Sabbatical Q&A with the Phoenix Business Journal

The acquisition of Bulbstorm and my graduation from Tempe Leadership this spring freed me to spend the summer on sabbatical. Before I left Arizona on a five-month road trip around the West, I answered five questions about my plans for the Phoenix Business Journal. Here’s the interview:

Bulbstorm’s former marketing director takes technology on tour
View article on here.

Matt Simpson in the Phoenix Business JournalMatt Simpson, the former marketing director with social media software startup Bulbstorm, left this week for a six-month, meandering trip with no set itinerary and no firm end date. Simpson, 34, of Tempe, will be blogging his adventures at

Where are you going?
I’m driving north up the Pacific Coast to Seattle and returning south through the Rocky Mountains. I should be back sometime around October. From October to April, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than my home state of Arizona.

Why are you going?
I was Marketing Director with Bulbstorm as we grew from six employees to more than two dozen en route to acquisition. It was quite a ride! When Bulbstorm was acquired by Detroit’s ePrize in March, I finally had the free time and excess funds to take a break and do something crazy. Six months on the road seemed a great opportunity to see the country and recharge my batteries before resuming my career.

What are your plans for the trip?
Nothing is set in stone, but I plan to hit as many cultural attractions and natural wonders as possible. One day I may be in an art museum in San Francisco. The next I may be camping at Yosemite National Park. From a business perspective, I’m hoping to explore the West Coast’s other prominent startup communities and bring what I learn back home.

What are your plans when you return?
My only firm plan right now is to not plan. That said, I’m mindful of the fact that I’ll eventually be eager for a new challenge. To that end, I’ve been engaging with the Phoenix startup community to ensure I’m kept abreast of opportunities. And I’ve been keeping my tools sharp by contracting with Ubiquity PR, a Phoenix firm that works with high-growth B2B technology companies across the West.

How will technology play a part in your trip?
In addition to camping and staying with family and friends, I plan to book accommodations through Airbnb and Couchsurfing. I’ve hosted travelers through both services and really enjoyed the experience. If you know of a couch I can crash, please let me know!

Also, I’m a communicator at heart, so I’m always eager to share my adventures with others. I’ve built a travel blog on WordPress and I’ll be keeping friends and colleagues up to date through Twitter and Facebook posts and an email newsletter. The challenge for me will be unplugging. Fortunately, Yosemite and Yellowstone don’t have wi-fi … yet!

3 more things I loved about Tempe Leadership

The 28th class of Tempe Leadership graduates today. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s the best class ever, but I may be biased as a member of Class XXVIII.

Unfamiliar with Tempe Leadership? Every year, 20 Tempeans are selected to develop their leadership skills, explore the inner workings of the city, and complete a community service project. I already posted three things I loved about Tempe Leadership’s first half. Here are three things I loved about the second half:

Tempe Leadership sign

The Threadz 4 Success plaque bears the signatures of my 20 awesome classmates.

Touring the water shed … on a helicopter!

If you have an inquisitive mind, Tempe Leadership is one unique experience after another. In the second half of the program, I toured Tempe’s historic neighborhoods, explored traditional and holistic healthcare at St. Luke’s Hospital and Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, and shadowed Cold Stone Creamery SVP of Marketing Kate Unger during a commercial shoot.

But the highlight was a tour of the Valley’s water shed … aboard SRP’s helicopter! On a two-hour flight, we followed the Verde River  north to Bartlett and Horseshoe lakes then returned south along the Salt River to pass over Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon, and Saguaro lakes. Quite a different vantage point from fishing and playing in the lakes as a kid.

Leading by following.

It’s not easy for me to not be central to things. It’s part of being an Enneagram 8. It’s not that I want to be the star. I just want to be relied upon. Building a marketing plan, running a meeting, and organizing the big picture all play to my strengths. Other things definitely do not.

I had plenty of opportunities to not be central during the final stages of our class project Threadz 4 Success, a retail store for Tempe teens in need of clothing, school supplies, or personal care products. I know nothing about designing a retail store. But I can pick up a paintbrush or haul trash bags full of used clothes from a community drive.

Watching 20 strangers form a team and make a difference.

Speaking of the project, every class must identify a community need, raise funds ($12,000 in our case), and do the actual work … all in nine months and with virtually no instructions. As I said near the beginning, “They told 20 strangers to go build something without providing guidance on what to build or how to build it. So, what are those 20 strangers doing? Building. It’s epic y’all.”

And it was epic! Threadz has already hosted two dozen JAG (Jobs for Arizona Graduates) students who needed clothing for job interviews. Some of these kids live in shelters or bounce from one relative’s couch to another. All found something they could wear in their interviews. And, in the coming years, many more will find the clothing they need to survive high school and contribute to our community.

Now that’s epic, y’all.

Are you interested in joining Tempe Leadership next year? I’m happy to chat about my experience far over coffee. Email me!

Tempe Leadership ribbon cutting

Tempe mayor Mark Mitchell cuts the ribbon at Threadz 4 Success.

I caught my limit aboard the good ship Bulbstorm

“When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy’s den and see a picture of him standing next to 14 trout? No, he’s holding a 3,000-pound marlin.” ~ The Social Network

Bulbman: Saving startups in a single bound.When I joined Bulbstorm in October 2009, I thought it was a short-term gig. I didn’t think I’d be there for over three years. And I certainly didn’t think I’d see the company acquired.

I was wrong on both accounts. Bulbstorm has been acquired by ePrize, itself a recent addition to private equity firm Catterton Partners’ $2.5 billion empire. For me, the fishing trip is over. I think we hauled in a nice catch. I’m ready to sail new waters.

I like to think I played a key leadership role as Bulbstorm grew from six employees to over two dozen and grabbed the attention of MarketingProfs, MarketingSherpa, Mashable, PR Week, Social Media Examiner, and more. (See my resume for a formal overview of my contributions.)

It was a whirlwind. At times, it was hard to keep up. I sat in 10 different desks in three different buildings. Although we weren’t really into titles (the sign on my office door read “social media douchebag”), I did cycle between four different email signatures.

I’m most proud of my contribution to the predictability and scalability of the business side of our company. At our holiday party in 2011, I received the Velcro Award for “leveraging a prickly side and a soft side to hold things together.” I was immensely proud.

I can’t reflect on my time at Bulbstorm without acknowledging my CEO Bart Steiner’s tremendous impact on my professional growth. He’s the most strategic, visionary, and practically brilliant person I’ve ever met. Serving at his side for 3 years was like earning a PHD in business.

For most of the last 3+ years, I’ve bled Bulbstorm orange. I wore it too. I rocked an orange hoodie at the office. I presented in an orange suit and faux alligator shoes. I served beers at BOLO in a cape, rollerblades, and knee-high orange socks.

Alas, it’s time to find a new color. I’m grateful that I bled orange long enough to haul in our catch. Bulbstorm may not have been a 3,000-pound marlin. But it was enough trout to fuel my next voyage.

The bulbstorm team

3 dos and 2 don’ts for settling the digital marketing frontier

Seth Bullock doesn't have your back on the digital marketing frontier.

Seth Bullock doesn’t have your back on the digital marketing frontier.

I previously posted about the importance of a dedicated R&D budget for digital marketing innovation. Of course, a budget is useless if it’s squandered. And in digital marketing, there are plenty of opportunities to burn cash.

Digital marketing is an unsettled frontier, populated by self-proclaimed gurus, snake oil salesmen, and iffy startups. You can strike it rich in the Wild West, but you must remember that no one’s looking out for you but you.

Here are a few tips for thriving on the digital marketing frontier.

    • Do follow the top companies. There are innovative companies doing innovative things right now. Don’t wait for them to speak at the next digital marketing conference. Learn from the best today by benchmarking leaders like Intel, HBO, and American Express. (Be sure to follow your competitors too.)


    • Don’t just read Mashable. Mashable is the popcorn flick of tech journalism. Hey, even a chump like me can get covered. Dig deeper, and make sure your agency digs deeper too. I prefer Altimeter Group, the Inside Network, All Things D, and boring non-sponsored whitepapers.


    • Do go beyond the logos on a startup’s website. It’s easy for a startup to slap a Fortune 500 logo on a PowerPoint slide. Did the client actually use the tech, or was it simply a short consulting gig? Ask vendors how deeply engaged they were with clients. And ask for references.


    • Don’t just look at install base. Just because an app gets installed doesn’t mean it gets used. How many free apps do you have lingering away in dark corners of your iPhone? Demand to see monthly active user figures before investing in startup platforms.


  • Do ask how previous clients tracked ROI. Shady entrepreneurs pay their bills thanks to suckers who don’t ask about measurement. You may not be able to track all the way to a purchase. Just be sure to measure something. If a startup has no means of measurement, walk away.

How do you stay safe on the unsettled frontier of digital marketing? Let me know in the comments!

3 things I’ve loved about Tempe Leadership so far

The holidays marked the halfway point of my nine-month Tempe Leadership program. It’s been an amazing experience!

Unfamiliar with Tempe Leadership? Every year, 20 Tempeans are selected to develop their leadership skills, explore the inner workings of the city, and complete a community service project. As you’ll see in the list below, the experience is quite varied.

Here are three things I’ve loved about Tempe Leadership so far:

Matt Simpson's Tempe Leadership badge1. Watching the team form and perform.

A key component of the program is the class project. Twenty strangers must identify a community need, pitch the board, raise funds ($10,000 in our case), and do the actual work … all in nine months. That means forming, storming, norming, and performing fast.

Every class approaches this challenge differently. We split into four teams (renovations, fundraising, partnerships, and marketing), each of which defines and executes its own deliverables. Teams coordinate with one another through an executive committee. By dividing in this way, we each contribute from an area of strength while minimizing the size of meetings and email threads.

Learn about our class project Threads 4 Success.

2. Learning how other leaders lead.

Although I’m on the marketing team, I get to attend other teams’ meetings. It’s a great learning experience in two ways. First, as a fly on the wall, I quietly observe others’ personal styles for contributing, interacting, and leading. Those styles are as varied as our occupations, which range from entrepreneurs to engineers to police lieutenants.

Second, I’ve been exposed to new skills. For example, our fundraiser (a holiday gift auction) was a huge undertaking. We raised over $7,000 in one night! I know little to nothing about putting on an event, so it was great to watch the fundraising team lock down all the details.

Oh, and don’t get me started on observing and interacting with civic leaders like city manager Charlie Meyer, interim fire chief Greg Ruiz, and more. That’d be a whole other blog post!

3. Going hands-on with emergency responders.

What about the fun stuff? Tempe Leadership gives you a taste of some of the city’s coolest jobs. I rode shotgun with a police officer on a busy Friday night, threw on firefighter gear and “rushed” up 60+ feet of stairs, and got behind-the-scenes tours of ASU, city government, and arts facilities.

I even let a 100-pound German shepherd take a bite out of crime by chomping down on my arm. It was a scary sight even with a protective sleeve on. I sprained two ribs and landed in physical therapy for two months, but it was totally worth it!

Don’t forget to check out 3 things I loved about Tempe Leadership’s second half. Wanna join Tempe Leadership? Let’s chat over coffee. Email me!