guess it kind of corrupts you, but it also gives you the right idea about the economy we are living in.

Andrew: What do you mean? What’s the corruption? Is it corruption in that nobody wants to do a favor for anyone else in school?

Mateusz: It led to a whole bunch of things where some kids would, like, bring in fake Monopoly money and so on. You know, it’s all issues that can happen in a scenario like that. You know, some of them had more power within a group of kids that they would be playing with.

Andrew: You know what? I’m okay with that. I think there was one day that my kid got bitten by someone else in school. They called us up. I said, “All right. That’s part of what happens in school. It sucks that he got bitten, but it’s part of what happens.” As far as, like, bad things that happen to preschoolers go, having somebody bring in fake Monopoly money is just a good teaching moment, not so much a bad experience. In my mind anyway, but I’m kind of libertarian.

Mateusz: It actually is a good teaching moment for the economics, yeah.

Andrew: Yeah, right.

Mateusz: I would agree with that.

Andrew: I’m going to fast forward a few years. You’re at The Gild from 2014 to 2015. Actually, even before you were at The Gild, you created Dropr. Where did the idea come to you for Dropr?

Mateusz: The Gild was more of a side gig, I would say. I was consulting with them. Dropr came out of another idea, which was called Showcase at the time, which was basically our idea to bring all creatives together, so create sort of a borderless environment for all creatives to collaborate and work together.

That came from sort of a personal need at the time because we were studying and working in multimedia and doing multimedia art, and we wanted to basically allow people to share videos and pictures and designs and art and text, everything in one, and that has evolved into this concept of a community where you can quickly share artwork and gain feedback. But also, there are a bunch of algorithms that connect you to other people, and you can quite easily form groups around your sort of style so that, for example, if there is a brief for you to create a video, it’s kind of easy to get, like, an illustrator, a director, a writer, a voiceover artist, whatever it would be and assemble that group within the platform.

Andrew: You know what? I think I understand it now. I’ve got your LinkedIn profile in front of me. You’re a guy who was doing a lot of UX design work, and you said, “I’d like to create a way for other people in the space to get to know each other so that they get to learn from each other and get to hang out, but also, if they need a reference to somebody who is connected to them in some way, they can get that. Am I right?

Mateusz: Sort of. I think that we can look at it as a multimedia [inaudible 00:09:17] of sorts/Squarespace where you would have basically a very simple tool for creation of a portfolio, and behind the scenes the system would work to connect you to other creatives around the world.

Andrew: But the goal initially was, “How do I connect these creatives?”

Mateusz: The goal was how to connect the creatives, yeah.

Andrew: Why did you want to connect creatives? Did you see it as a business goal? Did you see that they would be willing to pay you some money, or did you say, “I want to connect with other creatives?” I’m seeing you smile as I bring up money.

Mateusz: Yeah, because the issue was it came from a clearly idealistic idea. “Let’s connect the creatives and create, you know, the best portfolio platform in the world.” It did . . . for the first I would say two or three years, we didn’t have so much money motivation for it. That’s why it took us a while to bring it over. We didn’t have . . . you know, that was done in Wales when we started. We didn’t have this, like, Silicon Valley mindset yet or anything like that. We didn’t know we had to, like, get big investments . . .

Andrew: Wales is in the . . .

Mateusz: . . . [inaudible 00:10:15] and so on. We were, but we learned those things as we went on, and we had to make a bunch of mistakes. One of them was not focusing on revenue. You know, we’re like, “We’re going to figure it out at some point. Let’s first build it and have people use it.” And so we started building it while at university, and people started using at and started going, you know, and then later we then started having the seed round and we got . . .

Andrew: Later who started? Later who had a seed round?

Mateusz: Pardon?

Andrew: You said later something about a seed round.

Mateusz: Later, we actually started following just more of a regular pattern for a startup.

Andrew: Did you raise money?

Mateusz: So at first, yeah. At first, we just basically bootstrapped it through doing some UX work on the side, mostly, and then we got the money.

Andrew: Okay. What’s the first thing that you were charging for on the site?

Mateusz: We didn’t charge for anything for quite a long time, and once we started, though, it was basically a freemium model. Eventually, Dropr had three streams of revenue, basically – freemium, which showed the strongest, and tiny commission on artwork sales. We had artwork sales across the system and across all media, and there was . . . the commission was, like, 3 times lower than anywhere else because we wanted to also sort of liberate artists from the 30% fees on their music sales and so on or 15% as it would be on Bandcamp, for example. And the third one was advertising.

Andrew: Okay. So you started to bring in money. What came first, charging for freemium products?

Mateusz: Freemium, yeah.

Andrew: Like a percentage. It was first that, and then it was raise money.

Mateusz: No, no, no, we raised money before that.

Andrew: So first raise money and then, “Let’s put a business plan behind this.” Who did you raise money from?

Mateusz: From a private investor. The first round was from a private investor at the time.

Andrew: Okay, and that’s when you moved from London to San Francisco, right?

Mateusz: No, that was what we called seed. It would be more of a pre-seed, I guess. We got the money from just one angel investor at a time. That was before moving to San Francisco. That was when we were based in the UK. While moving to San Francisco, we raised another round, which was actually the seed round, the proper seed round, and that was much more money. That came from seven . . .

Andrew: How much money is that? What’s going on with our connection? Oh, there. How much money did you make?

Mateusz: I don’t know. Altogether, I think, like, $1.4 million I think at the time.

Andrew: $1.4 million. Okay. At what point . . . I mean, I know the year when you created table.co – it was 2015 – but what led you to do it? At what point did you say, “You know what? We’re good with Dropr. It’s time for us to create a sister site?”

Mateusz: We hit the ceiling. There were a bunch of events that led to that creation. We wanted to create a collaboration environment for quite a long time, and it felt like we could focus on a new product. There was a very exciting opportunity for us to create something with potentially much higher impact. So we basically wanted to create a new product that would plug into the same community, you know, of creatives . . .

Andrew: The community of creatives.

Mateusz: . . . and then eventually expand across many more verticals. That was initially basically a collaboration environment or space where you bring in any kind of expert to a table and work with them and reward them for their work with a payment, essentially Slack plus LinkedIn plus Google Drive of sorts.

Andrew: Wait. So I see it today. I see a lot of what you just mentioned in the site today, but I don’t understand how it evolved to that. Today when I go to table.co, what I see is, at its heart, you talk about chat, you talk about all this other stuff, but at its heart, if I need a ghostwriter, someone to write a blog post in my name, I go to your marketplace. I look for writers. I find someone whose work I like. I talk to them, and then I can hire that woman – I saw this woman who seemed interesting – and pay her to create a blog post in my name. That’s at the heart of how it works, right?

Mateusz: That’s how it works now. Yeah, that’s true.

Andrew: But when it started, it was more of, “If you want to hire one of our designers from this place, you can collaborate, you can chat, and then you could eventually hire.” It was more soft like that?

Mateusz: It started as a distributed sort of global network where you have vetted individuals in various areas, and if you need to assemble a team for a project – let’s say you have a short-term project or you want to plan a summer camp with a bunch of friends – you can form those disposable tables, which are essentially chatrooms with, like, full multimedia support so you can sketch things. You can exchange files and so on pretty quickly.

So the focus was on very frictionless collaboration between those people, and you could basically extend your team very easily with other teams around the world. Because a lot of people are moving towards working remotely. A lot of people are freelancing, you know? It’s estimated that since 2020, actually, more of the American workforce will be doing some form of consulting work than not, and so we were gearing towards that.

Andrew: Okay. So if I understand it right, it was, “You have an idea for a project. We’ve got a bunch of people here who could collaborate with you. You pick the ones that you like, get them in a chatroom, start chatting with them. The chat room was more than just text. You can share images. You can share other files. You can also doodle on the screen so we can all see it. We all work together.” Was there any payment involved in that?

Mateusz: Exactly. So the people decide their rate. They can join it for free. You can have a chat for free with people, or they charge you for their involvement in that table.

Andrew: Okay, and then within the network I could pay them to be a part of it. So if I don’t have a UX person who’s interested, I could pay that person. He comes in and brings his UX knowledge, shares it in this chat. I pay him, and then he can move on to do other things. Beautiful. I’ve got it. That’s the original idea. How did that work out for you?

Mateusz: Well, for me, it worked for a while. We launched it in San Francisco, and it was very promising. Unfortunately, I got . . . as soon as I left Europe, I got voted out, so I wasn’t able to carry that vision with me.

Andrew: Okay, but did it take off for the company? Were they able to produce revenue with that? Did people actually pay for it?

Mateusz: No, the company didn’t. To my knowledge, unfortunately, it’s not doing so well. I don’t think they’ve ever reached revenue, and it’s been three years.

Andrew: Not with that model.

Mateusz: They’ve pivoted a couple of times since, yeah. I don’t know. I don’t want to [inaudible 00:17:24].

Andrew: You weren’t there.

Mateusz: There was a clear lack of vision and direction, which led to quite a collapse of that company.

Andrew: I’m feeling that it’s a little bit hard to hear you on this because you’re not speaking as clearly as I know you have. I’m wondering if it’s because I’m making you feel uncomfortable by talking about things that have to do with business decisions you weren’t there to make. How much of it is that?

Mateusz: I think there is that element for sure. I don’t think it affects my delivery. I think it’s more perhaps the connection issues we’re seeing here.

Andrew: Okay. All right. Let me talk about my first sponsor and then come back in here and keep making you feel uncomfortable . . .

Mateusz: Sure. My pleasure.

Andrew: . . . until you regret ever asking to do this interview with me. All right. My first sponsor is a company called HostGator. Do you know HostGator at all, Matt?

Mateusz: I do know the brand.

Andrew: You do?

Mateusz: Mm-hmm.

Andrew: Good. Here’s the deal with HostGator. They’ve been around forever. At this point, they’ve got a reputation of being the low-cost option, right? You go to hostgator.com, and what are the first things that you see? “We can host your website,” really nice design, and you see a really cheap price. And frankly, absolutely, if you want to get a cheap way to get started, they have that. For less than $3 a month you can get your website up and running. You want a WordPress install? Press one button. It’s up and running. Want to do whatever you want with the WordPress install? They have no restrictions on plugins. Don’t be a jerk, but no restrictions on plugins unlike some other companies that we’ve worked with.

But as your business grows, as you need more and more support, they will scale up with you. They will do things like give you those restrictions on plugins. That’s a new thing, Matt, in WordPress – actually, it’s not so new anymore, it’s about four years ago – managed WordPress hosting where they will carefully vet the plugins you’re allowed to install, where they will make sure that everything is updated for you. You want that? There are tons of competitors who now decide they’re there going to charge hundreds, thousands of dollars a month for this managed WordPress hosting. Well, guess what? It’s not advertised on their homepage very clearly, not in my opinion, but HostGator will offer that.

So here’s the deal. Instead of me getting into all the things that they offer, I’m going to tell you when you go to hostgator.com, you have a cheap option to get started, but it will scale up with your business. And if you use the special URL I’m about to give you, you’re going to get up to 62% off their already low prices. So here’s the URL. It’s hostgator.com/mixergy. hostgator.com/mixergy. You’ll get unmetered disk space, unmetered bandwidth, unlimited email addresses, 24/7/365 tech support, and a 45-day moneyback guarantee if you don’t like them. hostgator.com/mixergy.

Okay, Matt. It sounds like we’re getting to the point in the story where you come to the U.S. and then you get booted. What happened? Talk to me about how you discovered that you were done.

Mateusz: Oh, well, we spent a few months building the team and the product here. So we hired a whole bunch of people. We had an office and so on. We set everything up. We launched the app in beta, if I remember correctly, in San Francisco, and then the following week I was flying to Europe to pick up my visa. I had an old one. So I flew, and I found a sort of “by the way” email in my mailbox kind of, like, mentioning a board meeting which was clearly scheduled to be when I’m taking another flight. And so on the way to the airport I called in from a taxi to find out what’s going on, and on that call I was voted out.

As I was voted out with, like, no chance to actually speak about anything, you know, I arrived to the airport. I just backed up some of the data I could, and then I took the flight. When I landed, all my emails, my email account that I’ve used for, you know, six years while building this and a previous company, all of my information and everything was removed. People were told not to talk to me.

Andrew: Wowie.

Mateusz: When I landed, I landed without the business I had been building for six years, you know, and all my career, pretty much.

Andrew: Wowie. You know what? The lack of email access is in some ways the most disturbing thing because, as a founder, all the little things that you have . . . like, if you have a journal, you might use your personal email address to log in to that, and now, suddenly, it’s hard to log back in, right?

Mateusz: So many things. So many things, contacts, yeah.

Andrew: What was the most painful thing [inaudible 00:21:46]?

Mateusz: People kept emailing me there for the next following two years, you know?

Andrew: I’m sorry?

Mateusz: People kept emailing me on those emails for two years after that, not knowing, and I was unable to read those emails.

Andrew: Oh, that would frustrate me to no end. Okay. I’ve got to remember to keep using my personal email address, not my business email. Why did they do it? Let’s see it from their point of view. Why did they want you out?

Mateusz: We had clear vision disagreements with the CEO. I appointed our previous seed investor as the CEO, and later it turned out he had kind of a longer-term plan to remove me from the company and basically be able to run it as his own. That’s what he’s been telling a lot of people, that he’s the founder of the company, which is not true. Yeah, and somehow he managed to make that work with the board, and, you know, I got booted.

Andrew: What percentage of the business did you own at that time?

Mateusz: I think just under 35%.

Andrew: Oh, wow. Were there other founders?

Mateusz: I’m sorry. I lost you there.

Andrew: Oh. Were there other founders in the business?

Mateusz: There was one other founder, yeah.

Andrew: Okay, and did he side with you or with the business?

Mateusz: Initially, for the first couple of months, and then he sided with the other side, and then he sort of stopped being involved in it, I believe.

Andrew: Wow. Okay, and when you say “different vision,” what was your vision, and what’s their vision?

Mateusz: I think we had general disagreements on the shape of the product and the direction. My vision . . . I had this sort of idealistic vision, I would say, about, you know, removing a lot of friction from the way people encounter each other in order to create things, create new projects, to build new, beautiful work. A lot of encounters with people where you end up creating a company that’s eventually going to be a multibillion-dollar company – let’s say Google – is circumstantial. You meet at school and so on. If you can actually apply a bunch of algorithms, let those people work remotely, get to know each other, do some projects together, you would remove a lot of friction or circumstance from those people coming together. So I think the overarching goal I had was to be quite horizontal and allow for people to truly create their visions enabled by this platform.

Andrew: Okay, and they didn’t . . . that seems like a very hippy sort of business.

Mateusz: I think it’s quite . . . I think . . . I’m not sure if it’s hippy. It’s definitely a revenue model, but it’s definitely . . . I think it focuses on, I would say, helping create a positive vision for the future, which is an area I’ve been deeply caring about for a while.

Andrew: Okay. I can see that. And then what’s the vision that they chose instead of yours?

Mateusz: I think there were some [inaudible 00:25:01] in the journey. Eventually, I think it became just like a smaller expert network where there are a bunch of experts, and you can hire them per hour. I think that’s the current shape.

Andrew: That’s the way I see it now.

Mateusz: A lot of the collaboration elements, actually, are still there.

Andrew: Right. That’s the way that I see it now. It’s a place where I can see . . . it’s not like Upwork in that I’m picking the person, not having person picked to do my job, right?

Mateusz: Yeah. Well, I think it’s all about consulting. Like, kind of higher-level consulting, yeah.

Andrew: Is it weird that now you’re still on the board?

Mateusz: Yeah, it’s weird.

Mateusz: You see the person who took over for you. Is that weird?

Mateusz: It’s been weird since, yeah. Well, that was my choice and my decision, and I wanted to be [inaudible 00:26:02] too.

Andrew: Because you wanted to have some control over this thing that is . . .

Mateusz: I wanted to have, you know, at least the knowledge and some input into it for sure, so that was my choice, and, you know, I fought for it.

Andrew: How do you feel about having . . . you’re the one who brought in the investor, right?

Mateusz: At the time? No. That’s why also I was voted out because it was easy to. No, I didn’t bring in most of it.

Andrew: The person who became . . . and this is Christian, right? Christian Petschen. He’s the CEO? He’s an investor?

Mateusz: Yeah, he was the original investor, and then he became the CEO.

Andrew: Yeah, you brought him in, didn’t you?

Mateusz: I did, yeah.

Andrew: You did?

Mateusz: We’ve known each other . . .

Andrew: This is very much like a Steve Jobs situation.

Mateusz: Sorry?

Andrew: This is like a Steve Jobs situation.

Mateusz: More like Elon Musk since he was sacked from PayPal during a flight, and they attempted making it during the flight. They just missed it by an hour.

Andrew: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Mateusz: So I would say more in this direction, but they’re a similar kind of thing.

Andrew: And also, I was thinking Elon Musk in the sense that Elon Musk is not really the founder, too, of Tesla. He was an investor who became the founder. I guess what we’re seeing is . . .

Mateusz: Who possibly learned a lesson in his own experience there.

Andrew: Right, that he got to pull it his time. It was pulled on him, and now he gets to pull it.

Mateusz: It happens. It happens, yeah. I have absolutely no, like . . .

Andrew: Is it very . . . I had dinner with an entrepreneur. I won’t mention his name. The company is very well known in Silicon Valley. He was booted from his company, and his investor – I also won’t say her name because she’s also pretty well known – he said, “Look.” He said, “I couldn’t come to terms with this.” He goes, “How am I going to deal with this? It’s my company, my baby. Now these guys who I trusted now kicked me out. So I have trust issues, I have control issues, and I have “I don’t know who I am and what I am anymore” issues. How do I deal with this? What happens with my world? What happens to . . . you suffer for your business.”

And she said to him, “Look. It’s really hard, I know, but just think of it this way. These two guys that you worked with are now going to work their asses off to make you rich. Wish them well. Hope they do well. It’s not ideal, but if they do well, it’s good for you too.” He said somehow that allowed him to be okay with it. Does that make sense?

Mateusz: Yeah. When it happened, I took a month to think about it. My first initial idea was to strike back at [inaudible 00:28:22] and fight for it, but in the process I realized that it’s going to be hard, and probably it would actually destroy the company. So I decided to do just that, and what I did instead is I founded HOO KOO E KOO, and I went traveling the world. So I decided to . . .

Andrew: I saw your blog post on it [inaudible 00:28:42]. You said . . .

Mateusz: What I finally . . . I decided to do what I’ve I wanted to do for, you know, years, actually travel the world, and that was the first opportunity, if you look at it this way, to actually not have an office and a team there and stuff I’ve been doing there for years and be able to move. So that’s what I did.

Andrew: You had a little list for yourself. You said, “Look. Instead of fighting this, instead of getting a job or giving up, I chose another path. I decided to launch my own digital product agency and get on the road. I wanted to see if it was viable to,” and here’s your checklist, “travel constantly while working, have good life/work balance in that order, life first, have time to learn, keep everyone involved happy – coworkers, clients – and achieve both business and personal goals. That’s how HOO KOO E KOO was born.” Let me take a moment to talk about my sponsor, and then we’ll get into that.

Mateusz: Sure.

Andrew: My sponsor’s a company called Toptal. You know, before the interview starts, I check with every one of my guests to see, “Is this okay if I talk about Toptal,” because you might be investing in a competitor. Is it too competitive with TABLE where at TABLE someone can go to table.co and look through a bunch of developers and hire someone? Is Toptal the hiring platform different?

Mateusz: I think it’s different. Perhaps the original concept for TABLE would be a competitor of Toptal to some extent, but the way I understand Toptal, it’s more of a job-seeker platform where you can hire people [inaudible 00:30:11], right? It’s not kind of like an ad hoc sort of freelance consulting platform.

Andrew: It’s not a platform in the sense that you cannot go to their website and start picking people that you want and hiring them. The way it works with them is someone like you, actually. It often happens. Someone has a digital agency. They say, “You know what? I can only do so much. I’m not willing to hire long-term people and pay payroll and all that, but I need people to do things like UX design. I need people to develop for iOS because that’s big or create,” I don’t know, whatever comes out, “virtual-reality experiences. “I don’t have that, but my client’s looking for it,” whatever it is that they need. The agency will call up Toptal and say, “Here’s how I work. I’m a little bit weird in that I am constantly in different time zones, but I require everyone to be on this weekly call,” or whatever your thing is. What’s your biggest quirk as a guy who runs an agency, Matt?

Mateusz: Biggest quirk?

Andrew: Quirk, yes.

Mateusz: What do you mean by quirk?

Andrew: Here’s my big quirk. I do not want to have people in my office, and I do not want to talk to you on the phone, but I need you to be on a meeting with me once a week with me and my whole team. That you can say is kind of a quirky thing, right? Most people would want to get on calls more often. I’d rather not. Use our software.

Mateusz: I don’t know. There is a . . . I’m pretty sure there’s a few. There’s an interview question I always ask when we’re hiring someone.

Andrew: What’s that?

Mateusz: And that’s, “What would you do if I suddenly disappeared in the jungle for two weeks?”

Andrew: That’s perfect, yes.

Mateusz: And that’s something that hasn’t really happened, but it’s good to have this, I think for many reasons, have this worked out, and I think everyone at the company is already prepared. You know, like, if I wouldn’t be around, you can still run things just as well, and we’re always working towards that.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. What you’re getting at is, “I want the freedom to disappear for a couple of weeks and know that if I hired somebody that they could still run their job, still run the company in that period.” That’s the thing. Maybe quirk is not the right word, but it’s a unique way that you operate. Everybody has it. So they ask you about that, and they ask you about the project that you need done. They ask you about how many people you’re looking for, part-time, full-time, project-based, whatever, and then they go into their network, and they hire people – people who have been tested, people who have been vetted, people who have been put through the ringer.

I had a guest here who is a phenomenal entrepreneur, a great developer. He heard me say it’s tough to get through the Toptal test. He said, “I want to do it.”

“Great, if you do it, I will pay you how much money we need in order to give to your charity.”

He said, “Great. Boys and Girls Club of America.”

We locked it up. I checked in with him a couple weeks later. I said, “Did you pass?”

He goes, “I can’t do this. The length of the test is insane.”

The people who have gone through Toptal have passed that insane test, and they’re great developers, and when you talk to Toptal they will set you up with someone who understands your unique way of doing things. I call it a quirk, but we can call it a unique way of doing things.

Here’s the URL, toptal.com/mixergy, where you’re going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to 2 weeks. That’s T-O-P as in the top of your head, T-A-L as in talent, toptal.com/mixergy. Bring them your most challenging job opportunities, job placements . . . what is it? The most challenging roles. They’ll fill them.

Why did you want to do this? It seems to me like maybe your somebody who felt a little confined by running a business. That’s why you prioritize life, prioritize travel. Am I right, Matt?

Mateusz: I wouldn’t say confined. I would say overworked for sure. I definitely . . .

Andrew: What was your work . . . how many hours a week did you work before?

Mateusz: At the time, I think about 70, 80 probably quite often, especially in the [inaudible 00:34:00].

Andrew: Seventy to 80 hours?

Mateusz: Yeah, I think that was . . . yeah, that’s probably fair. It was quite a lot. So, you know, that hasn’t been, like, the duration. Probably the three months to four months leading to that for sure I worked quite a lot, and so, yeah, it was very appealing. I just wanted to learn a lot. I wanted to find out why did that happen and how to prevent it in the future.

Andrew: Why do you think it happened?

Mateusz: I wanted to see the world. I wanted to . . . for many reasons. There were a lot. Of course, many reasons were out of my influence. I think my mistake there mostly was just not developing relationships with the board well enough and showing them who I am really and what is my importance there. I sort of overlooked that thinking that if I focused on the project and product and since the vision comes from me, I’m fairly safe, but that doesn’t seem to be the case always. Yeah, so the lesson was actually to be better with people. I think that was quite a part of it.

Andrew: Yeah, it is kind of weird that you want to keep communicating with them. Like, I notice that I keep talking about how I invested in Assist. I made a few angel investments. The reason Assist stands out is because Shane is so freaking, like, friendly and so social. He’s sending me text messages. He’s sending me email updates. From time to time he’s asking me to help out with something.

He just walks past my house one day and says, “Hey, Andrew. Do you want to come out and go for a walk for just one block?” and as we’re going for a walk for a block he says, “Andrew, thank you for getting me here.” I go, “How did I get you here? I just came in for a ride. I like the idea that you’re building this business. That’s the reason I’m investing.” But he’s good at doing that, at making you feel included, making you feel like you’ve got a vested interest in his success, and that you created his success even though, in reality, you’re riding his coattails. That’s the thing that you’re talking about, but you’re not into that type of thing.

Mateusz: I wasn’t at the time, no. I think, yeah, the big lesson was to be actually that person who stays in touch and gets to know people. [inaudible 00:36:11], yeah.

Andrew: All right. So the work that you were going to do, was it from the beginning going to be you supervising it or you doing the work for your clients?

Mateusz: Oh, at first I was just like, “Okay. Let’s go traveling. In the meantime, I’ll freelance as a UX designer,” right? And over time it just became sort of a bigger agency. At the time, the idea was like, “Let’s do an experiment. Let’s see what’s possible. If I limit myself to work only 20 hours a week and constantly travel around the world, can I still build a company?”

Andrew: How did you get your first client?

Mateusz: [inaudible 00:36:43] . . . so my first, it was sort of easy because my first two clients were kind of waiting for me already. So all it took was reaching out and saying, “Hey, I’m actually free now. I can do work.”

Andrew: Because they reached out to you before back when you were running the company?

Mateusz: Yeah, yeah, like, quite a while before, and they were sort of, like, just there, and I knew that they wanted my help with their startups. So that was fairly easy. Yeah, the first two clients don’t make it an agency, but that helped a lot. It was amazing, actually, in the process of starting that. So that’s how we started, and, you know, at first I actually did do, like, a half-a-year trip around . . . I went to India and Sri Lanka and a bit around Europe, the Caribbean.

Andrew: And it was just you doing the work yourself.

Mateusz: Me and I think at the time just two developers that were actually developers that came from my previous startup.

Andrew: Part-time with them also, right?

Mateusz: Contract, but they were full-time, I would say, yeah. I came back after half a year, and I just sold all the bigger things, gave away all the smaller things to charity, gave up my apartment, and I went traveling for another two years.

Andrew: Wow. You know, one problem that I have with traveling and working is, yes, I’m definitely more inspired, but it’s a bit of a pain to go find the right Wi-Fi, make sure you’re sitting in a quiet place where people aren’t going to disturb you, where your laptop is not going to get stolen, and it becomes a little bit distracting. I hate to sound anal about it. I had to go into a Regus office. I know they’re a sponsor, so maybe it seems like I’m promoting them, but I just go into, like, a quiet office, and then I’m right back to where I started, which . . . I don’t know. Do you find that too that it’s just too much setup and breakdown every day?

Mateusz: I would say daily it’s not so much of an issue. I would say, like, the setup/breakdown when you actually move between places, that can be an issue. So if you’re, like, every week or two weeks – I think on average I change often the country every two weeks – that’s an issue. The flights get pretty annoying after a while.

Andrew: You think you’re going to rest or thinking you’ll be rejuvenated because you get to watch videos or read on the flight or you’ll be productive and work, but in reality, eventually, it dries out your head.

Mateusz: Yeah, yeah, it slowly gets tiring, especially if you, for example, work from Asia with clients that are in the U.S. or so on. You have to stay up at night. It’s definitely not convenient. You know, the difference is huge. Now that I’ve moved to New York and I can have my own quiet place and work from there and have a studio, the difference is gigantic. So that was a part of the challenge, basically. I was wondering if that’s actually even possible to run this company and still deliver stuff that people are happy with and have it done around the world. It seemed very challenging at the time. So that’s . . . yeah, it is possible [inaudible 00:39:41].

Andrew: All right. I’m going to get into how you got better at that, but I missed one question that I know our listeners are asking themselves.

Mateusz: Go ahead.

Andrew: And as someone from San Francisco, I didn’t even notice. What is HOO KOO E KOO?

Mateusz: HOO KOO E KOO, originally? The name?

Andrew: Yeah.

Mateusz: So HOO KOO E KOO comes from a story. I’m not sure how much time we’ve got, but I can give you, like, a super-short synopsis. Once I got lost. North of San Francisco there is a mountain called Mount Tamalpais. I was given a map by some guy, and he told me, like, “Hey, like, if you’re here, just go up. Go to the peak. It’s a good view of the Bay area. It’s going to take you two hours.” It doesn’t take two hours. It takes seven hours. It got absolutely dark at night when I was descending. My car was parked by Muir Woods in the Sequoia Woods, and it got absolutely pitch-black dark. I was, like, running through the words and trying to find a way, and I found little lanterns by the side of the street off the trail in the middle of the woods, and I ended up at a party [inaudible 00:40:44].

Andrew: You ended up what?

Mateusz: At a party, the Muir Woods fundraiser where there were a whole bunch of people in, you know, like . . .

Andrew: And this was a party in Muir Woods.

Mateusz: And I think it happens . . . I think there’s only one party that happens there a year. This was just a random night that I just happened to be there, and the trail that I descended from the hill back to the woods was called HOO KOO E KOO, and then, when all of this stuff was happening, I was thinking about a name for my company, and I thought, “HOO KOO E KOO is a good name because it’s going to bring me from the darkness back to light or the party.”

Andrew: Back to the party.

Mateusz: And so that’s why I named the company HOO KOO E KOO. But then I think half a year later someone messaged me on the website. They were like, “Hey, did you name your company after a pack of hunters from Marin County?” I was like, ” [inaudible 00:41:39].” So I looked into it, and it turns out that HOO KOO E KOO were the tribe that used to run Marin County and also part of San Francisco before, you know, the white man arrived. So this has in a way turned out to be, like, the original or one of the original tribes of Silicon Valley, and in their language, HOO KOO E KOO basically means, “This is us.” I guess that’s how they introduced themselves, and the newcomers thought, “Okay. That’s . . .”

Andrew: That’s their name.

Mateusz: “They’re called HOO KOO E KOO.”

Andrew: Yeah, it’s like me saying hi to somebody in Spain, and they say, “Oh, this the guy from the Hi tribe.”

Mateusz: His name is Hi, yeah.

Andrew: Got it. All right. I get it. I had no idea. Now I’m looking at it on the map. I can see the trail. People have ridden it. People have hiked it. I can see it. It’s just, like, right near me. The trail is named after this tribe.

Let’s come back to your business. You decided, “I’m starting HOO KOO E KOO. I’m not going to repeat the old endless work cycles that I had before. I’m going to get really good.” You read “The 4-Hour Workweek” to learn how to be efficient. What did you use from “The 4-Hour Workweek” to keep yourself from working endlessly the way you did before?

Mateusz: Yeah, “The 4-Hour Workweek” was just one of the things I read. I just had, like, three months or four months where I wanted to consume some knowledge, which I should have done earlier, but I didn’t, and it was just one source of information. From what I remember from it, there’s a lot of good, really tightly packed knowledge around optimization in general like the 80/20 rule and so on. I think those elements really have helped me out.

Andrew: So what is it that you’re doing different now? I mean, you’ve got clients. It can be very overwhelming. Every one of them has demands. What’s one thing that you’re doing now to keep your company organized and to keep it manageable for yourself?

Mateusz: I think I manage to sort of focus on that 20% and give up quite a lot of control.

Andrew: Like what? What are you giving up control over?

Mateusz: Project management, production, elements of the creative process.

Andrew: Project management I understand. So there’s someone else who’s talking to clients and making sure that everything’s in your software, organized [inaudible 00:43:56], etc., right?

Mateusz: Mm-hmm.

Andrew: Is that a tough one to give up? It seems like that’s a natural.

Mateusz: It would be, but I used to be very, very focused . . . well, I’ve never run an agency, right? So before, it was sort of internal, mostly, aside from some projects that we did on the side. But yeah, it was . . . it was . . . that was . . . that would be the first to go to, right? But there’s a lot of creative processes you kind of need to . . . like, if you want to scale up a little bit more, you need to let people do their thing and not necessarily super-tightly control everything, more like, and learn how to still achieve the result. I think that was the hard part. At first I was like, “Okay. Well, let’s give up control,” and then we did a couple of things, and they were so far from what I would make then that everyone could tell. They weren’t necessarily bad. They were just different, and clients could tell and so on. So I had to change that [inaudible 00:44:52].

Andrew: The clients were buying into your vision, your designs.

Mateusz: My style, yeah.

Andrew: But they’re not buying someone else’s. It might be good, but that’s not what they’re looking for.

Mateusz: Exactly.

Andrew: And so you need to figure out how to pass the design work to someone else but still have it conform to your eye, to your vision so there’s a clear product. So how do you do that clear product that you’re selling? How do you do it?

Mateusz: Clear communication. Communication of your ideas I think is key to that.

Andrew: You hear about the client’s issue. You hear what they’re looking for. You envision with your designer what you should create, and then the designer needs to conform to your vision.

Mateusz: The designer is free to suggest their own vision as long as it conforms to, like, what we’re trying to create for the end user eventually, really. So, like, of course, brand and the client are important, but what really is important is the user or the consumer of the product. So as long as we’re aligned on the end goals, it seems to work where we can actually work in a sort of disjointed manner for parts of the project, and the designers can actually come up . . . because they do come up with better ideas than I do. You know, it’s not like I tell them what to do, yeah.

Andrew: To get clear on it, so I’m looking at the people who work with you according to LinkedIn. You’ve got a biz dev manager. You’ve got a creative producer and strategist, Tiger Lily, right? That’s her name? Is she full-time with you?

Mateusz: She’s not, no. She’s part-time. Also, I don’t . . . I’m not sure if LinkedIn is very up-to-date in general.

Andrew: Oh, really? Okay. You do have . . .

Mateusz: [inaudible 00:46:22].

Andrew: At one point you had a project manager. Who was the first person that you hired to be, like, your on . . . within the company, someone who is leading with you?

Mateusz: Yukiko [SP], who’s an amazing project manager. She actually helped me out a lot. She’s a very experienced one. She came from Sony PlayStation.

Andrew: Okay. So as a project manager because? Why was that the first tire?

Mateusz: Producer . . . because I just didn’t have enough time to manage projects anymore.

Andrew: And she was also working with the designers and making sure that they conformed to the deadline. Am I right?

Mateusz: She was, yeah. She was managing projects, I would say, and setting up things. She did quite a lot, actually. Since she was the first one, she had to be quite versatile.

Andrew: What else would she do?

Mateusz: A lot of things – quality assurance, some testing, some coming up with crazy ideas because she has plenty.

Andrew: Like what? What was a crazy idea that she had come up with?

Mateusz: Oh, we had to . . . when we were developing games, for example, she would name objects and game characters and stuff like that, and she’s pretty good with that.

Andrew: Okay. All right. Things are going well, but one big issue that I can see with this company is . . . well, two. Number one, it seems like you had to land in one city, so now you’re in New York. Why did you decide to stay in New York?

Mateusz: Oh, I’m in New York, but there are only two of us, three of us now in New York. Other than that, we have . . . we still . . .

Andrew: You still remote, but why did you decide not to keep traveling considering how important that was?

Mateusz: Oh, no. It was . . . you know, it was an experiment. I wanted to travel the world, sort of check it off the bucket list, and after two and a half years of pretty much constant travel, I decided that I’m tired and I’m done. And so I’ve been looking. Like, the last year was . . . quite a bit of it was actually, like, searching and looking for places around the world where I would like to settle for a while, and New York won that competition. It’s amazing.

Andrew: Where in New York are you?

Mateusz: Although right now I’m in San Francisco, actually. In New York, I’m in Williamsburg.

Andrew: Williamsburg? All right, and the other big challenge is you take on some clients who are startups who don’t work out. Have you had any not pay?

Mateusz: Yeah, we did [inaudible 00:48:43].

Andrew: Yeah? A lot?

Mateusz: Not a lot, I would say, but definitely a substantial amount where they either couldn’t pay . . . and that doesn’t happen [inaudible 00:48:54], actually. It’s happens. When I worked with startups, it happened a couple of times, though. It was actually their round fell through or something, and they basically couldn’t pay us or at least on time. Some [inaudible 00:49:05] projects it took us eight months to get the money back. So we learned. There was a bit of a learning curve as well. We had to learn how to secure that and how to always stay safe, how to, you know, keep things within budget and get paid at a certain cadence and so on so that we never end up left out without money again, but there were definitely stumbles along the way.

Andrew: And that was the big thing to start doing what? Can you repeat that? What are you doing now to make sure that you don’t get in trouble financially because someone closes up shop?

Mateusz: We just keep budgets and schedules pretty tight now, so we can basically get paid after each stage of a project.

Andrew: Right. What’s next for you? Are you going to start another software company or continue building HOO KOO E KOO?

Mateusz: HOO KOO E KOO is . . . you know, it’s a bakery of sorts. The side goal of that was to be able to optimize process and team so that we can pretty much launch any app in two months from concept to deployment.

Andrew: [inaudible 00:50:15].

Mateusz: So we’re pretty much there. There are a bunch of ideas that we have, but we haven’t actually done it, but maybe we’ll play with the first one starting this year, maybe October, and I think next year will be the year when we will actually start launching a bunch of products. So at first I would say it will be a bunch of [inaudible 00:50:33] products that we’ll be exploring launching. And whether another big software company of my own, that we’ll see, but for now we definitely have a very strong team, and we can preview, design, develop, and deploy apps at a fairly short notice. So I think we’ll be exploring that, and our list of ideas is pretty long as well, so we’ll be picking some, yeah.

Andrew: You know what? I remember asking Gary Vaynerchuk about how he felt about being in an agency instead of creating a software company because I know that that burned him for a long time that he wasn’t in software. He said, “Yeah. I saw a lot of people go ahead and do software, and I get it. Software’s scalable, great at profits,” he said, “but what I have now is an agency that is a design shop, and now I can deploy it against any one of my ideas. If I have another idea, it’s going to need people to pay attention to it. It’s going to need publicity. It’s going to need users. I now know I have this big machine that can get it for me,” and sure enough he can now create and launch a bunch of different products and be a part of a bunch of different launches.

The one that keeps getting me is Resy, right? That’s his software that’s now a standalone business in its own right. Resy raised a bunch of funding. It feels like that’s where you’re going to. You have this business that’s doing work for your clients that you’re proud of, but you can deploy it towards any one of your ideas. Look at this. Actually, Resy most recently raised $13 million. Air B&B was one of the investors in it.

All right. I’m looking forward to seeing what you build next, and I’d love to have you back on here. Did I make you feel too uncomfortable? I’m sensing at times that maybe you said, “Holy crap, Andrew.”

Mateusz: What did I get myself into?

Andrew: Yeah. Did you feel okay?

Mateusz: No, that was absolutely fine. Thank you for having me.

Andrew: I’m glad you were on. I promise you people are going to email me and say, “Andrew, you’re making people feel uncomfortable. If I were in his shoes too, I would feel the same way. Why are you being a jerk?” I’m not being a jerk [inaudible 00:52:33].

Mateusz: Absolutely.

Andrew: Guys, if there’s any feedback about how we did, please email it to me and my whole team. Let them read it first, and then bring it over to me, contact@mixergy.com, and if you want to check out HOO KOO E KOO, excuse me, HOO KOO E KOO, it’s hookooekoo.co, but people are not going to spell it right. Here’s what they should do.

Mateusz: It actually doesn’t really matter. It seems the SEO works even if you misspell it, but it . . .

Andrew: Let me try it. I’m going to just type into Google “HOO KOO E KOO.” Let’s see what comes up. Look at that. You’re right. You’ve actually superseded all these different sites that are talking about the trail that you came up with your business name from. How do you spell it?

Mateusz: And there used to be a bicycle company called HOO KOO E KOO as well, so that was the difficult part, but yeah, even if you mistype the Os and stuff, it’s going to come up, probably, but it’s hookooekoo.co.

Andrew: All right, and I want to thank my two sponsors for making this interview happen. The first will host your website right. It’s called hostgator.com/mixergy. The second will help you hire developers if you have an agency like Matt does and you need to staff up. They can help you staff up and staff down super-fast, toptal.com/mixergy.

Matt, thanks so much for doing this interview. Thank you all for listening.

Mateusz: Thank you for having me.

Andrew: Right on. Bye, everyone.


Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.

x