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A New Generation CEO Who’s Blazing His Own Path to Success
Todd Marks, CEO President and Founder Mindgrub
By, Chris Dessi
It was a hot day in the Spring of 1995. We had just completed a grueling Rugby practice at Loyola University, Maryland. In reality every Rugby practice was grueling for me. I wasn’t a good player. I didn’t know the rules well. I think I scored once. I was slow. I broke my nose while playing against the Naval Academy. My coach stuffed my nostrils with cloth, and pushed me back on the pitch. I just wanted to drink beer and meet girls. I suffered a few concussions on the Rugby pitch too. One concussion was so bad that I didn’t recall driving home from a game. The 40 miles between the University of Maryland’s campus back to Loyola completely escaped me. But I did know a few things. Rugby was fun. Rugby was social. Girls liked Rugby players. You got to drink beer after you played Rugby. So I played Rugby. It worked. I met girls, made lifelong friends and enjoyed all that Rugby had to offer. Our best player was Sean Lugano. He was an all american in fact. When Sean spoke, people listened. He was our surrogate coach most practices. Our “real” coach was a volunteer. I don’t think they paid him well (if at all). He also had a real job. The result was that players organized practice. Players gave post practice speeches. Players doled out discipline, and praise when needed. Most commentary came from Sean. Some from other upper class men. I had never heard a Sophomore say a word in practice, let alone a Freshman. Which is why it was so odd on that hot day to hear from any player other than Sean. He was a skinny redhead that flew under the radar. A nice kid for sure, but not one that you would expect to hear from at practice. We were all gathered around waiting to hear from our captain Sean. Everyone took a knee. Sean stood in the center. We fell silent. Sean took a breath and looked like he was about to speak when he was interrupted. A voice broke the silence. “Fellas, remember to stay hydrated. You need to drink fluids after a practice like this. If you’re not sure if you’re fully hydrated, just take a look at your urine. Clear urine is good. Yellow urine is bad.” Shocked into silence, we waited for Sean to explode. One beat, two beats. Sean looked around, and burst into laughter. Blurting out “well, thanks for the tip, DOC!” Everyone laughed.
Sean said what he had to say, our practice ended and we all went our separate ways. But something stuck. From that day forward my Rugby teammate, Todd Marks was known as “Doc.”
A few years ago Doc and I reconnected. He was up in New York and thought it would be fun to reconnect. It was. It’s been fun to continue to watch Todd’s star rise. He’s launched a successful agency, and is bringing great pride to the Loyola Greyhound community. Todd is a 40 under 40 and 2x EY Entrepreneur of the Year Nominee, is the teacher-turned-technologist founder of Mindgrub Technologies. Mindgrub, voted CRTC’s Tech Company of the Year and placing #520 on the Inc 500/5000, is a mobile, social and web app consultancy, working with companies and organizations in a variety of industries to bring their brand to digital.
As you can tell by this story, Todd is a confident guy. He’s continued to be confident throughout his career. He’s built one of the most successful companies in Maryland. Which is why I thought he’s be a perfect candidate to profile in these success interviews.
Chris Dessi: What are some of the qualities that make for a great chief everything officer?
Todd Marks: As the Chief Everything Officer, I lead information architects, user experience specialists, creative interface designers, and top-notch developers to solve business and consumer challenges in application development and rapid prototyping. I grow new divisions of the business and hire and mentor staff to manage and grow those divisions. I lead and foster leadership within the organization.
Chris Dessi: You have a great entrepreneurial story. Eating Raman, riding your bike to work – during the more difficult times, before things took off, how did you keep a positive mindset and continue to push forward.
Todd Marks: I kept a positive outlook out of sheer necessity. I had gone too far down the rapid path to fail. I would have been out on the street if Mindgrub wasn’t successful, so their was no alternative than to always think positively and put my best foot forward every day.
Chris Dessi: When Apple release the iPhone you saw disruption and jumped on it. Throughout history some of the most successful entrepreneurs from Rockefeller and Carnegie to Jobs have followed that model. What current disruptions do you see here or coming next and how do you develop the confidence to jump on the opportunity?
Todd Marks: The current disruptions I see are health tech, the gamification of learning, hyperlocal location, wayfinding, location-based messaging, and virtual reality.
When you’re climbing a cliff, you want to always use a safety rope. So when you’re jumping on one of these disruptions, it’s an opportunity that you want to come into safely and at the right time. Venture into a disruption, but make sure you’re not getting in too early too fast, and you’re not overspending in the market too early.
Chris Dessi: It appears you like to give back. You teach a course at UMBC and sit on the advisory board for two organizations. Given your already busy schedule how do you evaluate which additional obligations you add to your plate?
Todd Marks: My schedule is always full, but I’m committed to supporting the local tech community. So that’s why I work with organizations where I can make a meaningful impact with a small time commitment.
Chris Dessi: How important are habits and routine to your success?
Todd Marks:Routine is very important to me. I’m extremely habitual.
Chris Dessi: What is your Rhythm?
Todd Marks: I’m always on and working from early in the morning until I go to bed, but when I relax, I really relax.
Chris Dessi: What time do you go to bed?
Todd Marks: I’m usually in bed by 9pm on school nights, and 10pm on weekend nights. But I’m always up by 3 or 4am.
Todd Marks: In my own way, yes.
Chris Dessi: For people like yourself who have seen great monetary success – what do you think is dangerous about that type of success?
Todd Marks: I don’t think I’ve received great monetary success. Maybe if I sold the company, but for now I think I earn a pretty meager salary. That being said, the danger you run into when bringing in a lot of revenue with your business is that you assume a lot of financial obligations. At some point you might burn through your savings or not save, while your expenses exceed your cash flow. If you can’t cut those expenses off fast enough you get into a cash crunch or serious debt you can’t recover from. That is dangerous.
Chris Dessi: I speak with many successful executives that question the value of college. Since we both attended Loyola University in Maryland – What do you say to those detractors of education?
Todd Marks: At 18-21 years old, you’re still coming into your own. College provides structure for children maturing into adults, and it provides a good network of friends and colleagues. I do think that there are other ways to get that same structure independent of college though. I’m not saying that you don’t need college, but I am saying that if you can get the same structure and network, plus have the discipline for self learning, I don’t know that you need college. It is an exception more than the norm in this day and age though.
Chris Dessi: How do you define success?
Todd Marks: Success is reaching your goals, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.
Chris Dessi: Can you explain the impact, that social networking/digital media has made on your business/career and/or you personally?
Todd Marks: Early on, social media allowed Mindgrub to market our brand cheaply, and bootstrap our business without having a lot of upfront funding.
Chris Dessi: How much of your success was due to luck? Or are you of the mindset that you create your own luck?
Chris Dessi: When did you first think of yourselves as a success?
Todd Marks: I don’t really view myself as a success. Others may view me that way, but I’m just kind of doing my thing.
Chris Dessi: Many young executive who read this blog struggle with work life/balance – myself included. What advice do you give them? How do you each strike a balance?
Todd Marks: My advice is to find a worthy distraction from your work. Get a partner, kids, or a hobby that will make you want to spend a lot of time away from work. If you’re working like a dog, in an unhealthy way, then you haven’t found the right distractions.
Chris Dessi: On paper your resumes reads like success. Can you tell us about your biggest failure(s)? How did it change you or shift your approach moving forward?
Todd Marks:: I don’t view anything I have done as a failure. Anything that wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be was still a learning opportunity. Failure has zero positive outcomes which I haven’t encountered and which I don’t like to dwell on.
Chris Dessi: Who has been the greatest positive influence on your life? Tell us about that person.
Todd Marks: My fiancee has been the greatest positive influence on my life. She’s also an entrepreneur, owns several businesses, and she’s created a great sense of family that was lacking before in previous relationships.
Chris Dessi: What do you think is the one characteristic that all the successful people you know share?
Todd Marks: High intelligence and street smarts.
Chris Dessi: How has your childhood (the way you were raised, your birth order) affected your career success? Did it at all?
Todd Marks: I was a second child with an older sister. I did my own thing, and it gave me a big sense of independence.
Chris Dessi: I know you to be very humble people. Here is your chance to brag a bit – what has been your greatest career success to date?
Todd Marks:: A combination of Mindgrub winning the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council’s Tech Company of the Year, and being named one of Baltimore Magazine’s Best Places to Work.
Chris Dessi: My daughters know that I hate witches – what’s one thing that scares the hell out of you?
Todd Marks: Honestly, I’m not afraid of anything.
Chris Dessi: Best day of your life?
Todd Marks:When my fiancee said yes.
Chris Dessi: Worst day of your life?
Todd Marks: When I was robo-dialing friends and family to try to cover payroll in 2009 during the recession.
Chris Dessi: Who is your hero?
Todd Marks: I’m enamored of many people, but there’s too many to name one hero.
Chris Dessi: What is the best gift you’ve ever been given?
Todd Marks: Homemade crafts from my daughters.
Chris Dessi: Do you collect anything?
Todd Marks: As a child I collected Star Wars Figures, Legos, Garbage Pail Kids Cards and Rocks. As an adult, I don’t really collect per se, but I do enjoy my tools, plants, sports equipment and outdoor gear.
Chris Dessi: What motivates you to work as hard as you do?
Todd Marks: I have a large blended family with 7 kids, so putting a roof over 9 heads is a real motivator.
Chris Dessi: Name someone who knows more about you than anyone else in the world.
Todd Marks: My fiancee.
Chris Dessi: Most powerful book you’ve ever read that you recommend to everyone?
Todd Marks: I don’t really recommend books, but some books I really like include Outliers, Crossing the Chasm, Innovator’s Dilemma, The Singularity is Near, and The Pleasure of Figuring Things Out.
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