Burn the Boats, with Matt Higgins – Episode 415 of The Action Catalyst Podcast
- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On February 14, 2023
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- author, Business, CEO, entrepreneur, executive, Harvard, leadership, New York, Shark Tank, success
Matt Higgins has worn many hats; from the youngest NYC press secretary during 9/11, to NFL executive, to guest shark on Shark Tank. Hear how it started with busting out of poverty and moving his whole life ahead by two years with one bold move, sticking it to his high school teachers, finding crystal clarity in moments of crisis, plus how to make yourself indispensable, why opportunity is a leading indicator and compensation is a lagging indicator, broadening your brand and skill set, and what it was like to work for “Rudy Giuliani version 1.0”.
This episode is brought to you by Burn the Boats. In BURN THE BOATS, Matt Higgins — a self-made entrepreneur who has reached the pinnacle of five industries — provides the winning formula to stop hedging and embark on a lifelong journey of breakout success. Go to BurnTheBoatsBook.com to learn more about how to toss plan B overboard and unleash your full potential. Or, go to Amazon.com and search “Burn The Boats” to buy now.
Matt Higgins is a noted serial entrepreneur and growth equity investor as Co-founder and CEO of private investment firm, RSE Ventures. He is also an Executive Fellow at the Harvard Business School where he co-teaches the course “Moving Beyond Direct-to-Consumer.” Mr. Higgins’ deep operating experience spans multiple industries over his 25-year career, which he draws upon to help founders navigate complex situations in order to reach their full potential.
A high school dropout at age 16 before going on to graduate from Fordham Law School, Mr. Higgins began his career in public service as a journalist before becoming the youngest mayoral press secretary in New York City at 26, where he managed the global media response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He became one of the first employees – and ultimately Chief Operating Officer – of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the federally funded government agency created to plan the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. Mr. Higgins helped organize the largest international design competition in history culminating in Reflecting Absence, the September 11th National Memorial, and the development of the 1,776-feet-tall One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the northern hemisphere.
After transitioning to the private sector, Mr. Higgins spent 15 years in senior leadership positions with National Football League teams. He made his mark with two NFL franchises, overseeing the revenue functions of the New York Jets as Executive Vice President of Business Operations, and after leaving the Jets, serving as Vice Chairman of the Miami Dolphins from 2012 – 2021. Higgins co-founded New York City-based RSE Ventures in 2012, amassing a multi-billion-dollar investment portfolio of leading brands across sports and entertainment, media and marketing, consumer and technology industries – including several of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies.
RSE’s backings include Resy, an Open Table competitor that American Express acquired in 2019; the world’s premier drone racing circuit, the Drone Racing League; the International Champions Cup, the largest privately owned soccer tournament featuring Europe’s top clubs; and Derris, a brand strategy and communications firm that has helped grow many leading brands such as Warby Parker and Glossier. Higgins is also co-owner of VaynerMedia, the largest social-media first agency in the world founded by Gary Vaynerchuk. In 2016, he broadened RSE’s investment focus to rapidly expanding fine dining and fast casual concepts, including NYC’s iconic Magnolia Bakery, David Chang’s Momofuku and Fuku, Milk Bar, &pizza and Bluestone Lane.
Mr. Higgins has also been a guest shark on Emmy award-winning TV show “Shark Tank” during seasons 10-11, and released his book “Burn the Boats!” in 2023. In 2019, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, joining the ranks of seven former U.S. presidents, Nobel Prize winners and other leaders for work to improve society. He is also a longstanding board member of Autism Speaks. Mr. Higgins received his Bachelor of Arts in political science and honorary doctorate from Queens College and his J.D. from Fordham Law, where he was a member of the Fordham Law Review.
Higgins is currently Executive Producer of Business Hunters, a new show that helps everyday Americans realize their dream of owning their own business. The show was created by Shark Tank and Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, Chairman of MGM Worldwide.
Passionate about human rights, Higgins works with the Global Solidary Fund to advance Pope Francis’ mission to support refugees and migrants around the world.
Learn more at RSEVEntures.com and BurnTheBoatsBook.com.
The Action Catalyst is presented by the Southwestern Family of Companies. With each episode, the podcast features some of the nation’s top thought leaders and experts, sharing meaningful tips and advice. Learn more at TheActionCatalyst.com, subscribe below or wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to leave a rating and review!
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(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Adam Outland: This is Adam Outland for the Action Catalyst, and today’s guest is Matt Higgins. Matt is co-founder and CEO of private investment firm, RSE Ventures and an executive fellow at Harvard Business School. He’s also a former NFL executive and was once the youngest press secretary in New York City history, and you may have seen him as a guest shark on ABC’s Shark Tank Seasons 10 and 11. He’s just released a new book, “Burn the Boats” available everywhere now, and will soon be seen in the new television series Business Hunters. Great to have you, Matt.
Matt Higgins: What’s up? How you doing? How’s the lighting? How’s the ambience?
Adam Outland: Oh, even the word ambience.
Matt Higgins: I was trying to elevate this crew, you know?
Adam Outland: So, yeah. Matt, great to meet you. We’ll just kind of dive in here. Love reading your story, and it actually prompted so many questions in my head, and I, I, I want to hear a little bit about the beginning of the journey, like the kind of that hardship that was part of your earlier life, because today you’ve, you’ve obviously had a tremendous amount of success, but that wasn’t what life would’ve predicted early on.
Matt Higgins: Yeah. No, I appreciate it. No, I, um, that’s where I wanna spend my time. I think about how I manifest in the world and what is most useful. If you meet me for the first time, you can make certain assumptions about me. Well, you are, you’re teach at Harvard, you’re on Shark Tank, right? You have nice custom stuff, you know, like you probably were born on third base, you know, and, and like make certain judgements.
I tell the origin story, which I prefer to be seen for where I began rather than where I’m ending up. And so where did I begin? I, I grew up in, in Queens, uh, New York, uh, in a shoebox apartment on Springfield Boulevard and Bayside, and was born to a single mom. And so my, my formative years were, And truly abject poverty.
You know, people, it’s kind of like a cliche. You become desensitized to, what do those words mean? Abject poverty. It’s really more about like, what are your surroundings like? You know, it is just dysfunction everywhere. Not enough money to eat half the time. So grew up on government cheese. I actually keep a box on my desk.
Where’s my box? Always a reminder. So it’s a US Department of Agriculture, like an actual box of cheese. I always like to keep that front and center. So when I started nine, 10 years old, I would, I would sell flowers on street corners, you know, like that little kid. Excuse me, sir, would you like to buy flowers for your wife?
You know, Just anything I could do to get by scraping gum under tables of McDonald’s and so forth. But my mother was, re was, um, was actually brilliant, was product of pretty severe abuse. And so my earliest, earliest memories of were her, when I was nine years old, decided to get her g d and go back to college.
And so she would take me to these courses with her on Saturdays because during the week she would, um, clean houses, you know, so I would, she would take me to those visits when I, during the summer, and I just have these memories of like, education being this path of transcendence out of poverty. It was the only time I ever remember seeing my mother happy or having any kind of dignity.
Uh, but at the same time, she had a ton of health issues. And so my, my childhood was sort of a car crash unfolding in slow motion. And I, when you’re born in trauma or you’re in trauma, the, the way to survive is you disassociate. A lot of my memories were like standing on an overpass, just watching things play out, trying to figure out how to get outta here.
And so phase one was desperation, hoping somebody would come along and save us. And then, you know, we all have to learn this lesson sooner or later that there’s no cavalry coming. And as my mom began to deteriorate and I began to hate my life more and more, And was doing these menial jobs that were not gonna feed the pay the bills that I, I, I had an epiphany that I need to take matters into my own hands and that this conventional path is not gonna work.
And so this is the crazy, when I tell this story, people are like, that’s crazy. Like, how did you, why would anyone think to do this? But. I said like, if my mother went to college with A G E D inadvertently, cuz that’s not how she wanted life to work out. What if I did it on purpose? And I actually pulled forward my entire life by two years and got a GED and went to college when I was 16.
So when I floated this idea, including my mother, the reaction was the stigma of being a high school dropout. It’s gonna stay with you forever and change the trajectory of your life, right? But what, what I tell this to people all the time, be careful of whose advice you. because unless they have the full context of your situation, back when I grew up, it was not cool to be a dropout wearing a hoodie, you know, and, and, and being poor.
So I did everything I could to conceal my poverty. Every bit of money I had, I would buy like jordash jeans so kids wouldn’t know. I’d never let anybody know I was hungry. I never had a single friend over my house in 26 years because I, I was hiding what I was living in. I decided I was gonna drop outta high school, get my ged.
This is where the book comes. The only way I would have the courage to stick with that plan is if I had no choice. I don’t know how I knew that intuitively, but I was getting pressured from every direction that this is nuts. I make this crazy decision and in my last day of high school, you gotta return all your textbooks.
And I go to my science teacher and sort of middle of the day you go, you know, school room by room, and. Hand back my science teacher, true story, Mr. Rosenthal. And he doesn’t look away from me cuz what’s this? I said, I gotta return my books. My last day high school, I’m dropping out, looks in the room and goes, Higgins, what a waste.
I’ll see you at McDonald’s. And everyone’s laughing like, oh, you know, whatever. And I’m like, oh my God. And I’m Irish, so my face gets all red and I’m so embarrassed. I’m about to walk outta the room. I stop and I’m like, that can’t be the last thing I heard in high. And I turn around to him, I said, you know, Mr. Rosenthal, if you see me at McDonald’s, it’s because I own it. And then I walked out, everyone’s like, oh, you know, snap. And then I sat on the steps, smoked a Marlborough, and I was like, he’s probably right. This is, this is absolutely crazy. Took my G E D. Two years later, I rolled in Queens College and I went to my prom as captain of the debate team when I was 17 years old.
That single decision to burn the boats, uh, and just go all in, change the entire trajectory of my life. And so by the time I, I was 16 making, you know, five bucks an hour at a dehi at that point. And by the time I was 26, I became the youngest press secretary in New York making $105,000 a year. You have to know that story to know me.
Adam Outland: Obviously part of the story that you get to share in, in your book too. How did you get into, this is just a logistic question that’s in my brain. How’d you get into Queens College with that record?
Matt Higgins: I don’t think this hack exists anymore, but, but, um, so I had a college nine in my high school, right? So they all bring all whatever, and I, I, you know, even I was younger, I went to it and I was like, you know, excuse me sir. , you know, if somebody were to take a G e D and like, you know, do really well, would you admit them to your, you know, privileged institution? And because, you know, in a certain, I talk about this by book in like a noble kind of way.
Like, yes, young man, we, you believe in second chances. You had a GED and did well enough, of course. So there was a way that you could translate a A G E D score to grades. And so by taking that one test, it’s a standardized test. I, I was, you know, I got a grade score, you know, thirdly high and was able to translate it into grades, but it, it was, no, I probably could, I could have gone to significantly better institutions than I had any shot of going to, if I had stuck into high school.
Which is the funny thing, like, like even my guidance counselor, Mr. Barkin at the time was, and he was a sweetheart. Matt, there’s still time and I’m like, no, no, Mr. Work, like do you realize if I ace this exam, I have a greater likelihood of gonna like Y U because they’ll feel bad for me. And it’s a nice story to tell you let the kid in with the g e D than it is if I, if I actually grad.
They like, oh, that’s crazy talk. I’m like, no, no, technically true. I did the research and then, you know, you know what’s funny about when you make these bold decisions that are kind of radical and no one agrees with, it’s a little bit like muscle. You remember the pain you went through when nobody believed you.
You remember the isolation, but you also remember the resu. and the redemption, you know what I mean? Like when I showed up at the prom and I got to see Mr. Rosenthal and I got to see these teachers and I went from somebody who a look of pity when they greet me to a look of pride and admiration. Like with one chess move.
Adam Outland: The critical thinking to set aside the standard, universal practice of how you do something and actually go, well, why and what, what other pathways are? Is is obviously what’s, to me, incredibly notable about that too. Like it takes real critical thinking and like research a brain to go, well, let me actually look into something that everybody else just takes for granted.
Matt Higgins: Yeah. And I, I, I said I, so I love that you’re asking that cuz I, well you, maybe you were intellectually gifted or you know, you, you know, you have these special critical thinking skills. It’s like, no, it’s not. I was. So desperate. I was so, so desperate, you know? And I was, and I felt so abandoned by the world.
I was like, wait, I’m sitting in an ER room with my mother because we don’t have healthcare. I’m taking a bus an hour and a half away to go to church pantries. I get my Christmas dinner from a priest at the door. It feels bad for us. Well, this is whatever, you know what I mean? Like I don’t give me your pity or your food.
Give me my pride and I’m gonna do that by taking matters in my own hands. And so all of us have found ourselves in, in a crisis when, when our back is against the wall and our decision making is very clear, crystal clear, right? And so a lot of my life is like, how do I conjure it? Now I became an adrenaline junkie.
Unfortunately, like a lot of people go through trauma due, but I’ve been spent a lot of my life trying to. Hold on to that crisis decision making and the clarity that comes with it, but not emulate or replicate crisis unnecessarily. Right? Like how to have the clarity and but limit and eliminate choice and make really, really good, really good decisions.
And so the, my whole book is like taking that moment and then dissecting it and playing out in different, you know, different contexts.
Adam Outland: So fast forward to the Press Secretary part of life. Uh, in between there, uh, was your Fordham law experience, is that right?
Matt Higgins: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Fordham Law.
Adam Outland: How did that come about? Because, you know, to my knowledge, people don’t necessarily go to law school to become a press secretary. I mean, how did all this stuff happen? How did this fit into your vision and how much of it was part of your plan?
Matt Higgins: Yeah, a great question. I mean, the, the, the sort of, the connective tissue of all my disparate experience begins with this notion of make yourself indispensable at whatever job you’re doing as a path to the next.
I think a lot of people look past the drudgery of their job or the monotony and wish they had the next, not realizing, no, your path to that is here. And the, and the, and the process, and I know there’s a lot of talk about quiet quitting is one way of. You know, protest, whatever. I took a very different approach was like, really, when somebody gives you a job, all they’re doing is giving you a problem to solve.
And so if I sort of solve a problem in a way that is unique and differentiated, people who are fundamentally lazy, right? Like even a manager could be like, well, Matt sure did a good job with the gun scraping. This is what happened. Like, do you wanna manage the party room? You know, like quite a, quite a, quite an elevation now.
I was, I was scraping, you know, chicken McNugget fragments out of, uh, you know, the corners, but like it, it came with a raise so it’s not so. About getting the thing I want. Now it’s moving in the general direction of my ambition and making sure that I’m leveraging each thing to get to the next thing. So the way I got to be Press Secretary was I, I was a good communicator, good writer.
I was able to get a job as a little Cub reporter for a nothing newspaper at the time, a Queens, Queen’s Tribune. But I wrote really good stories, investigative stories. and then eventually, this is nuts. I got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when I was 19 by Carl Bernstein. Right. And I won a bunch of journalism awards.
And so I was like, well, they got this. I got on, I got profiled in the Daily News, got got to the attention of the Mayor of New York at 23. Well, they needed somebody to work Ghost Write. And I was like, all right, I’m gonna ghost write. But everybody loved my writing, but I’m like, well, if you love my writing, you gotta gimme the title.
And when they wouldn’t gimme the title I. and then when I quit, they decided, okay, four months later you can have that job. Then I quit twice the mayor of New York, who was not an easy guy to quit on, as you might imagine. And so like I’d make myself indispensable. And wait for justice. And if justice was not given out, I would vote with my feet, but I would be open to coming back.
So like I always say to people that opportunity is a leading indicator. Compensation is a lagging indicator, unfortunately, right? You should assume the burden and the opportunity and the obligations, and set a timeline for when you should be rewarded and recognized when that doesn’t happen because you have an unjust, you know, benefactor.
And so I kept leveraging the thing that came before to get me through the thing, the, the next thing. That’s how I went from journalist to press secretary. Now it’s not that big of a leap, right? Like you could see how the connective tissue, the second thing I think people do unfortunately, is they, they submit to narrowly defining who they are, what they are in a moment in time.
And then like the dye is cast. So for example, I was a reporter for. I got an offer to work at the New York Times when I was a kid. I got an offer to work at New York. One. I could have said, I’m a reporter, but I was like, no, I think I’m a communicator. And then I, I expanded what it means to be a communicator.
Now a communicator does accommodate the idea of, Being Press Secretary of the Mayor of New York, right. And that has been a consistent theme of my life is more broadly defined, what it is and what I’m capable of, so that I’m not put in a box like inadvertently. And so I’m always trying to expand the definition of who I am at any moment in time, but I’m just trying to remain open and available.
Adam Outland: Outside looking in, I look at your trajectory and it, to me, it almost seems like, again, there’s some people who get so caught up in like, Hey, I want this specific house with this dog, with this wife, and this many kids, and they think it’s the very literal representation of that vision that they’re chasing, when actually it’s the underpinning. Mm-hmm. at this age. That’s how they define that as this house two kids dog fence. Right. Then that’s gonna mature as they learn more. Um, but you, it seemed really gravitated towards, like you were self-aware enough to know, like underpinning a lot of the decisions you made.
There’s, there’s something that you wanted to feel, like you said communicator, not a journalist. And that’s a broader, it gives you more to, to chase.
Matt Higgins: That’s exactly right. My why was defined as freedom and autonomy Now. Was in response to subjugation. So to some extent I always said the best decisions are when you run towards something rather than run away from something.
So I am a little aware that the genesis of my why was to run away from lack of autonomy and agency to save my mother. Yeah. However, It is what it is. I’m wired to want freedom and autonomy cuz I do find that I make better decisions when I am not unduly impacted by different constituencies, right? Like I am susceptible to what people think I am.
I do care how people feel. So if there are too many negative inputs, it’s gonna affect my decision making. But my meta y has been autonomy. and like, so it didn’t really matter where more autonomy manifested. It’s just like that’s the drug. I see. Once I had achieved enough, my wife kind of morphed into a little bit more of a realization that the joy of living truly is in the striving I’ve been to the mountaintop.
There’s nothing to see, and so it’s like, oh, it is the mere act of trying to touch the ceiling of. My, my capabilities that I live for, and I do believe most of us live for, we may not know it because we’re too distracted by our material needs at a moment in time or, or, but we don’t realize that the truth is, the joy of living really is in the striving and understanding. What are you really capable of?
Adam Outland: So what are the lessons that you feel like, cuz I, I think of being press secretary and coming back to what you shared about, you know, too many negative inputs. I mean, you’re putting yourself out there as a press secretary, , I feel like that is, uh, fraught with rejection that you’re receiving from journalists, from the public. And you were there during a really demanding time.
Matt Higgins: Yeah. A lot of times when you’re doing that kind of job, you’re always trying to figure out balance between ethics and truth and just everything like, you know, and what, what behavior can you justify? Because the means, justify the ends like just so complicated.
But I, I would say first of all, it’s 26 years old, which is insane to look back to think you’re press secretary to the mayor of New York and for those who don’t know, This is Mayor Giuliani, right? Like, uh, version 1.0. Fair and Fairness. I choose to remember him that way. Uh, and I’ll always be grateful for what he did for me and the job he did.
So I will never say a bad word, but clearly he’s gone in a very different direction, but, I think the, the, the few of the lessons that I learned were largely around crisis management. The, the first rule in a crisis that people get so wrong is that you, 50% of it is just showing up that, and that could mean on the ground, it could mean emotionally.
It could mean, you know, avail availability, but just showing up. You know, Giuliani at the time demonstrated the importance of symbolism of like, no matter what the situation was, but think about how crazy my life has been. I have been on the site of plane crashes, you know, I have been at homicides, obviously.
I’ve been, I’ve been, I’ve been, I was on the site of, um, ground zero, uh, before the towers collapsed, you know, so I learned from him the importance of showing up in any situation. And I’ve, I’ve carried that with me and I also, The importance of being able to set really ambitious goals and not worrying about whether or not things they’re, people think they’re absurd because you will bring them along halfway and halfway is better than no way.
And so even when he first took over the city in 1994 in New York, there were, I think 2300 homicides a year, and by the time he left there was 670. Those are probably two of the biggest lessons I learned. The next job was even crazier because, um, I was the, uh, one of the first employee, maybe I was like the third employee, to start a new agency to oversee the World Trade Center site.
So I was chief operating officer of the effort to rebuild, uh, those 16 acres, you know, and again, now I’m only, I don’t know, 29. I’d love to tell your audience this story because it’s such an important point.
I have not talked about this actually, how that happened. I made one of the most critical decisions professionally when I made that transition to that job. So I happen to get along with the mayor, and the governor had a good relationship with a lot of people. They needed somebody to, to take over communications.
I mean, this. Hardest communications job in the world, potentially at the time, destined to piss everybody off, right? Like no matter what happened at ground zero, like you’re talking about, the, all the, all the bodies hadn’t been recovered when I started that job in February of 2002, and I’m in grief. My mother had only died eight months earlier.
I’m literally spending every moment of my life at the site. I’m still in law school at night, so, and I, and my office is adjacent to what we call the family room where there were all the missing poster. And where families would come in and grieve. It was like an endless state of grieving while also trying to satisfy this impulse to like show progress, like how are you showing progress when the site is still burning thousands of degrees.
So no matter what happened, you know, it was destined to fill, but I had a really important senior role there. And the oftentimes in a government context, people that don’t know this, the person who does PR is a policymaker as well because it’s not like government makes. It’s not like they make products where like the Chief Revenue Officer is really the, the C F O has got a lot of power, right?
It’s not a typical company and a government agency. The communicator is almost on par with the executive, you know, or right below, because if they’re not translating it to the public, That’s the people who rehire you, right? Like so, so as a result you’re a lot sen more senior. And I remember there was a moment in time I had been doing the job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and, and then I was ready to like move on.
I had spent every minute at ground zero and I had a big job offering. and I wanted for the first time in my life to have the, the role that I was playing substantively to be reco recognized formally in my job title. Cuz I knew that if I didn’t transition from being a press person, people would owe who didn’t know better would be like you were just the press guy.
You know? And people are very dismissive of that role. So I, I, I made a deal. I was like, I want my authority to be formally recognized and, uh, I wanna be chief operating officer of the agency in charge of rebuilding lower. And that was the job I got. So, staying with the theme that we’re talking about, about more broadly, defining who you are at a moment in time and identifying your leverageable assets, like overseeing, helping to oversee the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.
You could define that as, I was a government employee. I was a government employee in a redevelopment land use context, right. I was a, an employee, you know. Or I was somebody who knows how to manage really complicated projects and, and multiple constituencies, and that’s how I chose to define it. You have to be intentional with your career at all times.
You really do. It doesn’t mean that you have to have it all figured out, and I, I’ve said it before, really believe you just need to be moving in the general direction of your ambition. But you have to define what that ambition is, and then you have to be intentional about the timing, you know, and l and, and, and just like allow yourself to trust your instincts that it’s sort of time to go.
So my instincts told me that this was a leverageable moment, that I could get a title that truly reflected what I was doing, and that title change made a massive difference in my life.
Adam Outland: Matt and I will continue our discussion in episode 416 of the Action Catalyst, available now. So join us there to keep listening and don’t forget to follow the Action Catalyst wherever you listen to podcasts, to get new episodes, bonus episodes, and more the minute they drop.