BizStarts July 2016 Featured Mentor – Mark Stodder
BizStarts of Milwaukee is excited to present the July 2016 Featured Mentor, Mark Stodder. Each month, BizStarts highlights a mentor from the Mentor Program and asks questions that provide knowledge and inspiration to other Milwaukee entrepreneurs.
Mark Stodder is President and Co-founder of Xcential Legislative Technologies – www.xcential.com – and has been a BizStarts mentor since 2014. Before jumping into his own startup business, Mark was executive Vice President of The Dolan Company, leading the company’s Business Information division (which included The Daily Reporter and Wisconsin Law Journal in Milwaukee). Mark is also an active member of the Silicon Pastures angel investing group, is a board member of the Wisconsin Newspaper Foundation, and still works with the newspaper industry on legislative issues, including Freedom of Information and open records access challenges in state government.
1.) Tell us a little bit about your own background and then why you decided to help others by mentoring. What do you get out of it/enjoy most about it?
“I found my way to BizStarts as I was finding my way out of the corporate world, where I’d been in charge of a large B2B publishing and legal information products company. When I wasn’t running from one end of the country to the other (we had newspaper and digital publishing operations in 23 U.S. markets, including Milwaukee), I’d be in board meetings, strategy sessions and conversations with accounting teams in corporate cubicles. As I moved out of that and into an independent consulting role, I found mentoring entrepreneurs was a great way both to make a contribution to our community and, selfishly, to recharge my own entrepreneurial batteries.
Eventually I jumped on board with one of my own consulting clients, a small technology firm in California that’s doing something important: we’re trying to repair and modernize how laws and regulations are created. The company provides cloud-based software to legislatures around the U.S. and the world (including the U.S. House and the U.K. Parliament), driving the digital modernization of bill drafting, publishing and codification of the law and regulations. Very new, very modern, very different – and something that has the potential to make government work better and more transparently.
So, in effect, mentoring at BizStarts helped push me back into the startup world, doing something I’m quite passionate about – which means, as I mentor, I’m sharing the joys, frustrations, delights and sheer terror involved in starting and growing a company.”
2.) If you want to encourage innovative ideas, how do you go about it?
“Back when I was a newspaper publisher, my best ideas for new products and features would come from two places. First, I’d spend time visiting and watching how my readers did their jobs (our newspapers served business, legal and government markets), learning their frustrations and challenges and how our information products could help. Second, I’d watch readers read our newspapers (yes, I was that guy trying to be subtle about staring at you in the coffee shop), noting which sections or features caught their eyes (or didn’t), where they’d linger (or not). Inevitably, some idea or two would strike me about how we could do things better, and I’d take that back to the office and get to work. So the message I give entrepreneurs is to get out of the office, go spend time with your customers (or potential customers) – you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll get ideas that have practical applications, that will help ensure your product or service really solves a problem and creates value.”
3.) If you want to create an environment where motivation can thrive, what’s the first thing you would do?
“Pay attention to how your team is communicating – and if they’re not doing it well, create a culture that demands transparency, idea-sharing and honesty in problem-solving. That begins with you – the entrepreneur and leader – in how well you communicate the goals of your enterprise and how transparent you are about performance and results. As they say, default to openness. Remember, however, that you can’t achieve a culture of communication by issuing a memo or “we shall all communicate and be motivated” directive. You have to pay close attention to the great variation in how your business partners and employees like to communicate: a software developer who scores high on the introvert scale may write outstanding code, but isn’t going to thrive in an all-hands talk session. So you have to figure out the communication paths that bring out best among the many different personalities on your team.”
4.)Who has been a major influence on you?
“My first boss and my last boss. My first, the publisher of a small town newspaper I worked for as a reporter fresh out of college, showed me (among many things about community journalism) the value of being sharply focused on your mission: our job was to deliver the very local news, warts and all, and serve the community fully and that was it. By sticking to our knitting, we created incredibly deep relationships with all parts of the community – and incredibly high value in the business. My last boss, the founder and CEO at my last corporate job, taught a similar lesson: doing less can be better than doing more. We had great success building and creating subscription-based information products and businesses that had very targeted audiences, with content meeting specific information needs that would help readers do their jobs better. That built a lot of loyalty with our readers – and great value in the businesses. By being highly focused, working in the niches, we were able to build a highly successful media company that thrived while more general media businesses struggled.”
5.) What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Figure out a way to do something completely different sooner and more often – go travel, explore, do dumb and brilliant and adventurous stuff with friends and partners or on your own before all those serious responsibilities and jobs come along. It’ll make you brave, your brain bigger, and your stories will make you a lot more interesting at those otherwise dull cocktail parties you’ll go to later in life.”
6.) What did you want to be when you were a child?
“Aside from being centerfielder for the Yankees – struggled with the curve-ball, unfortunately – I wanted to be a reporter and photographer for a newspaper. Started doing that for my school paper in 6th grade.”
7.) What professional or personal struggle have you overcome and what did it teach you?
“My company – the big one I was with before coming to BizStarts – foundered on debt. I ran the company’s media businesses, which grew and remained quite profitable even amid the Great Recession. We had grown another division, which provided professional services to lawyers, which went through a boom and bust cycle – and its leadership had chosen to use a couple hundred million in debt financing for multiple acquisitions just as the boom was coming to a close. Eventually it all started to tumble, and a couple years after I departed the entire company fell into a brutal, prepackaged bankruptcy. A lot of pain for a lot of people who had worked hard and were deeply committed to the businesses we’d built together. The lessons are almost too many (and painful) to count. There’s the corporate stuff – mistakes my CEO and board made in structuring the company, its capital structure, the divisions, how we communicated and didn’t always confront challenges forthrightly, all that – and the more personal: how to avoid being in a spot where, despite having great authority to lead and grow an enterprise, you don’t have the power to stop the train wreck from happening.”
8.) How has BizStarts helped you develop and grow?
“You can’t review someone else’s business plan or pitch deck without thinking about your own business and getting an idea or two to make things better (or rejecting an idea that will never, ever, ever work). I mentioned the “entrepreneurial recharge” you get by mentoring here: the enthusiasm and passion you see becomes infectious. It’s great to be a part of a community that values this kind of creativity and cooperation.”
9.) What advice would you give entrepreneurs?
“All the usual stuff, some of it pretty trite: be persistent, be passionate, etc. But I’d add two other bits of advice.
First, you will find much more satisfaction if your business does something useful. The world really doesn’t need another app that figures out a unique way to put another intrusive commercial message on your smart phone. If your business really solves a problem, makes something work better and creates new opportunities for others in your community, you’ll have a lot more passion about getting to work every day.
I’d also encourage entrepreneurs to take a break now and then. Remember what we’ve learned about how our brains work: they actually need sleep and they need time to be far away from today’s challenges. I get my best ideas when I’m on a long run or out on a kayak, thinking of something else. You’ll think of the answer to that big challenge when you’re not trying to think of the answer.”
Congratulations, Mark Stodder, for being the BizStarts July 2016 Featured Mentor! If you’re interested in our Mentor Program, contact us today!