Mark Johnson: It takes stubbornness and humility
Mark Johnson is an entrepreneur, “philosophy geek”, an expert in the field of search engine technology and one of the key speakers at this year’s PODIM Conference. He was product manager at three search startups, and until recently he was CEO of magazine app Zite. He sold the company twice – in 2011 to CNN, and in 2014 via CNN to Flipboard. In the following interview, Mark talks about his experience running a successful startup, about his own mistakes and lessons learned, about exits, and more.
Tell us a little about your background in entrepreneurship. What do you consider to be some of your biggest achievements so far?
I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career working for startups. I started off as a product manager at a series of search startups. I worked at SideStep, a travel search engine that was sold to Kayak; then I worked at Kosmix, a categorised search engine that was sold to Walmart; then I worked for Powerset, a natural language search engine that was sold to Microsoft’s Bing. I then spent the next few years running a product management team at Bing, where we got to work on cool things like generating the title, snippet, and URL for all search results.
The key experience was working for Zite, where I first worked as an advisor, helped them with pivoting and later on became CEO. I sold the company to CNN in 2011, and more recently sold it out of CNN to Flipboard. Few people can say they sold the same company twice!
Tell us about your plans for the future. Are you planning a new success story?
Now, I spend my time advising interesting startups and enjoy combining fun and work. I think they call it “funemployment”. I’m trying to relax and not worry too much about what’s next.
Some people call you a “philosophy geek”. Tell us about your journey from a philosopher to an entrepreneur?
The great thing about being a philosophy geek is that the journey never ends. The most important lesson I’ve learned in philosophy was from Richard Rorty, namely that poetry has a lot more to say about the nature of truth, consciousness, or free will than philosophers. I love asking those questions and reading what great philosophers have said, but I often find a novel more insightful than philosophy itself.
Likewise with startups and entrepreneurship. You’re more likely togain insights about building a business by hiking, raising a child, or going to a play than you are by reading books and blogs on entrepreneurship. Heck, I don’t even like referring to myself as an ‘entrepreneur’ because it implies that I’m some sort of expert. Insights into your business are all around you, it’s just up to you to recognise them.
What are the ingredients of creating and running a successful global business?
Having strong focus is absolutely number one. As entrepreneurs, we are jugglers, but you can only juggle so many things at once. When you get someone offering you a cheque, it’s hard to say no to revenue. But, what if it’s a distraction for the team and it’s not in your plan? At Zite, many companies wanted to license Zite’s technology as an API for money. We never did because my team was 100% dedicated to the consumer product. Building a B2B business would have taken away from Zite’s high-quality consumer product.
The second thing that can’t be overstated is building an amazing team. Hiring for intelligence and experience is important, but you also need to consider how that person will interact with other team members. At Zite, we instituted a ‘culture check’ for all new employees after they passed the interviews. We’d have the person out with the entire team in a social setting to see if they were the kind of person we’d want to work with every day.
Running a company isn’t always easy. What were your biggest mistakes and/or learning lessons?
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Clean up after them quickly after you make them. And don’t make them again. We had a botched rebranding of Zite when we launched 2.0. Our logo was universally reviled by our users. Luckily, our users rejoiced when we replaced the logo with our simple word mark.
Did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you going?
Besides a strong drink? Honestly, what often kept me going with Zite, even in the toughest times, was knowing when to take a break. I remember reading a list of tips for CEOs, where Sir Richard Branson suggested ‘working out’, which made no sense to me. Now I know why: Taking some time out for yourself to recharge is incredibly important. Though we all have to pull seven-day weeks sometimes, that pace isn’t sustainable and isn’t productive. If you want to be in a company for the marathon, slow and steady is better than fast and furious.
What was the reason that led you to work for startup companies? Why didn’t you look for a steady job in an established corporation, for example?
I’ve always bounced between companies, large and small. I started off as a product manager at one of the world’s largest – SAP. After Stanford in 2001, that was a terrible time to be looking for any job, let alone a startup job. Thus, I had to work for a big company, but my dream was always to start something of my own. However, after having worked for huge companies and brands, I appreciate the unique projects that a company the size of Microsoft can undertake. So, where will I end up next? Most likely something I started myself, but I’d definitely dive in for the right challenge at an established company.
What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t necessarily believe in a silver bullet: there’s no formula that, if you follow, you’ll be successful. I’ve seen every type of person, background, experience, intelligence, etc. as a successful entrepreneur. One factor that sticks out for me is balance and moderation. Being stubborn enough to follow your dream is important, but being so stubborn that you don’t listen to advice just doesn’t work. Having pedigree and the right background are ingredients to be a great entrepreneur, but neither necessary nor sufficient.
Personally, the elements I’ve found to be the most useful are: hard work, counsel from those whom you trust, and humility.
What do you value and what do you expect from people you work with? How did you choose your colleagues and co-workers regarding that you instituted a special ‘culture check’ at Zite?
Remember that by the time an employee got to this point, we had already determined that they were smart and capable. The real question was: Is this a person who we want to hang out with for 50+ hours per week? People at Zite tended to be smart, quirky, food-loving, people who appreciated beauty in the world. However, we didn’t limit ourselves to people that were exactly like us. Several times we made hiring decisions because someone was so different from the rest of the team and would be additive to the overall culture. When looking for cultural fit, it’s important not to be so limited that you only look for folks exactly like you. Sometimes a bit of the outside is exactly what your culture needs.
You sold Zite twice. What should a startup from the CEE region know about making an exit? Is it for everyone?
I’ve been through three acquisitions now: Twice with Zite and once with Powerset. Acquisitions are never easy, but they are amazing moments for a company. Most folks focus on what happens pre-acquisition, like the all-important purchase price. I’ve learned that, especially if you believe that being acquired is the way to realise the dream for your company, thinking about what happens post-acqusition is essential. How will your team be structured in the new organisation? What kinds of resources will you have? What are the conditions of success? These are great questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line to ensure that your acquisition goes smoothly.
What is one startup idea that has made you think: ‘Darn, I wish I came up with that…?’
Honestly? Grindr. I thought of that as a startup several years before they did it and it’s a company with simple technology that must make money hand-over-fist. Next time.
Interview by Mina Nacheva and Stanislava Vabšek