I’m fascinated by the different types of people I meet in the business world and the way that their personalities show up in what they do. I’m drawn to people who have a quiet inner confidence that is expressed in their interactions and their output. I am comforted by their sense of self. They know who they are and they operate with a kindness of spirit that makes shared time and conversation pleasant. They exude confident energy to everyone they come into contact with.
Matthew Larson is the chief of product design for one of the surf industry’s most exciting new brands, Matuse, which designs incredible, high-end wetsuits. Larson is a soft-spoken, kind-spirited design thinker who is passionate about surfing and technology. Through the following 10 ideas, you’ll learn how Matt has combined his love for surfing and design while building a company he loves.
1. Pay attention. Your next move might be on the end of your nose.
In addition to his role at Matuse, Larson continues to work at the iconic La Jolla surf shop, Mitch’s. Matuse was born, like many world-class brands, by observing and understanding consumer needs and circumstance. Over time, Matt noticed a trend. Customers wanted more from their products and wanted to be educated about what they were purchasing. The average surfer was becoming increasingly demanding about technology. When customers walked into the store for a new wetsuit, they were bombarded with fanciful neologisms that tried to create excitement for the product. What they didn’t get was the science behind the wetsuit–what’s on the inside, what’s keeping them warm, what exactly is that $450 suit made of? This is where Matuse was born.
Working at Mitch’s is an invaluable asset for Matuse and for Larson, as the line of products is sold at both Mitch’s locations. Working on the floor, Matt is the eyes and ears of Matuse and understands what the customers are saying, thinking, and experiencing with his products. Being immersed in the retail environment is a free education if you take the time to observe and listen to what people want. All of the information to create solutions is right in front of him.
Matt’s personal inspiration for starting Matuse was to make a difference, to contribute and to leave a mark to improve the industry in which he was raised. He told me he wants people to get as excited as he does about the ocean and the science and passion that goes into Matuse’s products.
2. Surround yourself with smart people with different skills.
Matuse was founded by three partners–Larson, CEO John Vincent Campbell, and his father, Matuse chairman John B. Campbell.
Larson met John Campbell at Mitch’s. Campbell, who came from the advertising industry, was working on a textile project and had a material he was interested in selling to the surf industry; he was looking for anyone who might know something about wetsuits. That’s when they first met, and the magic happened. Matuse’s genesis is special for Larson; he believes there are people in your life you meet for a reason.
3. Take time to design your business.
Larson and Campbell met many times to talk about philosophy, art, design, culture, and affinities they had for other great companies. Over this time they thoughtfully created the foundations for Matuse. They created a brand pyramid, which helped them to delve deeper into their concept of a company with human traits. They took time to think, create, plan, and build a company that the surf industry had never seen before.
4. Let the challenges of business bond you.
Larson loves what he does and believes that when you start a business you need to have that passion to get through all of the long hours and stress. At the end of the day, loving what you do is essential. His business partner is now one of his closest friends and he describes the people he works with at Matuse as family. They hustle and sweat the details together and, in doing so, have become incredibly close.
5. Stick with it. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Matuse’s biggest challenge was starting a company focused on an unapologetically high-end market in a down economy. Matuse delivered its first products late summer of 2006, shortly after that the economy started its nosedive. That aside, the team at Matuse has worked intelligently and looked for the best retail partners to help deliver their message and be their ambassadors of “ichiban” (Japanese for “number one; the best”). They had to dig deep and stay focused, and are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Their product line, which started with three pieces, is now close to forty. I predict that Matuse will grow into one of the surf industry’s most admired and successful brands in the years to come.
6. Move to the beat of a different drum.
Matuse has developed the crème de la crème of limestone rubber with the Yamamoto Corporation from Osaka, Japan. They call it “Geoprene,” a titanium-coated, limestone-based rubber that is not only functionally superior (it’s warmer, lighter, dries faster, and lasts longer), but it’s also more sustainable and kinder to Mother Nature. Matuse’s limestone Geoprene is 98% water impermeable, compared to that of petroleum-based rubber, which is only 65%.
Matt never refers to the company as “Matuse Wetsuits.” Instead, he’d prefer Matuse to be thought of as a way of thinking for people who want the best and are passionate about quality products. When people look at the Matuse logo, Matt wants them to think of something that has been well thought-out and designed with intention. Their visual imagery is distinct and original. They purposefully avoid the surf ad cliché of having a picture of a surfer riding a wave with a logo at the bottom. Instead, they feature their products in environments that evoke interest, with surroundings that are sophisticated and compelling. Some of the past photo shoots have taken place in a Russian bath house, a high-rise office on Wall Street, and many other unexpected locations. When you look at a Matuse ad, you need to spend time dissecting what’s happening in the story.
7. Your brand is a pledge.
Matuse’s definition of brand is that it’s a “pledge” of sorts; an undertaking by the company to produce an expectation. Everyone is innately conscious or unconscious of branding. Large brands elicit certain emotions, thoughts, and memories from the consumer, and this drives their decision to purchase or not purchase. While brand identity and advertising campaigns are visually important (especially in an industry like surfing, which is built off of imagery and emotion), they’re only effective if the brand can reinforce the original pledge. The pledge is a company’s expectation for something to perform the way it should, to look a particular way, and to deliver on the trust a consumer invests. Larson believes companies don’t become brands overnight; it takes years of delivering on the pledge.
8. Powerfully express your values.
While some companies have mission statements or values and beliefs in a book, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Matuse’s values are summed up in the Matuse poem:
Confident but humble
Savvy yet spiritual
Matuse represents an ongoing path to achieving the synergy of art + function
Nature and industry
Passion with method
The mission is to deliver Premium (the ichiban) game that’s focused on the next level.
Leader of innovation.
Follower of compassion
Matuse’s logo is an ancient Taoist symbol that signifies “Heaven and Earth.” There are three solid lines for Heaven and three broken lines for Earth, creativity connecting art and function, concept to completion.
9. Use everything that you’ve been taught.
Larson believes every job you have as you grow through life goes with you to the next project, whether it’s school, work, or creating art. His prior experiences helped him develop better interpersonal skills, organizational tools, and also improved his multi-tasking abilities. Matt will tell you all his skills are in constant growth mode and he’s an expert of none of them. He knows that to grow as a designer, he needs to avoid getting trapped by the idea that he knows anything in its entirety.
10. Stay curious and you’ll stay young forever.
At a young age, Larson’s grandmother told him, “If you stay curious, you will stay young forever.” Grandma Aparico had amazing energy and fought cancer for more than 20 years with a smile on her face. When Matt found himself bored, she told him, “We perceive things not as they are, but as we are.” To Larson this meant there’s plenty to do and that he was the one who needed to get it done. He listened, and today he’s constantly investigating the world around him, looking for inspiration from Mother Nature and other stimuli found outside his front door.
Uncommon sense advice for starting a business today:
Before you start a business, make sure it’s your passion, because you will be tested time and time again. Be ready to work harder than any of your friends and surround yourself with the best and brightest people. You will learn so much from the people you spend your time with. Surround yourself with people you trust implicitly, whom you can turn to when you need advice. Lastly, have fun. Even in the midst of all the long hours and work you will put into your business, you will have the time of your life doing it!
Shawn Parr is the The Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, IDEO, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision.