Allan Matheson is the founder of Golden Pear Capital, which provides research, technical capability, and capital to accelerate the adoption of blockchain technology. He was formerly the CEO of Blue Umbrella, a leading provider of due diligence research and innovative third-party compliance technologies.
I was born in Toronto and moved to Calgary when I was three. I have happy memories growing up on our land there. When I was 12, my parents moved to Vancouver, where I went to public high school and then The University of British Columbia.
My parents were both exceedingly high achievers in their own way. My mom was a popular teacher, and my dad was a pediatrician as well as a mathematician and an early computer programmer. They had high expectations of me but never pushed me in any particular direction, only to work hard and find something that stimulated me. They fed my desire to learn and a love of logic while also teaching me to lead with empathy and consideration. Now that I’m a parent of three boys myself, I really understand what fantastic parents they were.
Life was pretty insulated. We lived in a suburban area of Vancouver and never traveled abroad. I was bored at high school because it wasn’t stimulating enough.
University was different. I loved a course called Arts One I took in the first year, where we read a classic work like Democracy in America or The Odyssey and then defended our essay in a discussion with the professor. I realized I adored the process of forming logical arguments and defending them publicly.
I saw then that my original plan of majoring in business studies wasn’t going to be stimulating enough for me, so I remained in the arts and majored in international relations, a multidisciplinary program. I had to pick a second language to study and chose Chinese. This was in the mid-'90s before studying Mandarin was popular among non-ethnic Chinese. I remember arriving for enrolment and seeing a line of around 200 other students, nearly all of them ethnic Chinese. The person handling the signups was so impressed that I wanted to enroll that she insisted that I cut the line.
The day after my last final exam, I left Canada with a backpack and didn’t return full-time for 18 years. I wanted to explore and operate on new frontiers - a drive that’s never left me and that has informed my entire career.
After a stop-off at the World Cup in France, I decided to fly to China to study at a language school in Beijing. It turned out to be very close to Tsinghua University. One day, on a whim, I walked over there and asked to enroll in its prestigious business school in order to immerse myself in Mandarin. I was somehow able to charm my way in and spent a fascinating term there.
I was drawn to Hong Kong for its thriving business scene. There, I successfully bugged the executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to hire me for the vacant Membership Manager. Six months later, she left, and I stepped up. At 23 years old, I found myself leading one of the most prominent Canadian chambers of commerce in the world, rubbing shoulders with vastly more experienced global executives. You grow up fast.
I learned how important leadership is. Even among seasoned executives and decision-makers, discussions would get bogged down in committees. I quickly realized that someone - even a 23-year-old – needed to articulate solutions, build consensus and execute on them.
People might say I’m decisive to a fault. I don’t like partnerships much. If it’s not me who's leading the vision and executing the strategy, I have a problem. A Canadian recruiter once told me I was a force but, sadly, “unhireable.” Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I think that balanced with empathy and humility, it becomes tremendously powerful.
After three years, I was approached to run a subsidiary of a listed credit-reporting company. I took the role because it sounded intriguing, and I really wanted to build a business. I soon discovered that the company had a terrible market, so I pivoted to a completely different industry with similar backend processes, pre-employment screening.
This was a time when Western firms were dramatically expanding their operations in Asia. Yet, there were hardly any services in the region to provide the systematic screening of employees that their global policies required. It was an exciting time to be in business in the region, and keeping a good sense of humor was paramount. I remember once having to deliver some crucial office supplies to Mainland China by boat. It was a rough crossing, and the air was soon filled with the sound of people moaning and vomiting, and it looked like a scene from Monty Python. It was better to laugh than join the crowd.
We ended up doubling the size of the company through a merger and kept growing before selling it at a very opportune time - in early 2008 on the eve of the global financial crisis.
My timing’s always been good like that, and perhaps it’s not just luck. When you’ve spent enough time operating on frontiers, you start to get a real feel for periods of both irrational exuberance and irrational depression.
I founded Blue Umbrella in 2009 to tap into the growing demand for third-party due diligence from Western firms operating in Asia. Right out of the gates, we had three big Wall Street banks as clients, and we built a fantastic team to deliver, many of whom remained with me until we sold. We hit a major crisis in 2014 when one of those banks, in a very devious way, canceled its contract without notice. It was a tough time that marked a turning point in the way I thought about business. It made me realize that a strategy of just selling more of the same product was doomed to failure or, at best, mediocrity. Businesses need a strategic vision and to develop the capabilities and resources to execute on it. We developed a three-year plan, which backtracked to one-year plans and quarterly goals, and started reporting management metrics on a weekly basis. A very influential book for me at this time was “Traction - Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman. It is an amazing operating system for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Blue Umbrella turned into my biggest business success to date. We first sold its pre-employment division and then exited the main company for three times that value in 2021.
I had long been fascinated by the rise of cryptocurrencies and blockchain and couldn’t wait to fully immerse myself in the sector with my current company. People have remarked that it is absurd to go from a solid, established business to crypto, a sector with a checkered reputation. For me, though, it’s no more the Wild West than China was in the ‘90s or the world of building compliance technology post-financial crisis. I’ve always thrived on frontiers because they require you to constantly absorb new information and recognize patterns. I believe the technology behind crypto is undeniable. It will disintermediate parts of society to the benefit of consumers, and I am excited to be a part of it.
When I consider my legacy, I don’t really think about my business accomplishments. Business, for me, has been a fun, stimulating game with welcome financial rewards. The most important legacy for me is how I raise my kids, and I hope I can provide them with solid values and a drive to work hard and find something that stimulates them. I also find mentoring young professionals rewarding as I had the benefit of learning from so many great business people.
The advice I would give to people starting out in business today is to seek out new frontiers, keep learning, and don’t necessarily listen to the loudest voice in the room. If I had listened to those voices, I would have joined a consultancy or an investment bank and missed out on a lot of great adventures.
Allan Matheson, Founder of Golden Pear Capital