Spotivity founder Montana Butsch is what Malcolm Gladwell would call a “connector” –– someone who’s a natural hub between people of different worlds and affects change by bringing his network together.
Chicago-born Montana calls himself a “chameleon,” because he has been blending in for most of his life.
He grew up in a loft apartment not far from the Cabrini-Green housing projects, but he attended a private prep school, Loyola Academy, in Wilmette.
“My ability to build networks began with a chance decision I made when I was 14 –– to take up rowing,” he says. “Loyola Academy had the only crew team in the state. I was a failed basketball and football player. But I was athletic and I wanted somewhere to belong. I didn’t know where it would lead.”
Rowing opened up a world of opportunity for Montana. He was recruited to the crew team at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he attended Oxford, where he rowed for its legendary boat club. When he returned home in the mid-2000s, he launched Chicago Training Center, a not-for-profit that introduces the sport of rowing to underserved youth.
That background helps him connect with just about everyone. He’s putting network to work as he grows Spotivity, a platform that connects kids with after-school and other extracurricular opportunities in their communities, based on their location, interests and aptitudes.
“I can easily go to a predominantly African-American South Side school and get a bunch of kids super jazzed to join a lily-white sport,” Montana says.
“Conversely, I can wear a suit and tie and run a board meeting at Sidley Austin and be totally comfortable. Meanwhile I can put on my pelican suit and go to an Oxford black-tie dinner. I can belong in all of those capacities. It allows me to see different ways in which I can leverage my networks.”
Read on for the highlights of our wide ranging discussion: the advantages of elite schools and how Spotivity can level the playing field, insights on how college applicants can differentiate themselves, and the intersection of capitalism and altruism.
You better (net)work
Scott: I like to think I’m a good networker, but then I hear your stories and I realize I haven’t maximized my abilities at all. You even know the Winkelvii.
Montana: They rowed at Oxford a couple of years after I did. We’re just in conversation –– they’re not investors. But the shared experience of rowing for Oxford is extremely tight.
Scott: Elite schools are like a secret society.
Montana: I didn’t know the impact of an Ivy League education growing up. My parents didn’t go through that network. So it was very much uncharted territory. Because of rowing, I was invited in through a backdoor to groups I wouldn’t have otherwise been allowed in.
The Varsity Blues scandal shines a light on the importance of access. If you don’t have it, you don’t necessarily know what you’re missing. But you know you just don’t have the same types of opportunities [that others do].
I’ve just written a 2,000-word article [on access] with Travis Dorsch, an ex-NFL player and professor at Utah State University, our educational partner. It will be coming out later this summer. It speaks to why the scandal is top of mind to so many.
Without the access I had, I wouldn’t be here doing this interview. Spotivity wouldn’t be here. Access does come with advantages.
Scott: I got into this tech world in Chicago because people assumed, he’s got two degrees from Northwestern, so he must be pretty smart. I went to Marquette for undergrad and I love it, but if I only had that degree, I don’t think anybody would take notice.
Montana: It’s validation. Brand recognition. All things being equal, better institutions provide a better platform to raise your game to a higher level –– which is why they can charge the tuition they do.
By and large, it’s a wholly American phenomenon. There are many reasons why capitalism is probably the biggest determinant of why we are where we are. I think education should be seen as a public good, because in the long term, it benefits society. But that’s not how the rules are set up. Subsequently, bad actors are at play.
I innately learned this when I was in high school. I just want to go to the best university that let me in, with the smartest population, to become as smart as possible. I wanted a challenge. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
When I was in college, I prepped myself for a life that I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just wanted to be prepared to tackle it.
And that was why after Penn, I wanted to go to Oxford. I wanted an academic challenge, as well as the challenge to row in their boat race. That’s why when I ran Chicago Training Center, I went to Kellogg’s executive program. That’s why when I was looking at business schools, I wanted to keep playing this up. That’s where Brown’s MBA program came in. I like to be in a room where I feel pressured by other people.
Scott: If I was a teenager using your app, how would it work?
Montana: When you sign up for the app, you give us your demographic details. We know your race or ethnicity and we know where you live. That’s a proxy for wealth that we use –– we don’t ask anyone how wealthy their family is.
Demographic information can help identify a pathway. But that’s tertiary stuff. As part of our partnership with Utah State, we offer a five-factor TIPI personality test. It’s a scientifically significant way to infer what someone might like to do.
User can chart their own course while learning more about themselves. It’s really empowering.
Here’s a simple way to put it. Not all sports are equal, but sport is a singular category. If you’re singular badminton player, you might like to do things on your own. Versus, if you want to join the football team, which has 45 other people. You’re both playing a sport, but different personality traits might lend themselves to one or the other. And so the TIPI, which we call the personal insight tool, allows us to do that.
It allows us to layer in not only demographics and background, but interests. We look at all the available opportunities that are out there. A soccer program is listed as X. A squash program is Y. A tutoring program is B. Ultimately the results lend themselves to a recommendation carousel.
There have been attempts to address “out-of-school” opportunities. But nobody’s approached it with a self-sustainable, revenue-generating model that allows it to exist on its own merit. So that’s where I come in.
At its heart, it’s a play on a utility. We propose activities based on where you’re located. You may have never even heard of a sport, but you might want to check it out.
Scott: So they’re getting the opportunity to get initial exposure to something that they would’ve never thought of in the first place.
Montana: Or might not even know exists. Later on, we plan to examine things like the admission rates for minority students, or the number of athletic scholarships. What’s the likelihood of getting placement based on X, Y and Z credentials? Those are added layers that ultimately will allow us to roll out a program, effectively a bespoke algorithm, that we own. That’s our proprietary information.
A user will say, I’m 13. This is what I like to do. This is my background. And this is my personality. I could be a rocket scientist, could be a tenor in a symphony. Could be a finance guy. Who knows?
We’ll be able to then internally help chart for them, along with what’s available in their area, a pathway to get there that maximizes their output.
For those that are underserved, Spotivity might create a way that allows them to commoditize themselves, which I discussed in my TED talk. That could be a really good thing. For example, there aren’t many rowers of color in Division I sports.
But if a 6-foot-3 African-American guy in Inglewood with acceptable grades who happened to row when I was a student, all things being equal, Harvard would pick him over me.
If that kid wants to be a doctor, and hasn’t yet found rowing, it would pop up on Spotivity. All of a sudden he’s on another pathway.
Conversely, wealthy kids have an issue of differentiation. Say we’re peers who go to the same school, take the same classes. Our parents are six figure plus earners. We could do any after-school activity we like. At the end of the day, schools will look at us as if we’re the same person. I need to do something to show school I’m different, though.
Spotivity can provide a solution to the differentiation problem for wealthy kids and everyone else too. It’s effectively every kid’s genie in their pocket.
Play the long game
Scott: Talk more about the business plan.
Montana: This thing has a very long tail. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme for us and the investors. But it’s extraordinarily impactful. Ask me again in 10 years –– it should be a pretty big deal. Millions of kids maximizing their respective potential.
We envision an easy relationship with companies like Goldman Sachs, which want to recruit more minorities into summer internship programs. Spotivity will know who fits those demographics, are interested in STEM and are actively engaged. Companies will effectively buy lists from us. And we will give those kids access to employers.
We’re walking a tightrope. We want to be a clear C-Corp generating meaningful revenue. But we also need to run, and be seen as, a B-Corp doing a declarative good. If we effectively merge the two, we’re an extraordinarily powerful company.
Scott: I liken it to goal versus mission. The goal is altruistic: give everyone the best opportunity possible and tools they didn’t have access to in the past. But the mission is to make money and run a strong business that’s accumulating a lot of data.
Montana: Exactly. And in a responsible way.
Hustle and grow
Scott: What were the lessons you learned while building your nonprofit?
Montana: There are obviously clear differences, but a lot of similarities, between the two ventures. Slightly different language, same process. Different numbers in different places.
One thing business school didn’t teach me is the sheer importance of the hustle. At the Founder Institute –– I’ll graduate from it this summer –– that idea is ever-present.
Asks are slightly different now. I’m not pulling on investors’ heartstrings. They understand the good that Spotivity does, but they need a return. And they need to be okay with the long tail.
At Chicago Training Center, getting a kid a college scholarship was the return. Everyone was super stoked. Now the returns are active users and revenues. It’s a different kind of pressure.
Scott: It’s about installing a process, monitoring it and grinding on it. Once you’ve figured it out, you can spin it up faster, and then all the other stuff works itself out.
Montana: That’s what we’re doing now. We signed with a company that runs our digital marketing. We started SEO two months ago and we did our first campaign back in May. We’re very much in a learning stage. Those learnings will help us understand the variables –– the levers that make the most sense to pull.
I’m a solo entrepreneur. It’s tough and people think it’s impressive, but they also fail to realize that my tech “partners” are remote teams of hundreds of people. I’ve also worked with eight different universities on engagement. And I have a bunch of advisors. As a founder, I need to focus on the macro, and make sure those teams are tethered together.
Ultimately we need funding to hire high-level staff that can run departments. As an individual I can only generate so much. I need other people in the room who think differently but have the same north star.