Steve Marks of Main Street Gourmet: “Staying in the Moment”

Staying in the Moment: My mind tends to wander and ruminate on issues other than what I am doing at a particular moment. I have worked very hard to stay in the moment and focus on the task, person, or issue at hand. Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting […]

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Staying in the Moment: My mind tends to wander and ruminate on issues other than what I am doing at a particular moment. I have worked very hard to stay in the moment and focus on the task, person, or issue at hand.

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Marks.

Steve is a proud entrepreneur with decades of experience including founding and cultivating a thriving business, Main Street Gourmet. He is a two-time winner of the United States Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year Award and was twice listed on the INC 500 list for the fastest growing US companies. He is the author of “The Muffin Man Chronicles, Recipes for Entrepreneurial Success”.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I got started when I was 26 years old and blindly bought an abandoned building in an auction. The city of Akron, Ohio was offering business owners grants and incentives to develop this particular property, but you had to install a retail outlet. With my business partner Harvey Nelson, we opened a muffin shop in the summer of 1987.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Our “Aha Moment” occurred when Harvey and I went to Los Angeles to visit a friend of ours. While we were out there, we went to an upscale mall and visited what only can be described as a “muffin shop”. It was the busiest location in the entire mall, and they only sold muffins and coffee. Customers were standing in lines, 10 people deep at 10:00 AM on a Tuesday. We couldn’t believe it. We were dazzled and intrigued. In that mall we could see and hear the buzz of attention the shop was getting. It was then we decided that we would put a muffin shop in our building in Akron, Ohio.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

My dream was always to have my own business. Ever since I was a kid. My only jobs growing up were jobs that didn’t have a boss. Whether it was a lemonade stand, mowing lawns, or washing cars, I stayed in that lane. My next-door neighbor was a business professor at the University of Akron, and he counseled me to go into accounting. He said that every business needs accounting and if you have that skill, you can go into any business. I would go on to become a CPA and work for a large accounting firm, waiting for my opportunity to become an entrepreneur.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

My father invited me to go to a real estate auction where I blindly bought a property for 5000 dollars not really knowing its location nor its condition. My father was somewhat taken aback by my bravado and initiative but once he saw the building and its potential, he became very supportive and encouraging. It didn’t take too much for me to make the next move. Being 26 years old, I didn’t have much to lose, and the risk became very logical to take.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The company I co-founded has been very nimble and has a unique ability to quickly pivot and solve problems efficiently. A key time in our history was when we were both active with wholesale and retail sales. We made a decisive and bold decision to focus on just the wholesale part of our business and jettison the retail segment. It was one of our best decisions and ultimately fueled significant growth for many years.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

In my book, The Muffin Man Chronicles, I identify several different attributes or traits I think are important for any entrepreneur. You can argue all day whether they are innate or learned but I think they are vital for success. I think the three most important ones are: 1) risk taking, one who is not intimidated by taking calculated risks, 2) taking initiative and acting decisively and 3) a person who encompasses a life force of independence. Looking back on it, my purchase of a building with no real money to pay for it, was characteristic of these traits. I actually used advances on credit cards to pay for the building. Naiveite has its advantages.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I’ve been very fortunate to have received quality advice from many mentors and advisors over the years, but the few mistakes have usually been from somebody recommending an employee that ultimately didn’t work out. Just because that employee impressed someone doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your organization.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

One of our strengths at Main Street Gourmet has always been our culture and continually refining, adjusting and nurturing it. Harvey and I both had jobs in our past that we didn’t like and so I think we were conscious of that when hiring people and developing positions. We have always made culture a priority.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

I think you need to develop solid core values and follow them almost religiously. You see a lot of companies develop core values, mission and vision statements but don’t work very hard at following them and re-evaluating them on a continual basis. It’s not something that can be done overnight.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

If you can’t communicate or develop what a company stands for and what it wants to achieve how will employees be able push forward in that direction in any meaningful way? They simply will be directionless and the chances for success will be diminished.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Books have been written on the multitude of mistakes made when starting a business. I often talk and consult with many aspiring entrepreneurs and the ones that put together and think through a comprehensive plan are the ones that usually get to that next level. These are people that are almost obsessed with looking at the potential and ramifications of their ideas. While they usually wind-up pivoting and going in a different direction, they have spent a considerable amount of time looking at the landscape and understanding their options. The ones that don’t put the work and dedication in are the ones that usually fail, stall, or give up.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

If you are an entrepreneur, you will probably take home your problems and opportunities. It will be hard to turn off your brain to all that you encounter. You will undoubtedly take the issues of your work with you on vacation. You are likely to take things personally when you are rejected. You will go to sleep thinking about work and wake up with those same thoughts and maybe even some potential solutions. At least that was my experience. When things were going well, I was in a good mood, when they weren’t I had to fight to stay even keeled. This is not something I am proud of. I worked very hard to create a balance in my life even though I rarely worked 9–5. I got better as I got older, but I never quite mastered living with the roller coaster life of an entrepreneur. In my book, I tried to convey what this is like and the emotional mindset that is indicative of an entrepreneur.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Selling the business three different times and going through each of those different experiences was a great education. Every one of them was an emotional time as you are exposing yourself to disappointment. You don’t know how it will end and you are on pins and needles wondering if some sort of event will upend your efforts.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

There have been a few times in the history of our company where I thought we were close to going out of business. One such time involved a storm that blew off our roof and exposed our machine room housing all the critical components to our freezer system. Our freezer was shut down when rain flooded the exposed room. All our finished products are frozen, and we had millions of dollars of inventory at risk. We had 24 hours to fix the freezer before product started to go bad and we would not be able to fulfill customer orders. It was an agonizing time but turned into jubilation when we were able to execute a risky plan to get the freezer back online.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Fortunately, I had a business partner to commiserate with. I knew instinctively when he was down and vice versa. My support system at home with my wife is the same way. Without these two components I am not sure how I would have persevered.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

I have used the following concepts in my entrepreneurial journey:

  1. Organizational Systems: I take a lot of pride in developing organizational techniques in my both my business and personal life. Using concepts from David Allen (“Getting Things Done”) and others, I have become more efficient allowing me to accomplish more and reduce stress that is caused by disorganization.
  2. Mediation: I am strong believer in using meditation and mindfulness daily in an effort to clear my mind to achieve better results and reduce stress.
  3. Exercise: This is my personal elixir that seems to make everything work better. I try to do a cross section of exercise and weight training that simply makes me feel and perform better.
  4. Staying in the Moment: My mind tends to wander and ruminate on issues other than what I am doing at a particular moment. I have worked very hard to stay in the moment and focus on the task, person, or issue at hand.
  5. Cultivate Your Support System: It’s very important to not take your support system for granted. You need to build a strong foundation to get through the inevitable ups and downs that an entrepreneur faces. Without a good foundation, your chances for success are reduced.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

You must have a certain confidence, almost an arrogance, that you will overcome obstacles. You need to have a sense of urgency and understand that it is the lifeblood of any business. You need to embrace problem-solving and recognize that is an essential component of business. Problems will never go away and solutions to those problems will flow to those that are successful in their approach to entrepreneurship. Your job as an entrepreneur is to solve problems. Having a grasp of these philosophies define people who are resilient and those who succeed as entrepreneurs.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Growing up, I floundered at starting and developing fledgling business efforts. From going door to door with a lemonade stand to selling cinnamon toothpicks to my fellow 4th graders, it was never easy. I learned valuable lessons through each experience. But trying to overcome these obstacles, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, developed a mindset that I would use my entire life. Sometimes the failures are ultimately more valuable than the successes.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

One of our largest customers was about to get acquired by a competitor and we were likely to lose that customer, jeopardizing our business and our growth. Privately, both me and my partner were worried. If we showed this concern to our employees, it would permeate throughout the company and effect moral. We worked very hard to develop a strategy to pitch the acquiring company that we would be a good fit. We had everyone on board with this approach and presented this to the prospect conveying a sense of confidence and strength with the benefits of doing business with us. Not only did we not lose the existing account, but we were also successful in obtaining more new business that would eventually be our largest account.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“It’s ok to enjoy your success, just don’t quite believe it”. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously and you shouldn’t take success for granted. You have to continually work at it… for a lifetime.

How can our readers further follow you online?

We are delivering content for aspiring entrepreneurs at MuffinManChronicles.com .

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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