From College Student to CTO with Interact’s Co-Founder Matthew Clark

Matt Clark was a studious computer science student at UCLA when he met classmate Josh Haynam, CEO of Interact. Matt was a coder, and Josh was an aspiring entrepreneur with a knack for all things business. They became friends when they entered a 48 hour startup competition together, which ended up as a complete disaster. […]

Matt Clark was a studious computer science student at UCLA when he met classmate Josh Haynam, CEO of Interact. Matt was a coder, and Josh was an aspiring entrepreneur with a knack for all things business.

They became friends when they entered a 48 hour startup competition together, which ended up as a complete disaster. In those 48 hours, the two spent their time coming up with random, weird ideas and fun things to build rather than actually trying to do what the weekend was for.

Little did they know, after countless nights of eating Top Ramen, the two college buddies would be on their way to building one of the most successful quiz building platforms on the market.

Jessmyn:
Hi guys, and welcome back to Interact’s Creator Stories podcast. If you didn’t watch or listen to last week’s episode, I’m Jessmyn Solana and I am now hosting the podcast, so thank you all for still being here. Today with me, it’s kind of a fun episode because we have our co-founder and CTO Matt Clark with us. Hi, Matt.

Matt:
Hey. Hi, Jess, thanks for having me on. Appreciate it.

Jessmyn:
Of course. So after Josh had me on, I was actually really excited to have you as one of my first few episodes, just because I think it’s really cool for people to hear the origin stories of each of us and how we got here, especially being such a small team. So, pretty much if you guys don’t know, Matt actually was friends with Josh before they started this company, and so they’ve known each other forever. And on top of that, it didn’t always start as quizzes. It started from something else, which I’m actually going to let him talk about, because I don’t want to tell you guys the story.
But anyway, I’d love to hear more about how, coming from where we are now, how it got started, some of the struggles that you guys went through. I know sometimes on our emails or our website, there’s all these stories about you guys eating Top Ramen every night. So tell us all about it, start from the beginning.

Matt:
Yeah, so our story starts back at UCLA in college, where Josh and I met and were good friends. We were part of a Bible study there at UCLA. And this would have been back in 2012 we probably met, and yeah, it was a good time. It was just normal college experience, but we both kind of got thrown into the startup world and the startup scene at UCLA, and that was new for both of us.
Josh, if any of you know some of his past experiences, he had kind of been more entrepreneurial from a young age, actually, doing different businesses and starting his own businesses and being an entrepreneur. But me, I was a little different. I wasn’t that entrepreneurial, it was all new for me. And so Josh was the one to actually egg me on and get me started into the startup scene.
And so it started with one weekend at UCLA, where there was a competition, a 48 hour startup competition, where you had to make a new startup in 48 hours. Now Josh always had the entrepreneurial bug so he was like, “Matt, I am doing this competition, it’s going to be so fun, and you are the only coder that I know.” So I was a computer science student at UCLA, I had done some website development experience before, but in school you’re not really learning the newest technologies and the newest things out there in the world that is exciting, you’re mostly learning about theories and computer science algorithms and stuff. But I won’t bore you with that, Jess, don’t worry.
And so he was like, “Matt, you’re the only coder that I know. Would you mind doing this with me and we can build a website?” And I was like, “Josh, I’m going to be honest, I do not know how to build websites, but I am so down.” And so the whole weekend we spent goofing off with a couple other people and had a really fun, fun weekend just hanging out together, and nothing came out of that weekend. Nothing whatsoever. We actually ended up not even ending up with a company or anything. It was a complete disaster.
But it was really fun working together, and we kind of bonded over this fact that we both really loved creating things and being creative and thinking about it. We had more fun coming up with random, weird ideas and fun things to build rather than actually trying to do what the weekend was for, and so we bonded in that aspect. And so that kicked off this bug for both of us where we want to start working together and see what’s going on.
And so that led us to try a couple of different ideas, but nothing that really stuck during that time period. And around 2013, being college students, we wanted to make some money and start making money for ourselves, so we decided to just start making websites for businesses, making websites for anyone who would really hire us, and they would be WordPress websites, or Wix websites, or anything. And that’s kind of how we started our business relationship together.
And so from that point on, one business who we built their website wanted a quiz. And so we custom built a quiz from scratch, from start to finish, where it was a quiz that, I don’t remember exactly the topic, but it stepped through different questions and then asked for an email address at the end of the quiz before the results. And the results from that quiz kind of shocked us in a way that I almost was like, I think this might be broken because the results were too good to be true. And I think it was something like 80% of people who started the quiz finished it, and I think it had like 60, 70% opt-in into the email list, or something like that. And it was insane numbers. And we were like, “Whoa.”
And what Josh always says when he tells this story is we showed them this website, and we were showing them all the cool features, and all these neat things about it, and all the cool colors we used, and all this and the design that we had for it. And all they ever cared about was how many people have signed up for my email list. That was it. That was all anyone cared about. It was just, “Okay, but how many email subscribers did I get? How many people did this?”
And not only were we building these websites, but it was kind of a perfect matching doing it with Josh because he was handling SEO, he was handling the marketing side of it, he was handling all of that, and I was handling development. And so it was kind of a perfect pair because we were able to kind of handle a wide range of what the businesses were asking for. But just like that, the quiz idea got sparked. I know Josh asked around, and I asked around, and no one was doing it. No one had a place to build these quizzes, and that’s kind of how it got birthed, that’s kind of what happened. And it excited both of us, which was pretty cool.

Jessmyn:
I love that.

Matt:
Yeah.

Jessmyn:
It’s one of those situations where, I don’t know the best analogy for it, but I’m thinking of something like, you’re going to go to the store, you knew what you were going to get at the store, but on your way there, you found a $100 bill, kind of a thing. And you’re like, “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting that to happen and it did,” and you got something really cool out of it.

Matt:
Yeah. And that’s what’s kind of funny about the whole thing is, our aha moment came after we had built it, and we didn’t even really know that it was going to be a big idea, or even a good idea. It really just came from out of necessity. Like, “Hey, we’re in college, we want to make money because we’re broke college kids,” and that’s where all those stories come from, us eating Ramen and bumming it together in college, like every college student goes through, because that’s how it was.
And so it came out of necessity, and then out of this, yeah, you’re right, it was just like finding a $100 bill, it was like “Whoa, we weren’t expecting this, what is this?” And then, “There might be something here,” and it turns out, we think there was something there. So that’s pretty cool.

Jessmyn:
So you mentioned this was in college, we’re obviously nowhere near college now.

Matt:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), way far gone.

Jessmyn:
Right? This is a totally side story, but every time I think about like how my high school reunion is technically in two years, I go nuts. I’m like, I can’t believe it’s been that much time. But anyway, so it’s been some time, since 2013 to now, obviously the company is in a totally different place. I think what’s interesting to hear about this story is, what obstacles did you guys run into? I know my story from when I started and obstacles that we ran into, but obviously I wasn’t here since 2013.

Matt:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jessmyn:
So what was stuff that you guys ran into and what did you do to overcome some of those struggles?

Matt:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ll start back at my origin of how I got started with websites and computer science a little bit to give some context. So back in high school, I really found computers just to be cool. I mean, I thought computers were fun, I liked video games, and I thought computers were cool. And so I did get a bug for trying to fix computers and build websites, and I started tinkering and reading some books about it. And I found that some of my friend’s moms ran non-profits and they wanted a WordPress sites, and so I kind of dipped my toe into building very simple websites. And that was my first taking a stab at building websites. It was just pretty fun.
And a lot of people don’t know this, but I was a theater kid, and so I also have this creative side to me, so it also allowed me to do something fun with technology that I enjoyed, but also get out some creativity that I did have and I wanted to showcase in different ways, and one of them was through websites. So I found that to be particularly fun.
And so that was mostly my experience with building websites. Then I went on and I took more classes, I went and got an education, and obviously that forwarded my education. But one of the big things that we ran into is, I didn’t have experience running a production level website. And so what I learned is this is a very common thing in startups where you hit a point in the startup very early on where you’re trying to figure out the technology, you’re trying to build it from scratch, things start crashing. Things go wrong. You get your first customers, you’re so excited, you’re on the top of the world, and then things just start crashing.
And that’s what happened to us, and that was a big thing. But really what I learned is, is you got to bring in people to the team that have specialties, that in some ways are smarter than you, in certain areas, and they can come and help you out and teach you what you need to know. And luckily I had a big network of friends from school, I brought in different people to help me out, to work for me, and that’s how I got through that. I’ve learned an immense amount from being around other people, building companies, building startups, building software products, that I’ve just amassed this amount of knowledge that I’m just incredibly grateful for. And we’ve been able to bring in some great people to the team that have really helped us out.
But I will tell you what, Jess, when you are building a company and you get your first customers and you’re so happy, you quickly find out that it’s difficult to keep a software product running at a high operation level. And so that was very scary, doing that for the first time and everything crashing. I remember Josh, we were in college, so we’re in classes still when we started operating Interact, and I remember I was sitting there in class and I got a call from Josh and he was like, “Hey, can you leave class? The site’s down right now.” So I left class and I got on my computer and I fixed it and got it back up. But it was just funny things like that, that we ran into that, it was tough, it was tough.
And that leads me into the next thing which is, running a company while still in school was hard. It was very hard, very time consuming, and obviously our heart was really in the business and we wanted to spend all of our time on that, but we also had put in some years into our degrees and we wanted to get it over with as fast as possible. And so that was tough, just from a time perspective and an effort and, staying up very late. Josh and I would frequently be working together until three in the morning, four in the morning, and then longboard back home, because longboards were very popular at UCLA on the Hills, and we’d longboard to and from the office. Those were some struggles, but it also led to some great memories of roughing it together and getting through these hard times and really putting in the effort.
Another tough thing was finances. So we are completely bootstrapped, we have never taken investment or money. And so with that just comes its own set of challenges. You grow it to a point where you can hire your next employee, or grow it to a point where you can invest in the next idea. So I think a beauty of that is we’ve built, I think, what is a sustainable business model at this point, which is very exciting. I think a downside is, is in those periods where finances are tough, there might be things that you want to do that you can’t do, or people you want to hire that you can’t. So it’s about making very wise smart decisions and learning that way, but it is a very unique and great experience that we’ve gone through. So I’m pretty happy with where we ended up.

Jessmyn:
I love that you mentioned that we’re bootstrap, because I’m sure there’s a ton of people out there who are trying to do something similar. It’s not easy to just walk into an investment place, I don’t even know what they’re called to be honest, it’s not easy to find investors and it’s not easy to convince someone to invest money. So a lot of the times, especially users of Interact, are going to be people who are spending their own money, trying to make their own money and invest in their company with that same money.
So what is that like from an internal perspective, and do you have any kind of, I guess warming advice for someone who might feel like maybe you guys did back in 2013, 2014, and you’re eating Top Ramen, not that people are eating Top Ramen now, but what did it feel like, and what advice would you give to somebody who’s in that spot and they’re like, “Yeah, I want to get to that point where I can hire an assistant or an intern, or something like that, but it’s just not there yet.”

Matt:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think one of the things of beauty of where we’re at right now is that we have an opportunity to give advice and guidance to other businesses or entrepreneurs who are in that same spot that we were in back in 2013. And we come from a vantage point of, “Hey, we’ve been there, we know what you’re going through, and to an extent we’re still going through some of the same challenges.” And I think in that way it puts us in a unique position to give some advice. So, yeah, I would say, I think it’s just about finding ways to grow your business that don’t cost an extremely ton amount of money, number one, and number two, doesn’t require a ton of employees. And I know for a lot of our clients, both of those things aren’t something that’s just readily available. It’s very early stage.
And so back when we were there, it was about really finding strategic things, and this is one of Josh’s big strengths, so big kudos to you Josh, if you’re listening. One of his big strengths was finding ways to grow the business through the use of content, or other strategies that don’t cost any money. We did not spend money on ads, we didn’t spend money on all these other ways of advertising and getting your name out there that other people were doing at the time, we were finding things that cost $0, that are out there and available such as blogs, content, writing on other people’s content, quizzes, things like that, to really boost your company name, get your name out there, build relationships.
I think that’s another key one, building relationships with other people in your space. I think it’s very key to find strategic partnerships of people who might be at the same stage as you, maybe a little bigger, but you’re doing a similar thing, or tangential thing, and you can help each other out. I think that was really helpful to us back in 2013. At you UCLA, there were other students building businesses, and to be able to have that community to bounce ideas off of, to bounce strategy off of, to bounce things that were working, what’s not working, and to get those types of answers really helped us narrow our focus and really figure out what we wanted to try and not try, and what was worth it and not worth it. So that was a big one too.
And I think also just maximizing your own potential, too. I think when you’re only a one, two person, three person company, it’s extremely important that you all, for a while, wear all the hats of the business. So in the beginning, I wasn’t just building the website, I was dabbling in marketing, and Josh was teaching me some of that. I was dabbling in this, and Josh was wearing all sorts of hats. And so I think that’s key too. Don’t think you have to hire out and find someone to do something, try to do some research yourself, learn about it, and just realize how much you can do, because I think that’s extremely important when you don’t have all the money to go out and buy a full team of people. Which I know these days, it’s so common for an idea to go walk into a VC and get millions in funding and they get 50 employees off the bat, but that’s not the case for a lot of our clients, and for us as well.

Jessmyn:
Yeah, I feel that. So was there any point in this whole time, whether it was yesterday, or early in 2013, that you guys, or you specifically I should say, was like, “I don’t know if this is going to happen. Maybe tomorrow it’s not going to work out,” and how did you process that, and what advice would you give for that if someone’s going through it?

Matt:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question, Jess. I don’t know if there was ever a point, one moment where I was like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” I think it’s just been more constant feelings throughout the whole thing of both elation and joy, and I’m doing something that I love doing with a friend of mine. And like I said, we really do find joy in creating things and building things, and that can be exciting, especially when it’s your own thing.
I know for any entrepreneurs listening, it’s the same type of thing. It’s your baby, it’s your creation, and so when you get to wake up everyday and work on it, it’s exciting, it really is. But I do think along the way you do hit challenges, and when you hit those challenges, it is hard to be like, “Oh, maybe this is too much. I shouldn’t have done this, it’s not working, it’s not working like.” And there have been those moments throughout the time, not just one in particular. But I would say, just always remembering that, I think these low moments are going to end up being worth it. I think it’s going to pay off. And even if it doesn’t pay off, I’m doing something that I really thoroughly enjoy doing just with the hope that it might pay off.
I think that something that is very important, if you don’t have that joy or intrigue or passion for what you’re doing, I don’t think it’s going to work out. I think you really have to find that thing that you’re excited to wake up and work on, because that’s going to help you get through those challenges, I think. Because when you hit those moments, you have to weigh that against, “But I’m doing something I love.” And so that’s been extremely crucial for us getting to this point. Me and Josh have both had ups and downs throughout the whole time, and we’ve been like, “Oh, are we doing this? Is this the right thing?” But then at the end of the day, we just love creating this product and this software for people, and so that’s what has kept us going.

Jessmyn:
I will say that that’s such a big thing, especially for someone who is trying to branch out and hire a whole team of people, because that kind of stuff trickles down.

Matt:
Yeah.

Jessmyn:
It’s kind of weird, because for me specifically, a lot of people that I started out, maybe graduating from college with, or in my first job with, they’ll jump around to other jobs and other opportunities, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes people ask me, “How have you stayed at the same company for over three years?” And I’m always like, “It’s very easy when the two co-founders are as invested in making this work as much as you are.” So I just think stuff like that is super important because it does trickle down to the rest of your team, or the rest of the people that you work with when they see that you love it as much as other people love it, it really, really matters.

Matt:
Yeah, that’s a really good point. It’s really good to hear that because I think that is something we look for when we’re hiring, too. We want people to care as much as we care, and so when we bring people in, and I’m sure other people can relate when you’ve worked with someone, you want them to work on it as if they had started it, or as if they were a co-founder with you. And when they get that excitement, and you can tell when people have that excitement to work, and they take ownership over what they’re doing, it’s very easy to spot. And I think it’s really beneficial for a company to have that, just throughout everyone who works there.

Jessmyn:
Yeah, I love it.

Matt:
Yeah.

Jessmyn:
So, I don’t have any other questions, but if you have anything else to add before I move on to my last little bit here.

Matt:
I think we covered a lot of ground, I’ll let you move on to the set a question.

Jessmyn:
Yeah, I was just going to say, just as an ending note to your story, I think it’s super fun to hear that you guys, I don’t know why, the story never gets old, that you guys started out in college and you kind of messed around and happened upon this a $100 bill, as we were saying.

Matt:
Yeah.

Jessmyn:
I think that’s super cool, and I think it’ll be really awesome for people to hear it when they hear your side of the story, because I know we talk a lot about it on our about page, but we’ve never heard from you specifically, so this is really exciting. So my last little bit here that I just want to add a fun twist to these is, tell us three things about yourself that people wouldn’t normally know, maybe they wouldn’t see right off the bat, or you wouldn’t normally tell somebody.

Matt:
Wow, that’s a really good question. I think the first that I did, spoil alert, I did say it earlier in the podcast, but I was a theater kid growing up. So elementary, middle school, I was a theater kid. So I know my tech background wouldn’t automatically make you assume that I was a theater kid, but I love theater, I love musicals, and I kind of did that a lot growing up, which I had fun doing. Another one would be that I’m obsessed with soccer. So that’s just kind of a fun thing. I’m really obsessed with soccer, so European soccer, I love it. Yeah, I grew up with it, and that’s been really fun. And what else? I don’t really know. I don’t know if there’s a third one. Oh, I have a good one. I was prom king in high school.

Jessmyn:
What, oh I never-

Matt:
You wouldn’t assume that.

Jessmyn:
Not that, but I feel like I’ve known you for some time now and I’ve never, ever heard you tell me that.

Matt:
It’s the truth, it’s the truth. I was prom king, and I remind my wife of that every day, that she’s in the presence of royalty, prom royalty.

Jessmyn:
That’s hilarious. Nice. I can’t believe I didn’t know that about you, now my mind is blown. All right, so last thing that I want to end with is, as you know, the whole purpose of our podcast is to give people stories that are relatable, and then of course talk a little bit about how people got to where they are. So looking back from where you were to where you are now, what is a single piece of advice that you would give yourself if you were able to travel back in time, meet yourself, and say something.

Matt:
Wow. I think I would tell myself to not be afraid to admit that you don’t know things and that you need help. I think so many times, especially when you’re seen as the co-founder of a company, and especially a CTO, that you have to know everything, and you have to be good at it all. And I told myself that for a long time, and it wasn’t until I started saying, “I need help with this, I don’t know.” And I think when you’re building a company, you’re going to hit those moments a lot where you need help, you need someone to come along who knows something that you don’t to give you tips, to give you advice, and you got to be willing to seek that out.
And so I think once I started doing that, and in my story, when I started doing that and bringing people in, and giving up complete ownership of my code and of this product we were working on and letting other people in, that’s when it really started taking off, and that’s when it really started getting better and I was able to see how other people do things. And I think just letting that go and giving that up in a sense, and not clinging to this idea that, oh, I need to have it all together, I need to know everything, I can’t show weakness. I think it’s awesome to bring people in and be like, “Hey, I don’t know what this is or how to do this. How do I solve this problem?” And start collaboration.
Because that’s where collaboration is going to come from, it’s from you saying, “Hey, I need help,” or, “I want advice on this, I’m not sure where to take this idea in my company, or how to grow this thing in my company. And I think once you start bringing other people in, listening to workshops, listening to things on the web, really trying to figure it out, not just assuming you know it all, that’s when things for me really started to kind of piece together, and I was able to shed this whole, “Oh, I got to have it all together and know everything” type of mentality. And I would tell myself that, because it’d saved me a lot of headaches and a lot of time, that’s for sure.

Jessmyn:
No, I love that, I think that’s also really important. I feel like you guys do it really well, too. Kind of the same idea of it does trickle down, because I know when I first got here, especially in the small team that we are, you do have to wear multiple hats. And so to be able to have you or Josh be like, “I’m not sure, and it’s okay if you don’t know, we’re going to figure it out,” and kind of go from there, I think is also just a really important process of growing, and that is where growth comes from. So that’s awesome, I like that.

Matt:
Cool.

Jessmyn:
Nice. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for hopping on. I know I took over hosting and was like, “Matt, I need you on here.” So thanks for doing it, and things are coming on today. I loved having this conversation, and it’s funny that I also got to find out something new.

Matt:
Yeah, it was great. Great being on. Thanks, Jess, appreciate it.

Jessmyn:
Of course. All right, guys, thanks so much, and I will see you on the next episode. Bye.

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Jessmyn Solana

Jessmyn Solana is the Partner Program Manager of Interact, a place for creating beautiful and engaging quizzes that generate email leads. Outside of Interact Jessmyn loves binge watching thriller and sci-fi shows, cuddling with her fluffy dog, and traveling to places she's never been before.

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