An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Teamwork, vision, grit, a willingness to learn from your mistakes, and the do-it-yourself bootstrapping attitude.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles. Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup? In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experiences about what it takes to create a highly successful startup. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Mead.
Matthew (Mattie) Mead is the founder and CEO of Hempitecture, a nonwoven materials manufacturer that uses biobased, carbon-capturing inputs to create healthier, high-performing products for a more sustainable planet. An Idaho-based, adventure-seeking entrepreneur, Mattie has a passion for re-envisioning the materials traditionally used in construction and beyond. On a mission to discover tangible solutions to the climate crisis, Mattie founded the Hempitecture concept in 2012 during his studies of architecture, environmental sciences, and entrepreneurship at Hobart College in Geneva, New York.
In 2016, Mattie had the honor of speaking at TEDx on the topic of “Building a Better World,” and just two years later, Hempitecture was formally founded alongside Co-Founder Tommy Gibbons, as a Public Benefit Corporation. Mattie’s work with the sustainability-driven brand also awarded him a spot on the Forbes “30 under 30” list in 2020. Previously, Mattie served on the Board of Directors of Idaho BaseCamp, a non-profit organization that connects underserved communities to the outdoors, for three years. In his home of Ketchum, Idaho, he was the Vice-Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission for five years and the Chairperson of the Historical Preservation Commission for one year as a founding member.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My interest in sustainability and architecture began as a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Thanks in part to the liberal arts curriculum at the school, I was able to gain exposure to varying subject areas. By my senior year at Hobart, I decided to launch a thesis research project that explored the nexus of our built environment, architecture, and the impacts of the built environment on our natural world. This thesis study, titled “The Contemporary Relevance of Earth Architecture,” served as the foundation for the Hempitecture concept.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My a-ha moment was when I realized that buildings in their operations are responsible for nearly 40% of our domestic carbon footprint, which makes up the largest portion of our domestic carbon emissions, more so than transportation, industry, and manufacturing. If building operations make up the most significant portion of our carbon footprint, it could also be a great opportunity to enact solutions to change that statistic. Through my thesis study and with an understanding of this problem within the built environment, I began to research bio-based solutions, utilizing materials that are adept at capturing carbon dioxide. In essence, the Hempitecture concept was born.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Personally, I have had many mentors along the way, and as a business, we have had fantastic advisers and members on our Board of Directors who have helped chart the future of Hempitecture. Early on, I relied heavily on my college’s entrepreneurship department to help shape the earliest patches of Hempitecture. In 2013, I presented at my college’s pitch competition as a finalist with a grand prize of $10,000 in seed funding to launch the start-up. This was five years before industrial hemp was federally legal. The judges laughed at me — they couldn’t believe that I was proposing to build houses and buildings using materials derived from a schedule one substance (industrial hemp). I did not win the contest, which was extremely disheartening at the time. I graduated college, and I did not know what was next. Soon after, I began working for a sustainable development in Saint John in the U.S. Virgin Islands designing and building eco-cottages at Concordia Eco Resort that are solar-powered and rainwater harvesting. One day my phone rang and it was a gentleman from Idaho. He asked if I wanted to come to Idaho and build a hemp home for his nonprofit organization. I was unaware of where Idaho was even located on a map, having never traveled there. He found Hempitecture through a news article that was shared on Facebook. Through the power of social media, Hempitecture had its first opportunity to build a proof-of-concept project in the mountains of Idaho.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Hempitecture is unique because we are one of the first companies in the United States to build multiple homes across the country using hemp and lime as a material. When combined, this material is often referred to as HempCrete. It is an insulating thermal envelope material that is cast around a structural frame. In the years of working to bring this material to scale we realize that while HempCrete presents great opportunities as a carbon-negative building material, there are also significant challenges. Some of these challenges include a workforce not knowing how to work with HempCrete and a misalignment of building codes that don’t understand or accept HempCrete in the United States. Additionally, due to the subcontracted nature of buildings in the United States, every subcontractor, including design professionals, must understand how to work with a design for a HempCrete envelope. This led us to our pivot. In 2018, our cofounder, Tommy Gibbons, a high school classmate of mine, joined the team, and we re-incorporated Hempitecture as a public benefit corporation with a mission to scale bio-based, carbon-negative, and sustainable building material solutions in a way that could be integrated into conventional building assemblies. That led us to bring our flagship product, HempWool insulation, to market.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As a public benefit corporation, doing good for people and the planet is at the core of our business model. We sell, manufacture, and distribute building materials that are carbon negative and healthy. We believe that our materials and solutions create healthier homes and habitats while also sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And in doing so, we believe that we are bringing goodness to both people and the planet.
Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Tenacity, vision, and grit have been at the core of Hempitecture‘s journey to success. Hempitecture as a concept was founded in 2013, but it is not until today in 2022, that we fully realize this vision by bringing our building materials, particularly HempWool to scale in the United States. Over the years, there have been multiple instances where people have not taken our building materials seriously, due to the common misconceptions surrounding industrial hemp. Today, this is very different because industrial hemp is legal in all states and is federally legal. It is no longer a schedule one substance, as it is now recognized distinctly from cannabis that produces THC and has recreational or medicinal value. Despite being told no by many clients, architects, and even investors who looked at our business, we have fundraised nearly $5 million to build our flagship facility. This flagship facility is proof of our concept at an industrial scale that we can grow materials that support rural communities to create high-performing sustainable building materials
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
As an entrepreneur, you are often given lots of advice — this advice is like a mosaic. You need to decide where and when this advice is applicable and fits into place. One piece of advice that we were given was that we should move away from industrial hemp entirely and focus on other plant-based resources due to the schedule-one substance nature of industrial hemp. I am glad we did not do away with industrial hemp because it is the core ingredient that enables our building materials to be carbon-negative, long-lasting, insulating, and high performing.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There have been many difficult times starting a business in the United States and essentially uncharted territories. Initially, as a business, we were traveling from job site to job site, helping construct HempCrete homes using hemp and lime. Oftentimes there would be obstacles in between projects that hindered our cash flow. There have been multiple points where we thought we would have to close the doors of Hempitecture and move on. Thanks in part to two committed co-founders who have self-funded the business and bootstrapped it to success today, we have been able to stay in business to ultimately realize our vision of mass-producing sustainable products such as HempWool thermal insulation.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
The drive to continue pushing Hempitecture forward came from the core belief that what we are doing is needed in the world and that it truly has the potential to help decarbonize the built environment. Decarbonizing the built environment and making our homes and buildings more sustainable requires a comprehensive approach, strategy, awareness, and education. Education has been the cornerstone of our success: we educate architects, builders, homeowners, and even distributors who are interested in looking at our products. Statistics in the information of our product speak for themselves. Once you learn the benefits of our products compared to what is conventionally available on the market, It shows that we have truly unique offerings that are able to impact the built environment and our natural world positively.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder?
As a founder, there are many highs and lows. One thing that is essential is that you must celebrate the wins, even small ones, and keep in perspective where you have come from and where you are going. Without celebrating and recognizing the small milestones, you can lose sight of the greater vision and all of the traction you have made to date.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
I would advise every entrepreneur to always bootstrap for as long as possible before responding. Sometimes this can be difficult; however, if you can successfully bootstrap your company to the point of being able to raise fundraising, you will give away less of your company in exchange for an equity investment. Also, if you are considering raising funding to launch your products or grow your business, structuring your fundraising round through a safe agreement is a great way to delay your valuation and allow you to gain proof of concept. We fundraise through a unique means; we utilized community funding on a platform called WeFunder. We have over 1,800 investors who have contributed to our goal of raising nearly $5 million, which has been deployed to build our manufacturing facility.
Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
Building a cohesive team is essential to having success as a start-up business. It is critical that your founders are committed and determined and can recruit talent that is equally committed and determined to see the success of the company grow. As a public benefit corporation, all of our team members are aligned around the understanding and realization that buildings need to be improved, and that building materials are a pathway to doing that. In our hiring process, we often ask prospective employees about their perspectives on sustainability. If they do not share the same vision that we have, then we know they will not be a great fit for our business because we are a mission-based business, and having alignment around that vision is essential. Five things that are essential to creating a highly successful start-up are as follows: teamwork, vision, grit, a willingness to learn from your mistakes, and the do-it-yourself bootstrapping attitude. Early on when we had the opportunity to build our first proof of concept project in Idaho, we faced many roadblocks. One of which was that industrial hemp was not yet available in the United States at the time. Because we had to import the raw materials to build this home, which ultimately became the first public-use HempCrete building in the United States for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we fundraised through Kickstarter to support the purchase and import of the raw materials for the building project. Our Kickstarter rate is $27,000 and that $27,000 went largely to realizing the proof of concept project, not for our own internal operations, marketing, or anything else other than the building. That first building gave us the momentum we needed to show that building with hemp in the United States is indeed possible, and further highlighted the need to bring an industrial hemp supply chain to the country.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
When launching a new company, CEOs and founders often think they need large amounts of money to get their product, service, or concept to market. This is not the case; there are plenty of strategies to raise funding through non-dilutive sources including Kickstarter and community rounds on platforms such as WeFunder. A founder dedicated to seeing their company succeed should do everything they can to bootstrap their company before soliciting outside investment. If you solicit outside investment at an early stage in your business, you’re likely to give up large amounts of equity and therefore you begin to give up control of your business before it even starts.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Starting a new business or any start-up requires dedication, determination, and a clear vision to align yourself and your team around. This can lead to burnout and discouragement when you’re not getting the traction you hope to get. Our company is based in Sun Valley, Idaho, and while we have a mostly remote team across the United States, we encourage our employees to get outside, go hiking, ski, snowboard, and do anything that helps them connect with nature. We also allow our employees to take mental health days with no questions asked. If they have something going on in their personal lives or just need a day off to recalibrate and recuperate, we allow that because it gives them the opportunity to recharge their batteries and return to working towards our collective vision and goals with more energy and enthusiasm.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Our flagship product HempWool thermal insulation — it’s a scalable one-to-one replacement for conventional insulation products. We believe the scalable nature of this product, which can be used in lieu of things such as fiberglass and mineral wool, allows us to reach more homes and buildings across the United States because it is so easy to implement. We believe the movement of decarbonization within the built environment, and subsequent federal tailwinds, such as the Inflation Reduction Act are bringing the importance of sustainable building materials and carbon-negative building materials to the forefront of thought within the architectural and design communities. We believe that more architects and builders need the education to understand why sustainable building materials like HempWool are ideal for decarbonizing the built environment and creating healthier homes and habitats. This movement is growing, and organizations like Architecture 2030 and Builders for Climate Action are bringing this awareness and knowledge to the forefront of the architecture and building communities.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Today, many business moguls have reached billionaire status and are contributing their funds to sustainable and environmentally friendly causes. Take for instance breakthrough energy ventures ABC Firm which are investing in the future of sustainable innovations. There are also climate funds set up by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and even entrepreneurs like Elon Musk that are lending their exorbitant profits towards sustainable causes. It’s hard to say that there would be one person I would want to sit down with, but rather, I would like to have the opportunity to speak to a consortium of these individuals to highlight the need to develop and build with more sustainable materials. Anyone who is a VP focused on sustainability and building materials has an open spot on my calendar. I would love to tell them about how Hempitecture is just part of the solution to solving some of the biggest challenges that face the built environment and our globe today.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Mattie Mead Of Hempitecture On Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.