Episode 1: The Journey from Garage to Nasdaq: A Discussion with Brad Mattson
Brad Mattson is described as a “Silicon Valley Legend” because he’s the only person to have taken two companies from his garage to Nasdaq. Brad’s also been a VC and has led two clean economy companies. Plus, he’s a thoroughly wonderful person and a fountain of wisdom. Thanks, Brad, for talking with me.
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- Lessons learned in leadership
- Getting started in the cleantech industry
- Differences between clean economy CEOs and CEOs in other sectors
- Key skills for successful clean economy CEOs
- The elements of a successful pitch
- Attracting and identifying the right talent
- Adaptability and funding strategies for success in the clean economy
Lessons Learned in LeadershipMike Casey: Brad, thank you for doing this, my friend. I really appreciate this. Alright, let's start with your background. They say you are the only person that walks around the planet Earth who's taken two companies from his garage to Nasdaq. What in your upbringing started you on this path or set you up for it?
Brad Mattson: I think my upbringing and schooling set me on this path. In school, I loved science and math, which led me to an engineering background. In college, I found that I really loved engineering, but what I loved most was problem-solving. When I got into business, I started with a technical position, but I soon realized that all problems are solved in the field. I got involved in management pretty early on. And since then, I've been solving even bigger problems. It seems like I never stop changing the scope of the problems, but that led me to start a company because some problems aren't being solved and therefore, you need a new approach or new idea. It was just a continuation of what I had done my whole life, solving more interesting and bigger problems.
Mike Casey: Tell me about the first time you were someone's boss I’m particularly interested in the mistakes that you now see you made then, and the big lessons learned from early management responsibilities. What they taught you that you carried forward through your career?
Brad Mattson: My first management experience was very small, I just had one person reporting to me. And that was 40 years ago. I don't remember too much about it, but I thought I did kind of OK. I learned more lessons later on when I had a bigger responsibility and more people reporting to me. But probably one of the bigger lessons was when I started my first company with my brother. For whatever reason, I didn't separate church and state and I didn't create a barrier. I probably extended that to other employees and didn't really connect with them as much as I needed to. Later on, I appreciated the need to emotionally connect with people rather than just logically. I spent a lot of time trying to really nurture those relationships a little bit as you do with friends. Don't treat business as cut and dried, logical and self-interested, be emotional. I think I learned that lesson and then tried to work on that.
Mike Casey: How would you say your leadership style has changed over the years?
Brad Mattson: Definitely, one of the changes is that I learned that there is emotional content. A few other things as well. I think that it derives from being an engineer. If you're solving problems, it means you're always looking for what's wrong. And it turns out, as your wife will probably tell you, if you're always looking for problems, it's not a good way to have a long-term relationship. So, this ratio of providing good news to bad news or in terms of any kind of human endeavor is real. So, one of the things over time I learned is to really work on providing positive feedback. And I think the ratio is four to five to one. That they'll tell you these days it’s necessary to live one negative feedback. And that was hard for an engineer because I just want to go right to the problem, not just solve the problem and get emotion out of the way. And so I really needed to work on that kind of feedback. So I think that was the second one really paying attention to that ratio, not being so much of an engineer when it comes to leadership. This is another one from a leadership perspective.
The third point is having a question as one of my key mentors told me. Questions are the answer. I kind of always looked at leadership as providing direction, providing answers, and I would. I have tried to have an answer for everything, but I learned over time that having the right question is more important than having the right answer.
It's really a key, and I think that I'm still learning to ask more good questions because this is what actually develops people that they really need to go through the process. If you keep handing people things, it doesn't really work to build your organization. You have to discover them and develop them. Then they internalize that they really own it. So asking the right questions is more important than providing the right answer.
Mike Casey: How would you describe the appropriate role of a CEO of a clean economy company? If someone was about to take their first CEO job and asked you, "Brad, how should I see my role as CEO?" How would you answer?
Brad Mattson: Mike, that's a very multidimensional thing because there are so many areas that need to be understood. But an overarching one that applies not just to clean tech, but to companies in general, is that a CEO needs to view themselves as a risk mitigation person. It sounds silly like I'm being an insurance actuary or something. But think of this, if you eliminate all risk in your organization, you'll succeed. Probably. That's really a key. There's financial risk, market risk, execution risk, technology risk. But if you look at yourself as determining the key risk turning points and mitigating those risks, you're likely to be very successful. And I think it's something a lot of CEOs don't do. They look at management skills and leadership, but they don't think of risk management as a big thing. But actually, these days, especially when you look at externalities like COVID or government actions that come in, you really have to have a resilient organization and you really have to look at risk mitigation as a big part of your job.
Mike Casey: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement in business: "It's more important what you don't do than what you choose to do, so it's what you choose to not do is more important than what you choose to do."
Brad Mattson: I'd have to agree and disagree. I am a huge fan of prioritization and when there are so many things coming, as you know, a big skill is what you don't do and I preach that quite a bit. But I've also seen a large number of companies fail not because they failed to execute, but because they actually succeeded in execution but they were doing the wrong thing. So, to your point on what you do do, if you haven't correctly identified the weakness in the market, you haven't really seen what's going on there, and address that problem, you'll execute yourself off a cliff. I can't go with the conventional wisdom on this one. But I would tell the senior leadership team, it's more what you don't do, focus and execute. The CEO might not be able to get away with that because they have to make sure the ship is headed in the right direction.
Mike Casey: Interesting. Hmm. Who are your most important mentors and what did you learn from each one?
Brad Mattson: Well, I'm still trying to learn from one of them. My wife will tell you that I haven't learned that yet, so I'm still working on it. But probably Bob Graham, who was one of the co-founders of Intel, was my early boss. I think he was my third boss and the only one I really gained a lot from. And he was not only the one I did learn basic management but he was a marketing expert. And so I learned a lot about that, but also the basic principles of how to handle people.
He also, of course, questioned where the answer came from and strategic planning. He focused so much on whether we were headed in the right direction that I really adopt so many of the things I learned from him, so he was the key one in it. And frankly, after that, I started my first company, pretty young. I was out on my own after that, so I didn't have a lot of mentors along the way after that.
Getting started in the cleantech industryMike Casey: You rose in the tech industry and then went into clean tech. What drew you from tech to clean tech? By all accounts, it's a much more challenging set of sectors. Why did you make that move?
Brad Mattson: It was my third career and I grew up in semiconductors. I had a couple of successful companies that went public. I went into venture capital and I really enjoyed that job. I helped nurture a lot of companies. But in one of those areas, I found clean tech. I was in a clean tech venture firm and fell in love with solar. The background behind that is I spent 40 years building technology for technology's sake. At a certain point, you start to wonder what you're adding to society. I had a pivotal moment on 9/11. Watching the Twin Towers come down, I looked at technology and realized that it was creating a disparity between the rich and the poor. I viewed my whole career as making the world worse. So, I committed myself to use technology to benefit humanity and close those gaps. Solar cells and LEDs are semiconductors, so I was able to apply what I learned in technology to technology that had the chance to close that gap. That's what compelled me to dig in.
Differences between clean economy CEOs and CEOs in other sectors
Mike Casey: Are there reliably distinct features about being a clean economy company CEO versus a CEO in other sectors?
Brad Mattson: Definitely. It depends on the sector, but in the sector, I came from, semiconductors, we didn't have a competitive status quo. We didn't have the equivalent of an oil or gas company or bureaucratic 100-year-old utilities defending their turf. In clean tech, there is a very strong status quo and entrenched companies. As a CEO in this industry, you have to be aware of the external headwinds and figure out how to navigate them. It's not just about building a better mousetrap, it's trickier and requires more strategic planning.
Mike Casey: So when you're at the helm of a clean economy company, it's important to distinguish being a new part of a new industry versus a new sector within an existing industry because if it's the latter, you are disrupting someone else's hold on market share and they won't just sit back and allow it.
Brad Mattson: Exactly. They often spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create legislation that will slow you down. It's a big boys' game and it takes clever strategic planning. You can look at your strategy of having a safe niche to begin in, to get established or you can work on externalities and regulations that will benefit you. You have to be ready for contingencies and have a plan B.
Mike Casey: Given that you've been on both sides of the table as an investor and a CEO, are there backgrounds that equip a CEO to be successful in a clean economy more than others?
Brad Mattson: I don't know if I've seen enough to gauge that. I go by more the personalities and their experience base and the way they approach problems. I don't think the background of the industry matters. The characteristics of a successful clean economy CEO are a tough set of requirements and whatever background they come from, they need to have a high-quality individual with a lot of strategic thinking and the ability to navigate external headwinds. As we mentioned, you have to also work with these externalities that can affect you.
Key Skills for Successful Clean Economy CEOsMike Casey: I'm really interested. If you were to computer generate the prototype of the successful set of qualities that a clean economy CEO would have to be most likely to succeed, what would be on the list?
Brad Mattson: It might be a traditional, Harvard Business School list, but I've found it to pan out in the real world as well. A key quality is marketing knowledge and skills. If you don't define the problem in the market correctly, you'll point yourself in the wrong direction. Understanding the market in more detail is crucial. Another set of skills is technical skills. Many solutions come through technology, so the ability to evaluate and select the right technology for the market is important. Combining marketing and technical capabilities to have the right solution for the right market is probably the number one thing. Additionally, understanding finances and the ability to raise money is critical. Personal skills such as charisma and the ability to present ideas in a convincing manner are also important as fundraising can take up 30-50% of a clean economy CEO's time.
The Elements of a Successful Pitch
Mike Casey: All right, let me follow up on that. You sat on both sides of the table. What is the best pitch you ever heard and what made it a great pitch?
Brad Mattson: The best pitch I ever heard was from the company that I am currently the chairman of. They were able to suck me in from the beginning by identifying a big problem, which was energy poverty, and fitting it in with my technology benefiting humanity. They identified a big hole in the market with a billion people without access to energy, and they had a very unique technology, which was an agricultural waste to energy technology. They took rice husks from agricultural areas and turned them into electricity in an economically feasible way. They had a very interesting technical solution for a big market, and they had a dynamic team with people that understood finance, technology, and marketing. This is what I look for in deals. They had defined an important hole in the market, had a unique and differentiated solution, and had the team to execute the plan. This leads to a higher probability of getting finance, which is the goal.
Attracting and Identifying the Right Talent for Your Successful Cleantech Startup
Mike Casey: What have you learned about attracting, and identifying the right talent?
Brad Mattson: Hiring is important, but when starting a company, it often turns out that you just need that one really strong person. In the early stages, it's not always about putting together a team, it's about hiring very competent workers. They might know solar technology better than anyone in the world, but they're not a manager. So, you need really competent people that can help you execute your vision. And as much as you might want to have the best executives C-suite around in an early stage, a lot of them won't go to a startup. So, what you can get is really good engineers, really good salesmen, really good people in the early times. The hiring challenge is really about making sure you get competent, experienced people. Don't try to train them when they have to pay for the experience through the learning curve. It's too expensive when you're starting to make any mistakes. So, don't get people right out of college. I see so many startups hiring eight postdocs right out of MIT, but they're going to learn a lot of mistakes before they really become effective. And you can't afford those mistakes. So, pay for the learning curve, very competent people to help you execute. And if you can get a very senior manager in the early stages, absolutely get them. But I would argue that the hiring becomes key to the team in growth. Some CEOs never make the transition and don't hire that team, and they get petered out at some level. You just can't do it yourself. You just can't. And I have a ratio, it's kind of silly, but it depends on the industry. But I think a really strong, powerful CEO can take a company to 100 200 million dollars in sales. But if you really want to build something of substance, you're looking at a billion. It's roughly the ratio. There are 100 to 200 million per person. So you need, you know, to get to a billion-dollar entity, you need five superstars. I mean, that's a lot. It's not easy to get five superstars in one company.
So as you grow, I think the team, they don't mention this. I would advise the entrepreneurs out there not to mention this to their investors that, oh, don't worry about the team. They won't like that. You don't say this. It's always about the team. They can say, but honestly, for them internally, they do know that what I'm saying is true about that, it is the CEO. That's mainly what they're investing in. They want to see the team really as a kind of insurance, you know, they want to just have more bodies in there and more capability in there, everyone should. But they realize that and often on the venture capital side, we knew we had three CEOs to go through when we were growing a company to a billion-dollar scale. It was really the first one was that idea guy, but he really may not be market knowledge. The second CEO would know how to bring a product to the market. And the third one was the scaling CEO. So we had our ABC-CEO almost entity. And you'd rarely see a CEO cross through those three barriers. It was really the exception. One out of 10 would make it through all three stages because it turns out the first two are easier because you can get that technology guy who also was a marketing guy that could bring the product to the market.
As I mentioned, I look at those two key things that are more common. The one that will let go and build a team and realize he's building a company. It's not a technology anymore. You're building a company and it's all about the structure. The processes, the team, and processes are a big part of a CEO that understands that need and can get five superstars.
It's like running an adult daycare center at that point. It is hard with all those egos in the same room. But that's a unique personality. So I think this team thing definitely changes versus the stage of the company, and it's most important in the growth stage and in the early stage charisma and drive, and that kind of person can get it through. And then I think, you know, hiring is always important and early stage, it's very capable engineers and people to execute later. It's people to grow the company, which is management.
Mike Casey: And in that third stage, what are tips you would give for fast-growing companies on how to attract people to fill the ranks of that team?
Brad Mattson: It's not easy. It's kind of tough. Mike, I've worked with you in the past in terms of thought leadership. You need to work on your brand and you need to get it out there that you're going to do something unique and that brand will affect the ability to recruit people.
And in that, you want to have some thought leadership, you want to be out there just not doing what everyone else does. If you're smaller than the other guys, you might not be able to offer a big enough salary. You really want to focus on this brand. We're going to change things. We're making things happen, and a big element of being able to recruit them is that the other one is don't be stingy.
So many CEOs or founders and founders are stingy with their stock, so don't be stingy. These teams are going to make it big, so share the wealth. And maybe I'm biased because of having done an IPO subject, I've seen you can make a lot of millionaires. So don't worry, everyone's going to make out. It goes in two directions - you all make it and you can share the wealth. Or if you don't make it, it doesn't matter.
Let go of the purse strings and share that ownership and let them be part of the team that's going to make it. And they need to feel that to put in the one hundred and twenty percent or 50 percent, it takes two to make it work.
So I'd say, show the world and you have to really modify your management style as you grow the company to letting go more. People need their own world to work in and need their own sandbox to play in. And so you have to change management styles to be more delegated and give people room to operate because that's what fulfills them. And the real superstars have choices to go anywhere. And so you have to provide that kind of work environment that's conducive to those kind of stars.
Mike Casey: On the other side of personnel, what are the cues you found that are pretty reliable when it's time to let someone go?
Brad Mattson: I think the number one is attitude, and I have a little formula I work with. If I can picture it on the board - you take knowledge and skill and you put these together as an asset and multiply it by attitude. So it turns out in that mathematical formula and that equals performance.
If your attitude is zero, you have zero performance. But more importantly, if your attitude is negative, you're taking all that knowledge and skills and driving it in a different direction. That's called cancer in your organization, and you need to get rid of it immediately.
So I think if you don't have alignment of core values or alignment in direction or any of these really key things that in your organization, mission alignment, you might call it. And if it's especially a strong, capable person, you have to let them go, that kind of thing could be cancer. And quite frankly, in this area, I was never fast enough to fire. Really this was one of my weaknesses I would work with people and I'd want to hope for the best.
But psychologists will tell you that after around the age 15, your personality is kind of fixed and people are not going to change. So you don't correct or fix any of those things, right? You know, there's no mission alignment. If there's a bad attitude, you might call it political behavior. Although I think politics isn’t bad, politics is how good things happen too as well. But if it's kind of negative political behavior, you have to have a very short fuze.
Mike Casey: What is the toughest interview question you were ever asked by a potential employer? And what's the toughest interview question you have ever asked of a potential employee?
Brad Mattson: The toughest interview questions I've ever had have just come from a guy called Mike Casey. Frankly, frankly, your questions have made me think about things more deeply than I've thought about in a while, and I think that would make some tough edge.
It forces you to think deeply. In an interview on my side that was like I mentioned, like 40 years ago. Last time I had a job where I'd been interviewing instead of being interviewed, and I loved those I didn't have. I don't recall, honestly, a tough question coming to me because I like the ones that are typically tough that are looking for issues. I loved always saying, “Oh yeah, I have this problem.”
So I like leading with confidence and saying, I'll talk about my strengths and weaknesses, etc. So I've never really viewed any particular question as tough. But in the context of not an interview for a job, but an interview like this, I think the tough ones are the ones that you really have to think about because they're more open-ended and you maybe haven't thought down that path before, and I think you have had quite a good selection of them here.
Mike Casey: What's the toughest interview question you've ever asked of a prospective employee of yours?
Brad Mattson: It's a simple one. Tell me your weakness, and I might even call and say, listen, you come on board six months from now, I'm going to do a review of your performance and I'm going to know what it is.
So just tell me now. So let's get it out. I tried lots of ways to call them to get that one. 8 out of 10 people feel this question. They'll be saying something like, “I care too much about my employees,” “I work too hard,” and so on.
To me honestly, it takes a lot of confidence to talk about your weaknesses, but that's what I'm looking for. What I found over time is these people respond to challenges in one of two ways - they either are defensive or open and receptive to a critique.
The ones that are open and receptive are learners. And over time, they just get more and more capable because they're open, they're listening and they react to the ones that make sense. They just develop their capabilities because they're constantly taking that stuff in.
If you're constantly pushing it back and making excuses, you probably learn less. You don't internalize it and you become less capable over time. So the people I've seen that are lifelong learners, have the confidence to say, “Yes, I have these issues and I'm working on them, this one I've succeeded on & this one I haven't quite succeeded yet.”
Those are the people who I want because they're going to really grow. If they're not great today, they will become great because they're on a quest and they're not trying to protect any weakness they have. They're trying to discover it and they're working on it. So that's easily the toughest question, but I hope it doesn't cover the one or two out of ten that are exceptional, but it doesn't get a lot of information from the rest.
Adaptability and Funding Strategies for Success in the Clean Economy
Mike Casey: Last question, if there were five CEOs of clean economy companies in front of you right now, all under 40. What advice would you give them based on your experience?
Brad Mattson: My favorite quote, which comes from Darwin, is that in terms of evolution, it's not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest that survive, but the species most adaptable to change. So, my advice to these CEOs would be to be adaptable and have a plan. Be prepared and have a Plan B. Don't be flighty, but also be flexible. In every one of my companies, the first idea failed. And every one of them has been Plan B or Plan C. Successful companies started out in one place and then ended up in another because of their ability to shift gears. Be honest with your board of directors and raise more money than you think you need. Be prepared to pivot and be a professional fundraiser. And most importantly, don't run out of money.
Mike Casey: I noticed that writing a book was not on the list.
Brad Mattson: Writing a book can be part of branding and attracting top people in the field around the world, and influencing government and regulatory agencies. It's a crazy and dumb thing to do, but it might be necessary.
Mike Casey: If you had to do it over again, would you write the book?
Brad Mattson: That's a good question. I probably wouldn't write the book. What I had underestimated then was the extent of the challenge and the cliff in front of me in the Clean-Tech and technology industry.
Brad Mattson: But, if I had to do it again, I would have approached it differently. I would have focused more on the practical aspects of the industry and the lessons I've learned along the way. But ultimately, I believe that the best advice for these CEOs is to be adaptable and be prepared for change. The industry is constantly evolving and they need to be able to adapt and pivot as needed in order to succeed.