Founder of 9others and Dot Matrix Has Sage Advice: Get Comfortable With Rejection
Matthew Stafford went from growing up on a farm in Northumberland to founding five startups. Along the way, he headed a struggling t-shirt embroidery company holed up in a windowless basement in north London one room over from the band Verve’s studios, who were often asleep in the hallway when he showed up to work in the morning.
How’s that for a founder’s journey?
First, about the farm: His family grew wheat and barley, and raised beef cattle and lamb, in the middle of nowhere. When he was 9, his family bought a second farm.
Stafford was smart, but skipped university, and after a year of bopping around was in a management training program at John Lewis. That seemed to be going pretty well — until the day he and a friend decided to quit and open a t-shirt embroidery company.
“My parents thought I was nuts,” he told me during an interview for my podcast, Back Yourself. “But everyone should start a t-shirt company.”
Stafford and his friend bought an embroidery machine and set it up in the windowless, unheated basement in an industrial park in North London while Bittersweet Symphony played next door. After a week, his friend jumped ship, leaving him solo.
“He left because we had no money, no customers, and no idea what we were doing,” Stafford said, which quite honestly is where most startups find themselves at one point or another.
Building Your Client Base the Old Fashioned Way: The Yellow Pages
Stafford decided to go it alone — by getting a stack of Yellow Pages.
He began to send out inquiry letters to businesses — each day he picked 5 business categories from the Yellow Pages and sent letters to 20 businesses in each category, for a total of 100 letters per day. What his company was offering was custom embroidery — t-shirts embroidered with a company name that staff could wear or the business could sell. Soon, he had found his niche market — pubs, restaurants, and cafes — and focused his efforts there. The business wound up until it had outgrown its old embroidery machine: Stafford was faced with the need to take on debt to upgrade his machinery, and he hesitated, instead taking a job in retail.
Founders: Get Comfortable Being Rejected
While Stafford moved away from being a founder for a time, the lessons he learned in the basement stuck with him.
“Loads of lessons, which was my success,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself and a lot about people.”
That main lesson: Get comfortable with rejection. It will be a part of your life.
Stafford moved on to RBS, then got a BSc in software engineering from Durham and an MBA from Imperial College Business School. He served as a senior consultant at The Bank of New York, and a senior business analyst at Algorithmics before becoming a business architect at Bravura Solutions. In 2012, he co-founded Collider, a B2Brand accelerator for tech startups, and later co-founded Student Upstarts. That led to the co-founding of Dot Matrix Group Syndicate, an early-stage investor, and 9others, which sits people down to dinner with top startup entrepreneurs for brainstorming and problem solving.
What is the Difference Between a Good Investor and a Bad Investor?
In the years since his exile in the basement, Stafford has learned a lot about founding a company and venture capital. Top among those is that not all investors are created equal — for that matter, not even all investors are good.
Convincing an investor you are a founder worthy of money when you have yet to actually create something can be difficult. As an investor, Stafford looks to see that you have the right team in place and that you can execute what you say you will.
Founders should avoid asking for money as an “If you give me X, I will do Y” proposition, he said. That is true at every stage of a company’s growth. Instead, create a product that people want to buy — then, investors will come to you.
When considering investors, he said, focus on those who not only give money but can help. Many investors will simply give money then walk away, while others will give money then start meddling in your operations. The sweet spot is finding an investor who puts money up, but then coaches and helps.
No one is tougher than farmers, and Matthew Stafford proves it. He translated life on a farm and a year in a windowless basement into the founding of multiple startups. His advice to up and coming founders? Build your network before you need it, find the right investors, and partner with the right people.