Proust

Proust Goes Tech With Olof Mathé, Founder and CEO of Mixmax

As the founder and CEO of Mixmax (and Inkling before that), Olof Mathé aims to make peoples’ lives more straightforward and efficient by reinventing email for business. However, Olof’s talent as an engineer is matched by his interest in art and creativity. That combination led to his creation of Art Hack Day, a nonprofit through which individuals tap into the expressive potential of technology through art.

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His eclectic nature was apparent in our conversation this week as we explored his thoughts, fears, and least favorite buzzword on the latest installment of Proust Goes Tech! Enjoy!

 What would you otherwise be doing right now? 

So I’m going to answer in the same way that Donatella Versace answered when she was asked “what would you be doing if you weren’t doing Versace?” and she said, “I’d be having a nervous breakdown.”

What is your main fault?

Well, this is like the inverse question of choosing which of your children you love the most.

One is assuming versus asking questions. The other one would be being blind to my blind spots.

What is the quality you most desire in a tweet? 

Humor slash changing my perspective on something.

What is your idea of misery? 

Being alone in the world.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends?

The ability to talk about incredibly esoteric things, yet be completely understood.

Basically, any version of what we’re talking about that is completely inside baseball– where someone else might completely lack the context for understanding why something is really funny.  It might just be a reference to “Nietzche’s syphilis,” and my friends and I both know that he had syphilis… or something like that.

What is your chief characteristic? 

Curiosity.

What skill do you wish you possessed?

Two things. I wish I asked better questions. The other is that I wish I were a composer.

I’d probably compose something pretty esoteric and heady.

What is your most impactful book?

There are a couple, but I think one of the books that had the most impact on me was probably Don Quixote.

I think it’s absolutely hilariously funny. One of the things I think I gathered from that book, even though it’s literally been 400 years since it was published, is that people from back then are exactly the same as people are today– all of the shortcomings, vanities, and all of the smartness and perspicaciousness.

It’s an interesting reminder, especially being in tech. Like all of the pictures going around San Francisco of the old electric scooters from 100 years ago. I think it teaches you a little bit of humility– don’t think that you’re actually inventing.  It also shows that history can be a really rich source of inspiration.

What defines success?

I think success, broadly speaking, is having a positive impact in the world. I think that’s very bold, and I think that’s very hard to achieve. So, I think success means having a really positive impact on the people that are immediately around you. In the business context, that means creating a genre-defining workplace.

Having everyone who is part of the team maybe 20 years from now when they may not be working for Mixmax, still referring to it as their life’s best work– That is what I think success is.

I’m both very ambitious with it but also circumscribed in terms of its reach.

When is confidence lost for you?

Confidence is all about expectation setting. So it’s when expectations have failed to be set. The interesting thing about expectation setting is that it’s an art. You can’t sandbag because then your counterpart is underwhelmed and you’ve disappointed them out of the gate. However, if you set expectations unrealistically you are bound to make people disappointed.

Which buzzword is exhausted? 

God, which buzzword isn’t exhausted? I feel they’re more like figures of speech that get exhausted. The word “really” is exhausted in colloquial speech. Growth hacking would be one. God, you’d have to rattle off a couple.

I think the best way to realize how many buzzwords you use in speech is to try to explain what you do to someone who lives somewhere completely different and doesn’t work in tech. You realize that 50 percent of the words you use are buzzwords.

So much for shared vocabulary.

What virtues do others have that you do not? 

I’m not sure if this is a virtue, but patience and contentedness.

What impact do you want to leave behind? 

The core mission of Mixmax in a way. Empowering people to make more human connections, and enabling people to communicate in richer and more expressive ways.

What’s the biggest problem tech is failing to solve?

There are two answers. One is very technical, and one is a reflection on the state of tech, being defined as software.

The first one is anything related to climate change. I think there’s a lot we can do purely on the technological side. What’s interesting about climate change, of course, is that it’s a social and political problem as well– just like any interesting problem it has multiple different facets to it.

The second thing is that I think tech is interesting because it is so influenced by the ideological context in which it emerges. That being said, regardless of that ideological context, in very many cases it can still be used both for good and for bad. If you look at a lot of recent technological innovation, it has this tendency to really change behaviors in people. We see this in services like Uber and Lyft and the sharing economy. You also see this in the use of social networks and everything that has come out of that. So I think the interesting question here is can you use technology to drive really positive behaviors? And what technological experiences can we create that drive positive behaviors?

I think of a company like Duolingo, for example, which is just a simple language learning app. It basically took all of the game mechanics from Zynga– and you could argue that Zynga drove ultimately a lot of bad behaviors, potentially– and it applies it to language learning and creates this very strong habit. So can we have a very ethically conscious and informed stance on what we’re using technology for? Can we have it as an explicit goal to try to create positive behaviors while being cognizant of all of the pitfalls that a professed positive ethical stance has?

Editorial Note: Answers edited for brevity and clarity.

Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias

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