“Connecting the unconnected” by Saelen Ghose

Matthew Growney wants to connect the unconnected. He sees an opportunity for analog things, atoms, to benefit from internet bits, and he’s already putting his ideas into practice with his line of picture frames and tablets.

I met Matthew in his West Concord office. The modest exterior of his building belies a tasteful and smart interior, incorporating an open floor plan, where I imagine he meets with his team to discuss his company’s creative vision and direction. Matthew’s own dressed down exterior seems to be a carbon copy of his building. With a quiet smile, short spiky hair, fleece jacket, and jeans—unassuming as an ensemble—I would never pick him out from the line at the local coffee shop, as the founder of both an investment company and a successful start up. But that’s exactly how he likes it. It’s all about being real for him.

Real People. Real time. Real simple. Real ideas.

Real People. His mind may be in The Cloud, but he runs his business the old fashioned way: by finding out what people want, and then designing products that deliver.

Growney is the founder and CEO of Isabella Products(www.isabellaproducts.com), and was named one of the “40 under 40” by the Boston business journal for his professional achievements. That’s all well and good, but for Growney, running a successful business is less about awards and all about connecting with people.

Before he created Vizit, the picture frame that features real time two-way photo sharing between friends and family, he booked the ballroom at the Ritz Carlton in Boston and wined and dined 120 moms ages 35-65, mined from salons, mommy groups, and fitness clubs. “We wanted to ask women, specifically mothers, since they are the photo keeper, how they use, touch, and share photos,” says Growney. “We wanted to know what their biggest complaint about taking photos on their phone was. We asked them what they like, and what don’t they like.” Right there. Real interactions with people, instead of scouring social networks trying to determine analytics based on mindless drivel limited to 140 characters. And then he moved forward with his plans.

For me personally, the Real time aspect of the Vizit is appealing. I can imagine myself on the sidelines at one of my kids’ games snapping pictures on my mobile phone. In an instant I send my pictures up to Growney’s mobile network cloud Vizit Me, and then in another instant they magically appear on my mother’s Vizit picture frame in California, where she can experience the thrill of the game along with me. If she wants to she can reply to me right from her frame, or forward the pictures on to anyone who is part of the Vizit network. Growney uses 3-G instead of WiFi because it’s reliable and he runs a business on real time. Connecting the unconnected.

As Growney begins to tell me about the Mini, the device that magically catapults any existing digital picture frame into a real time sharing tour de force, an actual train rattles by his office. “That’s one of the downsides,” he says. But I like the contrast. He’s running a business that looks for ways to serve consumers, and trains have been doing that for over a century. And what’s more predictable than a train? In the little known, but sweet children’s book, “Pianna,” Anna the main character says, “Six trains a day were as good as a clock back then.” And that sentiment persists today right in Growney’s office. No need to check his watch, or daily planner, when he’s got trains providing predictability, and keeping him on task. I ponder if Growney’s considered the irony that the trains are equipped with WiFi instead of 3G, but decide not to bring it up. Otherwise I’ll get his wheels spinning, and I still have some questions for him to answer.

Real simple. Matthew’s house is being painted today. The funny thing is he didn’t know it until this morning. I chuckle about this. How can someone so aware of his surroundings, and so on top of his business, not know his house may be a new color when he arrives home from work that day?

“My wife runs the ship at home,” he says. “She’s got her crew and I’ve got mine.” Still, when I ask him what color his house will be, he says “I assume white.” But I can tell he’s a bit flustered not knowing for sure. “I have to check on that,” he says. I don’t think the ramifications of some radical new color adhering to his clapboards, or even scarier, the brick façade that he and his wife have debated about painting, dawned on him until that very moment.

Before Matthew founded Isabella Products, the consumer technology company that launched the Vizit line, he ran Motorola Ventures for ten years following in his father’s footsteps. However, his father’s prolonged absences—traveling around the world to explore business opportunities—got Matthew thinking about ways to create a better balance with his own life.

Born from this thinking was Rudyard Partners(www.rudyardpartners.com), the next generation family run investment firm that focuses on early stage consumer technology opportunities in the global marketplace. Matthew’s office is a mile from his house, intentionally. He wants to be a strong and consistent presence in his three kids’ lives, and being close by affords him the luxury of running a business and still being able to see his family. He is happy about the arrangement, another connection to a simpler time when people worked where they lived, and came home for dinner and bedtime stories. Growney is intent on remaining connected and he seems to be staying the course.

Real Ideas. Matthew’s excited about the Fable, a tablet specifically designed for kids, and another attractive piece of his product line. “Imagine a father,” he says, “being able to send content about his job to a classroom full of students, all using Fable tablets. All the kids can immediately receive the information and then discuss, and interact with it. Or imagine a child studying a picture from a National Geographic let’s say, and this child takes one of the photos from the magazine and draws herself into the picture and sends it off to her mother or father at work. All in real time.” And I thought Pong was pretty cool. Clearly I grew up in the wrong century.

Growney talks of connecting other things with the network. Binoculars. Toys. Jewelry. The opportunities are only growing. Binoculars? I say. How? He smiles. “Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to post the image of the falcon you’re viewing right from your binoculars while you lie in a wet field? You could post the image and notes to your own private site, or a wildlife site, or your own cloud. You wouldn’t have to worry about film or downloading this or that. You already have optics, magnification, and resolution.”

So what’s next I ask him, knowing full well that this isn’t the last stop on Growney’s entrepreneurial train.

Sure enough he surprises me. He and his wife plan on starting a fashion label in the next few years. He says it will be cutthroat and competitive but they are up for the challenge. I’m sure his kids will also be involved somehow, maybe as design consultants or models. I ask him if he will he be offering a shoe line as well, that somehow connects the unconnected. He smiles and says, “That’s a bit too far fetched even for me.” I find that hard to believe. Of course I’m still wondering about the color of his house and how it will turn out.

Twitter: @saelenghose   @iamgrowney