International Man of Mystery: An Interview with Matthew Alexander


Matthew Alexander is one of those individuals who can’t easily be put into any single box, metaphorically speaking. Being a jack-of-all-trades, he excels in several areas, such as writing, podcasting, entrepreneurship, consulting…the list goes on.

On top of that, he is a genuinely nice person, with a beaming attitude that definitely shows in his work. He’s one of my favorite people to joke around with on Twitter, and I was excited to interview him for this series. This turned out to be one of the longer interviews I’ve conducted so far (in a good way!) because we went into lots of different topics. I really think you guys will enjoy this one.

Without further ado…

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Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and what would you say you are most known for?

Well, most people who’re reading this would probably know me as a writer, podcaster, and profuse tweeter. I have a weblog I started in late 2011, OneThirtySeven, and I host Bionic with Myke Hurley on 5by5.

I also use an embarrassingly large amount of adjectives.

Outside of that, for lack of a better word, I’m an entrepreneur. (Apologies, it’s such a horribly trite title.) I’ve founded two companies — one of which is under quiet development having completed venture funding, whilst the other is in equally quiet acquisition talks.

I’ve started all of these projects in Dallas, Texas, but I’m a Londoner at heart. I was born and raised in the suburbs of London, England, and moved to Texas in 2006 when I was 18. I’ve been here studying and working since.

You know, you’re one of those people who’s a little bit hard to pin down, much like Merlin Mann. You seem to have your hands in all kinds of projects, doing whatever kind of work is required of you.

I don’t expect you to divulge any details about your startups if you’d prefer not to, but is there anything you can tell me about your day-to-day work outside of the blog and podcast?

It’s probably best to explain my day-to-day by providing a little background.

About six months after starting OneThirtySeven, I left my corporate job without any specific plans beyond pursuing the things I loved. I wasn’t ready to build my own startup – I lacked an idea – but I was ready to contribute to the people and industry I was so passionate about. (Plus, I felt – and continue to feel – very strongly against prematurely monetizing my site.)

So, I took editorial positions with cultural, societal, and artistic magazines around the country, I began consulting with startups, I started working to catalyze movement in the Dallas-area entrepreneurial community, and I spent any spare moments simply meeting with interesting people. I worked with tiny companies in the wine industry all the way up to American Express and Ernst & Young.

As you can imagine, my day-to-day has never been consistent since. One day I might’ve been meeting with investors, another I might’ve been knocking out a string of articles for cultural events in Dallas, and another I might’ve been putting together conferences for larger companies.

These days, life is significantly more straightforward. I still have columns, I still help others raise venture funding, I have equity in many startups, and I still provide consultancy services, but the vast majority of my time is devoted to my new project – Need – which will be launching later this year.

“Nothing’s ever boring and, from that excitement, I derive my optimism.”

I have an office in Dallas’ design district. I project manage Need’s development there, whilst plotting the company’s launch, organizing photo shoots, and so on. Working with a team of photographers and visual storytellers, we spend our days scheming for the future. It may sound excessively stereotypical, but I suppose there’s some truth to all stereotypes. All I know is that I have more drive, excitement, and happiness than I’ve ever had before. And that’s a great thing.

In short, it’s difficult to pin down quite what I do. And that’s largely purposeful on my part. The reality, however, is that I do a bit of everything. I work all over Dallas, I travel a lot, and I spend every spare moment trying to meet with – and learn from – interesting people. Nothing’s ever boring and, from that excitement, I derive my optimism.

I think your greatest qualities (as evidenced in your writing) are your boundless optimism and enthusiasm. You always seem to view the world in such childlike wonder, and I admire that.

Speaking of which, let’s take a step back for a moment. According to a recent interview you did, you ran a quite successful gaming blog when you were 11 years old. Can you talk about that experience, and the path that led you from there to starting One37?

The site – GCDemos – was focused on home-brew development for gaming consoles. I was 11 at the time and genuinely fascinated by experimenting with these pieces of technology. I taught myself basic C/C++, helped bring together low-level hardware documentation, and tried to encourage a community into action via the site and IRC.

“There was no monetary gain, no well-defined result we were all aiming toward. It was just about exploring what we’d consider now to be an ecosystem.”

When I ran the site, I was very happy. It wasn’t the sponsorships or the traffic, but the fact that I was embracing a side of me that was – and is – deeply fascinated by technology.

As you mention, I often write with a lot of optimism and whatnot. A lot of this is derived from my time running GCDemos. It was small, but I was helping developers innovate for the sake of innovation. There was no monetary gain, no well-defined result we were all aiming toward. It was just about exploring what we’d consider now to be an ecosystem.

So, when I was working a corporate job – long silent about my passions for technology – it suddenly felt like the right time to re-visit the topics I explored when I was young. It was a decade later, I’d learned a lot, I had a degree, and it seemed fitting to try it out.

In the early days, I tried to fit to a mold. I wanted to write with link-lists, praise Apple everyday, and punctuate my politically correct tweets perfectly. What I’ve learned in the time since is that – as with anything in life – you need to differentiate yourself. You’re going nowhere if you can’t define your tone and character. And, moreover, you’re certainly not going anywhere if you can’t be yourself.

“The genius in the design around us is unparalleled in history — and yet we’re so often mired in discussions about inane differences between brands.”

The real lesson I learned on this journey from one site to another was that I needed to be outwardly confident about my passions. Stifling my interests for the sake of self-conscious concerns would only prevent me from reaching people and making some sort of impact.

I don’t know. I suppose I feel like the technology industry has the most exciting narrative in the world. When you take a few steps back, Google Glass isn’t something you’d judge prematurely — it’s something that might stun you. The genius in the design around us is unparalleled in history – companies like Google and Apple are ensuring it with some of the best tools – and yet we’re so often mired in discussions about inane differences between brands.

I suppose, in the path between GCDemos and OneThirtySeven, I learned that it’s not about one brand over another. It’s not about conforming to a specific mold. It’s about just being yourself and appreciating what others are contributing to our collective experience — whether that’s technology or writing. Negativity and close-mindedness actively prevent us from having the best possible experiences and I have no interest in perpetuating and facilitating such attitudes.

I can’t argue with you there. I won’t deny that I have preferences when it comes to these things, but I think there’s an enormous difference between having a preference and being someone who sees themselves in some kind of constant Brand Battle™ with everyone else (i.e. every commenter on every gadget site).

The podcast you co-host with Myke Hurley, Bionic, is centered around competing tech ecosystems such as iOS, Android, Windows 8, and so on. I’ve been listening to the show for a while, and I get the sense that while you are fairly platform-agnostic, Google is currently the company that excites you most. Would you agree with that?

Google excites me because it’s the corporate equivalent of a perpetual science fair. Unlike Microsoft or Apple, Google is constantly experimenting with outrageous new pieces of design and technology in the open. It’s empowering engineers to autonomously realize wild ideas.

It’s not that Google’s doing anything measurably better than its competitors in terms of products, but rather that the company just seems so outwardly invested in disruptive innovation. For instance, despite all the hand-wringing about Google Glass, the mere fact that this prototypical hardware is out in the wild for developers, sociologists, and politicians to discuss and experiment with is amazing.

You can say all you want about the impracticalities and the problems inherent within the proliferation of wearable computing, but the discussion is only occurring because Google had the audacity to bring this hardware into reality. I have no doubts that whatever Apple builds in the space – if the rumors prove to have any shred of accuracy – will be phenomenally well-considered and polished. Although that’s exciting, I derive far more happiness from Google’s experimentation than I do from Apple’s polish and insularity.

I exclusively own and use Apple products because they’re the very best. Apple is the undisputed leader in the realm of industrial design and designing polished software. But these are simply the tools through which we engage with the Internet. And, in many respects, Google is attempting to shape the Internet rather than the tools.

I see Apple and Google as symbiotic. Perhaps that’s unconventional, but I find it to be representative of the way I engage with technology. It’s not about one versus the other. For me, it’s about how one benefits the other.

That’s how I look at these things.

Google’s experimentation certainly is one of its greatest strengths, but oddly enough one of its weaknesses (at least in the eyes of the public). In the name of disrupting industries and inventing new ones, they are often guilty of shipping large-scale projects, only to shut them down after a few years or less (Reader, Buzz, Wave, etc).

Do you believe such a thing might happen with Google Glass? On the one hand, I could see it completely (and positively) altering the social landscape forever, but I can also see it falling prey to privacy concerns, especially as the technology becomes more sleek and low-profile. What kind of future do you think Glass is leading us into?

Well, first, I’d disagree that Google’s weakness lies with its experimentation. Although it’s a shame that Google Reader, for instance, has been shuttered, I tend to think there was plenty of due cause for its death. There’s a common fallacy in the tech industry that those within it are representative of the broader public. The reality, however, is that RSS is a background technology largely unknown by the mainstream public. It served technologists, but it offered virtually no other value to Google or a broader market. No growth prospects and no solid avenues for monetization.

“I suspect that Glass will serve to catalyze creative minds to build a genuinely amazing wearable computing device.”

Experimentation means that Google focuses on a great many products – which people deride – but it also means that down the road – when they choose to focus on the products that work – people also deride their decision to focus. It’s an unfortunate contradiction.

Anyway, to the question at hand, I doubt Google Glass will continue to exist in its current form for the next few years. Glass is a harbinger of the wearable computing environment, but it’s not necessarily the primary means through which people will buy into it.

I suspect that Glass will serve to catalyze creative minds to build a genuinely amazing wearable computing device. The questions we ask – regarding privacy, for instance – will inform the decisions that go into those future products.

There are plenty of valid questions regarding the privacy implications of Glass, but I have yet to hear of any coming from the mainstream public. We’ve heard about obscure bars banning them (incidentally, they also banned camera phones), nerds getting upset about Glass entering bathrooms around the country, and so on. But the reality is that Glass, in its current form, is exclusively available to the tech elite. It’s not in any shape for widespread proliferation and Google’s not pretending it is either.

Technologists are, by their nature, early adopters. That means they’re the ones to get products and services off the ground. Conversely, however, it also means they’re the ones who get the most damaged when products mature for the mainstream audience. As a result, there’s a deep-seated – and hypocritical – fear of change in the tech world. People negatively shout about privacy intrusions and their discomfort with the encroaching potency of the technology they once appreciated. They champion the rise of Twitter without a business model, but then decry the company for attempting to become sustainable.

Meanwhile, the general public just appreciate what comes to them. It’s not that they’re unaware or unintelligent, it’s just that technologists worry about the mechanisms that facilitate an experience, whilst average people focus only on the experiential benefits.

Glass has opened the door to actual personal computing. There’s a lot of ethical questions therein, but I derive excitement from that. We’re facing a new paradigm for communication and interaction — one that might not be led by Google. Who knows what’ll come of it? All I know is that attitudes focusing solely upon small ramifications of Glass are both reductive and also fail to appreciate the true disruptive potency of this category of device.

The excitement of Google Glass is that it’s driving these questions. It’s driving investigations into what the future of computing might be. And that process is occurring – unlike any other time in recent memory – right before our eyes. Our concerns shouldn’t be voiced as negative yelling, but rather as constructive questions in a debate.

We do not know what’ll happen with Glass, but I think it speaks volumes that we’re discussing it so seriously today.

I hope I haven’t come off as negative towards Glass, because I truly am excited about its potential. I see Glass (no pun intented) being uniquely capable as a tool for recording life experiences. There’s probably no better way to view an event from someone’s life than from their exact perspective, and I find that fascinating.

As an omnipresent HUD though, it seems to me like it’d be a little too distracting for constant use. Then again, I’m easily distracted to begin with, so…grain of salt, etc. And of course, we’ll have to see if the public’s privacy concerns go anywhere, or if Glass (or something similar) weaves itself so seamlessly into our culture that we don’t notice it anymore. Like you, I’m curious to see what happens.

So, you mentioned that you’ve always had strong feelings against prematurely monetizing One37. Do you have plans to earn any income from the site in the future, or is it simply a means of expression for you?

When I launched OneThirtySeven, I saw it as a creative outlet through which I might one day gain some valuable connections. I never planned to earn a living from it, nor did I wish to. I just wanted a platform to share my opinions and passions.

“When you’re focused on what your writing and readers can give you, you quickly lose track of the inherent value of contributing to a collective discussion. You lose a voice and become a brand. And that’s an enormous shame.”

Over the year and half since then, I’ve gained plenty of connections, people have consumed my opinions, and so on. The best thing, though – something I did not expect – is that I’ve gained a lot of friends.

From people I interact with on Twitter to people I’ve met at conferences, there’s a lot of people I’d consider to be friends in this industry. And I attribute those friendships to my personality online. My website and podcast facilitate valuable personal connections between myself and others ñ people frequently thousands of miles away.

So, when it comes to monetization, I so frequently see people prematurely enacting memberships, newsletters, magazines, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and so on, and I cannot shake the feeling that they’re missing a lot of the value of writing online. When you’re focused on what your writing and readers can give you – whether in the form of revenue or links – you quickly lose track of the inherent value of contributing to a collective discussion. You lose a voice and become a brand. And that’s an enormous shame.

For me, I’ve been extremely wary of this outcome. OneThirtySeven gives me a lot every day, as do my readers, listeners, and Twitter followers. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize such a beneficial state of affairs by trying to eke a modest living out of a modest readership. I’d much rather improve as a writer and organically grow my readership in doing so.

If my site one day allows for me to make a good living from it, I’d be thrilled. But I’m not focused on that now. I think it’d be damaging if I was. OneThirtySeven is, as you suggest, an expression of my personality. It’s not a business. And I cannot see that changing soon.

I’m full of admiration for people who’ve found a living from their writing. Having said that, I do not admire them for their business model. I admire them for their restraint regarding when they monetized. Shawn Blanc, for instance, didn’t jump into a membership model until the timing was just right. And he has reaped the rewards.

I enjoy supporting writers, but I think the average reader maxes out the volume they can support after a few sites. And when people are trying to implement these business models without little forethought or care, then it does little to instill care in their readers. I do not want to be counted amongst those — I just want to provide my writing to as many people as possible.

People who care about my opinions and passions – those taking the time to engage with me and urge me onward – are a huge reward. That’s all I really want from my site.

Alright, let’s talk publishing for a bit. This is a topic I’ve been fascinated with since The Magazine released last year, and if I remember correctly, you’ve also been watching these events unfold with interest, yes? Can you talk a little about the recent developments in publishing that have been exciting you most, and what you think of the whole Subcompact Publishing movement?

It’s fascinating and exciting to witness. Publishing is in dire need of repair and I think The Magazine has contributed a lot to that goal.

Since The Magazine’s release, we’ve seen a lot of companies attempt to encourage such publications. TypeEngine, for instance, looked at what Marco had built – technically speaking – and produced the framework for others to produce their own mobile-centric publications. 29th Street Publishing is providing a similar services for sites like The Awl.

“It’s not about translating the typical print experience into a new medium, but about re-conceiving what a publication should look like in a new environment.”

The obvious constant beneath all of this is that Newsstand is an exciting and valuable platform for publishers.

If Apple chooses to offer some significant improvements to Newsstand – potentially even contributing an iBooks Author-esque tool for the platform – it could become one of the most fundamentally important differentiators between Apple and its competitors. Newsstand is already the best distribution mechanism, but it’s hamstrung by its focus upon more traditional magazines.

I think The Magazine showed the world – Apple included – that so-called “magazines” are much more like contemporary web publications. And that’s very exciting. It’s not about translating the typical print experience into a new medium, but about re-conceiving what a publication should look like in a new environment.

With every step we take closer to the “post-PC” era, mobile publishing becomes more important. And I think today, whilst the tools are at a point of relative nascence and journalists/writers/publications have not yet necessarily capitalized on the changing landscape, there’s more opportunity than ever for people to re-define the way we think about publishing.

Today, Conde Nast does not control the mobile, sub-compact space. We do. And that creates an enormous chance for people to find ways to monetize their content, to shine lights on amazing independent writers, and so on.

That’s one of my favorite things about content creation these days: individuals and small groups are taking the reins from the mega media corporations of the past. It’s certainly an exciting time to be producing great stuff, and the tools to share our creations are becoming more prevalent and user-friendly all the time.

Not only that, there’s a whole revolution going on with crowdfunding that I find very exciting. What are your thoughts on crowdfunding and the shifting of control over our content?

The most exciting element of crowd-funding, in my eyes, is the potential for funding startups without the need for venture capital firms and angel investors.

In Europe, laws were passed last year allowing entrepreneurs to fund their companies via crowd-funding. This is currently illegal in the U.S., but is poised to change under the JOBS act.

Although that might seem fairly inconsequential, I think it’s extraordinarily exciting. It could democratize the methodology for funding and executing new ideas, all the while instilling a more sincere sense of accountability in the minds of entrepreneurs.

Wresting control of our ideas, companies, content, and so forth is extremely important. And facilitating an environment in which all of us can be involved in — and have ownership of — ideas will do wonders for the nature of innovation and the economics surrounding it.

I had no idea crowd-funded startups were illegal in the U.S., that just seems so crazy and limiting to me.

I’m glad we’re on the subject of startups now though, given that (at the time of this writing) you recently announced your startup, Need. Are you at liberty to share any details about the company that haven’t been announced yet? How has the public response been since the announcement, and how are you feeling about everything right now?

There’s not much I can share beyond the vague details we shared last week.

Reiterating what we did say, though, Need is a men’s lifestyle startup coming later this year. We’re hoping to bridge the gap between a high-end publication and a highly-curated retailer.

“The hard work is refreshing, the people are inspiring, and the end-product is utterly exciting.”

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The so-called “announcement” was really more of a – for lack of a better phrase – pre-announcement. We shared who’s involved, what our concept is, and generally when we’ll be coming to the marketplace. We have yet to share what differentiates us, what our problems Need solves in the market, and so forth.

In short, I’m feeling great. So many people have reached out with the desire to help, to write for us, to photograph for us, and to cover our launch. Our investors have been outstandingly supportive and we’ve got lots more interested in helping us achieve our vision in the future.

As someone with a lot of passion for startups and entrepreneurship, I couldn’t be happier that this is all happening. It’s surreal on many levels. But the hard work is refreshing, the people are inspiring, and the end-product is utterly exciting.

I feel brilliant.

That’s very good to hear. Well Matthew, thanks for stopping by to chat with me, and I hope everything goes well with Need. I’m pretty excited to see how it turns out!

Thanks very much for having me! I’m a huge fan of what you’re doing with Unretrofied. All the best.

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You can find Matthew on Twitter as @mattalexand and on as @mattalexander.