PAYCHECKS OVER PROMISES Q&A
This week we sat down with local job-creator and entrepreneur (and lifelong upstater!), Matt Foley. Matt has launched multiple tech companies in Rochester and now advises budding business owners who are looking to move from ideation to reality.
Jeremy Cooney: You own several businesses - tell us about them.
Matt Foley: I currently own two businesses and am launching a third this fall. Each of the businesses operate in the consumer insights and research industry, where I have over 15 years of experience. The first is called FocusGroupIt, which I launched in 2014. It’s web-based software that makes it easy and affordable to run focus groups online. The second one is called QualNow, which is software that enables companies of all sizes (from startups to enterprises) to capture instant video feedback from consumers around the US. The third business to be launched later this year is called Advise.Us. It is software to run advisory boards online, making it quick and easy to capture ongoing feedback from customers, donors, citizens, students, employees, etc.
JC: What was your path to entrepreneurship?
MF: Back in my high school days in Fairport I had a hunch that I wanted to start a business someday, but it wasn’t until I took an entrepreneurship class in college at Boston University that I began to seriously brainstorm and develop startup ideas. After graduating college I worked at Harris Interactive where I learned the ins and outs of the market research industry to get some domain expertise. I quickly realized that there was a ton of opportunity to build innovative products in that industry so I left Harris Interactive and co-founded a company called PluggedIN, which built online communities to help companies better understand and serve their customers. PluggedIN was acquired five years later by Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR firm, who continues to maintain a presence here in Rochester by virtue of the acquisition.
JC: Why did you decide to return to Rochester and start your business here?
MF: There were a number of factors that made Rochester an attractive place to launch my startup(s). First was the lower cost of living relative to other cities I lived in - I lived in Boston and New York City. It would have been nearly impossible to bootstrap and self-fund my first startup like I did without having my living expenses in check, which I could easily do in Rochester while still having a good quality of life. Second, was access to a pool of smart, loyal and hard-working employees like we have in Rochester. Third, was the proximity to a number of large cities; it was a relatively easy same-day drive to Toronto, NYC, Boston, etc. to do in-person demos and pitches. Last, but definitely not least, was having family living in the area.
JC: What has changed over the last 10 years, since you started PluggedIN up to today?
MF: The cost of trying out various startup ideas and running a business in general have gone down substantially in the software space, which makes entrepreneurship more accessible. What once cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be done for significantly less and much faster than 10 years ago, particularly when it comes to software development. The ubiquity of mobile devices and the Internet in people’s lives also changes the types of products that can be created, as well as the scale through which you can serve customers. For example, one of my businesses has more customers outside of the US than in the 50 states, which would have been very unlikely/difficult when PluggedIN started.
JC: How has the technology landscape changed in Rochester since you started PluggedIN?
MF: When I started PluggedIN we didn’t have nearly the level of entrepreneurial support we have today for tech startups in Rochester. For example, the number of incubators didn’t exist back then. It would have been amazing for us to go to a place and receive coaching and mentorship and also be co-located with other startups going through the ups and downs of the startup journey. In general, I see more activity around the development of tech and tech startups, although there is still a lot of work to be done to get to the level of activity seen in larger tech hubs.
JC: What can be done to grow the talent pipeline locally so that Rochester can be a place where technology business thrive?
MF: We need to do more to compel recent grads to stick around after graduation, which means more entry-level positions in promising/growing industries are needed. I was fortunate to get an entry-level position at Harris Interactive, which helped me learn the market research to the point where I could launch a business here. However, I have heard that these types of opportunities are more difficult to come across these days, which is prompting our younger talent to leave. We also need to hype the benefits of starting a business here relative to larger cities where it can be significantly more expensive/difficult to do.
JC: What is the role of entrepreneurship in a growing economy and how can government support that?
MF: Entrepreneurship is absolutely critical for long-term job growth and general stability of the community. Government can play a role through supporting programs that encourage startup development in strategic areas aligned with our local talent pool. For example, making more resources available to startup accelerator programs which are designed to help local tech companies build and grow their businesses. This is particularly true in the software space. There are a number of developers in Rochester who could utilize these programs.
JC: How do you think communities and governments can support the growth and launching of small and medium sized businesses? Why do you prefer this strategy over trying to attract large businesses to the region?
MF: Continued investment in grant programs and local business support organizations is needed to support the growth of small and medium-sized businesses (SMB). I would personally much rather see diversification of our jobs across a number of SMBs than to be overly reliant on a few big businesses as we have been in the past. Focusing on attracting large businesses to the area through various incentive programs can put us back into the position as a community where we are overly reliant on a few very large businesses. A diversified business environment would be a boon for the Rochester and home grown SMBs can help get us there.
JC: You are now an adviser to entrepreneurs. What are you learning from founders who are growing their businesses in 2018? What challenges are they facing as they attempt to scale?
MF: I’m always learning from the community of startups in Rochester. We regularly get together and trade advice and feedback on each others’ startups, especially in the areas of product development/design, growth and customer acquisition, and customer discovery. The biggest challenges these startups face include acquiring new customers in a scalable and profitable way, making do with very limited resources for growth. The vast majority of the startups I work with are bootstrapped. They must often revisit and validate whether the product they are building solves an identified problem for a market.