Don’t despair because the internet is fickle. When I started my first website on organic chemistry, I had some beginner’s luck. Even though I knew next to nothing about search engine optimization, my articles ranked well without spending much time on promotion, because I wrote good content and there isn’t much competition. Later on, in other niches, we have started sites that take many months to start getting organic visitors, only to have traffic crash to zero after an algorithm update! Today I know that there are certain rules to follow, but even if you do it, some things will always be out of your control.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Coster.
Mark Coster is an online entrepreneur and the driving force behind STEM Toy Expert. With 20 years of experience in chemistry education and research, and 3 willing children as guinea pigs, Mark has a passion for inspiring kids and adults to combine fun and learning with STEM Toys.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was that skinny, freckled, introverted child who preferred books and board game to playing football. My parents recognized my inquisitive nature, though, and bought me my first chemistry set at just 8 years of age. I was astounded when I realized that there’s a whole other world, rich and dynamic and vivid and colorful, behind what we can see with a naked eye. The never-ending dance of the molecules was the most magical thing I could imagine — to me, it was like poetry. I was also lucky to grow during the birth of affordable personal computers, so alongside a fascination with chemistry and science more generally, I spent many hours tinkering with Commodore 64, Amiga and IBM PCs. From chemical reactions to running a computer program you’ve written yourself, I’ve always found it thrilling to experiment!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While it is tempting to quote a famous poem or influential book, in terms of reinventing my life and discovering a vibrant Second Chapter, my favorite quote comes from Jim Rohn:
“If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.”
In my academic career, I never quite understood why so many of my colleagues spent so much time complaining about the state of things — research funding, teaching allocations, you name it. To my mind, if things are worth complaining about, they’re worth doing something about. Either working hard to improve the situation, moving yourself to a different situation, or learning to live with it without complaint.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I believe that the qualities that helped me accomplish my goals are nesting inside everyone. You just have to train yourself to practice them. Firstly, I am extremely persistent. I don’t know if that’s something I was born with, but I do know that my previous career in academia has boosted this quality. To succeed in an academic career, you need to get used to the fact that you don’t have the luxury to give up. And that has helped me a lot on my entrepreneurial journey. The second must-have is patience — you need to learn to accept setbacks as a regular thing and not take them personally. When combined, these two qualities can sometimes go awry and lead a person into stubbornness. I think it never happened with me, thanks to my third quality that I am probably proud of the most. It’s the capability of changing my mind. I often think that life must be very boring for some people — they form their opinions early and then never change their minds. No matter what new information comes to light! I have great admiration for my father, who even in his mid-70’s is an adaptable man who is always willing to change his mind if the facts no longer support a point.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
While I was studying for my Bachelor of Science degree, I came to a crossroads. I loved science, particularly chemistry, but I also loved computer science and coding. Deep down, the thrill of chemistry experimentation won me over, and I also reasoned that a career doing experiments in a lab was preferable to ‘sitting in front of a computer all day.’ Little did I know that the day-to-day of most science careers involve similarly high screen-time!
After a first taste of research, I had a dream come true, receiving a scholarship to undertake a PhD in Cambridge. From there, I was remarkably fortunate in my career, from postdoctoral training to lectureship and promotion to Associate Professor. The biggest thrill for me was the research. I decided to pursue synthetic organic chemistry. Making molecules was like a fantastic game of chess, where not all of the rules are known — indeed, one is free to make new rules! However, as the years wore on, my day-to-day consisted mostly of administrative tasks, bureaucratic forms and procedures and endless piles of marking. The thrill of discovery was few and far between and there seemed little science in my days as a scientist.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
The phrase ‘choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” has always resonated with me. In my case, it was difficult actually admit that the career I dedicated two decades to was not making me happy. Having devoted so many years to the pursuit of science, it is tempting to fall for the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ and believe that it would be a waste to move away from a career as a scientist.
Recognizing that the skills I developed as a scientist in academia would serve me well in business and as an entrepreneur helped me to ‘reinvent myself’. When I began my Second Chapter, I had had already been experimenting with online learning in the courses I taught at University. My initial aim was to create an educational website, Organic Chemistry Explained, dedicated to helping the thousands of students worldwide who struggle with this subject. Unbeknownst to me at the start, I would later develop significant expertise in digital marketing. So, Second Chapter looks more like a diverse online publishing company with a several websites, rather than a single educational website.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
As my research funding dissipated, I became progressively less fulfilled in academia, however, it’s difficult to leave a secure and well-paid university position. Another in a string of re-structures within the science school was the trigger that allowed me to take the plunge. Finally, at that point in time, I realized that the prospect of staying in academia was scarier than leaving.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
There are skills that I never had to use, so I just assumed that I did not have them or that those skills were not my ‘strength’. As an introvert, I have always hated ‘self-promotion’ or ‘promoting my work’ for that matter and never considered myself a ‘salesperson’, but I had to learn. As it turns out, I actually quite enjoy the challenge of marketing. It’s a fun new challenge and I can’t help but think it’s really all about psychology! Plus, there’s plenty of analytics available for my data-hungry brain to sift through.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
There are bumps and bruises, that’s for sure. But it was something to be expected, especially in the online world! Since we rely so heavily on search engine optimization for most of our traffic, Google algorithm changes hit us hard every once in a while. But our greatest strength is that we somehow always manage to bounce back.
Along the way to making Organic Chemistry Explained a success, I obviously needed improve my search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing skills. I’m genuinely surprised how much I enjoy this new challenge and my growing skillset. So much so, that the initial aim to create one educational website has blossomed into a portfolio of around ten websites on a wide range of topics. Some of these I have built from scratch, although we are increasingly buying pre-established websites and looking to renovate and improve them.
One of the highlights so far is stumbling on a site all about STEM toys- it seemed perfect for me! It was for sale right at the time we were looking to make our first ever website purchase. Our business mentors had counselled us to start very small with buying websites, but STEM Toy Expert was just too good a fit for my skills and interests, so we leapt in. That purchase was in July 2019 and through diligently applying the SEO skills I picked up, and expanding its content, we had managed to recoup our purchase cost before Christmas of that year!
If I get an idea before breakfast, I can start implementing it at noon. There are no committees to ask for approval, no procedures you need to follow!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s a bit nerve-wrecking to come home and tell your partner you’re quitting your stable ‘six figure job’ to become an entrepreneur, but my partner, Silvia, took it quite well and was very supportive from the beginning. Nowadays, she has caught the ‘online’ bug and we work together on several websites and we’re often brainstorming article ideas together.
We also have two incredible business mentors, Matt and Liz Raad, who have helped us immensely through their high-level E-business coaching program.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I started my first online venture, Organic Chemistry Explained, with an aim to help the hundreds of thousands of students worldwide who struggle with this subject. I wanted to innovate and provide resources that taught while being entertaining and approachable. I grew started my site and grew a sizable following on social media largely with video content. In one of the videos I produced, around the topic of “isomers”, I used LEGO minifigures to illustrate the concepts. Among them were Mariachi minifigures. This led me to what I thought was a fun, inventive title for the blog post — “Lego + Isomers = the Mariachi-mers!” I knew little of search engine optimisation (SEO) back then… No-one searches for “Mariachi-mers”!
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I have always been blessed with high self-confidence about my strengths. I like to believe I am good at being objective and I can take the scientific approach to frustratingly high levels for those around me! However, starting your own business requires a few changes in mindset, particularly around money. I think for many people on the ‘outside’, entrepreneurship must look a bit crazy! Certainly, for the sheer number of hours that I’ve put in, the monetary rewards to-date probably look quite meager. But, if I ever find myself doubting this path or struggling to believe in myself, I think about the big picture — about what I’m building long-term. This mindset factors into so many day-to-day decisions. Many things that I’m doing, such as putting systems in place to scale, or building my team, actually slow progress down in the short-term. Yet, I know that long-term, these measures will lead to outsized success.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
In the early days, my journey was a somewhat lonely one — I didn’t really have people around me who I could talk to, and who would ‘get it’. It didn’t take long to realize that support is essential. I joined a mentoring program which not only helped me to upskill but also to find a ‘community’ of people whose journeys keep inspiring me. I was so inspired by stories that other shared of their journeys on our group’s private Facebook page, that I started sharing my own progress. The feedback from every one of these shares has been overwhelming and really makes it a joy to keep sharing.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
Once I quit my full-time academic position, there was no going back! I left with sufficient funds to cover living expenses for some time, to invest in my education and purchase some small websites. Beyond that, it was ‘sink or swim’. While I am quite risk-tolerant, I also have a family to support, so the loss of a reliable and regular paycheck definitely put me out of my comfort zone! One way that I dealt with that was to take on some online tutoring work. I set up my office for this and took on a number of students in the first year of my second chapter. The aim was not to turn tutoring into my main source of income, but to prove to myself that, in a worst case scenario, that could be my ‘back-up plan’ if my more leveraged, entrepreneurial endeavors took too long to become financially sustainable.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Stop overthinking. Running a business is often a matter of action rather than contemplation. Of course you need to think things through, given a chance. But sometimes, you need to act quickly and trust your gut feeling. At the very beginning, I spent far too much time planning out how I would shoot videos for Organic Chemistry Explained. I bought ‘fancy’ lighting, microphones, and a new camera. I over-thought what I would say and waited until the conditions in my home office were just right before filming. In the end, much of this was a total waste of time. It turns out that students don’t care about fancy lights, high-resolution videography and they’ll even forgive less-than-ideal audio if the content is helpful to them!
- Network, network, network. Today I do it all the time. But when I was starting out, I didn’t even realize that you could find so many amazing networking opportunities even on Facebook! And so I had to learn most things the hard way. What I know now is that there are so many online places filled with enthusiasts who are more than willing to share their experiences and expertise. Not to mention forums and virtual conferences that you can find if you take a peek past the first page on Google search results! Every single morning, no matter how busy I am, I look up these feeds, join in a conversation or two, catch up on the latest news and problems people face, and try to help others just like I’ve been helped so many times.
- Don’t despair because the internet is fickle. When I started my first website on organic chemistry, I had some beginner’s luck. Even though I knew next to nothing about search engine optimization, my articles ranked well without spending much time on promotion, because I wrote good content and there isn’t much competition. Later on, in other niches, we have started sites that take many months to start getting organic visitors, only to have traffic crash to zero after an algorithm update! Today I know that there are certain rules to follow, but even if you do it, some things will always be out of your control.
- You don’t always have to be an ‘expert’. When I began, my first and only aspiration was to run science websites. I wanted to go on educating student — this time, not just in a lecture hall, but students around the globe. However, I realized that after more than two decades of living and breathing chemistry, I welcome variety. Now, I run websites across all sorts of niches, from pets to automotive, sustainable living to, yes, education. I would never consider myself an ‘expert’ in any of these, however, I feel confident that we can provide value to our readers, and I can have fun doing so!
- In entrepreneurship as well as science, persistence and perseverance are necessary. I am very grateful that my career in academia has taught me to never ever give up! Even though academia and online business are two very distant fields, these things are totally applicable to entrepreneurship. You encounter setbacks from day one. For each small thing that goes as planned, there are three (often major!) issues that pop up, and five unpredictable errors that need troubleshooting. I’ve ‘broken’ websites on a regular basis, and even managed to delete one by accident (thank goodness for backups!). I’ve agonized over articles for days that barely get read, while others that seem to write themselves blow up. At every step, there’s always something to learn, and ways to improve. And I love it!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I may have left academia, but I will never leave science! So my dream movement would be to inspire as many people as possible to not only appreciate and inquire about science, but to join in and contribute as citizen scientists! Imagine what the world would look like if more of us made a small contribution to any field of science that best resonates with us. Amateurs have been known to make discoveries since the dawn of time. And I believe now we need a more scientifically-literate society more than ever.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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. 🙂
Growing up, I always said that having lunch with David Attenborough would be a dream come true. More recently, and particularly in light of my transition to entrepreneurship, I would equally be delighted by a private breakfast with Elon Musk. It would probably have to be insanely early — I don’t know how he manages to fit so much in 24 hours!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
If you’ve ever wondered what STEM subscription box to buy for your kids, or perhaps an engineering kit for yourself, check out my website STEMToyExpert.com. This is such a fun topic, but also, I think, an important one. Or if you happen to know someone who is studying organic chemistry, perhaps a pre-med daughter or son, send them over to my first online project, OrganicChemExplained.com. If you’re interested in living a more sustainable lifestyle, keep an eye on my partner, Silvia’s, website, EnviroMom.com, where I also contribute from time to time.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!