Jul 23, 2021

CEO Spotlight: Matterport’s RJ Pittman on Entrepreneurship at Scale and Digitizing the Physical World (Part 1)

Marketing Lead, Qualcomm Ventures


Founded in 2011, Matterport built an enviable reputation as the gold standard in creating 3D virtual tours for residential real estate. But now its ambitions are much bigger: It wants to digitize the entire world.

RJ Pittman masterminded that pivot when he joined the 3D data capture company two and a half years ago. Pittman is a serial startup founder who went on to hold lead roles at Google, Apple, and eBay. But he always maintained a side-hustle in real estate design and construction—a hobby since childhood that let him balance his busy tech life with some physical, hands-on, creative work. He built tech companies, and he also built cutting-edge homes around the San Francisco Bay area. We recently spoke to Pittman about his career in tech, how his passion for real estate helped shape the future of Matterport, and his powerful vision for a digitally mapped physical world.

As we discuss in Part 1 of this two-part series, he has always focused on finding the white space for new ideas, in both tech and real estate. Several years ago, he realized the moment was ripe for real estate—the largest asset class in the world—to be transformed by technology. That’s when he joined Matterport and set about reinventing the company. In Part 2, we’ll dive into his journey as CEO of Matterport, how he executed his vision for the company—and the opportunities he’s seeing for revolutionizing the built world through data.

RJ Pittman, Matterport CEO

You’ve had an impressive career, including leadership positions at some of the largest tech companies. Why Matterport? What attracted you to this opportunity?

RJ Pittman: The first half of my career was very entrepreneurial. I started five companies. I love going into the white space, inventing and trying to transform industries, disrupt them, or invent a new one. Hopping over to Google was an opportunity to do the same thing but at a much larger scale. When I joined the company in 2007, it was a great big startup.

It was a once-in-a-career opportunity as a product leader to be able to shape formative products on the search side for Google—literally building from scratch stuff you use every day, like Google Finance, Google News, Google Image Search.

It was a once-in-a-career opportunity as a product leader to be able to shape formative products on the search side for Google—literally building from scratch stuff you use every day, like Google Finance, Google News, Google Image Search. By the time I moved on to the next gig, they represented about a third of Google mobile traffic, billions of searches a day.

At Apple, my role was entrepreneurial, too. It was a similar opportunity to completely reboot an important part of the business. I took over the online commerce platform for Apple, where you go to buy Apple products, and my remit was to tear it to the ground and rebuild this global platform, turn a $10 billion business into a $50 billion business. And I did that—a third of the company’s revenue—over my four-plus years there.

eBay, same thing: first chief product officer they ever had. They wanted to get back to their roots, be a product-led company, and that was a big, big remit. Rebuilding an online business at Apple, that was just one leg of the table, but e-commerce for eBay, it’s the whole table.

I loved that in all of these cases, I was given opportunities to be an entrepreneur at scale and do something transformative. And I got to do that.

So, after spending a lot of time honing my perspective around developing and accelerating very large-scale businesses and products and technologies and teams, I knew I wanted to bring that experience back to a more entrepreneurial setting. I knew I wanted to do something earlier-stage, but equally as transformative.

And you’d been involved in real estate development.

RJ Pittman: Not in any strategic way. But it helped me create balance. In the early ’90s, when I started my first company, it was at the beginning of all the internet stuff. The dawn of a new era, and it was fun. So it wasn’t a grind doing the 12 hour days or the 80 hour week. But it was a lot, and the balance of this physical world against the software world did a lot for my sanity.

I built my house South of Market in San Francisco. I bought a train track from the Southern Pacific Rail Company, 16 feet wide by 500 feet, for pennies on the dollar. I turned it into a duplex, the downstairs was where my start-up was based. I was working on a company by day, and then at night putting on a hardhat and going through the project with the builders. It ended up that it wasn’t just one house. I did a number of other projects, and I always kept all the properties that I built and just rented them out.

Did you always want to bring tech and real estate together?

RJ: I knew that I wanted my next thing to be at the intersection of the property category, the built world, and technology. The real estate industry is a market I’ve been staring at for over 20 years. Why technology had not penetrated this giant and seemingly quite important category while all these other industries were being transformed. It’s a $230 trillion asset class, the largest asset class in the world, sitting there offline and kind of dormant.

Now, the reason I was paying attention to the space is that for as long as I’ve been doing technology, I have had an equal passion for the design-build space. It goes back to being a kid. We moved around a good bit when I was growing up, and my mom took it upon herself, in every place we lived, to start small and build bigger. Every house, every move, was a project. And I gained a real appreciation for the physical space around us. I love architecture and design. And now I’ve done more than 20 design-build projects, most of them done right alongside building companies.

And that’s pretty entrepreneurial. You were being creative, finding that white space.

RJ: The part that really crossed over to my tech life was I always wanted to be innovative and break new ground in design, building, and construction techniques. Today I’m experimenting with 3D printing of buildings. You can build a house now in 10 days from a 3D printer. Prefab homes have gone next-level. The house that I’m in right now is in Napa, and it was a huge pre-fabrication experience. Thirteen modules were shipped to Napa on flatbed trucks. Then they got here, got put together, and I was walking through the house 10 hours later.

It’s extraordinary. And there was so much technology at work here, that’s when I knew that now is the time to bring these things together. I knew I was going to do something at the intersection of property and technology, and I knew I would do something at a larger scale.

I said, I’m going to start paying attention. I’m going to talk to some companies. I’m going to think about starting something. And that’s when I was introduced to Matterport.

Who influenced you most in your career?

RJ: I tend to think of myself as a little bit of a thief and a sponge, and I like to steal and absorb things from a lot of people. For me, it’s always been an accumulation and assimilation. Because there’s a lot of things you’ll take and things you’ll leave aside from so many people. That’s been my M.O. from day one, to always be a student of the trade.

I had a window of opportunity two times to soak up from the best. First, in my career. With Steve Jobs, I soaked up everything I could and discarded the things that weren’t going to work for me. Same with Tim Cook and all of these amazing people at Google.

But, then, of course, there’s my longtime chairman of the board for 40 -plus years, my dad. I’ve learned so much from him, getting truly chairman-like counsel through every startup, every move I made with the big companies. He was a career executive at Ford Motor Company, 35 years in the business. His dad, same thing. Between them, 70 plus years at Ford. My grandfather worked with Henry Ford II. And these folks were a wealth of information on arguably the most entrepreneurial company of its day. I used to think, what could my dad and grandfather possibly have to offer to the kid who busted out of Michigan, came to California in search of big dreams in Silicon Valley? It took me a couple of decades, but eventually I realized how similar they were. I borrowed and stole and copied more from the Ford Motor Company playbook than from any tech company.

Is that the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

RJ: The most important thing for me is always being a student of the trade. There’s no doubt about it. It seems paradoxical in some ways, but the further you get into your career and the bigger your leadership positions become, people sometimes shift, they either become arrogant or they’re a know-it-all, or they’re not sponging and absorbing. But I think it’s the only way that you continue to grow. So having humility, being self-aware, able to self-deprecate and create the vulnerabilities that lets everybody in, that’s crucial. To be a poet, you’re a thief. You’re always borrowing and learning from everybody.

In Part 2, we talk with Pittman about his plans for Matterport and his vision for a digitalized physical world.

* All opinions expressed in this blog are solely from RJ Pittman.