Matt Rho, a former New York City private equity investor turned entrepreneur is a partner at up-and-coming Shockoe Atelier. Today we stopped by their 15th Street location to talk startups, denim, the principles of Bushido and boxer briefs.
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Why Richmond? While I was living in NYC and working at the private equity firm, we invested in a business in Richmond, so I came down for a couple of months to work there. That turned into two years and I just fell in love with the city. I moved my family down here about five years ago.
Title: Partner, alongside Anthony Lupesco and his father, Pierre Lupesco. My role is the business side of it: admin, finances, sales, marketing.
Preferred coffee shop: Subrosa or Scott’s Addition Lamplighter
Boxers or briefs: Boxer briefs!
Tell us about your transition from helping lots of companies with NRV to focusing on just one.
At NRV I met a ton of entrepreneurs and admired what they were doing. It felt like I was moving towards something, and I felt the itch myself to start something. Eventually I left NRV to try to start a couple of things and see if I could get something off the ground - that lasted about a month. At the same time Anthony and Pierre were looking for a partner to get the business side running. I’ve always loved clothes and it’s amazing to be surrounded by beautiful things everyday. That’s satisfaction in itself.
When I came on, I had to take what Anthony and Pierre had created over the previous year and try to grow it into a larger business. It was a struggle, and it was hard to leave a steady income with a family to help support. Before Shockoe, I’d gotten a paycheck. But there’s something really satisfying in taking home money that you’ve actually helped produce. It makes the success even sweeter.
What projects you are currently working on?
We are working on a bunch of things right now. In fact, Robert and Anthony are at my house right now working on some dyeing experiments with indigo overdyes that’s really exciting. We’re working on our Fall/Winter 16 line, which we will start showing to stores in January and orders will go out around August.
What’s different about the new line compared to this past year?
Our garments are really beginning to articulate who we want to be. The new line really expresses that particular aesthetic. The real beauty of our clothing is how it breaks in to become a truly unique piece, so we are working on communicating that aspect right off the bat.
Are you a believer in routines, or would you rather go with the flow?
I believe in both. I start the day with routine - meditation for 15 minutes gets me in the right frame of mine. Once I get into the office, though, I have to be go-with-the-flow. Shockoe was a culture shock for me. I was used to working in an office environment where there is a common language of emails, calendar invites, etc. When I got here there was nothing - no email, no calendars - just go talk to someone.
It was hard to adjust, and all the communication tools I’d learned to depend on just didn’t work in this new environment. The meditation allows me to come into work each day with a blank slate, ready to take on whatever is there. The biggest challenge now is to forget the system and just show up, talk to people and relate to them.
There seem to be a lot of zen principles the startup world.
Absolutely. Here we talk a lot about Bushido which literally means “the way of the warrior”. It’s a Japanese word for “the way of the samurai life.” Bushido teaches that you hold the thing right in front of you, and there’s nothing else but the thing. We are trained to think of things in the context of a system, but Bushido is the opposite of that.
What song best describes the Shockoe Atelier workshop atmosphere?
There’s a song by Joe Pug called Hymn 101 and I think it encapsulates the experience of SA where we are right now.
“I've come here to get high
To do more than just get by
I've come to test the timbre of my heart”
We’re in the phase where we’re testing how good we are, and we think we’re good, but we have a lot to prove. It’s also about the baggage you carry as you try to prove yourself.
“And I've come to know the wish list of my father
I've come to know the shipwrecks where he wished
I've come to wish aloud”
The baggage of failure, where you come from, and this need to prove that’s not who you are. You aren’t your dad’s shipwreck, but it’s part of you.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Shockoe, for sure. I’ve taken a lot of stupid risks here and there, but in terms of risking my entire livelihood, family, stability for this thing that’s still very much in formation mode.
After a long day at the shop, how does the team unwind?
We drink in the office. We just drink a lot. We drink at The Cask from time to time. And this is not very cool, but most times we just go Buffalo Wild Wings. I mean, it’s right across the street so why not? It’s not hip, but it’s who we are.
Favorite Richmond date spot?
We like the Quirk Hotel right now. David Dunlap makes some amazing food.
We also eat at home a lot. Date night for us a lot of the time is put the kids to bed, cook a nice dinner, polish off some wine on the sofa. That’s probably what I love the most.
Negroni. It’s strong, I like ordering it, I like the name.
What are you wearing when you aren’t wearing Shockoe?
I’m always wearing Shockoe! I wear the same pair of jeans at home, when I’m working, on the weekends. It’s just the way we are we just live in our jeans.
What does retirement look like?
I don’t think about it very much (remember, Bushido). I imagine it happening one day, and enjoying my days and having grandkids running around. It’s more of an idyllic picture as opposed to something I’m planning for, although I probably should.
Do you have any books you can recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way has been very influential in my life. He promotes Stoicism and Stoic Philosophy. It’s very applicable to the startup challenges - it’s about living for challenge as opposed to trying to engineer things for smooth sailing.
Any podcasts you’re into these days?
I really like Tim Ferriss’s Podcast. He has a interesting take on things. He recently had an episode that hit home: “Should I be a startup or build a business?"
So, is Shockoe a Startup or Business?
Business. When I first joined I thought startup. I had brought the startup experience from NRV and tried to apply it to this business, then I started talking to people who have been in the apparel business for many years. In apparel, there is no way to forecast beyond 6 months because tastes change so fast. You have to manage for cash flow, cash conversion - it’s not even really about growth.
Now we run this business as a business. Our dreams of 5 years of hyper growth and then a big exit are gone, we now want to generate a livelihood from it and grow in a healthy way. We’re less focused on the 5 year vision and more focused on the here and now. Bushido.