How To Clean Our Planet Through Advertising
Matteo Maccario and Rikesh Chotai are the ambitious founders behind Pluvo, an impressive startup tackling air pollution in cities. As Matteo and Rikesh conveyed their lessons learned, goals, and tips for success during this interview, we discussed everything from Pluvo’s beginnings to how startups can boost economies.
Pluvo — cleverly described as “the pollution solution that pays” — is dedicated to the development of a sleek device that can be installed anywhere in the city in order to clean the air. The device simultaneously accumulates out-of-home advertising revenue; so quite simply, they’re turning air pollution into money. As the world takes time out to respond to the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, Pluvo shows no signs of slowing down: founders Matteo and Rikesh have continued calmly to drive Pluvo forward and will roll out their innovative system shortly.
The sangfroid of Matteo and Rikesh is no doubt a result of their passion for Pluvo and its mission, as well as a sign of their experience. Rikesh, previously Senior Product and Delivery Lead at BT, and Matteo, formerly Program Manager at ABS Machining, have between them many years of skilful practise that they have adapted to complement their entrepreneurial goals. Indeed, Matteo and Rikesh, as a partnership, complement one another in strengths — together they form the bedrock of Pluvo’s success
Mary Letey: Describe the switch from management and industry to entrepreneurship.
Rikesh Chotai: I quite enjoyed management, particularly the freedom and power that comes with running teams. Industry also gives you the fallback of corporate structure such as fully functioning HR and legal and accounting services.
Matteo Maccario: But in industry you quickly learn that unless you’re the owner of the company there are limited rewards for the leaps you make. I wanted to shake things up while developing a more entrepreneurial mindset. Greater risk, greater reward.
Rikesh: Absolutely. Pluvo was too good an opportunity to turn up! It’s been such a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.
Mary: Obviously! Can I ask what skills you brought with you from industry when you made that leap into entrepreneurship?
Rikesh: I look at people who began as entrepreneurs from day one and I realise that I couldn’t have done that. The experience I’ve gained from industry is an invaluable resource for my day-to-day life as an entrepreneur.
Matteo: In industry I realised that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to influence the world. My experience there gave me the confidence to say, “I might as well try things on my own!”
Mary: Greater risk, greater reward!
Rikesh: Exactly. I was also very grateful for the opportunity to learn more about my management style because I think that’s something that is hard to learn in entrepreneurship. There are so many resources in a company for learning how to appreciate and understand people — like those workshops in the woods that teach teamwork and trust-building. I poked fun at those courses at the time, but now I recognise how much I make use of all I learned there on a day-to-day basis.
Mary: Walk me through the day-to-day collaboration between the two of you and your styles of leadership.
Matteo: I feel like my leadership style is quite contradictory: I’m detail-oriented as an individual and this seeps into my leadership. Yet I try to give employees an overall perspective to work with.
Rikesh: Yes, I second this. I hate getting caught up in the details, so Matteo is great at dragging me back down to reality.
Matteo: And Rikesh is great at pulling me up from getting lost in detail to see the bigger picture.
Mary: Sounds like a great match!
Rikesh: It really is. We’re also both incredibly driven so we work all hours of the day and night to get things done.
Mary: That comes with the territory! Have there been challenges that you’ve had to navigate as you developed Pluvo? Asked another way: what do you wish you’d known before you started?
Matteo: “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” We spent a lot of time pitching and applying for prizes that were essentially popularity contests. I remember we reapplied four times for the same prize of 5K. It becomes a meat grinder of startups where uber competitive people pitch for small pots of money. It’s just a waste of time. Work towards your goals. There’s a place for prize money, but you have to get on with the business or go for high opportunity occasions such as working with Embryo Ventures.
Rikesh: Also, you really have to trust yourself. We asked lots of people for advice and lots of people gave us advice. We’ve been researching this business idea for years only for someone who’s just heard about it in the last ten minutes to propose an entirely new direction for us to explore. There are people who have given us very good advice, like Arash [Moavenian, Director of Embryo Ventures], who’s taken the time to get to know our product. He’s built a relationship with us and provided us with great contacts and advice. Ultimately though, we realise that quite often we did indeed know best. If you know your business well and you’ve done your market research, then trust yourself. Listen to advice, but trust that you’re good at what you do.
Matteo: I like the phrase “don’t trust someone who gives advice professionally.” This is ironic coming from me — an ex-consultant! But you should give a lot more merit to the people who are actually, truly doing things. Talking to the CEOs who are actively doing the work has been infinitely more useful than any other advice we’ve received from established “consultants.”
Matteo really hit the nail on the head there. Facilitating powerful connections between entrepreneurs and thought-leaders is at the core of our activities at Embryo Ventures — its what we enjoy doing!
Mary: How do you go about carrying that confidence and experience you’ve gained into pitches? How to you craft your pitches to get the money you need?
Matteo: Pitching for investment is a bit of a nightmare. If someone doesn’t understand your business after a pitch they’re not likely to invest in you; nor would you want them to if they don’t understand your business and mission. We started pitching for investment from day one before we had a product finalised and it can grind you down.
Rikesh: Even though we probably did more pitches than we should have, we eventually learned how to pitch very well and developed an answer to every question that would arise. It was a very valuable experience. You should still learn to target your pitches, but don’t be disheartened by rejection because ultimately it means you’ll do better next time.
Matteo: Talking to VCs was also generally pointless because they’re very risk-averse and they usually weren’t a good fit for our company at this stage. But Arash [Moavenian] understood the business and the idea behind it immediately.
Mary: We like to say we’re “risk fond” at Embryo.
Matteo: I like that! Yes, you just have to keep going. You can generate luck by working consistently.
Mary: Consistency is key. That seems particularly to apply to environmental endeavours. Where does Pluvo fit into this idea of a “circular economy?”
Matteo: The first step of adding circularity to the economy is always efficient collection of the waste, which is what we’re focusing on. Currently, there’s an undesirable “ending” to the cycle — namely pollution left in the air for us to inhale or for the planet to be exposed to. That’s where Pluvo comes in.
Mary: That’s your value-add. So how do you see the role of other startups in responding to crises — climate-related and otherwise? And what is the role of government regulations?
Matteo: Governments should regulate and price the unpriced externalities, but startups should look to find ways to implement innovative solutions, as well as ways to have them fit in with the current economic system. The role of a startup is to be clever — within the boundaries of the game that the government referees.
Rikesh: And the government has a huge role to play by channelling money in the right directions: for one thing, looking at sustainability startups and environmental startups.
Matteo: Grants! We’re doing the Innovate UK grant. Grants are a hugely important way for the government to help startups. Startups think outside the box and take more risks than people usually do. But since they’re taking on this risk, the role of government is to support them, either financially or through legislation. Startups also help with employment: we’re looking to grow our team at Pluvo once lockdown is lifted. This is probably the opposite of what will be happening in a lot of businesses, which will generally be looking to downsize.
Rikesh: I also think that things are only going to improve for startups because that’s the way the culture is moving. Years ago, entrepreneurs were working on very different ideas than those we are working on today. For people like Matteo and I, who were always going to be entrepreneurs anyway, there’s a cultural shift towards exploring solutions that make the world a better place. I think this change is happening organically; however, there needs to be more money available. There will always be people who are inspired to make an impact but these people also want rewards and incentives. It’s about directing finance to the places it needs to be to make a difference.
I couldn’t have phrased that better myself! When the world emerges from this crisis united and stronger from it, we look forward to seeing Pluvo delivering cleaner air for us all to breathe.
Embryo Ventures is an innovation and venture development partner to the most exceptional entrepreneurs. We are passionate about backing ventures that are destined to make their impact on the world.
— Written by Mary Letey