Don’t sweat the mistakes—big or small. They happen and the sooner you get over it, the sooner you can get back to being productive.
Austin-based Entrepreneur Marc Smookler founded six companies, three of which are current market leaders in their respective spaces: a commercial real estate data platform (IdealSpot), a successful online retailer (Sake Social), and a cutting-edge marketing service platform (Written.com).
His largest success to date is Fonality—a cloud and open-source based PBX competitor to Avaya and Cisco that was acquired by NetFortis in 2017. Marc also founded Sake Social, the largest online retailer and highest-ranking online destination for all things related to Japanese sake. His most recent project, IdealSpot, helps everyone in the commercial real estate and retail ecosystems better understand local markets and communities through the use of better data.
Smookler is also a partner and mentor at Austin’s top tech incubators, Capital Factory and TechStars, and serves as a board member and trusted advisor for several companies in the B2SMB and B2C spaces.
Smookler graduated with a degree in corporate finance from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and worked in banking and finance for several years before becoming the “webpreneur” he is today. When he’s not busy running his companies and mentoring Austin’s next generation of entrepreneurs, he likes spending time with his wife, son and their standard poodle, playing PC games and, of course, discovering new bottles of sake.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
In 2008, I ate dinner at a sub-par sushi restaurant, and I had my first bottle of premium sake served chilled. Over the next few weeks, I frequented many sushi restaurants in search of the same sake brand but with better quality sushi. I did not find it. In fact, I realized that each restaurant that I went to had different brands altogether. So, I did what most people do nowadays, I Googled the name of the brew. Nothing. I took a step back and Googled the word “sake” and hoped for the best. The number one result was a Wikipedia article. I then clicked through the next 10 sites and not a single one of them actually sold sake. Lots of disparate information and nothing close to getting a bottled delivered.
I then decided to try the e-commerce wine sites. Each sold a few sake brands but provided very little information about them. I ordered some bottles only to be disappointed when they arrived; they were nowhere near the quality of what I was hoping for or expecting. During the next few months, I scouted the sake sections of several local liquor stores and premium grocers, randomly buying any bottle with Japanese characters.
Later, in 2008, I traveled to Japan to visit my brother who lives in Tokyo. During a stop-over in Kyoto, I took a private tour of a sake brewery which proved to be an amazing experience. The history, the science, the labor that went into every bottle blew me away. I was shocked at how something like sake, which is so central to the culture of one industrialized country, is such a mystery outside of the neighborhood Japanese restaurant in the U.S.
When I returned home, I purchased the domain name “SakeSocial.com” and began to work on my fourth startup venture. I have taken what I thought are the biggest barriers to American consumers buying sake and worked hard to overcome them. Namely, educating, helping consumers find what sake brew(s) best suit their palate, providing a community where others can share their thoughts, offering a Sake of the Month Club where an expert takes consumers on a tasting adventure and presenting an easy-to-use e-commerce experience with peer reviews and suggestions.
Being a web-entrepreneur, I had no idea what I was in for launching a sake business. I figured, launch a webby 2.0 site, with a robust e-commerce package and community plug-ins, buy some inventory from an importer, and BAM! A piece of cake, right? Then came my first call with a consultant: five pages of notes and more questions than answers. His cautionary tale was no joke: Prohibition laws, restricted interstate commerce, licensing restrictions, and the like. To this day, the list of hurdles to jump is still growing.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I start each week (Monday morning) by creating my list of things that I need to accomplish and break it down based on role types (i.e. sales, marketing, product, operations, etc.). It helps keep me focused and driving hard to what is important (moving the needle on all my projects).
That said, each day is a constant juggling of priorities, but after 20 years of building companies and products from scratch, I have come to love it. The chaos. The daily storming the hill. I now embrace the journey more than the end results which helps to temper the daily ups and downs of startup life.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I have a very lean process of testing ideas before bringing anything to market. A simple landing page, with some simple messaging and signup, and some basic Adwords (and a budget of a few thousand dollars) can teach you a lot about an idea. Whenever I spin out of a project and have an appetite to dig in again, I can quickly test multiple ideas and see which ones get the most market traction to help me in my decision-making process.
Once I am ready to make an “early” bet on an MVP (minimum viable product) I try to be as lean as possible and de-risk as much as I can by myself before inviting anyone to help me and thus increasing the risk.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am currently most excited about how, across multiple industries, people are becoming more data-driven in their decision making processes.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I actually have created a number of tricks to help me weather the daily grind of being an entrepreneur. First and foremost though, as mentioned, I focus on the journey and less on the end result. That way, I don’t worry if something will work or not. I just continue to execute and hope for a little luck along the way.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Less ego and don’t sweat the mistakes—big or small. They happen and the sooner you get over it, the sooner you can get back to being productive.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I disagree increasingly that you have to be a developer or coder to start a tech business.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Use contractor networks like Fiverr, Upwork, Mechanical Turk, etc. to help scale yourself.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I am a big believer that salvation lies in automation—especially when it comes to sales and marketing funnels. I am a fan of tiered email campaigns based on a decision tree and the delivery of curated emails to help people convert on their own. I am currently using Intercom.com in one of my businesses, Mailchimp in another, and we are making sure that we are nurturing funnels as best we can.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Wow, so many to pick from. I was fired from one of the companies I started. I overcame it by dusting myself off and heading back to the coffee shop the next day and focusing on the grind—finding the next thing to sink my teeth into. The faster I could get back to being productive on a new project, the faster I got over the pain of the failure.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If I had the time, I would raise a fund around gobbling up a number of sub-optimized, e-commerce businesses and turning on best-in-class processes and tools and build a portfolio.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I buy a lot of books on Audible.com. When in transit, driving, walking to a meeting, etc., I listen to fiction to help rest my mind.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Spotify. Music helps get me in my various productive zones. From writing to designing webpages, to message maps, to building spreadsheets. Music sets the tone for the moment.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I am currently reading The Red Rising series by Pierce Brown because it’s fun, imaginative, and I hate listening to people write about how awesome they are (non-fiction).
What is your favorite quote?
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- When you come up with a potential new business idea, don’t be afraid to put a little bit of time, money and development around testing it in the market before either committing or walking away.
- As an entrepreneur, it’s key to prioritize your time each week so you can spend your energy focused on tasks that will move the needle. Interruptions will always come up, but having a fresh list of top priorities can make navigating the chaos a little easier.
- It’s okay to scale yourself up by outsourcing tasks to other specialists or contractors.
- When faced with failures, no matter how big or small, it’s important to pick yourself up and keep moving. Setting and pursuing new goals is one of the best ways to get over some of the roadblocks life throws at you.