Daniel Myatt - Co-Founder and CEO of Mavuno

I never stop learning; our entire organization never stops learning. We’ll never think we have it all figured out.

Daniel Myatt is the co-founder and CEO of Mavuno. Mavuno is a nonprofit organization that empowers local leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo to end extreme poverty in their own communities. Mavuno organizes communities and builds businesses at the grassroots level.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

In my eight years as a military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer, I witnessed the link between extreme poverty and conflict. Conflict creates extreme poverty, and extreme poverty produces conditions conducive to the growth of extremism and conflict.

Through research, I also learned that in 1990, 400 million people were living in extreme poverty in fragile states and conflict-affected environments. Astonishingly, that number remains unchanged today.

Currently, 14.5 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, and 43 percent of people living in fragile states are in extreme poverty.

In order to successfully eradicate extreme poverty, we must focus on the world’s toughest environments. By accomplishing this goal, we can cut the legs out from under the extremist movements that characterize much of the geopolitical tumult in today’s world.

In 2013, I was stationed in South Korea and met a man named David Masomo. He grew up in eastern Congo, home to the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. He explained his passion and ideas for development in his country: why top-down aid structures often fail, why the world’s most expensive peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo is ineffective, and how you could use bottom-up, business-driven solutions to produce real change.

We agreed that extreme poverty is a solvable problem, but it will take more than outside Westerners to get the job done. It requires the talent and creativity of the poor themselves.

This idea, born out of a friendship, was the basis for our organization, Mavuno (which means “harvest” in Swahili).

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

With a high-growth organization and a lot of travel, I rarely have “typical” days.

That said, the routine days I do have are structured like this:

Morning: Wake up, read a book, pray, wake up the kids, hang out with them while my wife gets ready, and go to the office. Once there, I execute my daily workflow. This means processing all inboxes down to zero. I then strive to stay focused on the tasks that most move the needle on our organizational priorities. When I’m working on an important task, I find it helpful to close email and social media so I don’t get distracted.

Afternoon: In the afternoon, I’m taking care of whatever needs to be addressed on that particular day: meetings, phone calls, personnel issues, networking, writing grant applications, reading, or any variety of things.

At the end of the workday, I process my entire workflow down to zero again, and I try to spend 15 minutes setting an agenda for the next day. This keeps me focused and productive in a proactive way.

Evening: I spend quality time with my wife and children. I eat dinner, play with the kids, get them ready for bed, and read them a story. After the kids are asleep, my favorite part of the day is talking with my awesome wife. After everyone else is in bed, I’m often back to work.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Reverse engineer: When we have a big idea, we try to establish a clarity of vision in regards to the end state. Once we get a really clear, compelling vision of the future, we just reverse engineer it all the way to today.

With this approach, accomplishing a vision is simply a matter of excellence in execution and constant adaptation as things evolve.

I really like this quote from a former army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey: “The most successful leaders are bifocal: One eye is on the present and details of execution; one eye is on the future and our strategy.”

Those two things must be held in proper tension. By focusing on your vision and knowing where you’re going, you know what you should be working on today. By executing in the present with excellence, you advance toward your vision more efficiently. This is the secret to bringing big ideas to life.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The blurring of the lines between the private and social sectors. Best practices from the business world are now being applied to solve the world’s most pressing social problems. The social sector is realizing that good intentions are not enough; we must be driven by rigorous data and harness the power of business for true social impact.

In the private sector, a single bottom line is no longer enough. The market is starting to expect multiple bottom lines, and if businesses fail to adapt to this emerging reality, they’re going to die.

The trend I’m most excited about is the baking of social impact into the core of a business model. It’s not a mentality of “generating profits so we can give away money and do good”; it’s the idea that social impact is so ingrained in the DNA of a company that the scale and profitability of the core business inherently produces good.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Weekly reviews: Every Sunday evening, I review my weekly schedule, my overarching life goals and priorities, my organization’s mission and values statements, and my current task list.

This keeps me focused on the right things and makes me more productive. Productivity is not a matter of simply doing things efficiently; it’s a matter of doing the right things.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

During college, I spent one summer painting houses. The work itself was hard, but I enjoyed it. What left something to be desired was the management.

My supervisor lacked leadership acumen, did not treat his team well, and certainly didn’t lead from the front. In this job, I learned how important it is to build culture within a company. I learned that if you focus on task output at the expense of people, your long-term output will suffer.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would take better care of myself! I love to work out, but I let work consume everything, and I didn’t make time to eat healthy and go to the gym. It was an unsustainable pace.

I believe that when my body is healthy and functioning optimally, it translates to increased work performance.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I never stop learning; our entire organization never stops learning. We’ll never think we have it all figured out. We’re always learning more about the region where we work; our model, business, and leadership; and what works (and doesn’t work) in economic and community development.

The thing we do over and over again is iterate: prototype, fast fail, and prototype again. A rapidly changing, highly agile and flexible organization is an effective one in an increasingly complex world.

The thing I would recommend everyone else do is embrace change and never get comfortable. The second you get comfortable in your way of doing business is the second you set yourself up to be put out of business.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Finding and investing in great talent — one entrepreneur can only do so much. The output of one person doesn’t scale. What’s required for the growth of our business and its impact is a great team.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early on, I failed to understand the role of a board of directors and did not engage ours effectively. I viewed my board as more of a legal obligation than an important part of the team that would be essential to our success. I set very poor expectations for the board, and I did not put the members in a position where they could use their time and talents for the furtherance of the mission.

Most of this was naïveté in the early days, as I did not have experience with running a business or nonprofit organization. As I learned more, did some reading, and sought mentorship, I quickly overhauled our board. We brought in new talent, reset expectations, and established new rhythms. Immediately, I started to value our board members as centrally important to the mission.

I don’t have board relations 100 percent figured out yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I want to solve the food desert problem in our country. More than 23 million people, mostly in low-income areas, don’t have access to a supermarket.

My idea is to create digital storefronts in every neighborhood faced with the food desert problem. The walls in these stores look like the shelves of an actual grocery store, but they’re just filled with pictures of the items. Underneath each picture is a UPC code you scan with an app on your phone (or a scanner); you can then schedule a specific delivery date and time.

Think along the lines of a virtual Trader Joe’s-style store with Redbox functionality, Apple Store service and aesthetics, and Domino’s Pizza delivery/distribution capabilities.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

I literally just paid the monthly tuition at my son’s primary school, which is about $100. I love his school and feel that it’s an environment where he flourishes. Investing in my kids’ growth, development, and character (not just with money, but also with my time) is by far the best investment I could possibly make.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Asana for project and task management. It’s a wonderful platform for digital co-working, especially for a geographically disparate team.

Dropbox for file storage/archiving.

Google Docs and Sheets for online collaboration and task output.

Google Hangouts for online video meetings and collaboration.

Rype language-learning software. It’s a great way for our team to develop its language skills through live conversation with native speakers over Skype. It’s a Netflix-style on-demand subscription model, so it’s really great for busy professionals.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read?

Team of Teams” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal is an amazing book that challenges the status quo in regards to how we think about organizational design. For any company that wants to still be relevant two decades from now, I think this book is a must-read. You’ll understand how to be faster, flatter, and more flexible in a rapidly changing world.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

My father — I’m fortunate to have an amazing dad who has been my biggest supporter since the day I was born, shaping me into the person I am today. He’s a great leader and an amazing entrepreneur who also loves his family deeply.

One day when I was a boy, I remember we were driving down the highway, and my dad spotted a car on the side of the road that was on fire. Without hesitation, he pulled over, sprinted to the vehicle, and pulled people out of the car. I feel like he did stuff like this all the time, and I hope I’m setting the same kind of example for my two sons.

I talk about having “a bias for action” quite frequently — a particular turn of phrase that I picked up in the military. But I didn’t learn this from a book; I learned it from a lifetime of watching my dad.


Daniel Myatt on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/myattdaniel