Imagine being a young entrepreneur with a start-up company so successful it sells for millions of dollars in less than five years. That’s the bragging rights of University of St. Thomas alumnus Matt Michalski ’19. This summer he and two co-founders sold their 5-year-old content management company Aryeo to real estate listing giant Zillow for $35 million.
“It’s a niche industry, there are not many people trying to break into (it) … We were really the only ones operating in a fast-paced company style,’’ said Michalski, who served as Aryeo’s head of marketing, alongside co-founders CEO Branick Weix and CTO Brendan Quinlan. The three friends graduated from Saint Thomas Academy, a preparatory high school in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, before attending separate universities spread out across the country.
Michalski, Weix and Quinlan got their first taste of the real estate business when after high school graduation they started working that summer for Minneapolis-based Spacecrafting, a real estate photography company. While using drones to shoot aerial photography for the company, they discovered the existence of a whole industry consisting of photographing homes and properties for sale. Furthermore, there was only a small group of agents generating an immense amount of work, all for different companies.
The University of St. Thomas played an important role in fostering and advancing Michalski’s passion for entrepreneurship. While majoring in real estate studies, he was actively involved in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship scene, competing in every business plan or pitch competition he could. Among the top contenders of the 2015 Fowler Business Concept Challenge, he also mentored students during Freshman Innovation Immersion.
Michalski is proud of his St. Thomas roots.
‘’I think St. Thomas has done a great job, especially in the past five to seven years, of really doubling down on fostering an environment for students who want to start companies and have the entrepreneurial bug,’’ he said. The St. Thomas alumnus exemplified hard work and dedication, both at his time at St. Thomas and with his present enterprise.
Michalski and his associates did not envision their lives as photographers. To them, the software aspect was more intriguing. They saw an opportunity to create a streamlined software platform to help the companies and the photographers more seamlessly upload their work, schedule and collaborate in the production of listings.
As an active alumnus, Michalski contributes judging and reading concepts for the many business competitions at the University of St. Thomas. To him, St. Thomas is special in the way it facilitates entrepreneurship.
“There is just an abundance of these opportunities,” he said. “I had friends at other schools who maybe had one competition … St. Thomas had three or four every year, all with a different focus.”
Matt Michalski ’19
There is just an abundance of these opportunities. I had friends at other schools who maybe had one competition … St. Thomas had three or four every year, all with a different focus.
Michalski, who received his bachelor’s degree in real estate studies from Minnesota’s largest private university, realizes he and his co-founders beat the odds many entrepreneurs face. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10% of start-up companies fail in the first year and nearly 50% dissolve by the fifth year. He highlighted the importance of finding something that honestly interests one in creating successful endeavors: ‘’We chose a very specific market and industry that we were very interested in.’’
Michalski credited Jon Keimig, Bruce Nordin and Opus College of Business as important to the three Aryeo co-founders. He said the two helped by providing them with guidance, as well as an office space at the University of St. Thomas during the summer, where they could develop their business.
“That was when we were able to get things more off the ground and be able to give the business the legs it needed,” Michalski said.
After graduating with their bachelor’s degrees, the entrepreneurs spent two years operating the company on their own, grinding toward growing their business. They succeeded in different seed rounds to attract capital. From 2020 up until the acquisition, they grew to have more than 50 employees.
After this period, 10% of all the houses listed in the U.S. used Aryeo in their listing, according to company data. Michalski and his co-founders realized Zillow could benefit from their services by adding more media to its listings. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing desire to view more properties online. The entrepreneurs determined they could help the real estate giant better satisfy consumers. After pitching a collaboration to Zillow executives, a partnership became imminent.
“Matt’s success story exemplifies how our curriculum, coupled with experiential opportunities offered by the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, such as our suite of business competitions, empowers students from diverse backgrounds to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities,” Associate Dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship Dr. Danielle Campeau said.
“Entrepreneurial spirit is not confined to a major – it’s woven into the fabric of our entire learning experience. The Opus College of Business is deeply committed to nurturing the development of an entrepreneurial mindset.”
Dr. Danielle Campeau
Entrepreneurial spirit is not confined to a major – it's woven into the fabric of our entire learning experience. The Opus College of Business is deeply committed to nurturing the development of an entrepreneurial mindset.
Michalski is continuing with Aryeo, being a part of its software’s evolution within Zillow. However, the Tommie does not rule out starting other enterprises in the future.
Michalski has advice for current students interested in entrepreneurship.
‘’You can’t start small enough. I don't think there's anything that's too niche,” he said. However, he mentions that joining an existing company and helping them grow can be just as beneficial. ‘’People in college should take a hard look at maybe joining a company and learning more.’’
Brant Skogrand ’04 MBC contributed to this story.