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Serial entrepreneur to author.

Matt Higgins is the CEO and co-founder of RSE Ventures. Matt is a noted serial entrepreneur and growth equity investor. He is also an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School where he teaches the course “Moving Beyond The Direct Consumer.” His first book “Burn The Boats: Toss Plan B Overboard and Unleash Your Full Potential” was published by Harper Collins William Morrow and became available on February 14, 2023.

"Every single person out there listening to me right now has a proprietary insight that is interesting and actionable for somebody to hear."

Matt HigginsCEO, RSE Ventures


Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever-changing skies. 

[00:00:12] Joe Quattrone: Welcome to the Building While Flying podcast. My name is Joe Quattrone, and today my guest is Matt Higgins, CEO, and Co-Founder of RSE Ventures.

Matt is a noted serial entrepreneur and growth equity investor. He’s also an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School where he co-teaches the course, Moving Beyond Direct to Consumer. And his first book, Burn the Boats will be published by HarperCollins, William Morrow in 2023.

Matt, welcome to the show.

[00:00:38] Matt Higgins: Thanks for having me. Good to see you again. Good to see you again. It’s an honor 

[00:00:42] Joe Quattrone: knowing the connection and the relationship between Gary and VaynerX and RSE. We love having you on. 

[00:00:48] Matt Higgins: We’re all part of the family. We should explain that at some point.

[00:00:51] Joe Quattrone: Yeah. We’ll get into that a little bit.

I’m super excited that you’ve got a book coming out. I’ve always admired you from afar, so now I get to do a deep dive and see a little bit about your philosophy and what makes you tick. So that’s, that’s amazing. Just to set the table for the audience. To give you some context, the people that listen to Building While Flying are entrepreneurs, sole entrepreneurs.

They’re people that work within the family business environment. Can you rattle off five or six of your most significant investments just so that they have a visual in their head of the kind of work you’ve done throughout your career.

[00:01:20] Matt Higgins: Oh, great. First of all, I love the title Building While Flying.

I’m glad somebody finally acknowledged that’s basically what all strategic planning is. No, no business five years later resembles the original PowerPoint, so it’s good that we’re in an honest, safe place where we can admit that exactly I, in terms of what I do, what I love to do. I love to support founders who are at some kind of inflection point where they can use an assist. Sometimes it’s capital, but usually it’s much more complicated than capital. So I have been at the early stages, or even an inception of great businesses. I met Gary Vaynerchuk in a bagel store in 2009, and I’ve been stealing his ideas ever since.

We became partners in VaynerMedia when it was little, tiny, little firm. When actually when it was no firm, I was the first client. So VaynerMedia. I love food and love backing food concepts. I’m partner with David Chang in Momofuku. Christina Tosi in Milk Bar. Yeah. We acquired during the pandemic actually we acquired Magnolia Bakery.

So for those of you out there who love Banana Pudding tell them, you know, Matt and probably won’t mean a thing, but we own that. And sports obviously partners with Steven Ross. I used to be the vice chair of the Miami Dolphins, and so we, we have a huge international soccer business for those out there who.

Soccer we’re partners with UEFA, for example, in the United States, selling media rights so long and the short, I build things, I break things, I fix things after I break things and have a pretty significant portfolio of consumer businesses. And I take all that knowledge and once a year I put on the Lollapalooza of direct to consumer e-commerce businesses at Harvard over a week of 22 classes of some of the best businesses in the.

[00:02:54] Joe Quattrone: Wow. Just a few pretty important businesses. Quick question then. In terms of the investments you’ve made throughout the course of your career, would you consider any of those investments like highly underrated investments? Are there things that you look at inside your portfolio and you’re like, man, that one still hasn’t seen its full potential yet?

Give us a sense of what your most underrated investments been throughout the course of your career?

[00:03:16] Matt Higgins: That’s actually a great question. I actually, emotionally, psychologically, feel the opposite. Often I feel like things are overrated and I am always trying to put a disclaimer on everything I put out, whether it’s intellectually, philosophically, or factually around businesses that.

Hey, this is aspirational. There’s a lot of things going wrong and it looks great, and they’re big brands, but let me just tell you about the the crap that I’m dealing with half the time. But in terms of underrated, I think they’re all, I think they’re all underappreciated, right? Yeah. At the end of the day.

And so some of the ones I’m really passionate about are Milk Bar. Frankly, I think MilkBar is gonna be, Christina starts an amazing entrepreneur. I love what she’s. I don’t even have a huge sweet tooth either. I have a gyro tooth or connoisseurs, but say a street meat, but I like an occasional indulgence, but our ice cream at Milk Bar is phenomenal.

I think what the team does at Drone Racing League is probably underappreciated how hard it is to build a sport from scratch and the work that they’re doing over there. Nick and our president, Rachel, just do a phenomenal job. So I’d sort of highlight those two. But I think, again, publicly I always like to take out the airbrushing and tell the truth about how hard things are.

So that is the topic I like to talk the most about. What don’t you see?

[00:04:24] Joe Quattrone: And Gary always talks about the one that got away. He always talks about whiffing on Uber. Is there something that you’ve withed on in your career?

[00:04:30] Matt Higgins: Interesting. Gary and I talk about this all the time. Gary laughs about the title of the book about Burn the Boats because he’s always saying, you’re so tortured actually. Like you spend so much energy assessing and evaluating what you get wrong. So I don’t believe those two points are actually mutual exclusive.

We’ll get into that, but I got so many that got away and I like figuring out why they got away. I’d say the biggest one, which cuz it was obvious, was Airbnb and I’m friends with with Brian, the founder, and he was at a little bit of inflection and I think the valuation at the time was around 15 billion, and I really thought it was gonna be successful.

I already was, but that it had untapped potential. Brian as an incredible founder, but we got hung up on the regulatory environment, particularly in New York. And we passed on that, but I got five more where that came from. So that’s just one that your audience could say, oh yeah, that was a big mistake.

You remember Pretty woman when she walks out with the bags. Big mistake. That was Brian Airbnb. So nice. 

[00:05:26] Joe Quattrone: You see I’ve checked in on all of your social media platforms and you’ve done quite nice for yourself. I think 150,000 followers on LinkedIn. Nearly a hundred thousand followers on Instagram.

You’re a blue check on Twitter. So my real question is, are you gonna pay the $8? 

[00:05:43] Matt Higgins: I’m definitely gonna pay the $8. Cause I wanna see how the story ends. I wanna pay the $8 like it’s a movie ticket, and that’s the price mission. It’s fascinating to watch what’s going on with Elon Musk and to dissect, like why does he attract so much criticism?

On the one hand, some of his antics are absurd. I didn’t love when he went and made fun of, Bill Gates’ weight. I hate when he does stuff like that. But then at the same time, what do we expect from a guy who would change the world in multiple industries, right? Quote unquote, normal person is probably not going to be bringing the electric car to market, taking us to Mars, right? 

[00:06:16] Joe Quattrone: Everything that he’s doing simultaneously trying to fix the town square and make it more free and open. 

[00:06:20] Matt Higgins: So oddly with him, Elon, sometimes I feel protective clearly he’s not all there, but the parts of that are there are doing some amazing things.

And I’m gonna happily pay the $8 check mark. Plus I’m frankly tired of hearing about. So by the time your audience is hearing about this, hopefully we’ve gone past the Twitter news cuz it’s boring to go on Twitter and only read about Twitter. Yeah, exactly. So my real 

[00:06:41] Joe Quattrone: question buried in there a little bit is more about personal branding.

You’ve been in business a long time and back in, in your old days when you were helping us get past nine 11 and rebuild downtown there wasn’t a Facebook or a Twitter or an Instagram or a. But you were still a very successful businessman now, 20 something years later.

We’re all out there trying to build our online 

identity and stuff like that. 

Most of my listeners are out there in this conundrum right now. They’re trying to build their online presence to try to get any kind of advantage they can. Can you speak a little bit to that?

What kind of success have you seen as a result of having a presence online that’s a little bit larger than most people? Has it given you a lot of interesting advantages? Or is it too much time? Is it too much of a headache? Like where do you sit on the whole online personal branding spectrum from a CEO perspective?

[00:07:27] Matt Higgins: Great question and and I sympathize to everybody out there who’s trying to find their voice and breakthrough. Number one, this debate is over, if you are still debating with yourself or with your team, whether or not you need to show up in 2022. You’re in trouble. So I’m gonna spare you the trouble about whether you should be debating should you have a personal branding profile.

Don’t even talk about that. It’s embarrassing. Now this is what I find people struggle with and it’s something I had to get over. I don’t have anything important to say. Who cares about what I have to say, what I do? I’m running a small, tile manufacturer in Wisconsin, or I have a tiny little restaurant, in the middle of nowhere.

That is the number one thing I think that holds people back. And I talk about this in my book, Burn the Boats, that we all have proprietary insights. Those are insights that are gleaned because we sit in the stream of some kind of data. If you are running that tile manufacturer in Wisconsin, you’ve learned something about the supply chain that’s interesting or something about the materials that won’t crack when you have a ton of volume on a floor.

I don’t know what it is, right? Cuz it’s your baby, it’s your. . business Every single person out there listening to me right now has a proprietary insight that is interesting and actionable for somebody to hear. So once you get over this idea that you have nothing to say, then you can get into the tactics.

How do I say it in a way that grabs an audience. So why? Why bother though? What do I care if I have an audience? And the reason why is, my generation was conditioned that we wanna generate earned media. We have news, we wanna get get a reporter. To write an article about us, think about what has to happen for that sequence to materialize.

One, you have to have something newsworthy. Two, you have to convince a reporter to write about you. Three, you have to convince the editor to actually publish it and four, you have to make sure people see it. Fast forward to now, you can bypass all those intermediaries and you can tell your own story, and all you have to do is get confident that what you have to say.

matters Two, learn the tactics about how to say it, which platform and three, commit to it. If you do that, then you begin to develop a sense of community and audience. So I say to anyone out there still debating it you’re missing an enormous opportunity and I guarantee you, you’re spending money or energy figuring out other ways to get your story across your business in front of consumers.

Why wouldn’t you do the one that’s in your. control What I found actually, People overemphasize strategy over tactics, which I think is a mistake if you only focus on the strategy, I gotta be on LinkedIn.

But you get the tactics wrong, you’re gonna make the wrong conclusion that the platform didn’t work. When in reality, tactics are everything when it comes to social media. Every single day I post on LinkedIn at 10 o’. Why? I don’t know, but I learned that nine o’clock didn’t work and 11 didn’t work, and at 10 o’clock does every once a week, I sent a text message of that post to Gary Vanerchuk and I bother him and I said, please like my LinkedIn, because it tricks the algorithm to distribute it.

Yeah. Those are tactics. The other thing I find and this is a little pro tip for anybody out there who’s leaning into LinkedIn, which. 100% you should be leaning into, above all else is that when you re-share something on the feed, the algorithm thinks that spam and suppresses it.

So I’ll get asked from, say, Hey, can you re-share this? I was like, are you, do you want me to affirmatively hurt your business? Why do you want me to re-share? You should be asking me to comment on it. Again, a tactic. So learn the tactics of how to get your message in front of people and you’ll be successful.

Focus more on tactics than strategy. 

[00:10:36] Joe Quattrone: That’s awesome. I wanted to kind of switch gears a little bit and talk about 20, 21 years ago, September 11th, 2001 our nation was under attack specifically the Twin Towers downtown New York. That was a pretty integral part of your career. Cause I know that you had a hand in what came next.

Helping us build back New York and build back what happened on a one world. Can you talk a little bit about that kind of how something as big and heavy has really impacted your life and the way you approach, attacking every day in business. Has it given you a perspective that maybe gives you a little bit of a competitive edge in business at all?

Just because you value things a little bit more. Tell me a little bit more about how nine 11 shape. 

[00:11:15] Matt Higgins: Let’s first talk about the emotional just for those who don’t know. I was very young at the time and I was 26 years old, and I grew up in a pretty tortured beginnings, very unorthodox beginnings.

I dropped outta high school when I was 16 and took my GED so I could get to college all in an attempt to go from making $5 an hour at the time at an overnight deli to making $9 an hour as a college student. That was the whole thing. So I literally burned the. boats I got left back two years in a row ninth and 10th grade, so that I would have no choice but to go forward with this crazy plan.

And I dropped out and got my GED and I went to college. So why this matters is imagine going from a high school dropout at 16, taking care of your sick mom all the way to, by the time I was 26. Becoming the youngest press secretary in New York City history. Wow. I went from making $5 an hour at a deli on Woodham Boulevard in Queens to making a hundred thousand dollars a year.

And at the same time, I had a secret life. I was taking care of my mother who was in pain I was bathing her. I never had a single friend over my entire upbringing. . And so there was a duality to my entire existence, right? Mm-hmm. The secret life of shame, and then desperate get to a place where I could take care of my mother.

 The first day on the job in April of 2001. My mother died that morning, so all this work I had put in this sort of effort campaign to get to a place where I could finally take care of her. I was defeated that day, so the greatest professional experience in my life. I experienced the greatest failure of my life, which I still have not fully, we don’t get over certain things in life, and so I’m giving you that context because, so can you imagine I’m dealing with that trauma and I haven’t healed, and then 9/11 happens. Yeah. And what it did to some extent is I had already been through the depths of hell on a personal level. And I felt a little bit of a break from reality, frankly, like just reeling and then the worst terrorist attack in history happens.

And so I was able to throw myself into it. What would be more important than devoting yourself to the recovery of the United States? And I spent every moment of my life for two years. straight At Ground Zero. In fact, I got rid of my apartment and I moved to Ground Zero. I was in a building overlooking the site, and I would write speeches for the governor, the mayor.

I would bring every president and prime minister of every country in the world to the site to show them what happened, to build support for the coalition, to basically attack Al-Qaeda. So all these emotions are swirling in my head. I would say I have still not processed what I saw that.

day If I’m being honest, and I don’t watch tapes of it, I’ve never watched a single tape. I’ve never watched the show devoted to 9/11. Cuz I, I don’t wanna reconnect with what I saw, standing on that corner underneath The Trade Center on a political level, on a leadership level that applies to everybody listening that I learned that the first rule of crisis management is to just show up. If you think about Mayor Giuliani back then and I mourned the loss of the mayor that I remember, outside of current politics. But the mayor back then, was the right person for the moment, and what he taught me is how important it was to do that first press conference, within an hour of the attacks happening, and basically to send a message to everybody that we were in charge.

and I organized that first press conference, and I remember reporter asked that afternoon, Mr. Mayor, do you know how many fatalities we’ll have? And he goes, I don’t know, but I know that it’ll be more than any of us can bear. And then he was asked about who might have done this, do you think this, was an attack motivated from the Middle East?

And he said how important it was that we don’t scapegoat, you know, so just hit all these message. My point is I watched the juxtaposition with President Bush at the time during those first few days, and he was criticized for circling in an airplane, during the attacks. And again, probably unfairly, because they were protecting him at the time of the attack.

But by the time that Thursday came around, the attack was on a Tuesday, Thursday, I accompanied The President of the United States to Ground Zero and then we did an event where he demonstrated to the world, not only is the United States in charge, not only will get back on our feet, we will retaliate.

And I remember he stood on top of a pile and he grabbed a bullhorn from a firefighter and he said, somebody says, Mr. President, I can’t hear you. And he goes I can hear you. And soon the people who did this will hear us too. That one message transform the way we view the President. So I have taken those lessons with me my entire career.

Said most important rule in a crisis is to show up. Show up for whoever needs to hear your voice, but also show up for yourself. If I had one tattoo, and again, I’ve been debating a tattoo for 48 years, maybe this is the year, if I had one tattoo that would be worthy of putting on my body that I would never have to erase when I woke up from maybe a, a night of having a few too many drinks, it would be face everything.

So that’s what I learned from 9/11, face everything. 

[00:15:39] Joe Quattrone: Wow. And speaking about face, everything you mentioned the president speaking with a firefighter and there’s been some energy over the past four years, I think, to try to create a National First Responders Day every October 28th. I don’t think it’s completely federalized yet, but how much do you think about those people that you worked with day in and day out for two years?

The folks that showed up and faced it, I know we’ve also gone through the pandemic recently and I think every day about how much people in the hospitals were really the true heroes. How much do you think about those people and really think them for, we get to come in here and have interviews together and talk about business, but there’s people out there on the front lines every.

[00:16:15] Matt Higgins: I think about it all the time. And there were 343 firefighters who were killed on 9/11, and one of them was Terry Hatton, and he was the husband of Beth Hatton, who was the mayor’s executive assistant at the time. So here she is inside the building. Managing the mayor and at the same time her husband is responding to the site and was killed.

And I think about the first time we showed up at the hospital I think it was around two o’clock in the afternoon and there was a line of gurneys and all these medical personnel, doctors and nurses ready to receive all the incoming wounded and then nobody came. Right. So the first week after the attack I was putting together a ceremony the first month working with Oprah Winfrey in an event that Yankee said, constantly said, I was at Ground Zero in a, I hadn’t seen one of the members of the mayor’s detail for the longest time.

And I remember running into him at the site wearing a t-shirt, a bandana. His face had grime on it. And he looked. He had seen a ghost. I said, you know what’s going on, man? Where? Where you been? He. I never left, I’m here. I’m looking for my friends. The trauma of it, like the smells, the fire, the heat the, the smoke, like it never leaves you.

So I think we become desensitized over time because we need to become desensitized, right? Anybody out there who’s experienced death recently or in the past knows that we are wired to move on because that’s how we defend ourselves and protect ourselves. And so it’s natural, but I think about those people all the time, and I think about the people who lost loved ones inside the building. I worked on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site for those subsequent two years on a organization called Lower Manhattan Development Corp. So I organized the memorial competition with my colleagues and the design competition. Everything you see here right now.

One of the members of the jury, though, she lost her husband that day, Paula Grandberry, and she had to raise her three boys on her own. So I think it never became abstract to me. So there’s a degree to which I always have to look away, frankly. 

[00:18:01] Joe Quattrone: Brightening the mood a little bit.

Let’s get back into the world of business a little bit more. I know you’re into a handful of different categories, e-commerce. We talk a lot about that in the world of hbs. I also see on your Twitter handle nine dot eth irish dot eth. So clearly you’re into crypto and blockchain and NFTs and stuff like that.

But I wanna go somewhere slightly different. You mentioned off the top of our conversation that you’re really big into restaurants and the food space, food industry. I also have a stake in that industry. My family has restaurants in the North Carolina area, so this is a little bit self-serving on my end.

What do you think restaurants and food industry in general need to do to evolve a little bit more over the next 10 years? Obviously things have been disrupted quite a bit with Covid and, the lockdowns and all that kind of stuff. Fortunately we’ve been able to bounce back quite a bit.

But in the next 10 years in order to remain relevant to consumers, what do you think restaurants have to. 

[00:18:56] Matt Higgins: That’s a great question. Let’s start by talking about the problem. I think restaurants are fundamentally broken right now. As your family knows. Let’s start with cost of goods, right?

Supply chain issues. How expensive it is to go ahead and get anything, made, produced, brought over. And that’s putting enormous pressure. The problem is unlike maybe in other industries like Elon Musk can pass his $8 onto the customer for that little blue check mark. When you own a restaurant, the customer’s only willing to pay so much for the experience.

So I think problem number one is that there’s a misalignment of what it costs to run a restaurant and what a consumer’s willing to pay. Two is labor. Obviously labor has gone up dramatically, which is great cuz it lifts up the population, but at the same time, it’s not like the mom and pop restaurant owner can charge more.

Second problem. And of course, real estate, right? So a lot of the reasons why restaurants end up, going under. Your biggest fixed cost is real estate. If you make a bad real estate decision and and you can’t make the economics work, that single bad decision’s gonna kill you.

So for those who are interested out there in terms of restaurant unit economics, you want to keep your occupancy costs below 10%. You wanna keep your food costs below 30% and you wanna keep your labor below 30%, right? So in an ideal world of restaurants making 20% profit, that’s not happening anymore, right?

So what do we need to do? I think the American consumer has given us the answers to the test, brought to you by two very big behemoth corporations. One is called Starbucks, the other’s called Amazon. Starbucks taught us that we wanna get everyth. The ability to grab and go and pick it up. And we love that.

And if you offer that to us, you take away the friction of interacting with a human being I will reward you with repeat business, So I’ll create an annuity for you. The second is Amazon. I want everything delivered to me right away.

So I think those are almost design challenges. I’m shocked when I see restaurateurs designing their space and they become so enamored with the build out, I’m gonna have this beautiful bar, and I’m gonna, spend way too much money on the buildout because this is my baby, but they don’t think about utility.

 And use cases, right? The Future restaurant is going to accommodate those three use cases. Sit down, dining of whatever that means, right? Grab and go and delivery, right? And delivery means receiving uber Eats. Grab and go means workflow that doesn’t interfere with the sit down experience.

And so think we don’t spend enough time talking about design of the physical layout to accommodate those three use cases. When you get those three use cases humming, you’re gonna be fine, right? Because eventually labor will get under control. Inflation will be brought under control in the next 12 months.

The bigger opportunity is to design with those three customers, constituents in. 

[00:21:24] Joe Quattrone: Gotcha. So if I’m a restaurateur and I’ve got a unique and novel concept that I wanna run by you, how do I get Matt Higgins to invest in my concept? What are the things that are gonna turn you off versus what are gonna turn you on about what I’m trying to do?

[00:21:37] Matt Higgins: Yeah, I think I wanna see a scalable concept, frankly, unless you are David Chang and you’re aiming for a two-star Michelin restaurant. To make it worth the time and energy and for it to be an investible concept, I have to think about scale. Now that doesn’t suit a lot of different people.

Rightfully cuz you have to ask, what kind of life do I want? Right. Everyone dreams, I’m gonna have 20 of these things. It’s really hard to make of things hard to do. One of them , right? It’s hard to make one of them, but if you just want one of them, unless you’re my friend Bob, from high school, I’m probably not gonna be investing, right? But now on the flip side, I’m an investor in Bluestone Lane, right? If I am gonna invest in a concept, I want it to be a concept that is going to appeal, obviously, to a wide number of people and a wide number of, geographic areas, a wide range rather, and can go in different types of real estate, right?

. And so I want something that has low build out, right? So it takes sub two years to recover the investment in building it out. And I want something that’s a sticky product. So I tend to stay away from niche things, coffee, or I’m addicted to it. I don’t know if you are. I have multiple delivery mechanisms for my caffeine.

So exactly. I want something that is right down the middle. But I, that’s not for everybody. I always say it’s funny in Harvard, I teach this course, right? And these are some of the brightest minds America and I love bringing in a business that is not gonna be that big because whatever happened to making a dollar, I, if I meet anybody, I’m sure there are people out there listening.

They bootstrapped their business, they’ve managed to, eek out net income. That is enough. Put their kids through college, plan a retirement for them and their wife take, you know, one or two vacations a year. I’m like, you made it. I think this sort of fetishizing like worshiping people who, have big private equity rounds and, you know, everything has to have an M on it, a million dollars and multiple million.

I just think that’s an nonsense. I still am in awe of anybody who could take $1 and make two in America. So if you have a restaurant out there and you, it works for you. My first advice is don’t even try to scale question, whether you’re doing it for ego or to please somebody else. 

[00:23:25] Joe Quattrone: Speaking about fetishizing things a lot of people fetishize the future and what’s gonna happen in the future versus taking advantage of what today has to offer us.

I saw something on your LinkedIn yesterday or the day before where you were talking about and almost commemorating the fact that 20 years ago you had cancer. Talk to us a little bit about. How that has grounded you in reality on a day-to-day basis versus getting too caught up in what’s gonna come down the road.

[00:23:52] Matt Higgins: That’s great question. I have to disclaim everything. I’m about to say that this is a constant work of progress to get me to commit to these concepts. So this again, is aspirational, but some of the most peaceful moments I had, I know it’s so contradictory, was when I was at Sloan Kettering and I was diagnosed cancer when I was 32 years old.

I had just had a newborn. I just had this big promotion on the Jets and I behaved in ways that are now cringey. I look back and instead of taking a day off of work, I went back to work the day after I got. I had a bag in my groin and I went to a dinner with the Jets coaches. And close your ears out there if anybody’s delicate.

But I remember I told ’em my new dog tag that I got made, and it said half the ball is twice the man so tough. Now I look back, I’m like, you’re a child. You know what I mean? You have to take care of yourself. All you were telegraphing was insecurity that you didn’t want those coaches to judge you, which is true.

It’s a very macho environment. So my point is, but once I knew I wasn’t gonna die, at least not that day, we’re all gonna die. But it wasn’t imminent that I. That I found what was fascinating is that all the thoughts that I would typically think about in the period where I thought this might be terminal didn’t hold up against a prospect of imminent death.

The New York Times Real Estate check, all the brownstones I was dreaming about didn’t work. The new car I was gonna get, one day, hopefully get enough money by a plane. All these things I would think about didn’t matter when I was faced with the prospect of death. And my takeaway that is the reality that we walk around with every day.

Death is imminent. We just don’t know when. We know how many days we’ve used up, we just don’t know the the denominator, right? So we lose sight of that. So what I took away from cancer is anything I could do that would bring me back to the present and be aware of my own mortality is a gift.

And so I downloaded an app on my phone. This sounds completely out there. It’s called We Croak. And Five Times a Day it pings me. And a quote comes up on my phone from, Socrates or somebody in a different way to remind me that you aren’t fact, right? Yeah. So what does that do? It brings me back to the present.

So my advice to anybody out there, the present is really a gift. So anything that can bring you to the present is something you wanna grab onto. So what does that mean? To eliminate the need for lying. Try to eliminate the anxiety that makes you have to worry about the future. and honestly any way you can bring death mortality into your life, as crazy as that sounds and contradictory, do it because it’s gonna bring you back to the present and make you savor the day.

[00:26:06] Joe Quattrone: It’s gonna give you more appreciation. That’s amazing. Alright. Burn the Boats. 

[00:26:10] Matt Higgins: Burn the Boats.

[00:26:10] Joe Quattrone: I have to know, I have to know. 

Where’d the title come from? It 

sounds like an amazing title and I can’t wait to read it, but gimme a little bit of a 2 cents on where you got the title. 

[00:26:20] Matt Higgins: Okay. Title. All right. First of all, Burn the Boats is a concept and a phrase that actually goes back all the way in recorded history.

The idea that a military general needs to go all in by eliminating the escape route is said, literally burn the boats in some cases, but Caesar had a different way of saying it when he crossed rubicon. So I was always obsessed with this sort of notion of complete and total surrender to the objective, to submit to the objective because I’m somebody who is always grappled with anxiety and cuz of my upbringing.

I had a lot of P T S D and nervous little kid always looking. For the calvary coming. So it just dealt with a lot of those issues. And I would always say, what’s it gonna take for me to commit? I hate that I hesitate. And I remember when I was working with Rex Ryan at the New York Jets for any Jets fans out there, and we were playing Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and Rex gave this impassioned speech to the players about I need you to go all in, just once.

And he tells a story of Cortez, he burned the boat. I just need you to win one game. And he was, he was teary. And I was like, damn. I wanna play, I’m. And then we went out and we won that game. And The Times did a big article about it and they told about the speech that I was there for. And it always stuck in my head.

And then years later when I thought about the book that I wanna write, I wanna write this book against plan B. I wanna write the definitive book about how to commit to plan A. And I remember the speech and I remember the words Burn the Boat. So that’s the bottom. And I’d love to get more into it, but I’m so excited.

I feel like it took me hundreds of hours to write this book and took me 48 years to live it. So this is me downloading everything I’ve learned through everything we just talked about. 

[00:27:46] Joe Quattrone: That’s amazing. It sounds very therapeutic. One thing that you mentioned that I feel like doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the world of business conversations.

You know, We talk a lot about empathy these days. We talk a lot about anxiety and mental health, but nobody really talks about PTSD and the fact that trauma can happen to anybody. And in fact, it happens to a lot of people and doesn’t have to just happen to more veterans and people coming back from overseas.

It could the loss of a job can create PTSD. Should we be thinking as a society about how to attack trauma and how to rehab executives? Cause I think there’s probably a lot of really good executives out there that could use a second chance. They might just get overlooked or overseen because they had some trauma in their life.

[00:28:24] Matt Higgins: What are your thoughts on that? I love this question, by the way. The answer is 100% yes. And it’s the reason why I wrote this book, largely, frankly it’s more important to me to be seen not from where I am as a guy on Shark Tank who teaches at Harvard Business School, presumably is successful.

I wanna be seen for where I came from. So you can assess your own journey. Whoever out there is struggling and say well did he overcome that? Or, if he hasn’t overcome it, why hasn’t he overcome it? So what the book is really about is a blueprint and a manifesto about how to remove the things that are standing in the way of you fully committing to whatever it is you.

care about And those forces are internal and external. The internal ones are hard to articulate often, and I was a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I was a newspaper reporter. I think I have the gift of communicating, and so I want to use that gift of communicating and teaching to articulate why is it that sometimes the voice in our head becomes our greatest detractor, when it should be our greatest ally?

And how do we convert the voice in our head to overcome those issues? How do we deal with imposter syndrome? And I talk a lot about me going on the set of Shark Tank and feeling sitting next to Mark Cuban thing. I’m like, what the hell am I doing? Here I was high school dropout. I betcha he knew that I was high school.

I was probably thinking, what are you doing here? You know the voice in your head. How do I overcome that? And then the external forces that are just as important professionally. I talk about the archetypes in a corporate environment that are standing in your way that you probably suspect.

But since nobody’s validating, you dismiss. So for example, the withhold, the with is that boss that you know, you just did something great, you’ve been working all night long and it looked great. And then you go to meet with them and they’re like, I mean it was fine, but you missed those three paragraphs.

Like frankly, like I know Bill would’ve done a better job. And you’re like, ah. With holders are the type in a corporate environment who know that by withholding praise, especially to those. Who are pleasers, they know that the way to destabilize you and keep you feeling not entitled to a promotion or not entitled to take their job, is by keeping you destabilized and withholding praise.

So Burn the Boats really isn’t about, burning bridges, it isn’t about burning the boat with you still on it. It’s about eliminating those things in your life that prevent you from committing. And the reason why on the cover, if you see it, here’s my book, by the way, on the cover. The boat I used is not some, boat from 1519 with Cortez or whatever.

It’s supposed to be a kids boat, right? It’s supposed to be the bathtub because a lot of the boats that are standing in the way come from childhood trauma, shame, all the issues that we dealt with that we haven’t dealt with so, Now I talk a lot about this because one of the things I hate about social media is this tidy little narrative.

And we all know it intuitively. I too had stumbles when I was younger. But I overcame them and here’s how I overcame them. And now I’m great. No one does the real thing, which is this. I had troubles, I overcame them. Oh no. The PTs d called back out with me again. Humans, we make two steps forward, one step back.

We regress all of us who’s listening to us regress. I like to talk more about the regression than I do about the progression. , because you can relate to the regression more. So in the book I talk about a lot of uncomfortable things that to this moment as I talk to you, I regret but I felt like I needed to share them so that I could be seen fully from the totality of my journey and not the person on Shark Tank. My hope is somebody out there listening who feels like the die was cast. Because they made a tough decision because they’re dealing with trauma from divorce or being fired. Reads my story and said, okay, I see how you engineered it and I see how it worked out and you’ve given me a little bit of confidence that maybe I could do the same thing.

[00:31:53] Joe Quattrone: So at the end of the day, this is a story about hope. This is a story about 

[00:31:58] Matt Higgins: really, honestly, it is. I hate small talk. My wife’s always laughing cuz I’m such a pseudo extrovert. I’m really, introvert cuz I’m in my head all the. But I love talking about vulnerability and the things we all suffer with cuz I don’t know why that’s not the conversation we’re having all the time.

It feels like this layer of the universe that we all share fear of death, imposter syndrome, voice in our head, trying to undercut us. Feeling that we’re not good enough, like what’s it finally gonna take for me to feel successful? All these issues, we never talk about them collectively, we package everything into a bow.

And that’s, again, back to social media. I look at Instagram first of all, stop lecturing me. Why aren’t you commiserating with me? My book is an attempt to commiserate with you, rather than lecture you. And all the shame that I shed in this book is an attempt to let you know that I too, struggle just like you.

And by the way, there’s no end point. You’re never gonna fully get over it. We’re gonna manage through it. I love that you said that. 

[00:32:48] Joe Quattrone: I remember going on a journey a couple years ago when I was going through my faith journey and my spiritual kind of exploration a little bit. I’m a father of three, been through a lot in my life.

And I remember thinking to myself when things were coming out of the hustle porn realm and getting into more mental health was okay to talk about. And emotions were okay to talk about a little bit more. But I remember thinking to myself, every time I go on LinkedIn, which is my favorite platform, I love talking about business and culture and stuff like that.

But I remember thinking everybody’s talking about how well they’re doing, and so I just put a little piece out there and I said, Hey, I know everybody’s crushing it, right? Because then people know that I work for Gary. So that word crushing, it tends to resonate with people. But then I said if for some reason somebody is not crushing it, my dms are open, feel free to, to reach out to me.

I’d love to talk to you. I was amazed. The next three hours, a hundred people had DMed me and I was talking to people from all over the world. This trauma that they were experiencing in their business and professional life, or even with their family, and they just needed somebody in business that they could talk to.

And even if it wasn’t gonna result in anything, they just wanted to be heard. They wanted to express their trauma and see if there was people that were successful in life that had dealt with hard times. Because all you see on something like LinkedIn is the great, you see the resume, you see the achievement, but you don’t see.

The regression that you were talking about. So I think that’s very 

[00:34:07] Matt Higgins: you did what I was trying to do in the book and how I talk about reframing shame, that the goal should be to make a gift of your shame. Mm-hmm. , , when you do what you just did, putting yourself out, even right now talking about what you went through in your faith journey.

When you put out your shame or whatever it is you’re struggling with, you’re making a gift of yourself to somebody out there. And so I wanna reframe the conversation with this book that the object of the exercise of this life that we’re in right now, this journey is not to get over it, it’s to get through it and to get through it together.

So there’s this again, back to the tiny narrative, like I got over it. It’s I’m just trying to let everybody on. I’m still just trying to get through it. I spent 26 years parentified taking care of a mother since I was nine years old, eating government. In a life of shame that had consequences, it has consequences to this day.

So I don’t want to discuss the end result, the byproduct, and skip the middle, because then it’s it’s doing a disservice to everybody else. In the book I talk about I interview 50 different CEOs, celebrities, athletes. A lot of women founders too. A whole range of people because I want to show that every one of those individuals had to transcend their circumstances just like you, rather than focus on the sort of finished product.

So I, I love this notion of shedding shame and owning your narrative and not being afraid of it, but not doing it in a superficial way that gives the impression that the journey’s over the work is. 

[00:35:28] Joe Quattrone: Yeah. That’s amazing. I think that’s a great place to end this on. I’ve got some other questions, but they seem a little bit more shallow than the conversation we just got into.

So Yeah. 

[00:35:36] Matt Higgins: We can’t go back at this point. We just went too deep. . Yeah. How old are your kids before we break up? 

[00:35:41] Joe Quattrone: So I’ve got a seven year old, a six-year-old, and a two-year-old. So I’m in the thick of it right now, yeah, I’m 43 right now. So I need all the tips I can get in terms of getting my energy back and all that kind of stuff.

But, work from home has been a blessing. I moved my crew to Nashville about a year ago and we’re outside of Nashville right now. We built a big house out here. They’ve got some land and some yard space and stuff like that. So we’re trying to do the thing, we’re trying to figure it out.

I make it back to New York once a month to hang out with Gary and crew, do a 4Ds, all that kind of stuff. But yeah. 

[00:36:11] Matt Higgins: Always say to any dad out there, and I don’t think we talk about fatherhood and how much weighs on dads too, right? I know what by appetite I thought I wanted to read was Herein lies a dad who did the best he could. That’s not just like rhetoric, like I agonize it for being a great dad. I always say if you’re a father and you’re even asking the question, how do I be a great dad? You’re probably doing a great job. Thank you for taking the time. This been great. 

[00:36:30] Joe Quattrone: Let’s get next time. I’m in Hudson Yards and we’d love to have you back on the show.

Maybe when the book comes out, we can do another thing and do postmortem, maybe do a live or something like that and get some questions from our. 

[00:36:41] Matt Higgins: That’ll be great. 

[00:36:41] Joe Quattrone: Thanks for joining us and everybody. I hope you enjoyed our time with Matt Higgins. 

[00:36:45] Matt Higgins: Thanks so much for having me. Everybody out there, Burn the Boats, comes out February right about now. And catch me on LinkedIn.

Thanks for joining us for Building While Flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson, Mickey Cloud, Maribel Lara, and Joe Quattrone will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

Humble beginnings to Shark Tank Investor.

Matt Higgins is the CEO and co-founder of RSE Ventures. Matt is a noted serial entrepreneur and growth equity investor. He is also an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School where he teaches the course “Moving Beyond The Direct Consumer.” His first book “Burn The Boats: Toss Plan B Overboard and Unleash Your Full Potential” was published by Harper Collins William Morrow and became available on February 14, 2023.

In his conversation with Joe Quattrone, Matt shares his personal journey from humble beginnings to now writing his first book. He discusses the hardships along the way and the lessons he learned from them. He hopes his book will encourage others dealing with their own traumas and teach them how to remove the things that are standing in the way of fully committing to the things they care about.

In-flight topics:

  • Why everyone can do personal branding
  • How 9/11 shaped him
  • What gets him to invest
  • Life lessons from having cancer
  • His new book and being vulnerable to encourage others
  • …and more!

New York, NY
Chattanooga, TN
Los Angeles, CA