Business Luminaries is a Bear Down Network series that examines the pivotal moments in the professional journeys of CEOs, entrepreneurs, technology pioneers and more.
A willingness to see opportunity in misfortune has always served Matt Van Horn well. While at the University of Arizona, Van Horn and his best friend Logan Green backpacked through Africa. In Zimbabwe, they noticed that because of the developing economy, locals shared rides to lower their gas expenses. Van Horn and Green didn’t see a single empty seat.
They didn’t know it at the time, but this casual observation marked the origin of a $15 billion technology company.
Courtesy of Matt Van Horn
Van Horn and Green started to brainstorm how shared rides could be translated to businesses. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we build a platform for people to share carpool rides in the U.S.?’ Logan and I started Zimride (so named for the “Zim” in Zimbabwe).”
As is usually the case with new companies, the early days were arduous. “No one took us seriously,” Van Horn says. “We couldn’t raise any money.” Soon, though, an angel investor took an interest in Zimride. It later grew into such a success that, in 2012, it launched the now-ubiquitous ride-sharing app Lyft.
Tasting Success, Rejecting Complacency, Embracing Curiosity
After Zimride, Van Horn met CEO Jay Adelson and soon joined Digg.com. “When I left Zimride, I said to Logan, ‘I want to learn from other entrepreneurs before I do something crazy again,’” Van Horn says. “So when I met Jay, I introduced myself: ‘Hi, I’m a young entrepreneur and I want to pick your brain.’ He agreed and tried to set up a call, but I pushed for an in-person meeting.”
Digg.com offered Van Horn a marketing position. “I took the job, and I decided to learn as much as possible across every vector of the business,” he says. “I spent lots of time having coffee meetings with department heads, asking tons of questions. I was always the first person there and the last one to leave.”
From Digg, Van Horn moved to Path, a now-defunct social networking site. Hired as a business development manager, Van Horn was quickly promoted to vice president of business, which he saw as another opportunity to grow.
“I called my first boss at Digg and said, ‘I don’t know how to be a vice president. Any words of wisdom?’ He told me that people think when they move up, their opinion matters that much more. It doesn’t. He told me that I’m quiet, inquisitive and I get things done — don’t act any differently. So I didn’t. I came in and just listened and learned.”
At Path, Van Horn met Nikhil Bhogal, his future business partner and co-founder of his current project, June Oven, a tech-based smart oven that uses a camera to identify foods and cook them. Five years in, the startup is crafting the kitchen of the future, where home chefs can cook meals using their phones.
Courtesy of June Oven
Van Horn has never stopped learning, never gotten content. He has kept his eyes open for the next big thing, even after having discovered the last one. He has used failure as a launchpad to success.
“You never have any idea if something is going to be successful or a complete disaster,” he says. “Don’t worry about it. Surround yourself with smart people and people you believe in. I’ve learned more from failure than I have from success.”
Turning a Defeat into a Win
Success always seems to have sprung from failure for Van Horn. As a “Mac nerd” growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, Van Horn’s goal was to be accepted into the entrepreneurship program at the UA and graduate from the Eller College of Management. He got into Eller — but not for entrepreneurship.
Van Horn brushed off the defeat and charged ahead. Since he never received a formal rejection letter, he showed up to orientation anyway, created a business team and was elected general manager of his group. “Two of my friends with better grades than me got accepted, so I decided to show up with them,” Van Horn says. “But after that first day of orientation, they let me in.”
To college students, Van Horn recommends treating your education as something that also occurs beyond the classroom. “Get involved in stuff,” he says. “And by stuff, I mean activities and groups. Find your interest. Join as a freshman. Get involved as early as possible.”
He believes that those who hesitate when confronted with something new should know that perspective and opportunity lie in the unknown. “I didn’t know anything about transportation,” he says of the early days at Zimride. “In hindsight, I see this as a competitive advantage. I’m able to look at any new industry with a fresh eye.”
And never stop making goals for yourself. Once a year, he and Green sit down and goal-set together, taking time to grade each other on their past goals. “We plan out one month, six months, a year, five years, 20 years, 50 years,” he says. “There’s something subliminal about it that works.”