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 I, Sean talks about immigrating from Taiwan to Canada, his first job in the lab and early career in sales, and his foray into the entrepreneurial world with his startup, Morfus.
Sean Huang and his family left Taiwan and immigrated to Vancouver, Canada when he was just 8 years old, largely to allow his two older sisters to further their pursuit of music. A former French horn tutor advised the family to move to North America because the music industry there was more reputable and opportunities would be more available; this, combined with the general idea of Canada having a more open society and focus on individualism, sealed the deal, and the Huang family packed their bags. Fortunately, the move paid off, as one of his sisters ended up doing her PhD dissertation in musical studies before going on to work in the orchestra, accomplishing her childhood dream.
At the University of British Columbia, Sean was somewhat torn between the structured world of higher education and the chaos of entrepreneurism, the latter inspired by his father. “My dad used to sell computer parts—semiconductors—with his brothers, but then later he branched out and ended up distributing roller coaster rides for theme parks,” Sean says. “So, when I was a kid and going to school, and people would ask what my dad did for a living, I would say that he sold roller coasters. It was like that video game, Roller Coaster Tycoon.” With his mother a more traditional figure demanding good grades and his father encouraging him to pursue his passion, Sean was conflicted, which manifested in his relative lack of interest and almost dropping out of college as he pursued a degree in chemistry. Getting a degree, he admits, felt more like recognizing what he didn’t like to do and then picking the thing that seemed the best from the remaining choices.
Graduating in 2014, Sean’s first job in a lab environment affirmed for him that chemistry wouldn’t be his path in the future. “All we would do, day in and day out, would be to perform quantitative analysis on drug samples,” he says. “I did that for about 6 months, but I found it incredibly boring—just doing the same thing over and over again. I wanted something outside of my wheelhouse, something that would challenge me.” Going into a sales position with a third-party marketing company, Sean started in business-to-business role calling on TELUS, one of Canada’s largest telecommunications providers. The work was grueling, he admits, and the ambiguous pay system made it so that only the company’s highest performing individuals were able to make a comfortable living.
Quickly promoted to sales manager due to his performance, Sean reflects on walking around in the heat in a full suit, going door to door at small businesses to try and get them to sign up. “I think the hard thing in the beginning was that I couldn’t handle rejection,” he says. “Business owners would give me ridiculous excuses—I remember going into an empty clothing store and the owner telling me he was too busy to speak to me—and I would just take that as a ‘no’ and leave.” Learning as he went, Sean became more confident and aggressive in his approach, with his script even becoming a part of the company’s training procedures for new recruits. After 2 years, though, Sean faced a familiar problem: the repetitive nature of the business had caused him to become stagnant, performing the same actions and speaking the same lines, like a well-trained robot.
It was at this point that Sean took his father’s advice, ventured out into the world of entrepreneurship, and started Morfus, a mobile virtual reality (VR) company specializing in property technology for the architecture industry. The company was centered around the idea that there was no real way for people to effectively understand what property would look like in 3D based off a blueprint or schematic. Morfus was to be that bridge—the platform would convert any 2D or 3D design and model into a fully interactive VR walkthrough, all on a cell phone, for spatial awareness and design purposes. “Before this,” Sean says, “the only real way to get a true 3D experience was on Oculus or VIVE, and you had to plug them into a PC. We wanted to pioneer a full 3D walkthrough that could be done on mobile.”
As things started ramping up, Morfus was accepted into an accelerator program in China after attending a conference in New Orleans, Louisiana called “Collision,” an offshoot of the larger “Web Summit” event. At Collision, Sean met an analyst from the Chinaccelerator program who was connected to key VR players in China and decided to shift his attention overseas due to unfavorable conditions in the Canadian market. “We figured that the VR market in Vancouver just really wasn’t going to take off,” he says. “This was 2017, and the real estate market was almost a bubble—80% of properties were sold before people even saw the floor plans. So, there wasn’t much need for our solution unless you were trying to attract international buyers.”
Moving to Shanghai, the future seemed bright. In China, the tech industry was booming, and the environment was very hospitable for new companies—or so Sean thought. In reality, he says, the country was very difficult to work in, a closed ecosystem where many venture capitalists wouldn’t even look at your company unless you had a joint venture establishing an in-country presence. “That’s how they trap companies inside China,” he says. “And now, everyone knows how hard it is to get money out of the country.” Sean admits that even though he was born in Taiwan, he was still considered an outsider—and this permeated every business interaction, with investors wanting to give money to companies with founders who attended prestigious Chinese universities, for example, or only investing in Chinese companies with Chinese currency.
Another challenge was that in China, Sean found what felt like hundreds of other companies trying to build a similar solution to that of Morfus but backed by much larger, much better funded teams. Even as they progressed through the accelerator program, by 2018 burnout loomed large—eventually driving Sean’s cofounder and the company’s CTO to leave Morfus, and the VR space, entirely. Without a technical person to deal with product development and that side of the business, there really wasn’t much that Sean could do, even as he desperately tried to salvage what he could of the company. “We had some investors’ interest, but it was just bad timing. Everything bad happened at once.” Though Morfus still existed in name, the project was largely dead.
Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where 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 they achieve success and move forward with new projects and partners.