The Life Advice Guide: Insights For Young Adults From Stars of Business and Beyond
Interview number five with Matt Higgins.
Justin M. Higgins: “Hi Matt, could you tell me a little bit about your background, from the early days up through the launch of RSE Ventures?”
Matt Higgins: “Hi Justin, I was born in Flushing, Queens and grew up in really humble beginnings. I had a great Mom who, as a single mother raising four boys, did everything she could to manage living in poverty. She started raising us alone when I was nine. A lot of my identity, and the value I placed on education and self-improvement, came from my mother. She received her high school GED and thereafter pursued education at night and on the weekends. She was sick the entire time she was raising us and pursuing her education, so that shaped a lot of my world view as well. My Mom eventually earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. Ultimately, I ended up taking care of her and eventually she ended up in a wheelchair.
I learned a lot when I was young and it was sort of the beginning of me architecting my life. I began to live an intentional life. I realized that we are confronted with little choices and big choices everyday and how our life turns out is primarily in our own hands. You can’t control everything, but you can control a lot along the way.
One of my early decisions was that poverty was not something that I wanted to define me and live in me. I knew that there was a way out of poverty and that the way out was through education and work. I decided that I was going to pursue education and work day and night until I turned my life and my mother’s life around.
Modeled after what I saw my mother do, I eventually found a shortcut to accelerate my career, which was to get my GED. Whereas my mother had to do it because she did not receive an education when she was younger and also wanted it for self-respect, I realized that for me a GED could provide a quick way to get to college. My thinking was that once I was in college I would be able to obtain a level of job that I would not be able to obtain otherwise.
So, at the age of sixteen, I made a conscious decision to drop out of high school. I remember a teacher sort of jokingly saying to me on my last day of high school when I had to return my textbooks in front of the entire class, “I will see you at McDonald’s.” To which I confidently responded, “If you do, it’s because I will own it!” That was literally the last thing I ever said before leaving high school.
Dropping out of high school to get my GED was probably the first very unconventional decision that I had to make that was met with, to put it mildly, skepticism, or more accurately, scorn. I had a lot of conviction that it just made more sense given my circumstances. I wouldn’t recommend that decision to everybody but, if you have a situation and you desperately want to change it, I believe that you need to look for any path you can find that suits you and your objective. Given my circumstances, living in abject poverty and having a mother that I needed to take care of, finishing high school just didn’t make sense for me. I tie a lot of my success back to that decision when I first chose to defy convention and follow my own instincts.
After leaving high school, all within a couple weeks, I took my GED and my SATs. I then started Queens College when I was sixteen and that opened up a whole series of doors. By virtue of starting college, I was able to get a job with Congressman Gary Ackerman when I was sixteen. At seventeen, I got a job as a reporter. Eventually, I started my own column. From there, it was really just a series of connecting the dots — stepping stones. One thing always led to another. I graduated law school and eventually became Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani’s press secretary when I was twenty-six. That was an amazing opportunity for me that ultimately led me to working with the New York Jets. Now I am the Vice Chairman of the Miami Dolphins and Co-Founder and CEO of RSE Ventures.”
JH: “What is RSE Ventures?”
MH: “Technically speaking, we are an investment company that plays at the intersection of sports, entertainment and technology, with content at the core. We invest in companies that in some way are taking content, sometimes live or otherwise, and optimizing it or bringing it to life. We have developed an ecosystem designed to take an idea that has not come to fruition and then create a new form of content, or take an existing form of content, and then optimize it. That ecosystem includes, among many other companies, a sports marketing company, the largest digital media firm in the country, VaynerMedia, and a public relations firm which we own and incubate. When taken together, when you look down at RSE Ventures from twenty thousand feet, you realize that our portfolio would enable you to optimize pretty much any type of content.
In terms of our behavior, we connect the dots so to speak in the same manner that enabled our Co-Founder Stephen Ross to accomplish all the things he has done in his life. We are not so rigid and dogmatic that we stay within tightly crafted verticals. We stay with what we know and we look for opportunities to leverage our existing investments or our partners to bring everyone to the next place.
In terms of our methodology, we look for great entrepreneurs even more so than great ideas. Ideas are cheap as the cliché goes but great entrepreneurs are hard to find. Our model when we are incubating a new company is to find a great entrepreneur who has what we believe it takes to be successful.”
JH: “I read that RSE Ventures recently invested in The Drone Racing League and its founder is an entrepreneur that you believe has what it takes to be successful. Could you tell me about that?”
MH: “I think The Drone Racing League is a perfect case study.
First, in that instance you have a trend on the horizon that we had conviction would become mainstream. The only reason we were able to see that before others was because of the ecosystem that brings us in contact with ideas on the horizon and our foresight to recognize that it is an idea that has a high probability of matriculating.
Second, by virtue of our experience, we were able to identify what we ultimately think is a successful entrepreneur. Nick [Horbaczewski], the founder of The Drone Racing League, has a unique blend of characteristics. He has a creative side having had experience as a film producer. He has experience in sports marketing through Tough Mudder, a company he founded. He holds an MBA from Harvard. Taken together, these characteristics, combined with his stick-to-itiveness, have created the perfect storm of an opportunity for RSE Ventures and The Drone Racing League.
I also like the investment with The Drone Racing League because it required us to take an unconventional approach. The safer thing to do would have been to wait for the category to mature and for it to become obvious that drone racing is a thing. But if you really want to take advantage of opportunities I think you just rely on your own inner voice and then act on it. Do not worry about any ridicule that you might be subjected to. You have to believe that in the end you are going to be right.
One of my favorite pieces of writing is ‘Self Reliance’ by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. The first couple thousand words are all about feeling the indignity of recognizing your own thoughts espoused by somebody else and then having to take those thoughts from another individual when in fact you had those thoughts but denied your own inner voice. Obviously I am butchering the wording but, the point is, that when I find an opportunity like The Drone Racing League, and we act on it, those are the investments I enjoy the most.”
JH: “What life advice do you have for young adults?”
MH: “Three pieces of advice come to mind.
First, the common thread that I look for in successful entrepreneurs and successful people generally is, can they iterate their own problems. If you can iterate there is almost no problem you can’t solve and turn into an opportunity. That takes a certain mindset, but you don’t have to be born with it. I believe that you can learn the capacity to iterate. You can learn to take a situation that isn’t going perfectly well, use your brain power and resources, and figure out how to iterate to the next level. Never surrender and never give up no matter what situation you are in.
Second, I think that there is a tendency sometimes to look past the job you are doing to the job you want and not realize that the path to the job you want is through the job you are doing. With that said, I think that you really want to make sure that in any job environment that you are in you are making yourself indispensable. If you make yourself indispensable and excellent at any job, whether you are the office receptionist or in your first year out of business school, somebody is going to notice you in that environment and decide to push you to the next level. You won’t know who is noticing you and you won’t know what they are noticing you for. In fact, they are probably noticing you for things that you didn’t imagine they would be, so do not give short shrift to what you think is a seemingly trivial task or menial task because that might be the thing that is valued the most by whoever is in a position to help you. Eventually, when the opportunity comes when somebody notices you out of the corner of their eye, make sure you are open and receptive to it. It is essential to have the humility and the wisdom to submit yourself to what other people have to teach you and to take advantage of it.
Lastly, you need to understand that you don’t need to have all the answers. There was a time in my life when I thought all I needed was my own brain power and my own experience to figure everything out. If you feel like you need to have all the answers in life then you are going to be more resistant to recognizing the magic of somebody else. You are going to place a higher premium on your own capacity rather than recognizing that being able to spot someone else’s greatness is also a skill and facilitating someone else’s magic is a great endeavor. As I have grown up and evolved, I realize that some of the best decisions I have ever made were to realize someone else’s greatness and to try to put them in a position to take it even further. For example, my partnership with Gary [Vaynerchuk], CEO of VaynerMedia, is one of the best decisions I have ever made. That required me at a moment in time to say to myself, “This person is really special and I admire them and I would like to figure out how I, in some small way, can make a contribution to make them even better.” I have done that a bunch of times with great entrepreneurs and have found it to not only be personally rewarding but also very professionally rewarding.”
Matt Higgins serves as both the Vice Chairman of the Miami Dolphins and the CEO of RSE Ventures.
In 2012, with co-founder Stephen Ross, he launched RSE Ventures, an international sports, entertainment and technology firm. As CEO, he has founded several successful companies including Derris & Company and Catalyst Media Group. He is also one of the founders of the International Champions Cup, a global pre-season soccer tournament that was broadcasted to over 600 million households in 2014. In addition to building businesses, Higgins actively invests as a partner at Vayner/RSE, an early stage venture fund created in partnership with serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk.
Prior to RSE, Higgins worked as the EVP of Business Operations at the New York Jets where he transformed the team’s profile through social media and non-traditional brand extensions. He has also served as COO of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation where he was responsible for helping lead the rebuilding effort of the World Trade Center site.
Matt is also a board member of Autism Speaks where he leads the MSSNG project, a partnership with Google that aims to demystify autism through genetic sequencing and open science.