Offit Kurman and Citybizlist would like to congratulate the 2015 finalists nominated for the Ernst & Young (EY) Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in Maryland. Comprised of the region’s outstanding and innovative business leaders, this diverse group of entrepreneurs represents the state’s present and future. Winners will be announced at gala event Thursday, June 25, 2015 at The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.
In honor of the nominations, we are running this interview with Todd Marks, one of last year’s finalists. Our conversations with current finalists can be found at the Baltimore Citybizlist homepage here.
Todd Marks is the CEO of Mindgrub, a software development company based in Baltimore, Maryland. Started in a basement, Mindgrub has grown in a technology innovation agency that produces mobile and social web apps and games. The company has been named one of Baltimore’s “Best Places to Work” (Baltimore Magazine, 2015) and has been listed in the Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine’s annual feature of America’s fastest growing private companies. Mindgrub’s clients include Yamaha, Smithsonian Magazine, Catapult, Baltimore County Public Schools, and University of Maryland Baltimore County. Recently, in addition to its software products, Mindgrub has started to venture into digital marketing.
Q. How did Mindgrub get its start? How did you become an entrepreneur?
TODD MARKS: In the education system, they don’t want you to leave. It;s really hard with any profession if you’ve got a day job and you have a lot of kids and you’re the only working spouse to take that leap of faith. I wanted to start teaching part-time and start something in tech because, at the time—this was 1998, 99 when I was a teacher, and the Internet was just absolutely booming. I had a kayaking partner that worked for an agency in town that knew a lot about Adobe or Macromedia Flash, which was a really hot product at the time. It was the first product that allowed you to have a seamless experience on the Internet: you could be in the Flash environment and you could continue to interact without having to refresh the page, and I knew that would become a great platform for education.
I thought it was a great opportunity to move onto the web and be able to do some online e-learning, and be a pioneer in that space. So, as a teacher I wanted to move in this space, I had a buddy who also was working for a company and wanted to start a company, so I said, “Hey, let’s start one together.” We had a good run for a couple of years and then after September 11th, we went our separate ways, and that’s when I started Mindgrub as an independent consultant.
Q. How have you been able to keep up with the tech market in the past decade or so?
A. We were fortunate because we entered in the marketplace making mobile apps. Mobile was a completely different skill set. Now, you have some cross-compiling tools that you can use web technologies to make mobile apps, but at the time it was first objective C development to make Apple iOS apps. There was a completely different skill set and nobody had it—brand new. At the time I was still teaching at UMBC—this was 2007—and I was working for the digital agency in New York, teaching at UMBC, and I grabbed a couple of interns and said “let’s figure out how to make mobile apps”. One of our first big clients was GEICO, who had a digital agency and a digital agency. Their digital agency was a lot more, maybe, traditional-media based, so they did not have the application development. And so GEICO tried to do it in-house. They were having a hard time hiring iOS developers because they didn’t exist—brand new technology. I was a teacher, really good at teaching how to do things, you know, how to learn programming. I had a couple of bright interns and we were able to figure it out. Sure enough, I get a call from GEICO who—as with a lot of our big clients—said, “We really need help with mobile application development.” We’ve since made about ten apps for GEICO.
Q. How do you identify the partners you work with? What do you see other tech entrepreneurs doing that gets you excited?
I really get excited when somebody is trying to get into a new industry or trying to do something that is not a 10% pivot, but something that is somewhat radical. So, there’s [mobile client management app] Artichoke—you know, [founder] Justin [Shelby] owned a couple of gyms and he saw a big problem in the gyms in that there was no good means for trainers to manage their clients to make sure that they’re paying on time, sending them reminders if they need to pay for the next couple of months, and so on. The idea for Artichoke, which started with his gyms, was much bigger than that for actually working with service providers that managed their own client list needed to manage recurring payments, etc. He came to us, he was a startup and had other businesses—I knew he was a savvy business owner—he came to us to help build his product, which we did. There’s Curiosityville, another exciting startup, which was getting in the education space using games as the educational vehicle for learning. Susan [Magsamen], who was the CEO there, had a vision for using games that would stress the four major academic areas: mathematics, reading, writing, and history. The cool thing was it was gameplay that got matrixed against the Common Core curriculum, that got matrixed against these learning areas. We did the visualization for their learning management system to show progression against these four predominant learning areas, and then we created the games for her to actually do the interaction for this learning. She already had a really good team, she had funding—it was actually one of her investors that linked us up with her—and so it was just a really good fit because they were highly qualified, a really unique thing that they were doing in the marketplace—which gets me excited.
Now, we’re working with big brands like Wendy’s, redoing their digital experience and mobile applications. We build apps for Yamaha, AOL, Hopkins, University of Maryland—just big organizations around here, because we were really first and best to market in the custom mobile application development space.