Todd Marks – Founder, President & CEO, Mindgrub

Todd Marks, 2-time EY Entrepreneur of the Year nominee, member of Baltimore Magazine’s 40 under 40, and The Daily Record’s Innovator of the Year, is the founder and CEO of Mindgrub Technologies. Mindgrub, a member of the Inc. 5000 for six years running and the Maryland Tech Council’s Tech Company of the Year, is an agency at the intersection of technology and business, designing and engineering solutions that define a company’s digital presence. Marks founded Mindgrub in 2002 and has since overseen award-winning projects for clients such as Wendy’s, DELL, Exelon, Under Armour, Yamaha, Crayola, Adobe, Geico, ORACLE, A&E, The Economist, University of Maryland, NASA, and The Smithsonian.

Marks, a teacher-turned-technologist serves as the agency’s Chief Everything Officer, leading information architects, user experience specialists, designers, digital marketing experts, and world-class developers to solve challenges in the areas of mobile and web application development, digital and traditional marketing, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality training applications, enterprise information systems, and robotics.

Mindgrub has received two gold ADDY Awards for Best Mobile App, the American Marketing Association’s awards for Best Overall Marketing Campaign and Best Branding Campaign, the Gold Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, the BlueDrop Award for Best Fundraising Website, the Baltimore Business Journal’s Big Buzz Award for Best Mobile App, MTC’s Emerging Technology Company of the Year, Technical.ly’s Design Development Firm of the Year, and was one of Inc.’s Best Workplaces of 2017.

Marks has shared his vision for innovation in technology and business at conferences such as SXSW, Adobe Max, and SALT, and has been profiled in The Huffington Post, CNN, and Newsweek. He currently serves as the Tech Board Chair for the MTC, and is a member of the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council Board of Directors and the Loyola University MBA Program advisory board.

How did the concept for Mindgrub come about?
I started my career as a high school teacher and then developed a small digital agency with friends. I like to teach myself how to do things and learn really quickly, so my partners at that company called me “The Mindgrub.” When we separated in 2002, I started Mindgrub Technologies to focus fully on web application development and online training. The iPhone was released in 2007, so in 2008, I quit my contract to make mobile development another key business unit for the company and work on Mindgrub full-time.

To sum it all up, it was a culmination of things that brought it all together: I had the experience (because I had been working as either a part-time or full-time engineer for more than ten years), I had the need (because I was working in Chicago and my family was in Baltimore), and, finally, I had major disruption in technology I needed to propel the agency into the future (with the release of the iPhone). I had the need, the experience, and the market opportunity: the three components of creating a successful company.

How was the first year in business?
My first year in business was in 2002. I had a contract making airport display systems, but it was challenging to grow the company to more than myself. My contracts were also short-term and I needed to renegotiate extensions constantly. It took six years of going in and out of gigs before I was able to command enough work that I could start to grow a team. In 2008, I made that jump, which months later coincided with an economic recession. To sum it all up, starting a company was a major challenge.

What was your marketing strategy?
My initial marketing strategy was to be my own hype-man. I would wear a Mindgrub t-shirt and a blazer to every networking event where I would talk about our services to anyone who would listen.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Once I started hiring in 2008, we doubled in size every year, so we went from one to two, from four to eight, and from eight to sixteen. After several years after that, we were selected for the Inc. 5000 list (companies must have about three years of data to be considered for the list). We’ve been on Inc.’s 5000 list every year from that point and now have over 100 team members. Everyone comes to work with a growth mindset, so Mindgrub has always been a fast-moving company.

How do you define success?
Successfully getting all seven of my kids through college.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is creating a lifestyle that makes you happy every day.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’d say there are probably two great lessons I’ve learned. I don’t know who originally said this, but scared money does not make money. The other important lesson is to be very careful about how you invest. You have to invest to grow, but just be careful about it. Don’t blow your money, but at the same time, don’t be too scared to take risks and don’t make investments where you don’t see a good return.

For startups, a good lesson would be to prepare your family for the amount of work and effort that is needed from you to get the startup launched and become successful. You have to have a good work-life balance, but when you have a startup, you often can’t; it’s just not part of the equation. If you have that good of a balance, your company is probably not going to make it. So prepare your family well for the fact that it’s going to be a rough road for at least the first three years.

Another good lesson for startups is to always make sure that you can make payroll. A lot of people miss payroll when they’re starting out. You can miss one, you can miss two, but if you miss a third, your people will stop trusting you as a leader.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Practice makes perfect.”

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

“Scared money doesn’t make money.”

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

“No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
My toughest day was the second time I had trouble making payroll, in 2009. We had plenty of work, but because of the recession, clients were not able to pay their bills. I had to go out on the porch and dial for dollars all day. One of my employees, who I had been paying decently, had a ten-year-old car in the parking lot, and it dawned on me that he might have some money in the bank. I needed to bridge $3,000 to make payroll, and I think payroll was $7,000 at the time. So I asked that employee if I could borrow $3,000. At the time, I had already given up my car and was riding my bike to work. So we threw my bike in the back of his minivan, retrieved the money from his bank, and drove back to the office. I paid out half of the company, and because the other half knew the situation we were in, I told them I was going to go to the bank to deposit the remaining money and that they would be able to withdraw their pay on Monday. So I rode my bike to the bank, deposited the money, and the employees were able to withdraw on Monday. Everyone only missed receiving their pay by an hour, or two days, but it still felt awful. Spending all day just trying to get clients to pay their bills was brutal.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I went to a camp in Canada called Camp Pathfinder. I attended as a camper from ages 12-16 and as a staff member from ages 16-21. No matter what, everyone was required to run across the portage carrying either a 40-50 lb pack or a 50-75 lb canoe. It didn’t matter if you broke a strap or turned your ankle, you had to get to the end. So it was that experience of learning perseverance that sticks with me and helps keep me going. The camp opened as a survival canoeing camp after the world wars to toughen kids up. It added a level of endurance to my life so I could just show up and run a marathon or go hike up to Mt. Everest’s base camp without having exercised beforehand. Accomplishing something like that is usually more about mental strength than physical.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Know that you need experience, a purpose, and a market disruption to be successful. If you don’t have the experience, you’re not likely to make progress. If you don’t have a need and can walk away at any moment, you probably will. If there isn’t a market disruption you can take advantage of, it will be really difficult to get any sort of traction. Young entrepreneurs need to make sure those three aspects are in place to really be successful. Otherwise, it’s still a learning opportunity. Recent studies found that the average age of successful entrepreneurs is 45. So you hear of all these 20-something year-old super geniuses starting companies, but the average age of entrepreneurs who founded high-growth companies is significantly older than that.



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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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