VP, Communications Director
Matt Helmers was an entrepreneur in high school. A decade later, he’s matching entrepreneurs with businesses.
Matt works for Plug and Play, a global innovation firm that connects tech startups with investors and business partners to create solutions for organizations. While in Springfield recently, he told his story of going from student to businessman to high school students in the Sangamon CEO Program. Matt was visiting with Plug and Play partner, INB, and INB hosted the event at its headquarters.
Sarah Phalen, INB president and CEO, explains the bank connected with Plug and Play as a way to be in tune with visionary, financial tech opportunities from around the world. And she thought giving students a chance to hear Matt’s story might help them as they begin thinking about next steps in their lives.
While graduating with a degree in finance from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Matt credits his outside interests with much of his success. When he was in high school, he managed social media for small businesses. He made Snapchat filters and sold them for weddings. In college, he snuck into entrepreneurial courses because finance majors weren’t allowed to enroll in them. He recalls a time during class in college where he was given $20 and two hours to make as much money as he could to give to charity. He came up with the concept of driving people to class and “reserving” on-campus parking spots for students.
He made this suggestion about college: “Don’t focus all of your time on your classes. Get involved with other things, even if that means getting a B instead of an A.”
And, he continued, when thinking about what you might want to create and sell, look at it in terms of what can bring value to people. “Think about the power of limitless borders. It doesn’t matter where your office is.” While Plug and Play headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA might sound glamorous to the kids living in Central Illinois, he reminded everyone that his six-mile commute each morning takes at least 45 minutes. “Compare that to the 10 minutes it takes you to get most anywhere.”
When Matt is in his office in California, he’s surrounded by about 400 starts ups that have the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment. These early-stage businesses connect with organizations from 14 different sectors including agriculture, health and almost 60 financial firms, including INB. If a company finds a startup that might be the right fit, the two work together through the development and implementation processes. In some cases, the start-ups are so successful they move on. One of these success stories was Lending Club which launched a successful IPO in 2014.
Plug and Play’s Founder and CEO Saeed Amidi was successful before he came to the United States. Saeed started his life here selling Persian rugs from a leased building at 165 University Ave. near Stanford University. He soon became interested in real estate, and when the owner of the building wanted to sell, Saeed bought it. He soon began offering space to tech startups. It was through these relationships that he learned about technology and, ultimately, founded Plug and Play. One of the startups working out of his building in the early days was Google. And by taking shares of PayPal instead of lease payments, Saeed had the capital he needed to make a bigger impact.
While Saeed could house about four startups in his original location, he soon realized he could do more with more space. Today, Plug and Play has “space” across the globe in areas as diverse as Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Cleveland, Ohio. As a senior innovation manager with the company, Matt has the opportunity to work with coworkers and organizations from around the world.
By getting to know a corporate partner like INB, Matt has the connections to laser target specific tech development that INB could benefit from. Matt says he is especially impressed by INB’s nimbleness, senior-level engagement and foresight to include all levels of staff in the process of finding and fine-tuning the work of the startups. This helps assure the finished product will have the best results.
Matt notes getting good results means a lot of trial and error. He stressed the point with the Sangamon CEO audience, encouraging students to do a lot of testing in college and even high school. He said, “When you have an idea, don’t sit back on it.”
Once in the working world, day-in and day-out job responsibilities often get in the way of looking for new ways to do things. So Plug and Play steps in to fill the gap. “Our job is to take INB to the next level.”
Matt used music as an example. For years, we went to a store and came home carrying discs with music. Then in 2003, things changed drastically when Apple opened the iTunes store, and we could buy single songs for 99 cents. Today, even that’s somewhat passé as many people choose to pay a monthly fee for the right to stream any music, any time. Matt expects that type of transformation in banking. “It’s going to happen. Banking is just a bit behind some other sectors.”
To get there, it won’t take technology. It will take people working with people to create technology. And that’s where Matt reminded the students: “Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. Connect with companies. Connect with consumers . . . . Go out and do things.”