“Ask yourself ‘why’ every single day.” About everything you do, ask yourself, “why?” Sometimes that includes, “why not?” You never ever want to do something for long extended periods of time without an understanding of why you’re doing it in the first place. You must find the reason for moving forward for just about anything. In a recent book I read that really spoke to me, Matthew McConaughey talks about “green lights” in life. When we are supposed to go. Most of the time that means going it alone, which can be frightening, but, if you know “why” it’s important to do so, then you must.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Steiner.
Mark Steiner is the co-founder and CEO of GigSalad. As chief visionary, he leads the company’s business and marketing strategy, focusing on building a strong customer-centric team and connecting with strategic partners. His career in the entertainment industry has spanned more than 30 years.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My whole life I’ve been drawn to entertainment, primarily performance. Film, music, theatre, the visual arts, even culinary arts. I pursued my dream to be an actor in film, movies, motion pictures. I had some minor accomplishments in that pursuit, and while on that journey I made a career on the production side. Working my way through various departments as a PA, I eventually made my place in craft service. Feeding the cast and crew on film and television production sets.
I had a wonderful ten year run, then I moved from the city to far enough outside of the city that a commute on top of 12–14 hour days didn’t make particular sense. I began pursuing other things. I landed a job through a friend working as an agent in a small boutique talent booking agency, ironically, back in the city. So I ended up commuting anyway, but I enjoyed the work. I was good at it, a natural actually. It fit my strengths, gifts, talents, perfectly. I like to talk, listen, shmooze, make deals. I did that for someone else for seven years until starting my own agency, which then led me to starting GigSalad.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I became a CEO. That’s interesting because I never imagined earlier in my life having a career in “business.” Owning a company, growing that company to as many as thirty-five employees, two offices, on and on. I always considered myself a creative first, an artist, not a business person. I was not a particularly good student. I didn’t go to college except for a summer semester taking a couple gen-eds and a theater class. I’m a Jersey boy with moxie, a big imagination, a lot of luck, and here I am, the accidental CEO.
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?
Remember how I said I never planned to be a CEO and had no business experience? Well that inevitably led to starting a company built on making mistakes and learning from them, probably more than I can recall or count. But the learning process was vital to our growth and success. The humility in my inexperience, and my willingness to lean on my partner and our young team gave me the freedom to make those mistakes. Though fortunately, and possibly out of sheer luck, we never did make any big ones.
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 about that?
I am the co-founder of GigSalad. The other founder is Steve Tetrault. He had been a friend first; someone I met in church. We had talked about trying to create some business together. After many many ideas discussed we decided to stick with what has become GigSalad. There was synergy between us. We complimented each other in an easy, natural way. My weaknesses were his strengths. We got it started and then surrounded ourselves with some really talented people. Including Locke Bircher, who we made a partner. Without those two, it’s hard to imagine you’d have any interest in hearing anything from me today.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I have an interesting perspective on this. I am not a traditional CEO, but I can tell you what this CEO did and does. I am the chief cheerleader. I am undaunting in my belief that GigSalad was going to be the biggest and best for what we do. In the niche world of event marketplaces, I am relentless in the vision of what more we can become. I am an eternal optimist, a dreamer to a fault, some say. But that, and a little emotional intelligence is what this CEO brings to the picture. Responsibilities of other leaders? In our company, we have many leaders, and their responsibilities are the doing and making it all happen day to day. They also are bringing their unique perspective and expertise to the equation. Without those leaders, we are nowhere.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
My partners and I were in the audience at a session at SXSW. It was an interview by a Wall Street Journal reporter and a technology company CEO. This person graduated from Harvard, probably went to grad school there too. I’m guessing multiple degrees, software engineer and likely an MBA. Heck, he probably had a medical license and passed the bar. These two sounded so smart going back and forth with their tech speak and intellectual banter. I was sandwiched between my partners nearly in tears feeling extremely inadequate and insecure. I said to them both, “if you want to hire someone else, “like him” to run this thing, I completely understand.” Instead, they gave me their vote of confidence and support, and I am here today to tell that story. The myth is, you have to be like “that” guy or gal. I am none of that, but I am passionate, I care a great deal about our company, our team, our customers and my job is to figure out how to best serve them all.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought it was about profits and losses, and checking the balance sheets all day, every day. Instead, it’s about people, people, people. There’s still the daily grind that includes management tasks and moving the business forward, but the part I enjoy the most is connecting with the people that are part of this company. That includes our users but even more so the team I’ve built to support both myself and the partners and our company overall. I love watching our team grow and be successful, while being able to step back and lead while trusting them with the inner workings of the platform.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I rarely paint in just black and white anymore. I myself don’t fit any particular mode, and I’m not even sure what distinguishes me as an executive. In my case, I birthed an idea, made it grow, and wanted to take care of it as it grew. Like a parent, you make a baby, sometimes by accident, but now you have this living, breathing object that you instinctively want to keep alive, safe, and secure by any means possible. What’s it take to be an executive? Maturity. Selflessness. Vision. Determination. Resiliency. Patience. Faith. Yes, anyone can be an executive as anyone can be a parent. You might never feel ready to begin but you’ll figure it out as you go along. Baptism by fire so they say.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Start with a strong understanding of what is important to you. The fundamental as well as the dynamic aspects of life that you hold most dear. You will, in fact, spend a minimum of a third of your life doing your work. So in that culture, find others that share your vision, believe in you personally as the director of that culture, and then start cultivating together. Because once you invite others to the garden or field, you invite others to share in the process and it is not you alone anymore. You have to welcome and be open to other ideas in that experience.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe I’ve made the world a better place by offering a platform to help people make a living doing what they love, whether that’s singing or face painting. While that philosophy applies to our users, it also applies to our team. I always do my best to support each of my team members when they want to explore a new idea, a new role, and offer continuing education credit for each of them. I sure hope I’ve made the world a better place and I’m certainly trying every single day.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) “It will be harder than you can possibly imagine to start and stay in a company with your core in separate geographical places.”
Since the conception of GigSalad, Steve and I have never lived or worked in the same town, let alone the same state. This caused a tremendous strain on me personally, because I am an in-person kind of communicator. Some of the body language, facial expressions, tone and inflection that can only be experienced in person has been lost in our setup. But we figured it out and made it work in spite of the circumstances.
2) “Inviting others to the party is not necessarily a bad thing.”
It never initially occurred to us to get investors. Outside capital didn’t seem necessary in the beginning because we didn’t need it. How would we spend the money? What we were doing was done on a shoestring because that was enough. A couple thousand between us for seed money was all that was needed. Before we knew it, we had adopted a slow and steady “wait and see how it goes” mentality. We’ve lived within our means since.
Receiving funds up front before we earned it, before we sold something other than the idea didn’t even seem plausible. Maybe we weren’t sure the idea itself was worth something. In hindsight, that could or would have been a really, really good start. Because if you can sell just an idea, that’s pretty validating. Then the execution can likely feel easier. You can be even more confident in what you’re doing. Plus, getting to scale might happen faster.
I’ve learned, pitching the idea is at least an option. You don’t have to make a deal if it doesn’t fit. Then you can decide from there whether continuing makes good business sense on your own.
3) “Do what it takes to do only that thing”
The first seven years, from conception through beta, through official start date, until four more years in, Steve and I both had two companies. We poured everything we made from GigSalad, back into GigSalad. Hiring employees, moving out of home offices, building infrastructure, including purchasing a building for office space, etc. At times I effectively had five distinct and separate jobs. Not just different hats with one company, but five different careers, essentially. It was difficult to maintain the split focuses and it took away from the success of the main project. Find that one thing you are going to do really well, and do that. And that only.
4) “Have some plan for what the future might hold.”
You don’t have to adhere to the plan, but if push comes to shove you can refer back to it and decide then whether it still applies. We didn’t think about an exit. We didn’t think about cashing in or out for how much or when. My goodness, we didn’t even have a semblance of a business plan. We were just too inexperienced, distracted by doing work. It didn’t seem important at the time, but now, the company is at a level of maturity and success, and we founders are at a stage in life that an exit is evident. Cashing in makes sense on one level, but how much and when remains unclear.
5) “Ask yourself ‘why’ every single day.”
About everything you do, ask yourself, “why?” Sometimes that includes, “why not?” You never ever want to do something for long extended periods of time without an understanding of why you’re doing it in the first place. You must find the reason for moving forward for just about anything. In a recent book I read that really spoke to me, Matthew McConaughey talks about “green lights” in life. When we are supposed to go. Most of the time that means going it alone, which can be frightening, but, if you know “why” it’s important to do so, then you must.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hadn’t mentioned before that during my transition from living in NYC to moving to Connecticut and between working in the movies and starting my career as a talent booking agent, I created and manufactured and sold a teddy bear. It is a multi-colored rainbow of a thing. “Rainbow Friends” was meant to teach children acceptance of and hopefully the love of all colors. I hate bigotry. I loathe racism. Even broad sweeping judgments of other persons or groups of people are grotesque to me. A passion still and deep desire of mine is to reintroduce some version or variation of Rainbow Friends to the world. It would be a thrill if a stuffed animal were the gateway to more conversation, compassion, empathy, and love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure I’ve always known it, I definitely didn’t always believe it. But it seems I always lived by it nonetheless — “I believe in Me.” I trust my gut and instincts entirely. Further I trust my heart, mind and soul. From believing in my dream to start GigSalad to expanding the team to making tough decisions about our product, I always listen to what my heart and instincts are telling me.
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.
From what I know of, by what I’ve seen and read, I really admire Peter Thiel. Beyond his obvious intellect and imagination. His accomplishments and success are immense and he’s not done. I would thoroughly enjoy meeting him in person. He seems kind and like a man I can trust.
GigSalad CEO Mark Steiner: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.