Mehdi Kajbaf, Co-Founder of Matboard and More, Discusses Favorite Books and Human Nature
Today’s book-talk is with Mehdi Kajbaf, the co-founder of Matboard and More.
Mehdi has a background in Electrical Engineering and is an MBA grad. Born in Iran, raised in Toronto, he traded rush hour traffic for website traffic, designing a lifestyle that gives him freedom to live his life however he wants and the possibility to travel the world on his terms.
The comparison with traffic is not by accident: Mehdi had a job creating traffic control products. One year in, he realized he was feeling trapped and, instead of continuing down the path of an employeed engineer, he decided to make some changes. Mehdi quit his job, spent one month in Peru (including a Machu Picchu hike), completed his MBA, and launched Matboard and More.
The company is a venture with his brother and brother-in-law, with whom he divided the work: Mehdi is responsible for marketing, the passion for picture framing comes from his brother-in-law, and the technical skills belong to his brother.
Matboard and More is on a mission to make the world more beautiful, one piece of art at a time, by bringing sophistication to the old-school framing industry. They are the #1 online retailer of custom matting and framing in the USA, enabling you to personalize them in any size, color, quantity, and do it all online. Based in Atlanta, they have been providing pre-cut matboard and custom framing services since 2012.
I hope that our book-talk with Mehdi will inspire you. You’ll find out what books helped him step back and look at his startup from a fresh perspective, but he also discussed about human nature and how the systems we’ve created are holding us back.
What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.
My favorite business book is a little bit tough to select because if I base it on the most influential book I would have to say 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, but if I have to say the most unique and compelling I would say Seeing Systems, by Barry Oshry. I’m going to stick with Seeing Systems though because I think it’s probably new for most people and it takes a really different approach to business.
My education background is in Organizational Behavior (MBA) and Electrical Engineering. I’ve always been fascinated by people and cultures, but through the lens of logic and with an analytical approach. Organizational Behavior is about a lot of the soft stuff that’s difficult to quantity but incredibly important, such as teamwork, interpersonal skills, engagement, workplace cultures etc. Engineering is more focused on systems and is quantitative in nature.
Seeing Systems takes a thoroughly analytical and rational approach to human systems and comes up with a model that can be used to understand all organizational systems. That’s incredibly powerful and I had not seen that approach before. Barry Oshry describes the patterns that repeat themselves in every business or large group, and helps us understand how to overcome what he calls System Blindness.
This approach helped me step back and look at Matboard and More (my start up) in a new way. Instead of seeing issues between executives, middle management and frontline employees as personal issues I saw them as systemic ones. This fresh perspective has been amazingly effective!
It’s also really uniquely written with poems, short stories and huge fonts in an almost comic like format.
Give it a chance and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised! You’ll never see human interactions the same way again 🙂
My favorite non business book is easy, Harry Potter. Easily the most fun I have ever had reading.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?
Reading Freedom Inc. by Isaac Getz helped me understand more deeply what I always intuitively understood about business and people. The book opens up with a discussion on values, and how we view individuals. Essentially it boils down to, are humans innately motivated to do good work and be productive, or are they lazy and will take advantage of situations to their own selfish interests?
I have a huge problem with bureaucracy, rules and burdensome policies that are used to limit and control people. I realized after reading this book it’s because the majority of our institutions in Western society are based on that basic premise, that given freedom, humans will take advantage of each other to their own selfish goals.
Putting it in a business context, it’s the idea that if you let people work from home they will be less productive on company time. That if you don’t control the supply of pens, somebody will steal them all. That if you let people make their own schedules, everyone will sleep in and work less.
We pretty much assume the worst, and then plan around that. It’s so backwards and self defeating. Freedom Inc. provides countless examples of organizations where by putting in trust systems with the supporting tools and management, you can unleash the full potential of your workforce.
I’ve always believed people were innately good and hard working and it’s the systems we’ve created which hold us back. Freedom Inc. helped me to better support that view and also helped me understand that unfortunately, most organizations don’t share that same core belief.
What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)
I think I answered a lot of this in the previous question with Freedom Inc. in terms of how it helped shape my view on business and career. However, I can look back to when I was just starting Undergrad and I read a lot about philosophy and Buddhism. Socrates and Plato were big influencers for me. Plato’s Republic is a foundational book for me. My favorite piece of literature is still probably Socrates Apology.
It’s difficult for me to separate all the different things I was reading and learning about at that time but I think Socrates Apology is probably the best place to focus. If you aren’t familiar with Socrates, he’s considered by most to be the father of Philosophy (which means love of wisdom). He annoyed a lot of people though because he constantly challenged their world views and encouraged them to seek truth and wisdom. He questioned everything, and eventually created too much of a stir so he was sentenced to death. In the Apology he gives a powerful speech and defense which ultimately falls short.
The reason it resonated so much with me personally was that I lived my entire life as a kid thinking I was really smart, and being incredibly stubborn. Kind of like Socrates, except Socrates was stubborn for the right causes, he didn’t think he was smart, in fact his wisdom came from his ability to see his own fallibility. I learned through Socrates words that we must always seek truth and wisdom, but never allow ourselves to be so foolish as to think we are wise. The lessons for me were : challenge everything, break things down to their core so that you can understand the values and principles behind your actions and if you believe in something you should pursue it even to the point where you’d be willing to die for it.
I could discuss Socrates forever but the main idea that I took away from him was that there are REALLY big things out there and being ethical in all you do is paramount to understanding those big things and taking joy in them.
I also have to add in here, The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. Great book, and the main idea I got from that was cut the bullshit, focus on what actually matters, ie. “just because something takes a long time, doesn’t make it important” and “doing something well, doesn’t make it important”. Lots to learn from that book but that’s the jist of it I think. Be brutally honest with yourself about what matters.
What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)
I think that every career path begins with an understanding of who you are and what matters to you. In that light I will suggest some self discovery books.
Non-Business Self Discovery Books
Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
Plato’s Republic – Plato
The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?
I’ve been really bad about my reading habits lately and I think a big part of it is because I’ve switched to e-books. Reading on my phone used to be more productive but now it’s too distracting. In general I’m too distracted to get focused in on a book and so I read mostly when I’m traveling.
I read a lot everyday but fewer and fewer books and more articles and papers online. It’s actually terrible because I get a lot of knowledge but no depth. Books are the best medium for deeply digging into a topic and I have to do better to get into it again.
How do you make time for reading?
Honestly, I haven’t been doing a great job of it. I read the most when I travel though. On a plane, in a hotel room where I have nothing else to do. At home, the only way I can make time for reading is to shut off every single electronic device which unfortunately rarely happens.
Recently though, one things that’s helped motivate me again is the idea of building up my blog again and doing book reviews. I feel that when I have a higher purpose to the reading, such as sharing it with others it motivates me to find time to read.
Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?
I’m currently reading two books, The Power of Habit and The Runaway Species.
The Power of Habit is reminding of how many great habits I’ve slowly been letting go as my life gets busier and busier. It’s important to always do a self check and see if your day to day behaviors are setting you up for success.
The Runaway Species is about creativity and I was hoping it would help give me a spark but so far it’s actually pretty dull. It’s fairly shallow but I’m only about 30% through so I’m hoping it picks up!
Links where you can follow Mehdi Kajbaf or find out more about his projects:
Books mentioned by Mehdi Kajbaf in this interview: