Part Two: The Ups and Downs of Serial Entrepreneurship with Matidor Cofounder Sean Huang
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In Episode 13 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Sean Huang, Cofounder and Head of Business Development for Matidor, on the company’s innovative location visualization and data collaboration geospatial software. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Sean about his career and life. In Part II of the article, Sean discusses how his first failed startup drove him to reach higher when cofounding his newest venture, Matidor, his various successes in well-known startup competitions like Tech Crunch and SXSW, and his vision for the company as it achieves success and moves forward with new projects and partners.
At this point, the understandably devastated Sean returned to Vancouver from Shanghai, using the unfortunate circumstances to take a breath of air, reorient himself, and plan his next move. “I think it’s very hard for founders who have failed the first time to admit that failure and then still try to find a foothold in the startup space,” he says. “I wondered if I should just take a job, as money was running out. That cloud of uncertainty was just looming over me. I haven’t felt that way since I almost dropped out of college, and this experience brought me back to those feelings of helplessness.” Fortunately, the optimistic Sean took this as a learning experience, saying that moving forward, he now knows to be far more careful when making assumptions about what he thinks people do and don’t need.
In addition, Sean advises any other young entrepreneurs to avoid what he calls the “startup trap,” which is when you get awards from various competitions for your ideas and feel good about yourself but ultimately don’t have a viable business model. “You go on stage, you talk, you pitch to investors, you look impressive…but at the end of the day, it’s about what’s coming into your bank account,” he notes. “We ended up building a problem to a solution that didn’t exist. We assumed that mobile VR would be valuable to the architectural community when dealing with clients, but we didn’t account for the tradeoff between detail, like with Oculus or VIVE, and accessibility, which was what we were pushing.” Listen to the market, and listen to your customers, he concludes.
When Vincent Lam reached out to him about starting a new company, the entrepreneurial flame was lit in Sean once again. The two had met at a startup event in 2016 and had been in touch ever since. For Sean, Vincent was the perfect person with which to begin his next adventure, as Vincent had worked at Google in the Google Earth group and Dassault Systèmes. He also saw in the experienced Vincent a potential mentor, someone who had more experience with startups and could help guide him in areas where he wasn’t an expert. At lunch, Vincent asked Sean if he wanted to join him in a new venture he was working on, to which Sean readily accepted. “We both shared that passion for entrepreneurship,” he says. “Vincent was coming from a geospatial background, and I was coming from VR/AR [augmented reality] visualization background. So, we figured, why not combine those skill sets into a product?”
After early work on a VR/AR product revealed that the market just wasn’t there—which Sean laughingly says he’s thankful didn’t take him 2 years this time around—the two hunkered down to identify and solve a real problem. What they discovered was that the upstream oil and gas industry needed a better way to keep track of their assets, as even though there was no shortage of software solutions in the space, they were largely siloed, spread out among various platforms and often requiring specialized knowledge to even use them. “We wanted to build a platform that addressed the needs of not only the technical users, but the nontechnical users, as well—the businesspeople,” he explains.
The result was Matidor, a location visualization and data collaboration tool for businesses designed to unite geospatial data with team collaboration. Matidor, Sean says, was developed to address the needs of those in field services industries, primarily in the energy and environmental spaces. The platform is built on three pillars: powerful GIS visualization and integration, streamlined team management and collaboration, and simplified data management and reporting. With all these capabilities now at the user’s fingertips in one easy-to-access, intuitive platform, the days of needing to pull data from five different sources and consolidate it into various reports are over.
The geospatial component, in particular, is impressive, as sites are shown in real time and assets of interest—pipelines, facilities, lease lines, and so on—can be tagged and annotated. Managing your portfolio this way while keeping track of various reports and financial performance objectives in one location has never been done before, something Sean is especially proud of. This, he says, is one of the reasons why the company got so far in the 2020 Tech Crunch Startup Battlefield competition, coming in as a runner-up.
“I was always really fascinated by Tech Crunch,” Sean says. “A lot of investors and top venture capital funds often go to the Startup Battlefield to scout for startups. Being able to make the final 20 was an amazing experience, even though we were doing everything virtually.” Though Matidor was the first company to present at the first-ever virtual Startup Battlefield—and though many of their competitors in the group were already venture capital-backed by the likes of Y Combinator—Sean and Vincent weren’t intimidated; rather, they were humbled to be among such top talent and high-caliber companies. Though making it that far in the competition and getting the recognition were surely worthwhile, Sean says that networking was another huge benefit, allowing them to meet and build relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and visionaries—like the founders of Firehawk Aerospace, for example, who are developing hybrid rocket fuel that employs industrial-scale 3D printing.
Sean was also present at the SXSW Pitch competition, once again as a finalist. “The difference is that at SXSW, there really isn’t the same amount of attention from the tech industry,” he says. “It was a great event and a good experience overall, but the focus and the audience were a bit different. Still, going through SXSW got us a lot of publicity.” Though Matidor didn’t win in either of the two competitions—and, as Sean says wryly, you don’t win the $100,000 for getting second place—the positive PR brought new interest in the company, driving Sean and Vincent to expand the team with new sales people. They’ve been adding smart hires to the company for a while, including developers, sales, marketing, and the like, to make sure that they’re positioned for increases in business and properly scaling the company to meet demand. It makes sense, and Sean is happy to have watched the company grow.
Matidor’s latest success is to have signed on as a channel partner with Unity. Though any good gamer would recognize Unity as a gaming engine, the platform is actually used in many other industries and applications. “The reason we signed on with Unity was because we were working alongside them and MNP on a government-backed project that allows businesses to track COVID-19,” Sean explains. “So, what we did was we offered our geospatial back-end support to build a map interface where they could see, through color-coded heatmaps, where infection areas are. By pulling in publicly available data, we built a model that would then display on the map based on that data.”
As one of the smallest companies among some big-name players involved with the Digital Technology Supercluster—think Microsoft, Boeing, and Roche—the COVID-19 tracking project positioned Matidor well with Unity, who saw in the startup the potential to help its own clients that needed geospatial support. The collaboration brings Sean and Vincent full circle, as Unity can help them figure out ways to incorporate 3D visualization into their site and asset management projects. “We wanted to make it so that in the future, if you want to see any subsurface infrastructure—for example, checking a pipeline for pipeline integrity—you can see a digital twin superimposed onto the area where the pipe is supposed to be underground,” Sean explains.
Sean wants to erode the barrier between 2D map-based data and 3D visualization, and he’s excited for the opportunity to truly change the industry. We at OGGN wish him well on the never-ending journey of an entrepreneur!