Matt Valiollahi – Co-Founder & CEO, Southern Marsh Collection, LLC

Matthew Valiollahi serves as the CEO of Southern Marsh Collection, LLC and has done so since co-founding the Southern Marsh brand in 2008, while still an undergrad at LSU. Following graduation from Tulane Law School, Valiollahi briefly worked as a legislative draft aid for the Louisiana Senate before working for Southern Marsh full-time in 2011.

Tell me about your early career.
Southern Marsh was actually started while I was in college, and while my business partner was working as a graphic designer. We started it as a side business, while focusing on school. I remember the months when we were ecstatic if we sold five shirts. I ultimately decided to go to law school at Tulane. I am extremely grateful that during those years, Stephen focused on scaling up the company. A silver lining of the 2008 financial crisis was that it left a ton of recent graduates, including myself, without a job or in grad school so there was ample, on-demand flexible labor that could be used to help out with running the business. I used to work on the business during the weekends and in-between classes.

How did the concept for Southern Marsh Collection come about?
Southern Marsh Collection started in 2008 when my business partner and I saw a need for lifestyle and aspirational clothing geared towards an audience that has an appreciation for conservation, the outdoors, and fun.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was an experiment. We just thought our idea would be a great way to be entrepreneurs. I had hoped that it would provide some extra financial stability and that it would grow to be as big as it is today, but I never had expectations of what it should be. After a few months of selling a handful of shirts through our online website, the company started gaining steam with the support of our friends, family, and LSU’s student base. I remember, one day, we received an inquiry from a brick and mortar store requesting to sell our products. That was the next big step for us, going from a B2C to a B2B business model.

What was your marketing strategy?
Grassroots marketing is the only way to go when you are starting a business. We were investing so much into the products that little was left for advertising. Besides, its difficult to advertise for a product or brand that no one has heard of before. So, we relied heavily on our friends to spread the word, and we gave out some products so people could test them out, and so we could receive feedback on quality of design and comfort.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
That first year, we were lucky that local and state stores contacted us via our website asking to become vendors. From there, we started exploring how to tap into other markets and reach retailers in the nearby surrounding states. We went to our first couple of apparel markets and grew from there. We started out with only five graphic t-shirt designs, and eventually started adding more t-shirt colors and designs. It wasn’t until a few years later when we advanced to adding a wider array of products to our brand.

How do you define success?
Success is different for each individual. For one person, it may be financial, and for another, it could be fulfilling the needs in a niche. For me, it’s constantly showing growth in our industry, while still trying to have a balance of social and home life.

What is the key to success?
Perseverance and rolling with the punches. You just can’t quit when you hit a roadblock.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The most important thing I have learned is to keep soaking up information from others. I am constantly learning, and when I feel I’m in a state of stagnation, I become frustrated. You may not have a degree in a certain area, but the more knowledge you acquire about different things, the more you are able to adapt and apply to any scenario you are presented with.

What are some of your favorite books?
One of my favorite, recent reads is Shoe Dog, which is by Phil Knight about his experience building Nike. I am also a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Outliers.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I can’t think of a specific day that has been the toughest for me as an entrepreneur, but I can think of several days when I felt defeated. Of course, not every day is going to be perfect. I wish that I could get back to the days when Stephen and I were involved in every aspect of the business. These days, my time is spent on putting out fires and the effort that I spend is hardly realized in a day’s or a month’s time. A lot of times, you work really hard for months and only see it paying off several months later. It’s incredibly frustrating.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
We are faced with adversity all the time. It’s incredibly difficult to be in retail right now. I know there is always going to be a solution, and at the end of the day, we are all sailing into the same waters together. The difference is the creativity you approach the problem with. Sometimes, you just have to be creative about how you think about it.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Finished is better than perfect. Technical is more important than ideas – ideas aren’t worth much. People have great ideas and see a need for a product or service. The most important thing is to have a complete business plan. Too many times, someone comes with an idea but they don’t come up with the steps to execute.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.