Raleigh’s “Open Source” Network, Growth Mindset, and Power of Diversity: Matt Sheehan, Part 1

Exhale Home CEO Matt Sheehan gave so many quoatables and pieces of wisdom that we had to separate his interview into two parts. On Part 1, Matt gives the life lessons his parents taught him (“The clock of life is wound but once”), why his family chose Raleigh out of all the cities in the world, and what Exhale is all about.


Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast. I am really encouraged today; I have a good friend of mine here with us. Entrepreneur, investor, business leader, Mr. Matt Sheehan, Matt, welcome to the show. 

Matt Sheehan: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. 

Donald Thompson: One of the things that we like to do on our show before we dig into kind of the business context and the lessons that we’ll learn from one another today is we want to know you as a person.

Take a few minutes and just talk to us about where are you from your family, things that make you “you”. 

Matt Sheehan: Sure. Happy to, let me start with my wife and my kids now. So, I’m happily married to a woman of 15 years, Tricia, I married way up if you know what that means. Rungs above where I am, three kids.

Cavin, who’s 12, Riley, who’s 10, and Grady, who’s eight. We have a lot of love in the house, a lot of energy, and there’s always plenty of stuff going on at home. So that’s, you know, I’ll start there. Moved to a Raleigh area nine months ago. So, I’m still a newbie to the network here and really loving everybody opening their arms.

Well, I think we’ll come back to that early because I’ve noticed some things about the atmosphere around here and how welcoming it is. So, I want to come back to that in a little bit. Born and raised a middle-class family, middle-class town, 10 minutes north of Boston.  you’ll hear a little bit of Boston accent in me.

Although my brother from Boston says you’re losing it kid. So, I don’t know where I am, a little stranger in all parts, but so love the middle-class background. A lot of middle-class upbringings and values my education, Bentley university, right outside of Boston, and then Penn State to get my grad degree.

I went there for a whole bunch of reasons. I think fate was, that’s where I met my wife, so I’m pretty sure that’s why I went, but great, great school. Career has spanned whole bunch of things, mostly emerging growth companies. I was in home grocery delivery before for anybody knew there was such a thing a long 25 years ago.

So, from that perspective, I love the growth stuff I’ve been with companies like big companies, like IBM. Companies like Redbox long before anybody knew what it was.  Primo water, which is publicly traded and now starting my own. You know, if I can, for a minute, Donald, I think a lot about the impact that my parents had had on me.

And I wanted to share maybe three quick stories. I carry so much of them with me today as a leader that I think we’ll probably go there today, I wanted to get ahead of that a bit. One was. My dad, we heated our house with wood, just a little bit of oil, but a lot of wood. And so, I would all have these iconic memories of my dad chopping wood in the backyard.

One day he came in the house with the axe in his hand, sweating, and he looked at me and he looked at my mom and he said, Matty, because when you’re from Boston, I don’t know why, but you put a Y after everybody’s name. Okay, so he came in with ax hand, said Matty it’s time. And I knew what was about to go through a ritual, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

And my mom had a concerned look on her face, and my dad said, Bethy I got it. Puts his arm around me with his left hand, axes in the right hand, and he said, you’re eight years old. We heat this house with wood. It’s your time to do your part. So, I’m a little freaked out, but I know my dad’s putting weight on my shoulders at this point and he hands me the ax and he says, I’m going to teach you.

And then you’re going to cut the rest for the rest of the day. And he did, now, he ordered a cord of wood. Have you ever split wood before? Yeah, it’s a cord. Half a cord is a lot for an eight-year-old to a cord. I was out there all day long, sweating, tired, blisters, the whole deal. Afterwards he said, one you’re now, really part of the family, you’re doing your part.

And two, I want you to understand that work should be hard and hard work matters.

So, I was eight man, and that was a big impact on me. And so, I’ve carried that along with me forever. Now I tell my employees that all the time, that work should be hard and if it’s not hard, but probably not pushing hard enough.

And so that’s, that’s one story.  the second one is my mom. We lost my mom 10 years ago, unfortunately.  but so much of who I am and who my family is now is because of my mom. And she would, when I would come home every day from school, she would put me up on the counter. I’m a short guy, right, so put me up on the counter, and my feet would dangle, and she would look me right in the eyes and she would say, how was your day?

And she would wait for an answer. Now, when you’re eight, nine, seven, it doesn’t matter. Not all days do you want to answer that for your parents? I’m seeing that in my own kids now. What she taught me was arguably the most important leadership lesson I’ve ever learned, which is care deeply about the people who you’re around and ask them questions that you really mean.

So, when she asked me how was your day? She really wanted an answer. She really wanted to know. I’ve tried to carry that with me for my own team. And then the last one was my dad bought a very ugly yellow van when I was a kid. I mean, ferocious and this thing, there was no seatbelts in it.

There were no seats in the back. It was like, basically just everybody, you know, jumped in there. And it was an eyesore, but it became this iconic, almost treasure in my family because of the bumper sticker that came with it. And it was the clock of life is wound but once. It’s a start of a Robert H. Smith poem, and for me, that has been almost a tattoo in terms of live now live in the present time, you know, we’ve lost people in our family and you never know how long you have, so you have to live it. Live it really well.

Donald Thompson: Wow. I mean, that was a leadership lesson, right. In three to four minutes that we’ve heard, family and commitment and what it takes to be successful. You’re so thoughtful to share that in what I would share is how impactful we can be in our own homes to make the changes in our country we want to make, right. Slow down and make sure that with all this digital stuff that our kids are into and different things, there are some fundamentals, right, that creates successful outcomes that will never change. 

Matt Sheehan: The ripple effect of that, it can be one person at a time. I mean, I know sometimes we’re looking at our children and we say one thing and that’s going to stick with them. I’m talking about my mom and my dad, these are 40-year-old lessons that are still with me. So, I think you’re right, and the ripple effects it could be one person at a time. Totally with you on that. 

Donald Thompson: No, that’s awesome, thanks for sharing. One of the things that you’ve done and it’s probably not the first time you’ve moved and changed locations in your career, but Raleigh is a new start for you and family. Talk to us a little bit about why Raleigh and then how that experience has been so far.

Matt Sheehan: It’s been great. We are loving the triangle area. We live in north Raleigh, and we’re absolutely loving it. And I’ll tell you that what we looked for in a city is a lot of things I look for in companies, and I’ll draw that together in a couple of minutes. We were fortunate, we’ve worked really hard.

My wife and I have worked really hard to provide for the family. We’ve had a decent batting average. We’ve made plenty of mistakes and, you know, we had, I’m happy to talk about those too, but batting average is decent where we’ve had the fortune to make the decision where do we want to go? And we were in Winston Salem for a while.

And we started to look around everywhere around the world. So, I proposed to Tricia and Ireland, so we said, well, maybe we go to Ireland because there’s some great energy about Ireland. And that was a little too far, she’s from Philly. We thought about Philly. I’m from Boston. We came down to the south from Chicago.

So, we looked everywhere and North Carolina has captured our hearts, if you will. And its a, not only the weather, which, you know, I’ve stayed on a lot of ponds and Boston, right, and so just sort of been there, done that. But for my wife and I to have the, still the four seasons but be close to the coast, to be close to the mountains is really great.

Systematically, we look for three things in the people and the environment. And again, this is where what Trisha I want for our family matches with the environment I want for a business. The first one is what I call a growth mindset. So, I don’t call it that. Much smarter people than me have coined that phrase.

But it is that idea that the environment, whatever that is, whether it’s a company or it’s a city and the triangle has it, this idea that we’re good, but there’s a long way to go. It’s early innings for us and we can get a lot better. So, when I look for people, maybe we’ll talk about this later. I always look for two things in people drive and humility.

So, drive is this passion to be better than you are today, but our humility to know that you’re not as good as you can be. When I see that in people, in companies, in cities, I know I’m in a good spot. So, growth mindset is number one for me. The second one, right up your alley is diversity, and I’m just hats off to you and everything you’re doing with the diversity movement and so happy for you. It’s absolutely needed. 

For a long time, I’ve looked at the power of diversity in the broadest sense of diversity, right. Not just racial and not just religion, but truly where people come from, the perspective they bring. I’ve always wanted that for myself to grow, for my family to grow, and I truly believe that diversity is an engine for business and I’m seeing it here in spades, which is great.

And then lastly, I was talking to, I know somebody you know very well, Bridget Harrington from Innovate Raleigh, and I said a term should, can you say that again? And I called the triangle open source. I’ve been so impressed with the triangle’s willingness to connect to others, just to be helpful. I’m super impressed.

And I’ve been in a lot of cities. I’ve done business in a lot of cities. I’ve lived in a lot of cities. It’s the best city I’ve ever lived in, in terms of this natural, willingness to connect others, just help. I’ve only been here for nine months. I feel like I know a ton of people because folks like you and Bridget and Adrian, and so many others have connected me with folks. And it’s almost like y’all have this unwritten rule pinky swear, which is hey, new newbie coming in town, like roll out the carpet and just hats off to everybody who does that. I call that open source and it is one of the reasons Raleigh is great and will be better. So those are the three things. 

Donald Thompson: No, I appreciate that very much, and like you I’ve lived it and it’s not so much because I was new to the triangle five, six years ago, but I was so focused on one of my earlier businesses I really didn’t get out of my little silo, but when I did, I was welcomed with open arms.

And a lot of times as an African-American business person, you have a little doubt, would I be welcomed in these circles also? And that proximity that’s been created with leaders has really dispelled that for me personally. So now what I know about diversity in the triangle is that it’s a function of us knowing one another. It’s not a function of whether or not we’re truly willing to help each other. And that’s something that I think sets us apart. I love those comments. 

One of the things that I want to give you space to talk about is what you’re excited about now, your newest venture, right? You’ve moved from running a large public company, right, which has its ups and cache and different things. Sure. But now you’ve dove into the startup scene. And so, talk a little bit about Exhale, but also talk a little bit about why now, in your career do you want to create this new business? 

Matt Sheehan: Yeah, that’s great. I could talk about this forever. I won’t, but I can talk about forever. So, this is a startup in one way, but it’s a ten-year-old idea. So, I’m going to take you back to the day that I had the concept and then we’ll fast forward a bit. So, my wife looked at me one day as I came home. I had left Redbox to go find the next big problem to solve. And Redbox was a real, a blast for us.

We grew that business from nothing to 2 billion in about six years. So, I got addicted to growth and I’m a growth person, if anything. And so, she looked at me one day and said, did you see the downstairs bathroom faucet? And because we’re being recorded, I won’t share my actual response, but it was oh, bleep because I knew exactly what it meant.

I had been through this enough. Now my dad gave me an ax. I told you before, I’m a little handy, not really handy. And so, I knew exactly what would happen. I would go try to fix the faucet. I would probably screw it up. I would then start calling frantically for friends and neighbors or anybody walking by my house.

Do you know a plumber? That wouldn’t work, and then I’d have to go to some of the marketplaces, which are good pieces of technology, but sometimes you end up with the same service and it was never good for me in the past. And I had this odd moment where I found this market imbalance where this small asset, small issue created a large amount of stress. And so, I went to a piece of paper and I drew a triangle. On one hand as a small point small issue, and then on the other hand, it’s this large piece of stress for me. And I started walking around my house and thinking about why that is not the case in other places, my car.

So, I looked out at my car on my driveway and I said, that’s so weird. I, well, I know I have insurance and I have maintenance plan on that. And that’s a much more expensive assets, big side of the triangle, very little stress I have about my car. If it breaks, it’s covered in a way, why is my car a much bigger asset, a lot less stressful than a little dripping faucet.

And I knew that there was something off for the consumer. And so that was when I figured there was a gap in the market. Primo water called to turn the business around, and I got pretty focused on that, but for the last nine years, I’ve been emailing myself notes, scratchy pieces of paper writing on my hand, all about this idea of can we bring peace of mind to homeowners?

So that’s the nucleus of the business where we’ve started today and running and it’s growing well called Exhale. And the business is all about bringing that peace of mind to consumers in a relatively stressful place. And our homes are these great intimate places where we laugh and cry in joy, and we grow as families, yet so many of us are not handy, and we don’t have what it takes that we don’t have the time, and I’ll come back to that, and we don’t have the skill to truly maintain and proactively care for our homes like we should. And so that’s what we’re in to do.

A nine-year-old idea, almost ten-year-old idea now, really coming to fruition. So, I’m really glad, frankly Donald, it’s out of my head at this point and I can bring it to the world, building a killer team and really excited. So, a couple pieces about the business. You know, it’s a membership business. We come in and we curate a specific membership plan for you and your home. And I believe that homes are like snowflakes, all are different.

You can give me two identical homes and put two different families in them, come back a year later and those houses will wear differently. And so, we believe that, you won’t see pricing on our website. We have to be with you, we have to walk your house. We do a full home inspection, if you will, and then we curate a plan for the services you want. It’s a very high touch service. 

Our mission is threefold. I believe that mission should have your consumer, your employees, and the community at large. So, ours is turn homes into havens, create an inspiring place to work, and serve our community, and if we can do that by taking care of our members first, that Haven idea. In order to do that, I truly believe you have to have just a very on fire engaged set of employees. You have to inspire them. And then lastly, if you do all that, I do believe as a business owner we have to give back to the community with some of the fortunes we may build through that. 

Donald Thompson: No, that’s super powerful. So, if I take it, now I’m thinking like as a potential client. So, I’ll ask you some questions, not so much as a podcast guest, because it wasn’t so much cutting wood, but my dad had me cutting grass, putting lawns in with him at different places we lived. And whenever he was really handy and I was the gofer and I would go for it, I’ll get them. And I didn’t mind doing it because I didn’t really want to dig into the detail of it. I knew how to change spark plugs on a lawnmower, all this basic stuff, 

Matt Sheehan: You’re more handy than me now. 

Donald Thompson: And I’ll tell you one really quick story about that appreciation of hard work. I got a grade that was less than my potential on a test one time. And my mom was really upset about it, and she said, I’m telling your father, like you can do better than this.

And I was like, that’s not great. And he came in and he looked at it. He said, all right, cool, we’re going to go to the hardware store. And I was like, okay, that’s an odd set of punishments. And we started looking at tools and he said, I’m going to buy you a set of tools. And I’m like, what do you need that for?

Well, if you’re not going to work with your mind, I’m going to teach you how to work with your hands, but you’re going to learn how to work. 

Matt Sheehan: Brilliant. 

Donald Thompson: And I said, well, I don’t want to do more lawn and different things. He said, well, if you have another grade like that then this isn’t a threat. I’m just going to have them in your bedroom and we’ll change your game plan.

And so, what I learned through working with my hands with my dad is one, I didn’t want to do that as a career, but I learned to respect it. I learned to appreciate it. I learned the value of somebody that knew how to fix that leaky faucet, right when I didn’t. And so now to exhale, and now bringing it to my present day, I do want to work with my mind.

I don’t want to deal with the leaky faucet or the garage that’s not right. Tell me how Exhale helps me as a homeowner develop that peace of mind in a more detailed way. 

Matt Sheehan: Sure. What’s out there today, by the way, your dad’s brilliant. Such a great, great move, and I have the same respect for what I call it trades out there today. When I see the experts mowing lawns or the handyman coming, I’m in awe because I can’t do that. That’s not what, God didn’t give me those gifts right there. So, what we do is, you know, we believe we have to very much understand you, what you need in your home. And so, we’ll spend on average seven hours to understand you and your home and what you need.

And it is a high touch upfront. We believe it’s going to be a long-term membership. I’m happy to invest that time upfront. By doing so, we then understand that the way you like your lawn mowed, right? How often you might want housekeeping in your home, and every home is different. So, some of the peace of mind to your question starts by just the way we interview customers.

And we are selecting our customers. I firmly believe that the best businesses choose their customers and we are choosing them. People like yourself, value their time and have things to give to the world and they need time to do so. So, we spend time upfront, we really understand the home, and then we start to build a curated membership plan specifically for that client. 

And so, this could look like, actually I’ll tell you what happens is when people get the proposal, they get a 12-month maintenance plan by day, by hour. Yeah, it’s, I’ve never seen it out there before, and it is very detailed. And when people see that they do exactly what I did when I came up with the name for the company, my shoulders dropped.

So, I see that in customers, even when we’re going through the proposal stage. And so, I know we’re going down the right track because they, for the first time, it’s not 27 different vendors trying to come in and out transactionally in your home. That is chaos, and it’s really hard to manage as a homeowner.

Now you have one partner, one point of contact to help manage all of that, and even in the proposal, you start to see that. And then when we start the services, you really see it. We’ve had a few customers already within the first two or three days of appreciating some of our services say, oh, I didn’t give you our pool to start, but please take pool too.

So, they’re starting to see what I call aggregation. In any place in our life, if we can aggregate to one partner, not just Exhale, but in any types of places in our life, we find simplicity. Simplicity because, when you can reduce your overall number of contacts, that’s when you get some simplicity. And so, for us, we’re seeing it through the process and we’re definitely seeing it in, in the service. And then people can sit back and relax and know that we’re on it. 

One other thing I’ll tell you that is trust is really important for us, and I’ll talk about values in a little bit that drive our business.  we give folks a dedicated home manager. And so, you know, while you are building the diversity movement, I don’t know how you’ve run two companies recently so hats off to you, but I’m glad you’re getting focused on one, still you’re going to be very busy. Folks like yourself, you know, we need somebody to trust.

So, there’s an expert in our home. You’re an expert in the diversity movement. I’m an expert at building this kind of a service. I’m not an expert in my home. Trey is our home manager, our personal home manager. Now he manages a small section of homes for Exhale and our clients go to him directly. It’s a text.

They never have to vet another trade. They never have to bring out a check or cash because all of that is already figured out in the membership. Even if they want us to put together Adirondack chairs for the summer, we already have their credit card information. We add that bill just to the next quarterly bill.

So not all of that billing has gone for them. And it’s really a giant amount of time back to them, not only because the mechanisms of the membership and the billing are great because they don’t have to do so much work, like finding another landscaper, like finding that handyman and all that. So, I’m not quite sure how much time we’re saving people. It’s a lot. 

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. The way that you describe it is easy to see how I, as a business owner, as a leader, can now put more time in the things that I’m truly gifted to do, right. So, it’s not necessarily just like, what does this service cost? It’s what is now my opportunity, right, to go do more of what makes me special.

And so that for me, just listening to you, right, listening to that that pitch, you needed to talk to me and my wife. Like anytime you get two partners that are working really, really hard, right, you’re both trying to juggle what’s at home and you don’t really do that well, which increases the stress, and go from there. So that’s a great explanation. 

Matt Sheehan: Time is so valuable. I think, you know, the pandemic has even taught us that and folks are really looking at how we spend our time. It goes back to my story about the clock of life is wound but once. It is so deep in my core, that’s a bit of my gift. If I can help others. And you use the word gift and it’s, I love that word.

I say often that if we can do our best job at giving people peace of mind and time back, then they’ll have more time to give their gifts to the world, whatever it is. Whatever that is, if we can help that, and then this is going to be a very fun company to grow and I’ll be super proud of what we’re going to do in the future.

Donald Thompson: Now, in my notes, I want to give you some space to continue on the mission values and vision. And so, take me through that step, because that’s both informative about Exhale, but also for entrepreneurs that are listening, future entrepreneurs, right, about how you’ve structured that mission so that you can keep your true north.

Matt Sheehan: It is become so important to me as a leader, as a person, but it’s fact-based that purpose and values led businesses, frankly outperform those that don’t have a soul. And so, when I say a soul, I say, you said it right, the true north, but that takes work. And so, we did it at Redbox. We did it at Primo and through that, I just firmly believe that soulful companies are the ones who can really grow big, and can also withstand the tough days, and I don’t know a business that’s not going to go through that, but you need to have that center of gravity. Having done this a few times with other companies, the first thing we did. 

Well, let me say this. We’re still figuring out the business model at Exhale, it’s early. I know we’ll make changes; Apple still makes changes in their business. So, business models will adapt and evolve. What can’t evolve in my mind is that rock, that nucleus, that true north. And so, we set the mission as I talked about before three parts, right? Turn homes into havens, and that’s the member piece, create an inspiring place to work and serve our community. We wanted a three-part mission.

 The second really important piece before we ever really put a detailed business model together, it was our values. And so, my co-founder and I, Sanay Patel, who’s a guy that I’ve worked with over several years at Redbox, brought him into Primo. A lot smarter than me, brilliant at everything.  He’s a very value-based person as well, so what we did to make sure that our business shared our values, he and I worked really hard on what those values are and we have four of them.

The first one is service excels. We believe strongly that we’ll only be successful if we serve our clients and our members well, but it goes beyond that. It’s about serving each other as peers and as employees. And then it’s also tying back to the mission. It’s about serving the community. We don’t exactly know how we’re going to do all those yet. It’s a really great fun, chaotic things about early-stage companies, but service is really important. 

The second one is optimism rules. And it is not just having a pretty smiling face all the time, even on bad days, it’s just the opposite. It’s that we deeply believe we’re going to be okay. I’ve been through this enough time to know that we’re going to have some amazing days, bell ringing kind of days. And then there’s going to be days that are really tough. I know that, and I almost look forward to those days because I truly believe that optimism will carry us through. So, I do want us to smile. I do want us, we are a client service company, so we need to be able to carry that smile if you will, and that energy. But I also know it’s going to really power us through when we have some bumps and bruises that all businesses do. So that’s optimism rules. 

The third one is range matters. In one hand, this is our diversity pledge, but it’s a bit broader than that. So, we, as I mentioned before, deeply believe in diversity in the broadest sense, from every perspective. Sanay and I have some fun debates at times, and we just see the world different in some things and it’s super healthy. And so that kind of perspective and diversity is key, but when you also think about the customers and members that we’re going to have, they are all so different. I mean, just a hearing our customers, the way they want their homes to be cleaned or their lawns to be taken care of, it’s fairly unique. We have to be great about handling that type of range. So, it is our belief in diversity statement, if you will, but it goes a bit beyond that, which is we have to be diverse inside because we have to take care of diverse members. We won’t be able to do it if we’re not diverse on the inside. And so that’s range. 

And I believe the foundation of all great businesses, certainly service business, is trust. And so, what we say is trust builds. We won’t be able to build this business on anything more than trust. And so, we have to trust each other and we’re going to have to trust our members, and we’re going to have to earn that trust back. And so, if you step back on that, first thing we did, we worked hard at a mission and we put those values together and I do believe we will operate. Part of, I don’t know if it’s 50% of my job, but it’s a lot is make sure that we are owning and living that mission. And we are operating with those values. And that’s when I’ll step in, if I ever see an employee not respect one of those values, this won’t be a great place for them. 

Donald Thompson: That makes sense. To get and keep world-class talent, people want to work where they feel valued and can deliver value. They don’t want to just work at a company that’s delivering transactions, even if it’s a very large company. They want to be a part of something that makes them feel powerful, makes them feel needed, and the impact in their world is real. And that’s really awesome. 

Let’s stop right there. These episodes are quick hitting and I haven’t even had the opportunity to get to some of the leadership questions that I have, and I know you’re really going to benefit our audience.

This podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. If you’re looking for more information on how full-service podcast production can amplify your voice, build your community, visit earfluence.com.

Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on the Donald Thompson Podcast.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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