True grit is knowing that no matter what comes your way, you can handle it; true grit is believing that exactly when everyone around you says you can’t do it, that it’s your time to shine.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Quinn.
Mark has been a student of public speaking and executive presence ever since he was introduced to the stage during his sophomore year of high school. His latest studies of public speaking are what led to the genesis of Eyelinez. While in a virtual Master Stage Class this past year, the speaker gave a simple tip for maintaining eye contact over video chat: put a sticky note with a smile on it near the camera. Mark immediately implemented this, but quickly found that it still felt awkward (maybe even more so) to look to the side of the camera. When a stray sticker was left out by one of his kids, Mark was motivated to take a different approach — he took a circular sticker, drew a smiley face on it, punched a hole out of the center for a nose, and placed it over his webcam. As the first prototype gazed back at Mark, it invoked an instinctive smile — and Eyelinez was born.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Passion. When the pandemic hit, I, like many people, found myself with a bit of free time on my hands. I ended up enrolling in a virtual master class on public speaking. Over the course of the week, I experienced the palpable connection the instructor was able to create, even though he was thousands of miles away. In the last 15 minutes of the course at the end of the week, Vinh brought an entire virtual class to tears. At that moment I knew that it is truly possible to create deep, meaningful connections virtually, but we have to learn how to communicate in this new medium. Once I experienced that, it was only a matter of finding the right idea to apply my passion to, which Vinh also inspired.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Four months after I founded Eyelinez my dad was hospitalized with COVID-19. For the next few weeks my dad struggled to breathe while he fought the virus in isolation; my only contact with him were spurious short calls, treating each as my last because that’s what we were told to do.
Against all odds, my dad pulled through and just before Christmas last year, he was moved to step-down care, with his spirits soaring. Miraculously he was soon in long term care, and had begun physical therapy to pave the path to returning home.
Then two months later I called my dad in the morning before my day began. He was tired, so we only spoke briefly, and I promised my dad I’d call him back. An hour later I got the call that my dad was gone. A few weeks later I buried my dad alongside my older brother, my only other surviving family member.
Riding that emotional roller coaster and launching a new company was a lot, but I made it through.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In general, there are three things that keep me going… First, passion. I believe in Eyelinez, I believe it can really help people live and thrive virtually, so I want to make Eyelinez a reality to provide that to the world. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s starting a business or working at a mature giant, not all days and tasks are created equal and when it gets tough and becomes a slog, it’s your passion that powers you to push through and continue forward.
Second, I love Eyelinez! That is, it’s fun. I’ve learned (through much time and many tears) that life is too short not to enjoy it. And I enjoy working on Eyelinez because it’s fun, because it’s me. Whatever you do, find the joy in it because every day and task is a whole lot easier when you can smile when you do it.
Finally and not at all flippantly, when my passion and joy don’t suffice, I ask for help. I learned a long time ago in my early days as an enlisted Airman that if you try to go life alone, it’ll be a long, lonely road, and most likely you’ll never travel as far or reach the heights you could have with support.
Whatever I’ve accomplished in my career, I’ve accomplished not because of myself, but because of the amazing friends, family, and colleagues that have always been there for me when I’ve needed it… whether it’s to figure out how to patent a smiley face, commiserate when the going gets tough, or for words of encouragement when it’s not going at all, ask for help when you need it and you will accomplish so much more with it.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
At this point I’ve figured out a lot, and Eyelinez is perfectly positioned to realize our mission of connecting everyone to what they love most, wherever you are. We have the right problem and the right solutions; now Eyelinez is pivoting to scale… educating us all on connection deprivation while immediately introducing the solution to address it.
I have a nuanced view on grit, and I want to tease “grit” apart from “growth” (or having a Growth Mindset). Anyone can learn, adopt, and master the latter; having a Growth Mindset is a matter of seeing challenges as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to be better.
I used to think that anyone can have grit too, and with experience they can; however, without that experience, you can appreciate, but perhaps not master true grit. True grit comes from having been in dark and somehow finding your way out, it comes from falling hard and somehow finding the strength to get back up, it comes from having the odds stacked so high against you that you can’t breathe until you realize you can, it comes from breaking and discovering that it’s the deepest wounds that give us the strength to keep fighting when they heal even stronger than before. True grit is knowing that no matter what comes your way, you can handle it; true grit is believing that exactly when everyone around you says you can’t do it, that it’s your time to shine.
Both grit and having a Growth Mindset have served me well in launching Eyelinez. Starting again with the latter, honestly, I have had very little idea of what I’ve been doing with Eyelinez. I had no idea where to even begin… but I knew I could figure it out. I figured it wasn’t rocket science, so I approached launching Eyelinez as I would any large project. I broke it down, took it piece by piece, figuring it out as I went. When I ran into something I wasn’t sure of I looked it up, took a course (thanks Coursera and LinkedIn Learning), or asked my network. And sometimes you still fuck it up and learn the hard way.
I suppose that’s where grit comes in. When things weren’t exactly going my way,, I leaned on those lessons to keep things in perspective and keep going. Because you only fail if you stop.
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?
The funniest and also probably the biggest mistake I made early on was purchasing way more inventory than necessary when I was still learning and testing with customers. Even though I explicitly thought of my initial sales period as one to gather feedback about the products, I still got caught up in the excitement and vision, purchasing way more product than really needed. And then I discovered a fatal flaw in the original design that drove me to re-work the entire line. As a result, $5,000 worth of Eyelinez became fairly worthless vinyl stickers in an instant.
There are two key lessons here: 1) Even when it’s personal, if you’re starting a business to make money, you can be passionate, but it can’t be personal. It’s tricky, because I also believe that following your passion requires finding your internal instinct and voice, and following it, almost to the point of fault. I once asked a mentor, “how do you know if you’ve gone too far?” His answer? “You don’t.” Perhaps more importantly, you can’t. That is, to be a true visionary requires you to let go, to allow yourself to see the world through the glasses only you wear; however, the greatest works of art didn’t come from completely unrestrained expression… the art is an art itself. You want, and even need, to follow that voice that no one else can hear, but you need to have the checks and balances that will let you know if you’ve gone too far, suddenly becoming the emperor with no clothes (which, by the way, is not an indicator to get a new mirror, but rather to put on a robe and keep letting your flag fly).
2) Always test with your customers. I know this; I already knew this, but I got caught up in the moment. No matter how simple your product, test. There’s no way anyone for any product can possibly test or even predict every way your customers will use your product. In the case of Eyelinez, I didn’t anticipate people wanting to use the Eyelinez to remind kids and grandma where to look when taking their pictures, and as a result, the opening of the Eyelinez was too small, creating “halos’’ around images taken with Eyelinez on.
On the upside, I now have an endless supply of vinyl stickers for my kids!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Eyelinez special is the passion and personality behind it. Both are mine, but are inspired by two different sources that I’ve married to become the voice of Eyelinez.
The first is Vinh Giang. Vinh is a unique human, and I learned more from VInh in a week than I’ve learned from others in a lifetime. Vinh showed me that you can connect to anyone, anywhere, and, perhaps most importantly, he convinced me that I can connect with anyone. With that inspiration, I wanted Eyelinez to manifest my passion in every element of its being.
The other is a very different source of inspiration — Sock Club. There’s a lot I love about Sock Club, but the part that matters here is the unique personality they infuse into the company, and in particular, the monthly subscription letters. I look forward to those silly letters each month because they’re fun, familiar, even friendly. I feel like Sock Club gets me, and I get them, so now I don’t buy socks from anywhere else.
In creating the voice and tone of Eyelinez I wanted both my passion and personality to come together to create a unique and distinctive voice for the company. I doubt very seriously this voice will resonate with everyone, but for those that do get Eyelinez, we’ve got them too.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There are lots of practical ways to strike this balance, and here are my top tips learned over the years:
● Sleep. Seriously, if you haven’t read “Why We Sleep,” buy it and read it today. This book changed my life and awakened me to the extreme importance of sleep. Long gone is the idea of pulling repeated all nighters to stay ahead. If you want to be your best, sleep.
● Exercise. I became a believer of the importance of physical fitness early on in life. Exercise is essential for both my physical and mental health, and I make it a priority. Even when injured, I have to find ways to stay active. Being physically fit enables you to physically handle those tough periods when you’re in full throttle, and it also enables you to decompress, freeing your mind for the mission.
● Eat. I’m no role model when it comes to diet, but I care and know about what I eat. That is, don’t let my slim figure fool you… I have quite the appetite and sweet tooth, but I pay attention to what I eat, and I eat in balance. There’s also a very practical angle here of literally needing to refuel when you’re driving hard… food is your gas, so if you’re not eating, you’re not refueling. I push hard, and I am constantly eating. When I’m training, you can even find stashes of PB&J sandwiches and tuna fish in my desk drawer!
● Live. As important as I think my work is, ultimately, I know it’s just work. To go cynical, perhaps even morose, for a moment… When I think about (and I have quite a bit) what I want to talk about when I’m laying in hospice, sharing my last thoughts, I’m quick to realize that none of the ideas or stories that come to mind are about work. Not one. They’re about the memories I’ve created living in this amazing world, exploring incredible places, meeting unique people… they’re about the experiences, places, and people I love. Take your work seriously, but don’t ever forget to live, because the work will be there, but life won’t wait forever.
● Love. I believe there’s a reason that every pop song in the world is about love. Love is what gives life meaning and what makes life special. It’s what makes life magical. It’s elusive, and can be a real bitch, but 1 day of love is worth so many trying to find it, so never give up the search and demand the love you deserve to have the magic you’re looking for.
● GTD. People often ask me how I remember so much. The truth is, I have an absolutely horrible memory. The secret isn’t my memory, it’s the Getting Things Done management system. There were two moments separated by about four years that provide the backstory here. The first was in 2007 as I was separating from the Air Force, and a mentor of mine at the time, Jeff, came into my vault (yeah, I worked inside of a giant, human-sized vault, but it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds) one day while I was in the final stretch of my final tour of duty. He had a few words of wisdom for me in that visit, but the message that stuck was articulated as Jeff waved at the constellation of sticky notes adorning my computer, desk, and notebooks: “Mark, you’re great at what you do, but you could do so much more if you learned to scale yourself. Get rid of the sticky notes.” For years, I remembered the message, but I didn’t know what to do with it.
It wasn’t until four years later, upon returning from paternity leave that a second moment provided the other ingredient necessary for my evolution. You see, at the time, I was a newly minted manager (of the team I was previously a part of no less) two years into my tenure at Apple, my first job outside of the military in the real world, in essentially a dream job for many. With a lot to prove, my status quo at Apple was like many at the time… working every night and weekend just to keep up, constantly fighting fires. As fate would have it, my paternity leave aligned with a major iPad launch. With this backdrop, I truly didn’t know how I could walk away for three weeks and not have the whole house of cards collapse.
But it didn’t. And when it didn’t, I found myself truly puzzled as to how I could go from feeling like I was drowning in critical work every second of the day to not doing anything without everything collapsing. In reflection I consulted a good friend of mine who joined Apple at the same time and was just a few months ahead of me on this journey; the difference was that Avi wasn’t drowning. It wasn’t long before Avi loaned me his copy of Gettings Things Done by David Allen. I read the book from cover to cover inside of a week, and never looked back.
Since then, GTD has enabled me to scale my impact 100 fold. I can’t survive a day without my GTD system. I believe in it so much that I teach courses on the material, and I infuse the same processes throughout my organizations. GTD enables me to free my mind of the clutter, so that I don’t waste it trying to remember things, and instead have the capacity to create.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have found therapy extremely helpful and I see a therapist nearly every week and he changed my life. No one person has helped me more by helping me unlock the biggest unique asset I have in this game: me.
Mental health sometimes has a negative and grossly counterproductive stigma associated with it. There are countless specialists that any one of us would consult without hesitation if we had a relevant (sometimes even irrelevant) physical ailment, but for some reason there’s a very different prevailing view of how to care for arguably the most complicated (and in many ways least understood) part of all — our minds. Unfortunately, I grew up with mental health being a concept I learned about at a very early age because of my mom’s struggle with it, so I am acutely aware of the very real and extreme impact struggles with mental health can have.
So when the personal and professional losses piled up so high in my own life that I couldn’t see over them, I sought help. By learning how to recognize, store, review, and understand the challenges I’ve already faced, I’ve also learned how to tackle any new challenge life throws my way.
Life is still hard, sometimes seemingly impossibly hard, but having the tools and techniques to manage my mental health enables me to weather any storm, on all fronts. Having a clear mental model allows me to be a better leader, parent, partner, and person. Every day.
Zooming out for a second, there are so many people that have helped, but I’m naming my therapist here because whether it’s having a weekly therapist, pursuing daily meditation, or simply being more mindful, good mental health is the fuel for brilliance, the foundation upon which anyone else I could possibly name has built.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
How I can contribute to the world is something I’ve thought about a lot; ultimately, it’s a sub-question of the question we all dare to struggle with at some point. For a lot of people, purpose is built on meaningful contribution to the world, and I’ve thought a lot about what mine could be. I’m not going to pretend to have figured it all out, but I’ve got a part of it…
While I still don’t completely understand it, I’ve accepted that I have the ability to connect with people, to see them, often seeing what they can’t even see in themselves (or at least don’t know how to articulate), and, when I get it right, to inspire. And that’s what I hope I can contribute to the world, inspiration for people to unlock their own voices at a global scale. Every single one of us is beautiful and wonderful, each of us a unique work of art, but people often can’t see this for themselves, or they get hung up on being the special exhibit at the Gugenheim. I want to help people connect, with each other and themselves, to ultimately see themselves for the amazing masterpiece they are. I want to help unlock the potential people are already capable of and just need the chance to prove.
Whether it’s speaking to disadvantaged high school kids thinking they’ll never make it into college, giving someone a shot at a role they’re traditionally unqualified for, or building high performing teams that enable the Rodman’s to shine, my super power is seeing your capability and enabling you to see it too.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
You are going to mess up. And probably more than once. When you do, you’ll have a choice… fail or get back up and fight back. Want to know a secret? You’ve only lost if you stay down, and when you get back up, no one will ever remember the fall, only the comeback.
It won’t always be fun. Ideas and startups usually start with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, and for a time that fills a lot of the time as you brainstorm, ideate, and iterate. But at some point, you have to pay the bills, manage the books, stock inventory… at some point someone has to do stuff they probably didn’t start the business to do. You can’t make it go away, but you do have to do it, so be ready for it. Or at least be ready to pay someone else to do it.
Lawyers are expensive. Really expensive. Get one for the stuff you need them for, but be cognizant of how fast legal expenses add up. Make sure you and your legal team are in perfect alignment and that they’re focused on what you need them (and only them) to do.
Most likely, most people will think it’s a bad idea. Really, your idea sucks. Get used to it, and accept now that if you’re going to pursue whatever it is you have in mind, you’re likely going to encounter far more skepticism and “constructive feedback” than positivity or praise. Don’t dismiss it, but you also can’t dwell on it. Some of the most powerful feedback you’ll get is the most critical, but sometimes it can sting to hear that people you respect think the idea is empty or that you have to fundamentally change it to succeed…. Sometimes they’re right, but sometimes they’re wrong.
And that’s why you have to follow your voice. Your voice, your heart, your instinct… whatever you want to call it, sometimes you have to listen, and follow it wherever it leads. Some of the most universally held examples of brilliance today include those that were at first rejected (in some cases multiple times): Einstein, Oprah, Michael Jordan, JK Rowling. If any of these now household names would have listened to their teachers, mentors, coaches, or advocates, instead of believing in themselves, we may not know them today.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs and lows of being a founder”?
My biggest piece of advice to help manage the inevitable mix of highs and lows throughout the adventure of founding a startup, is to have an outlet to share, celebrate, and when needed, commiserate. Whether it’s a single person or a group, have an outlet for what you’re working on with people who get it. Early on I leaned heavily on the insight and perspective of a friend and colleague who founded her own business. Even when she didn’t have answers, it was helpful to be able to connect with someone who got why I’d be willing to invest so much of my time, energy, and money into making smiley face stickers. Not a lot of people got it, but she did and that meant a lot in those moments when I doubted myself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 can’t pick one, so you get two movements!
First, I want to blow up the modern talent acquisition approach. There are so many more talented people than who get a shot at the best jobs. We use diplomas and pedigree as recruitment filters to make the process manageable, but as a consequence we eliminate amazing talent. There are programs such as Year Up that are challenging that approach, proving a new way to develop and acquire talent. The timing is also right in that this crazy pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to challenge our traditional talent acquisition and employment models… no one can argue that you have to be on site or have to be able to fly-in to interview for or even fulfill a role now because we’ve all been doing it for, well, too long now. We have a chance to see this as a learning lab to expand access to opportunities and spread economic gain. I want to give everyone no matter where they are a chance to succeed based on what they’ve always been capable of and just needed a chance to prove.
Second, I want the world to dance more. Seriously, I love dancing, and I think most people do too… they may only be willing to admit it alone in the shower or when they’re really drunk at a wedding, but we all love to dance. Some of the best stories of my life involve dancing, and I bet most people would have even more stories they’d like to retell if they danced more. I want to supplant the mid-morning coffee break with a dance break! I started doing this when I learned a friend and colleague does a silent disco-tech every morning, and now I look forward to that short break every day, when the mood hits me, and I dance my heart out. Try it.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
FInd out more about Eyelinez here.
The easiest way to keep up with me personally is to follow me on LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!