Jan 7, 2021
Todd Marks is Founder and CEO at Mindgrub, an agency, consultancy, and support company that designs technology for people to transform businesses, creates enterprise mobile apps and web applications, provides digital marketing, and “unlocks human potential.” Winning Inc. 5000’s Design/Development Firm of the year five years in a row might suggest that this is a notable tech firm. Yes, but this same company has also won the American Marketing Associations Marketing Excellence Award for Best Branding Campaign. How does this all fit together?
A “high school math and computer science teacher” turned technologist, Todd collaborated with friends at his website- and eLearning-focused digital agency in the late-90s. In 2002, he founded Mindgrub as an engineering group writing code: building Flash, HTML, and CSS applications. When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, Todd recognized an important “disruption in technology,” and redirected his efforts to web application development and mobile application fulfillment. Customers soon requested information architecture, leading to larger projects.
Early on, the company ran with agency style, top-down, waterfall project management. Today, it specializes in DevOps/agile product, mobile, and web development; user experience design, testing, and emerging technology utilization; branding, digital and traditional marketing, and application support. It has redefined the meaning of “full-service” agency by reaching back to the very beginning – developing the plan, the strategy and designing the software product and pushing forward to the very end – marketing to make sure the product ends up in the hands of its target customers, and then supporting it.
The agency manages the development of a strategic blend of technical projects in parallel with a comprehensive marketing framework. The process? Identify and define application users. Analyze competitors and the market. Conduct stakeholder interviews. Test hypothetical solutions (rapid-prototyping) to build the high-level functionality requirements on the technical side and lower level functionality user stories on the marketing side. Design the software – the information architecture, the product build, the user interface – and then provide the needed support and market the product.
In this interview, Todd discusses the increasingly important role of technology in the marketing world.
In particular, marketing needs automation to effectively manage and move prospects through the customer journey.
Todd says COVID took the governor off the business. Today, the virtual workplace means the company can hire excellent talent anywhere – the company has grown from 105 employees at the beginning of the year to 155 with another 30 or 40 contractors.
Todd identifies 7 kinds of business opportunities:
Todd has written and contributed
to a number of books including Flash Magic, New
Masters of Flash, and
Web Design in a
Nutshell. He sits on the
advisory boards for Loyola University’s MBA program, the Maryland
Technology Council (MTC) (Chairman of the Board since 2018), and
the Northeastern Maryland Tech Council (NMTC). He can be reached at
his company’s website at: mindgrub.com or on LinkedIn.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Todd Marks, Founder and CEO of Mindgrub, based in Baltimore, Maryland. Welcome to the podcast, Todd.
TODD: Thanks for having me, Rob.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by giving us a rundown of Mindgrub and where the business excels?
TODD: Absolutely. Mindgrub is an agency, a consultancy, and a support company. We make enterprise mobile apps, web applications, and perform digital marketing, and we excel at unlocking human potential.
ROB: Wow. That’s a pretty wide range. A lot of people just do the digital marketing part, but you’re also, you said, support, and also building applications. Where did you start? Were you doing all of that from Day 1? How did the business evolve?
TODD: That’s a great question. I really started the business in 2002. I had a startup with some partners in ’98-’99, and after September 11th we went our separate ways. In 2002 I founded Mindgrub, and I really focused on Flash application development at the time. It became Flex. I also did some web application development with HTML and CSS. I did that for a number of years; I worked in New York, worked for a Deloitte brand for a little bit, and then in 2008 the iPhone came out. I knew that was a big differentiator.
I was working in Chicago at the time. I’ve kind of glamorized the story, but it was a cold day in Chicago and I got splashed by a cab. Meanwhile, I was going back and forth to Maryland and it was getting warmer and warmer at the time, and I couldn’t take the winter in Chicago. The SDK was released in January 2008, and by March I was done going to Chicago. I was also teaching at University of Maryland Baltimore County, teaching instructional technology but working with a lot of technical students on campus. So, I quit my day job, came back to Maryland, holed up in my basement and started making some early mobile apps.
We started out as really web application development and mobile application fulfillment, and we did a great job. Engineers. But my clients started to ask, “You do design; can you do a little information architecture?” And I could, so I started to do that as well. Then we found ourselves growing into larger and larger projects, and we evolved from doing a lot of agency style, top-down, waterfall sort of project management to evolving a little bit more into agile.
With agile it takes a lot more planning up front, so we found ourselves doing a lot of the strategy and planning, which we call Sprint Zero, but it’s really identifying the users of the application, doing some competitor analysis, some market analysis. With those users, we’ll do stakeholder interviews, testing, you name it, and we’ll inevitably come up with a list of epics, which is the high level functionality they need, and user stories, which is a lower level functionality. From those users, we then design the software, we do that information architecture, we build it, and then we evolved into supporting it. So we have a support team as well, which I mentioned, called Aces.
Then finally that full continuum was that we’d market it. We would release software, and a lot of times these enterprise mobile apps we’d put in the store – the clients would say, “We don’t have any downloads but it’s in the store.” We said, “What marketing did you do?” “Nothing. It’s in the store.” “Did you even do optimization for the store?” “No.” Particularly, that store is not optimized. It doesn’t necessarily get crawled effectively. There’s some dark arts there that you can add some optimization for search engines. But you need landing pages, you need newsletters, you need marketing automation. There’s all these additional things.
So, we were getting unhappy seeing our clients not successful. We’ve made apps for Wendy’s and Yamahas and Geicos of the world, and they always have tons of downloads. They have millions of people in a database somewhere and they can get hundreds of thousands of downloads. But for our startups that didn’t have that marketing automation tool, they don’t have a big CRM, they don’t have a huge database of prospect users, they have to do marketing.
Long story long, we are an end-to-end agency. We do everything from planning, design, development, support, and ongoing marketing. We don’t just do it at the agency level, but we also have become a bit of a consultancy as well where we compete against the Accentures and the Deloittes of the world on that kind of channel.
I see there’s really two camps. There’s the Big Four on the agency side, WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu – and the Big Four on the consulting side – Deloitte, Accenture, Booz, and Booz started out as an accounting company and now they’re a consulting company. We inevitably play right in between. One of our taglines is that we’re a very technical agency, which is our differentiator, and we’re an extremely creative consultancy, which is a differentiator.
ROB: It’s certainly a differentiator, the creativity side. You can imagine there are probably a great number of development shops that – well, a lot of folks can’t actually deliver a functioning application. We’ll start there. But of those that can, you can see them delivering the application and saying, “Here it is,” and then you get to the customer saying, “What do I do with it? How do I promote it?”
But for you to take on that responsibility – it seems like there’s quite a shift in responsibility from “I gave you a functioning app” to “I am also accountable for people using it.” Was that a difficult transition to embrace, or was it somehow more natural?
TODD: I would say it was a little bit difficult in that we started out as an engineering group, very analytical, writing code. Marketing started out really with advertising and more around the creative marketing – communication planning, branding and identity, visuals. We could always do application visuals, but we never really tackled that advertising piece.
But marketing evolved to not just be the visual aspects of marketing, but the technical aspects of marketing. You think about the HubSpots and the Marketos and the Pardots of the world – those have only been around in recent years, and they automate the marketing process. They have APIs, and you can integrate with them and you can pull data and you can set up key performance indicators so that you can create rich dashboards to see how your marketing is performing. You can set up smart lists and you can automatically move people along from one list to another based on their interaction in your software or your marketing products. So, marketing itself has become extremely technical.
As a technical company, I saw a lot of advertising and marketing agencies getting left behind because they weren’t very technical. So we were able to come in from the technical side, set up the KPIs and the smart lists and the automation, and integrate with the API so that based on user interaction in the app, we can then progress them in the marketing automation software. That was a skill that marketing and advertising agencies didn’t have, and the piece we didn’t have necessarily was some of that design/advertising creativity.
So, we did a couple acquisitions there. We acquired a marketing company that brought communication planning, branding, and identity with them, so we were able to add that competency. Now we’re able to do really well on it because we have that full continuum. A lot of times we’ll get a customer where we’ll come in with a mobile app, but next thing we know, they then want us helping out with their website. They otherwise used a more traditional agency, but they see how technical we are, and creative, and they say, “Can you help with our website? And by the way, we have a kiosk too.”
We call that the hat trick. Wendy’s, for instance, we designed their mobile app and then we helped design parts of their website. We designed their kiosk. I don’t know if you have Royal Farms down there. I don’t know if you’re more Sheetz or Wawa, but Royal Farms is a pretty big convenience store, and they’re also a quick service restaurant with chicken based out of Maryland. Town & Country actually said they were the number one fast food chicken in the world, which is a pretty big accolade.
Needless to say, we had a hat trick with them. We designed their mobile app, then we redesigned their kiosk, we’ve helped with their website. But in that case, they were so confident with our ability that they actually gave us traditional marketing as well. They have a big campaign called the Chicken Palooza campaign, which is billboards and sheets and mugs. We redesigned their chicken icon, which is a classic.
So that’s a case where we are the end-to-end agency, but we really are end-to-end. We’re not just doing their traditional and digital marketing; we’re doing their mobile apps, their websites, their loyalty program, integrating with their backend services. And this is all in the vein of marketing, but now there’s enterprise application development that is a marketing effort. It’s meant to increase sales. It’s an app, it’s a utility function, but it is also a marketing function. We’ve gotten good at marketing.
ROB: That’s interesting. We do not have that chain, but now I’m wishing that we did. It also seems like being in that chair for marketing is helpful to stay top of mind. A lot of times if you talk about a site build or an app build, some people are always working on their app and their site, but some people are much more burst-y about it. They complete an initiative and then they stop. If you were only involved in the technology side, you might not be in the conversation at the right time when they’re ready to rebuild. somebody’s forgotten, turnover has happened a little bit, that sort of thing.
TODD: You’re absolutely right. The marketing buyers still consider a mobile app a one-off project, whereas our consulting buyers, they’re buying teams for years on end with option years to extend. Where we fill in a nice spot is that we are very technical, but we’re extremely creative, so we’re able to be that agency of record that can do it all. We’ll get large monthly retainers as the agency of record, but within that retainer, it is mobile apps and marketing automation and SEO and banner ads and web micro sites. You name it. It’s a very wide mixed variety of stuff that we can do.
Whereas to your point, just a mobile shop or just a web shop, if they’re just that technical shop, they’re considered more of a project fulfillment company and not somebody that you would otherwise give to on a big monthly retainer.
ROB: You’ve mentioned quite a range of clients. You’ve mentioned startups and you’ve certainly mentioned some very enterprise customers. Have you always had that range of client mix? Where did you start out in some of those earlier years?
TODD: That’s a good question. The first couple clients for Mindgrub were actually large clients because it was myself. I was always able to position myself on bigger jobs and bigger brands and ended up working in New York City and Chicago with big brands for a while.
When I started getting some work for the team on the web side, that started really back in 2002 when I founded the company. I always had some independent contractors, some interns, and even though I was in and out of a couple jobs at that point, I always had some freelancing work. And that was just smaller projects in my network, but not my job as the consultant or the day job I worked for, which were these bigger brands.
What changed a lot of it is when mobile came out, I’d work with these bigger brands and I jumped ship with all the contracts I had and all these brands and opportunities to go start a business in my basement. I really hung my shingle on mobile. A lot of the marketing I did was mobile, mobile, mobile, “we make mobile apps.” At the time, I also had a product company. I was trying to make a mobile product.
I got a lot of exposure to mobile there, so a lot of my network that were the bigger brands were just chomping at the bit to find mobile developers, and they got to me. So on the mobile side, we started working with really big brands. On the web side was a little smaller.
Now that we’ve progressed, we’ve always actually done more web work than mobile because most mobile apps have a web backend, plus all the individual web work. Fast forward 18 years, mobile always attracted big brands, but web after 18 years also attracted big brands. On the application side, we do a lot with the big brands.
On the marketing side, our first acquisition was just over 5 years ago, and we’ve really grown that team. I’d say our marketing team, when they’re just working direct for the client, we’ve really moved up the chain. But we’re a little bit more midmarket. Now, when our mobile and web division nets an enterprise client such as Wendy’s or Royal Farms – Wendy’s is a little different because we worked with the IT buyer. Even though we did their mobile app and helped design their website and kiosk, we were not necessarily working with the marketing department. They had it together and we were brought in.
On Royal Farms, they’re a little bit smaller of a business, so therefore we were able to come in on mobile, get the website, get the kiosk, but then they were a small enough company that the same conversations we’re having with their head of IT, we’re having with their marketing department. Next thing you know, their marketing department is asking us to do some fulfillment, and then it leads into this long-term great relationship where we’re fulfilling a lot of aspects from mobile to marketing.
So really, to answer that question, the big brands find us because of our differentiators, which happen to be on the technology side, and then they learn that we are good across the board. We are actively trying to push on our marketing side, and I know we just won eight communicator awards and five – some other. I know we’re submitting for the Webbies right now. Our marketing team and the creative team, they don’t want to be in the shadows anymore.
We’re winning all these awards, so now we’re starting to stand on our own two feet as far as the look and feel. Some of our communications that we’re doing, some of the branding that we’re doing – these were things that we didn’t start with 18 years ago, we really started pushing on 5 or 6 years ago. But because we have the experience working with big brands and they have that trust on the technology side, now we’re commanding direct marketing work.
For Sylvan, which is a really big online education institution, we did their advertising videos. For ExxonMobil, we did their TV spot. We filmed it, we used Mindgrubbers as actors in it, and there was only I think one or two paid actors that we had for that shoot. We were able to do it all in-house. It’s just amazing, some of the things that we’re able to do now. I would’ve never thought I’d be sitting on a TV commercial shoot, which I get to do now, which is super exciting.
ROB: That’s absolutely fascinating for the variety. One of my advisors was positing to me the other day – his perception was that many businesses, and particularly enterprises, were much more eager to send marketing work to marketing agencies than technology work to technology shops. How do you feel about that suggestion? Do you see truth in it? And is it shifting, if that has been the case?
TODD: You said marketing work for marketing agencies and technology work for technology. Did you mean they’re more willing to send technology work to marketing companies than they are willing to send marketing work to technology companies?
ROB: That they’ve been more willing to hire a marketing agency while still trying to build a technology capability in-house, and maybe less likely to outsource parts of that. That was the suggestion and perception. How do you see it?
TODD: Gotcha. I think you have to look at each buyer, and then when the core IP of the business is. If you had a business that was let’s say a law firm, marketing and technology is not anywhere near their wheelhouse, so they would probably subcontract both.
But if you’re an events company and that events company is more of not a platform play, they’re the coordination and they’re hosting physical events, and you’re a bunch of marketers, you’re all about marketing, but you’re not a platform event company. So you probably pull your marketing in-house, but at some point you want to go build a platform because now marketing of events is online, and you’re not in a good position and Zoom’s not cutting it anymore. You would then outsource your technology because you’re a marketing core. And even though you’re growing and you start to build some products, you still probably at that point would think, “I want to do my marketing in-house.”
Let’s say you’re the opposite. Let’s say you’re that company that realizes there’s disruption in the event space and Zoom isn’t cutting it and there’s a huge opportunity to recreate that in-person experience. You might go out and build software, and you’re not going to be good at marketing, and you’re probably not even going to try to do it in-house, or if you do you’re going to flail because you’re a software company. You build product. So, you should outsource your marketing.
I really think it goes back to the buyer and the nature of the work they do and what is core to their IP versus things they should be subbing out.
ROB: I can definitely tell you’ve thought a lot about this, about the buyers, about the organizational structure. As you’ve grown, how have you thought about helping other people on your team? It seems like you’re at a point where you can’t be the only one selling, so how have you equipped other people to think about navigating organizations and understanding buyers well?
TODD: You got it. I originated pretty much every one of our departments. Now that we’re bigger, some of those departments are being created by my other leadership. But sales, I started out, like just about every founder-led company, doing what’s called founder sales. I had to sell everything. I started out as an engineer. My first company, I was raised by designers, so I went from growing our engineering department to our design department to our user experience department, accounting, the works.
Sales was finally the last department that I had to stand up, and it was founder sales. The first thing I wanted to do was find a second person that could also sell. That individual had to be highly technical, highly creative. They had to be a subject matter expert, and then they had to also be good at business development. Then I was able to supplement helping them with the contracts piece, maybe even giving them some leads that came through our contact form. But at least they could put a solution together and basically sell the work and be personable.
As we’ve advanced, I knew I needed to have a lot more people, so we really focused on process. With any business, it’s the product, the process, and the people.
We started with the product. We identified what it is we’re going to sell. Every year we organized that list of solutions. Some solutions, maybe it wasn’t great that year. We decided, let’s not push on it next year. Other solutions have been a winner for us, we’re doing multimillions in that solution and that market is big, and there’s a huge opportunity. Then we’ll promote those solutions. Then marketing knows what they’re going to be marketing, production knows where they need to do some training, what they need to ramp up. We have solutions.
The other thing we have is for every deal, we put together a deal team. Marketing works on the outside of the funnel. They’re trying to come up with contacts that could be prospects so those prospects are qualified. In our industry, we’re looking at marketing or IT buyers. We have a budget. They probably have some pain points we might be able to identify digitally. But they’re qualified contacts. They’re making them prospects, they’re putting them in Smartlist, they’re nurturing them through events, through newsletters.
Then our BD team is interacting with these prospects and they’re engaging with them. They’re having conversations. They’re sending personal emails. They’re trying to figure out their pain points as well, but is there a solution we can provide to address their pain point? From there, our BD team then, if there is a solution, they then assemble a deal team now. They brought in the lead; they’re more than likely going to be the principal manager of that deal.
We then bring in a subject matter expert and we bring in a contracts person, and that subject matter expert is either technical or creative or potentially on project management side, depending on where their pain is. If their pain point is in speedy delivery, we need to bring in some project managers to see whether it’s feasible given our timelines and resource capacities are the moment. If it’s a technical pain point, then we bring in a technical subject matter expert. If it’s a creative pain point, we bring in a creative director to really focus on what is the solution.
From the solution then, we give them a cost to produce it, a timeline, and a resource plan. Then we close the work, and we’ve turned our products into a process. Then the thing that is absolutely quintessential is we hire just the best people. We have really good products, really good process, and amazing people, so as a result, we’ve just been commanding a lot of work. We started the year at about 105, 110. We’re 155 employees with about another 30 or 40 contractors. That all started post March.
And really, COVID actually took the governor off our business. We had amazing people and process and products, but there were a lot of things that slowed us down. Driving all over the place and meeting clients physically, we spent a lot of time and energy and money on planes, trains, and automobiles. Also employees. We had a big box office in Baltimore. We also have a bar and restaurant that we use as now a food incubator, but it was a tech incubator as well. And we have a new light manufacturing space coming online. But we thought because we have now these different facilities in Baltimore, we had to have people generally in Baltimore. In a pinch we hired a few remote workers, or we’d have a really good talent that moved remotely.
But as soon as COVID hit, I said, “That’s it, we’re just going to be a virtual company; hire people wherever they live.” We’re still trying to keep the same time zone and mostly North America, although we’re looking at some points in South America now to start growing some of our own employees – but the governor came off. We didn’t have to hire in Baltimore anymore, and it was so much easier to hire when you can hire from anywhere. We’ve got amazing talent, and not having to drive around and see our clients and get in planes, trains, and automobiles – it gave us tons of time back.
All of our numbers went up. Our sales increased, our productivity increased. Our initiatives now, believe it or not, our next training is on how to take vacation. Our team members have taken one week less this time per year, so we’re actually retraining them on how to take a vacation and how to eliminate burnout because they’ve just been so stellar.
Needless to say, that’s how we’ve done it. We focused on product, process, and people. In our pipeline, it’s very, very systematic. It’s no longer the founder anymore. Myself, I’m on the BD team. I have a couple other people that do BD, and I am trying to get out there and be an evangelist and network. When I hear of opportunities, I’m constantly growing our engagement directors – that’s what our sales team are generally called – to be subject matter experts in a core vertical.
And those verticals for us are obvious things in the Baltimore area – health, cyber, government, education – but then some not-so-obvious things for Baltimore. We’re really big into retail and ecommerce and hospitality and support a lot of brands there. We’re getting into legal and insurance. We’re starting to do some financial services. So we’re in a number of industries, and I’m trying to grow those salespeople. And then I’m an evangelist. The rest of our BD team, we’re routing them deals. They’re either coming inbound or from BD efforts.
And then one more thing, just to share this amazing – and I’m a teacher; I started out as a high school teacher. I taught at university. What people will find is I’m very apt to share these things I’ve learned because it’s fascinating. I was a technical guy, and I had to learn to build a sales team.
But we even identified all our deal types, and we have sales plays. You have your outside team that tries to go out and hunt or farm and get new business development. We call that Deal Type 1. That’s a new account and a new buyer.
Then Deal Type 2 is typical stuff. A change order. They want more functionality. We teach all of our client services team and our project managers now who work with our clients to look out for Deal Type 2. That’s the change order. You’d be surprised; a lot of times they think from leadership, “You scoped this project out. We should just be able to deliver exactly what’s in this statement of work without deviation, or shame on us.” That’s not true at all. If the project deviates – and it’s certainly not agile, because in agile you can deviate as you go – if the project deviates, work with the client. If they need to come up with more budget, or same budget but you want to swap out some requirements, the change order, it’s Deal Type 2.
Deal Type 3 is adding a different service line. In our case, we do add support at the end of every contract. We go from the initial build to then going into monthly support. That’s Deal Type 3.
Deal Type 4 is not necessarily support, but upselling to marketing, for instance.
Deal Type 5 is a second project. So we’re not just adding services and values to that first project, but we’re adding a second project to the mix. Same buyer.
Deal Type 6 for us is same account but a brand new buyer with that account.
Deal Type 7 is an existing team member now getting an ongoing retainer to satisfy all of the needs of the business. We’re trying to get everybody up to that Lucky 7 where we’re that agency of record, but it’s across the board. Everything from mobile through digital.
ROB: Congratulations, Todd. It sounds like it’s been a heck of a year. We’ve seen that same thing with that switch to virtual. We definitely made that decision, and we’re seeing good access to talent. We’re seeing that talent really appreciates when you’re willing to commit to being virtual versus where you’re asking them, huddled in their home, to think about somebody moving to where you are. I think people need some relief and they need some permission to be in their own place and thrive there.
TODD: You got that right. As soon as we realized it was going to be a virtual world, we said, “If you’re a producer, you will never ever have to come back to the office from here on out if you don’t want to.” We surveyed them, and half want to come back half the time, and then it’s like a bell curve from there. But they shouldn’t have to. We can work online. We’re very data-oriented as a business, and we found we are more efficient.
That said, we’re also more disconnected from each other. So as soon as we decided that we wanted to be an online company, we knew that we had to really invest in what that meant. We used to invest in climbing walls and game rooms, and we had a virtual reality holodeck in the office. That was some fun bells and whistles, but it wasn’t really what makes culture.
Our culture is our passion, our creativity, our technology. It’s our grit. Those were the things that we had to really reinforce that we still were about online. And then we had some of the bells and whistles too. We had Wellness Week. We’re now doing a Games for Giving, where we’re essentially donating for every step that an employee does to get them out of their chairs and moving, which is really important. We do yoga lessons, we have adventure club teams where they go on regional hikes. We’re really trying to be a full experience for our team members and to really provide an amazing culture, from who we are and our values and our mission all the way through just having some really killer programming.
We’re having fun with it because it’s a disruptive time. That’s what I tell people. With Mindgrub, why have I been successful? I did have my family back here in Baltimore. As I mentioned, I was in Chicago. It was cold there, and I wanted to come home. So I had the need. I had, as they say in the book Outliers, more than 10 years’ experience and 10,000 hours, so I had the experience. Ultimately, what was successful for Mindgrub was the fact that the iPhone came out in 2008, and that was major disruption. So that really grew us.
Right now we are experiencing another boom because it is another period in our lifetimes of major disruption. I’ve learned to really make the most of it.
ROB: Excellent teaching all the way through there, Todd. I love the way you set up and structured these things for us to learn from. When people want to find you and when they want to find Mindgrub, where should they go to connect with you?
TODD: They can go, for Mindgrub, directly to mindgrub.com. And certainly I’d love if anybody reaches out to me on LinkedIn. I think that’s an amazing channel for business networking and business relationships. As I mentioned, I started out as a teacher, and I love engagement and answering questions. By all means, I am happy to do so on email or LinkedIn.
ROB: Excellent. Thank you so much, Todd, for coming on, and congratulations on everything that’s going on – the businesses, the growth. There’s a lot to learn from here, so thank you for sharing.
TODD: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.
ROB: All right, take care. Bye.
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