Owning your own company can be a lonely endeavor at times — it will be important for you to build a supportive network.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Natale. Mark is the chief executive officer of Smarthinking Inc. . At the young age of six, Mark stumbled upon the band KISS and their album ‘Destroyer’, then from that moment on, he’s been all about brands. Mark leads the creative side of the business, asking important brand questions like, “What does the brand stand for?”, “How is the brand different?” and “Why does the brand matter?” This love of brands gave birth to Smarthinking, a factory for brilliant brands. Formerly, Mark served as the executive vice president for American Leisure Corp. where he oversaw the operations of more than 60 residential, commercial and corporate fitness centers located in New York. Mark’s keen eye for detail and a unique view on branding have shaped him into the innovative thinker that he is today. In addition to being an expert in the branding industry, Mark enjoys reading up on the latest trends in architecture, collecting concert posters, and spending time with his wife and kids.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Growing up in the 1970s in Binghamton, New York, about three hours north of New York, New York, was a great experience. My hometown was reasonably small, and at times, it felt too small to me. When I happened upon KISS’ Destroyer album at the young age of six, I was hypnotized by the artwork. I thought to myself, “where is this place, and who are these guys?” I felt that was a place I would like to go to.
I then listened to the album and the first song is “Detroit Rock City,” which opens with this slick sequence of someone getting into a car to go to a concert. The band, along with producer Bob Ezrin, developed every sound you might hear when you get in to start the car: putting your keys into the ignition, shifting the manual transmission into neutral and even the revving of the engine — it’s all there at the beginning of the song. The song then ends with a horrific car crash that to a six-year-old may be the coolest way to end a song ever. This was spellbinding.
As I discovered more material from the band, I was captivated even more with the experience they would create for their fans through the combination of music, images, and marketing. Essentially the essence of the brand. Since this was the mid-’70s, our exposure to bands was limited to the albums and touring that they might do. The only way to go deeper was to join fan clubs, to which KISS had The KISS ARMY. Be all that you can be! Where do I sign up?
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
I’ve always had a solid work ethic, and when I went to work in New York City after college, I had the opportunity to work for some of the city’s most prolific real estate developers. In that time, I was able to work with people who were focused on developing incredible experiences for their guests and being involved with that allowed me to speak my mind and make contributions that were meaningful and unique. The process of creating these brand experiences came very naturally to me, as it felt a lot like those old albums: thinking about what would be captivating and how we could create connections through those experiences.
I guess my “ah-ha” moment came to me when I had an employer approach me about an article that they had been asked to be a part of for The New York Times. They stated that they wanted to use my ideas for the article, but I would not get the credit. “Your ideas but my name” was how they phrased it.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
By taking the opportunity when it presented itself. I think one of the most valuable and productive skills one can develop is being aware and attuned to the people and opportunities around you. You have to know when the time is right to strike.
As I stated before, that part came to me by working really hard for other people. When you pour yourself into a project, you’ll be surprised by what you can come up with. See how the market reacts to that? Is that something you can replicate? Is that something people might demand? Can you develop systems around that? Can you control it? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself. Creating, testing, refining and perfecting your work is the key to getting it right.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
I think you have to know that this is going to be scary. All really good things in life are scary because they are beyond your current capabilities, or at least seem to be. The people that can feel the fear and push into it are the ones that will find the most significant rewards. This is the essence of all growth, and if you can realize that, you can succeed. It’s not about eliminating fear; it’s about managing it. Take the shot.
My love of music and the experience around it was not a direct translation for my career. I did not become a professional musician or work for a record label. What I did was take that experience I had as a kid and translated it into another arena — real estate and hospitality.
So, while creating a world-class spa in the wilds of Western Idaho, or an unparalleled resort in the jungles of Mexico may not be writing “Detroit Rock City” or “God Of Thunder,” it’s pretty close in the sense of creating these incredible experiences for people.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
You need to approach the work in the right manner. In other words, you need to know that you are here to help clients tell their story, not yours. The work needs to serve the brand first. Look at each new project as your first. This is your time to prove to yourself, and the world, that you can create something remarkable. If you commoditize it, you will quickly regret your choice. Lastly, don’t forget that you are in business, so be sure to charge accordingly. I think it was the Joker who said, “If you are good at something, never do it for free!” Truer words have never been spoken.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
For me, I like working with a wide variety of clients. We are currently working on projects in the United States, Mexico, and Italy where we handle everything from developing brand messaging and providing graphic design services to managing marketing initiatives and conceptualizing physical spaces. The diversity of these projects is fun and inspiring. There are many great things about running your own business, but to me, the personal relationships that you build are one of the most rewarding aspects.
Building a great team can solve almost all of the downsides. I cannot stress how important choosing the right people to work alongside is to your success and enjoyment. This goes for clients as well. Surround yourself with the best.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Based on my previous experience in New York City, servicing clients, and developing concepts, my current day-to-day is very similar to that. The most significant difference would be in selecting and developing your own team. Those decisions are mine and my partner’s alone, so that presents different opportunities.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
I think that is a common thought for entrepreneurs. That is simply someone saying that they want safety and stability, which are relevant feelings for almost everyone. When you start your own business though, you have to realize that it is a “real job,” it is just one hundred percent up to you to make it work; no pressure!
I’m not sure if you overcome that feeling as much as you manage it. I have spoken with successful entrepreneurs that have been doing this much longer than I have, and they all say that they have felt that way. I think the best way to deal with that is to build a network of like-minded individuals who can relate to the feeling. Knowing that you are not alone goes a long way. Also, you have to develop an excellent team around you, so make sure that is a priority early on.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was on my way to a meeting in New York City with a developer who had recently acquired two new properties in the city. I was in a rush to get to the meeting and it was a cold February day, which makes for super dry skin. I applied my trusty lip balm and headed down Park Avenue on my way to the meeting. I ran into the building and down the hall to the elevators and once I stepped on the elevator, I was surprised to see that my lips were completely clown white. Seems as though I grabbed a sunblock lip balm rather than my typical product. Realizing I would look ridiculous if I went into the meeting like this, I slipped away into the restroom to get back to normal. Lesson? Give yourself enough time to properly prepare for meetings.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
There are many individual leaders that I admire, but I think Metallica most inspires me at the moment. I marvel at how, after almost 40 years of loud, heavy music that they can still stay so relevant. I just saw them in Ireland this summer, and there were 85,000 people in the Irish countryside to see these thrashers from the Bay area. It is a lesson in evolution that the band and their management team have figured out and that the rest of us should study.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The Smarthinking Inc. team members all have individual causes that we support, and we try to allow time for our staff to participate in those tasks. When possible, we lend our services to help those causes, as everything can use better storytelling.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Owning your own company can be a lonely endeavor at times—it will be important for you to build a supportive network.
- Submit your own PTO—taking meaningful breaks now may be more important than ever.
- Don’t compare yourself to your competitors—work solely on what YOU are going to do differently.
- Not everyone will be as ethical as you—do your homework to stay above it all.
- Hire super-smart teammates—anything less will drive you nuts.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I guess I would want everyone to understand that no matter where we are individually from, we essentially all want the same things from life: friends, connections, security, inspiration, fun, peace, etc. Different people may express that in different ways, but essentially it is all the same desire. If we could all just realize that, there would be a lot more understanding and personal happiness in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t demand respect. Command respect.”
I think your actions and the way you interact with others is a vital measurement of your character. Oftentimes I see leaders and colleagues trying to influence behavior by utilizing tricks and manipulations, when in fact being honest and forthright about expectations and performance will have the biggest positive effect on the outcome.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Marc Reiter, Creative Director for Metallica. I’m fascinated by the work that he does, and he is also originally an Upstate New Yorker, I think?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.