In 1999, current President and CEO of Mindgrub, Todd Marks, started his first business in tech. Fifteen years and multiple start-ups later Marks has finally found himself running not only a successful business, but one that has earned the distinction of being one of this year’s Best Places to Work in Baltimore Magazine.
When we see people who have reached such high levels of achievement, especially in the self-made world of technology, it can be hard to reconcile the present with typically humble beginnings. Marks, isn’t shy about his past struggles and he generously shared with us the details of his missteps and, more importantly, all that he has learned in his decade and a half of experience as an entrepreneur.
In the late 1990s, Marks was teaching math and computer science in Howard County, Md. when he started itching to try his hand at entrepreneurship. He and his kayaking buddy got together to create Digital Organism, which focused on flash development and e-learning. This business survived for around 2 years, but as he recalled, “After September 11th, the market went soft. We were really young and had maxed out our credit cards.” Without experience or resources, Digital Organism was forced to disband in 2002.
Rather than let this set back convince him he wasn’t suited for the life he wanted, Marks turned right around and started working as an independent contractor under the name “Mindgrub Technologies.” But with three children to feed, he eventually had to settle for working for someone else. He remembered, “I was still doing Mindgrub on the side…I was working 8 hours for them and then driving to Annapolis and working another 8 hours.” He was able to put up with that grueling schedule for about a year before he finally shelved Mindgrub…for a while.
Then, in 2005, Windows Mobile hit the market. Marks said, “I thought that was going to be really hot, so I left my job.” However, it wasn’t quite as clean as that, for he quickly amended, “I basically wouldn’t sign a non-compete agreement, then got let go for insubordination.” He soon got to work on a new business eponymous with himself and his then-partner, called Spencer & Marks. The business tried to capitalize on location-based software for Windows Mobile, with a prototype called viaPlace. But after they finished their prototype, Marks said, “[We] went to go test it out in the city and when we loaded a bunch of data, GPS thought we were on top of the hill about a mile away…We knew that was kind of a non-starter.” In 2005, GPS was not where it is today. “For a second time, I didn’t have much staying power with a company, we couldn’t get funding, and we still really didn’t have [enough] experience.”
The next year Marks found himself needing a consistent paycheck, and so he accepted a job in New York at a digital agency. And there he worked for almost two years, coming home to Maryland on the weekends to see his children, resigned to the thought that his hope to make location-based mobile software wasn’t going to be possible with the current technology. Such was the unfortunate reality for Marks, until the iPhone hit the market in 2008.
That’s when the stars finally aligned for Marks and Mindgrub. He re-launched the business, eager to use the iPhone’s built-in GPS and his—now extensive—experience in the industry to give running his own business one more shot. It seems clear to Marks that, in retrospect, all of the elements were in place upon which to build a strong successful company: “I had a disruptive marketplace, heavy experience and a real need to work from home.” That is when he hired a few interns and started growing Mindgrub from his basement.
And yet, at the time, Marks didn’t know for certain that this iteration of Mindgrub would be different from the others. What he felt about the iPhone’s capabilities, he also had felt about the failed Windows Mobile. In fact, the location-based services that Marks wanted to use on the iPhone have only recently started growing in popularity. In 2008, most of the company’s business focused on contracted web work and some mobile apps. Marks remembered, “We were really hobbling it together for the [first] two years…my freelance web work was kinda what was paying the bills, but finally in about 2010, people really started to contact us to see if we could build their mobile apps.” That’s around the time that they started getting some really big clients, like Geico and Dell. When the mobile world finally exploded in 2011, Mindgrub was both early and best on the scene, and the company started seeing over 200% growth per year until 2013.
In Marks’s history as an entrepreneur, what strikes me the most is that so many of the steps towards the Mindgrub that exists today seemed at the time to be bad moves. In our generation, we often focus too much on finding the right job, finishing the right projects, wearing the right blazer, and being on good terms with the right people in your industry. But, if we can learn anything from the messy history of Mindgrub, it’s not about always being right, but rather having the hunger to push forward, even when you seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
This, Marks posited, was the most important factor in his eventual success: “Most of the companies who take funding fail because they never really have that hunger to make sure they keep the lights on. So, at no point can you ever rest on your laurels, because as soon as you do, somebody will disrupt your market or you just won’t be profitable.”
Another element that Marks said led to both the competitive success of his company—as well as making Mindgrub Baltimore Magazine’s “Best Place to Work”—is a commitment to working like a fun-loving family. Marks taught for 7 years at UMBC, and found there easy access to talent. Originally, he wanted to employ millennials just starting out in the work-force because they were a lower cost resource (now the company can afford to pay even their new employees well), but he ended up learning from them the value of having a fun work culture.
Mindgrub has a cycling team, a cafe, a game room, and an annual ping-pong tournament. Ping-pong in particular seems to be a surprisingly unifying element among employees: “We play a prodigious amount of ping pong…When we were starting out [the employees’] hearts weren’t quite into it. We started the annual tournament, with a ladder board to beat. Internally, our mobile team made an app to track all the matches that are played on the ping pong table. It gets everybody learning who their coworkers are, because everybody tries to move up the ladder board, so they’re constantly challenged by other employees.” Fostering an energetic and creative work culture benefits the company twofold, both by keeping the employees engaged and cohesive as well as making them attractive to new talent.
Marks has struggled, both occupationally and personally, to become the head of a successful company. But because of this, he has gained a fair amount of wisdom when it comes to what it takes to make entrepreneurship work. Obvious as it may seem, people eager to create a successful start-up can often forget the value of experience. Marks advised, “Find a great job, and do it for at least 10 years.” This may not be as sexy or crazy as pulling a week of all-nighters for your passion, but it’s surely the best way to know about whatever you’re trying to do.
The next crucial piece of the puzzle is to have enough capital to sustain your business until you can start turning a profit. Marks said, “Have enough capital so you can make it 3 years so you can keep the lights on until the market heats up enough.” And finally, be hungry: “If they don’t really have a need, if they have something they can fall back on, they’re just not going to really have success…It’s brutal to start a business and I don’t wish it on anybody unless those three things come together.”
Photo by BmoreMedia