What are you working on right now?
Evaluating the pros and cons of raising capital. The pros have the edge.
Where did the idea for launching your business come from?
Back in the 1990s my mentor always told me, “Enter new markets with lots of competition and strive to be the best.” So when I left his newsletter publishing company in 2000 I sat out my 18-month non-compete and in 2002 launched a direct competitor to my former company. I followed my mentor’s advice too well. He got pissed off and tried to sue us.
How do you make money?
We left the publishing business and today our core product is online training in Sales, Leadership, Employment Law Compliance and Safety. We make money when companies decide that our 8-minute training modules convey learning concepts more efficiently than other e-learning platforms or traditional instructor-led training. If people buy into our narrative, which stresses short modules for a short-attention-span workforce, we win new customers.
What does your typical day look like?
There is no typical day. I will say that a recurring theme in my work-life is struggling to stay focused on strategy, which is the CEO’s job. Whenever I get sucked into operational duties, I tell myself, “You shouldn’t be doing this. You shouldn’t be doing this.”
How do you bring ideas to life?
I introduce them to my team. Often they think my brilliant new ideas suck, but occasionally there’s a keeper. Steve Jobs had a third eye and could see things nobody else saw. I don’t. I need to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and can cut through my reality distortion field. My saving grace is that over the years I’ve come up with a few really good ideas that have grown our business.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Mobile learning. It’s still in its infancy but we’re about to see a tipping point. Most B2B training will soon be delivered on a “solutions-in-the-moment-of need” basis using smartphones and tablets. For example a sales rep who’s traveling to a client meeting will watch an eight-minute module about relationship building while she’s on the plane. We’re going to see less and less “fire hose” training where you sit 20 people in a conference room for eight hours with an instructor. Humans will play a coaching role rather than a formal teaching role.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
In college I was a bartender at a dive bar in Tucson. One day I cut off a drunk and he threw a glass ashtray at me. I went ballistic and literally dragged him out outside. After that I quit. Lesson: Never stay in a job that makes you be somebody you don’t want to be.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Tough question because in 2002 my co-founder and I couldn’t have known that print newsletter publishing would begin disintegrating in 2006 as the Internet commoditized information. Or that during that calamity we’d get hit by another one — the Great Recession. Through it all we morphed our publishing company into a successful Web-based training business. In retrospect, I’m struck by how many correct decisions we made during that difficult transition.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I say, “I don’t know,” and recognize that that’s okay as long as I find someone who does know. We live in an era where being above-average isn’t good enough. I’m very good at creating e-learning content, but the more I do this job the more I realize how little I know about IT, Sales, Marketing, Finance and Operations. My job is to hire people who are off-the-charts good at that stuff.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I underestimated the complexity of technology when we morphed ourselves from a print-based publishing company into an e-learning company back in 2009. If I’d known, I’d have brought in outside expertise right away and it might have saved us two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
That’s a trick question. If I had an idea within my area of expertise I couldn’t share it. Outside my area of expertise, any idea I’d have would be worthless.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I’d reduce violence against women in the Third World. I don’t know how . But people in backward countries have surprising access to global communications these days. Maybe there’s an opportunity to provide messaging (through YouTube and other social media) that gradually erodes Dark Age attitudes about women.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I went great white shark cage diving in Gansbaai, South Africa in 2001. I had 16-foot great whites swimming within inches of me and – surprise – was more fascinated than afraid.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
• Dropbox.com. You can access all your files in a single folder that appears on all the devices you use – an incredible time-saver.
• Audible.com has changed my life. While driving to and from work I “read” at least 20 books a year that I didn’t read before.
• Rottentomatoes.com shows what dozens of reviewers thought about a given movie. Great way to avoid wasting time on clunkers.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Mastering Change, by Ichak Adizes. The book is about identifying the personality and competencies you need in a successful top team. Adizes helps you understand what makes a great CFO, a great Sales Director, a great Head of Engineering and so on. I read the book 15 years ago and still remember it vividly.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
There’s only one: Verne Harnish, author of “The Rockefeller Habits.” He’s plugged into thought leaders and points me to interesting stuff.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I was reading “A Year in the Merde” – a book about an English businessman who spent a year working in Paris. After waiting hours at city hall to get his work permit, a starched bureaucrat told him his photograph was unacceptable. Why? “You’re not supposed to smile, Monsieur.”
Who is your hero?
Comedian Andy Borowitz. His blog on political/social issues in America is hysterical. The way his twisted mind finds humor in current events is astonishing.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about managing people?
There’s nothing scarier than employees who tell me what they think I want to hear.
How do you achieve work/life balance?
It’s easy for me. I love my job and can’t wait to go to work every day. And I love my family and can’t wait to go home.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.