From animal rescue to AI: a chat with Matt Keyes, COO

20 Jul 2021

Rhino Ventures Asia Careers Details

We are very lucky to have a driving force like Matt Keyes as head of our operational team and a core founding member of MyPetGo. Bringing with him a wealth of experience within early-stage startups, he is a true animal lover at heart and by the sounds of it, plans to really disrupt the pet tech space! Find out more about his plans for MyPetGo, as well as more in-depth details about his background, personal challenges, and tips for budding COO's.

Hey Matt, you’re the COO at MyPetGo, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in our project and what initially drew you to it?

When you take on any new challenge, particularly in your career, it’s imperative that you take the time to really understand the company’s vision before you make any drastic move to up sticks. This message is sometimes quite scrappy at concept stage, and goes through a process of deep evolution throughout the early development cycle, but the fundamental message in its raw form should excite you and fire enough passion in you to confidently make the next step, without much hesitation.

When I first learned about the company’s mission and how MyPetGo aimed to build a centralised platform of curated pet-care services powered by the most advanced, functional and accurate health and location monitor on the market, this basically ticked every box for me. On a product level, I was really captivated by how much impact this innovation will have for the industry and as a pet owner myself, I could understand the value of having a technology solution to help simplify, translate and visualise complicated health data and feed that back to the user. The idea of utilising advanced analytics to help pet owners make smarter decisions and the concept of sending real-time health alerts and recommendations for products and services based on those values was of particular interest having worked in some data-centric companies before.

I could see from our early conversations that this was a potentially game-changing product that took multiple existing models, merged them together and super-charged it in a way that has optimal benefits for pet owners, service providers and of course pets. To me, that’s proper innovation and something I could easily get behind.

A lot of companies out there are trying to reinvent the wheel, and I really don’t knock this approach as it’s such an important part of innovation. However, on a business level, it’s just so difficult to change people’s habits and if you do succeed, keeping customers engaged enough to remain loyal can be brutal and ever so costly.

Our method is to take a globally-fragmented market, simplify it in a way that allows users to continue with their existing habits, and giving them the tools they need to become more responsible pet parents through our technology solutions and centralised ecosystem. This strategy really helped me validate the business model before I decided to join and I also realised that raising capital at a later stage with this approach, especially in this climate, would be a much easier conversation, thus increasing our chances to smartly and successfully scale the product globally.

As someone who was brought up with many different types of two or four-legged animals, fostered dozens of stray cats across the world, rescued and homed multiple discarded birds and even worked in marine conservation protecting giant manta rays in Papua New Guinea, it’s safe to say that I am an avid animal lover, just like the rest of our team. Working closely with animals, and building tech that helps improve their lives really resonated with me and was really one of the main drivers for joining the company. One day, I hope to get back into animal conservation and I see MyPetGo closely aligned to that goal.

Following this pretty difficult year for everyone, I’ve noticed a lot of talk regarding health and well-being and how companies are adapting their internal policies to make people feel better in the workplace. Ultimately, the best way to help everyone stay creative, empowered and passionate about what they do is to build a culture that supports this from day one. I instantly connected with the resounding company values and open, transparent ethos from my fellow team members and this made my decision to join them on this mission very easy. Now, they are all like family and over a year later, I still haven’t even met our CEO personally yet!

To learn that the company’s product, design and innovation lab was to be built in Da Nang, Vietnam, was a real draw as I am hugely fond of the Southeast Asia vibe. Da Nang is a remarkable area of outstanding natural beauty in a truly magical country and this felt like the perfect place to build a healthy, happy and motivated team. You can read more about that on the Rhino Ventures Asia blog, ‘7 reasons why Da Nang is the best tech hub in Asia.’

When you first started you were based in the UK, but you’re now in Vietnam. Can you tell us a bit more about that transition and what the main differences have been?

So, when I first came on-board back in June 2020, like so many other people I was trapped from travel and under severe lockdown. At the time, I was back in the UK and it was right in the middle of the biggest peak where hospitals were full and we were all trying to get to grips with everything. I actually felt quite lucky in many respects as my family are situated deep in the countryside away from the main COVID hot spots, and also by the seaside on the southwest coast. It’s a really peaceful place and somewhere you can be creative without any real noise pollution. Fast forward to March 2021 and I’m back in the wonderful chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, after enduring 2 weeks of quarantine on the back of an entire year in isolation. If I am honest, I found it quite difficult to adjust! Crowds of people, constant traffic, karaoke until the small hours - it was a bit much to take in, but now I feel settled and in the zone, as if I never left. Before the pandemic rampaged through the world, I was living in Thailand for a few years, so I am quite used to the bustle of Southeast Asia and I used to come to Vietnam frequently on visa runs or the occasional work trip.

Our product development team, mainly engineers and designers, are currently based in Da Nang. Unfortunately, we’ve had a bit of a new wave of restrictions here due to a few freak outbreaks, so myself and Trevor (CTO) are penned in until further notice. We’re both quite excited to get up to Da Nang for our final stint of R&D before our product is fast-tracked to mass production. Our current team is really looking forward to meeting up finally and we expect the newfound energy in the office after so long apart will spark some interesting discussions about our product development goals and how to solve real problems for our users.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far as a COO and as a company?

We have a team that consists of 7 nationalities, spread across 5 countries, each with a different timezone. Trying to maintain a company culture and keeping communication channels open and fluid has been a real uphill challenge during the past year. For all the technology in the world, supportive tools and intuitive video-scheduling software available, you would have thought this was a breeze. What this period has taught us as a company is that in a creative environment like an R&D pre-revenue company, it’s much more efficient to be with your team so you can brainstorm ideas together, learn together and get that simple but effective boost from the camaraderie. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually really miss the office environment and never knew how much we needed it until it was taken away!

On a company level, we are faced with new challenges every day! It’s part of our journey as venture-builders and this is only magnified further by the fact we are just on the backend of our R&D phase. This process involves a never-ending cycle of trial and error, learning, adapting and tweaking before eventually hitting the sweet-spot. This fast-paced environment actually becomes a huge motivation for certain people who apply for roles with us and being open to this culture plays a major part in our hiring strategy. A lot of local Vietnamese engineers come from an outsourced development background, where their daily tasks are incredibly structured and micro-managed, feature by feature. This means we have to go through quite an intense orienteering workshop with new hires to give them an opportunity to learn more about the world that we live in, which quite frankly is utter chaos most of the time and very different from your traditional ODC work. We love giving our employees the freedom to be creative, have input and ownership of their roles and this allows them to accelerate their personal development.

Despite all of these challenges, I am really proud of our entire team for adapting fast and maintaining a good level of productivity during these uncertain times. That’s partly thanks to the time we took in our early days designing our vision for the perfect work culture, and although we have a long way to go before we strike that desired equilibrium, I am confident we will achieve this in the coming months when we get back to the office. This should put us in a strong position to launch our product and build a strong brand around the amazing people who’ve made it happen.

Can you describe your vision for MyPetGo, and how your background and expertise will help make it a reality?

Our company-wide vision is to ‘build the most advanced, functional and accurate pet-health monitors and pet-tech solutions, using real-time data to help pet-caregivers make the right decisions to improve and prolong their pets lives.’

We plan on quite an aggressive roll-out across the world and during our R&D phase, we’ve taken our business model through a rigorous validation framework that helps us A/B test different assumptions. There’s nothing more valuable than speaking to real customers who fit nicely in your target demographic, as this really gives you a fresh perspective on how you feel your product is perceived vs the bitter reality. Sometimes that reality is hard to swallow, and makes months of work in some areas totally redundant, but for me, I love being able to see a product evolve using insights from those who may one day become a valuable customer and champion of your brand.

In terms of background and experience, I have worked in early-stage ventures for over 10+ years now across many sectors and services within the tech industry. I am a bit of a glutton for punishment. This has helped me become slightly resilient to change and adaptable to all of the elements involved in taking a product from concept to revenue. I feel most comfortable when I am out of my comfort zone, and this slightly odd characteristic seems to be a recurring pattern in all aspects of my life. I think this mindset really helps me get to grips with the pressure of being in a pre-revenue company and allows me to see some form of clarity amidst the bedlam.

Over the last ten years, I have also made some really tragic errors of judgement, by either jumping into a new role without any proper due-diligence or by making fruitless decisions based on emotional impulse as opposed to actionable data. This really stresses the importance of culture fit and backing the company’s vision. There’s no worse feeling than working on something that you’re not passionate about and by doing so, this can lead down a dark road where your confidence in your ability is shot to pieces and it actually takes a really long time to recover from that type of experience. My advice to anyone faced with this position is to take the extra time to analyse what data is readily available to you and then you'll be in a stronger position to evaluate the best course of action.

I feel quite lucky as I have had some of the best mentors you could imagine, and I’ve spent many years in many different roles within the early stage phase of a business observing and trying to better understand how to make a company tick. What I can say is there’s no magic sauce and it requires a lot of patience and hard work trying different methods and not being afraid to change your approach when things go south.

As an operational focused member of the team, you’re basically firefighting the entire time. The most important lesson I have learned over the years is that project management, communication and diligent prioritisation is key to a successful operation. When you’re faced with multiple time-critical dependencies and difficult decisions regarding what to focus on, the answer should always lead you to what's best for the company and what’s best for the end user. For those budding operationally-minded folks out there, if you can’t figure that out, invest time in finding a mentor who can help you. It will do you a power of good knowing there’s a support structure and a fresh pair of eyes to help you achieve the best outcome for your business.

The monitor will initially be made available through crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Why have you decided to go this route?

Yeah, we’re really excited to be launching our crowdfunding campaign! We’re all first-timers here and it’s been a really interesting journey navigating the maze of requirements and learning all about how to run a successful campaign. Massive shout-out to our partners Agency 2.0 for helping make everything a reality!

Our decision to join the crowdfunding party is quite a logical move when you think about it. Traditionally, successful campaigns tend to be B2C focused physical products that you can feel and that have some emotional or functional benefit that drives the purchasing decision. We’ve spotted some unique trends in the pet space recently, whereby backers generally love new innovative pet products, so we feel we are pretty well positioned to jump on the bandwagon with our unique offering. Second to that, crowdfunding backers are generally happy to wait a period of time before receiving their products. This is great for us as we feel we can utilise this pre-launch gap more efficiently.

We are currently finalising the remaining parts of our product testing before we begin the drive for mass production, so there’s still going to be a few months before we are able to finally ship real products, to real customers. By launching a crowdfunding campaign, this serves a multitude of purposes that work really well for us. The obvious benefit would be our ability to take on pre-sales before the product is on the shelves. This helps us build a strong community of brand ambassadors and really an opportunity for us to get even more involved with the potential backers and learn more about their own particular pain points. I feel this type of community building exercise will really give us a super understanding of areas like pricing sensitivity and discover new features and functions for our next generation of pet tech innovation.

Another advantage for us adopting crowdfunding is that we will get to evaluate interest levels in other core market territories. This will be really useful for us as it will speed up our ability to launch exciting services and connect them to our ecosystem of trusted integration partners. Going to a potential integration partner with real data to validate our ability to send them direct bookings will increase trust and confidence for those who don’t know of us yet or are somewhat sceptical about digital transformation.

One of the recurring challenges for all crowdfunding companies is that there is a severe distrust in the ability to execute and deliver. There’s been a surge in fraudulent campaigns and other scenarios where the company fails to deliver for some reason or another. Our aim is to give the backers faith in our delivery promise and to let them know that we are already a fairly large company, backed by some of the region's most talented advisors and supported by our manufacturing partner, and shareholder, who have built products for some of the world’s most trusted commercial brands. We’re a team dedicated to the cause, after working tirelessly for over a year and half on R&D, testing the product and tweaking it to a point where we are all feeling very proud and raring to go. A lot of crowdfunding products require large proceeds from the raised capital to support their R&D and proof of concept development, but as we have already completed this phase, it puts us in a really great position to deliver a useful, innovative and robust product as early as possible.

If you’re a pet owner or a pet lover and you want to follow our crowdfunding journey, join our VIP group, get 44% discount off our retail price on launch day and we’ll shoot you a message when we’re live: www.mypetgo.com

^ And the required cat tax

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