The following is an interview with Mario Schulzke, a guy who founded IdeaMensch, a community of people who are dreamers and action-takers — in other words, entrepreneurs. Mario tells us how he landed in the U.S., went from a D to a straight-A student, cleaned toilets, preferred the learning over job titles, and was particularly choosy about his bosses. Read on for a dose of inspiration.
Ishita Gupta: I'mhere with my good friend Mario Schulzke, an entrepreneur with more interesting stories than I can count. Mario s worked in advertising for a good part of his life doing digital strategy and social media, and he also runs a fantastic blog called IdeaMensh, which interviews business and thought leaders on their business lessons and life.
Mario, let s start by you describing the history of your career, starting with when you got out of college and landed in the States from your hometown, Germany.
Mario Schulzke: Sure. I came to the States when I was 16. I was just about the worst student there was in the German system, so my strategy was to be an exchange student wherever I could be so that when I came back to Germany, they d always take it easy on me. In Germany, if you fail more than one class, they ll not only fail you, but you ll have to repeat the entire year. So, I'd spend two or three months in a foreign country doing an official exchange trip and then come back and basically get sympathy from my teachers to the point where they wouldn't fail me. I'd been to France and England and then in tenth grade, I decided to go to the US.
I: My kind of guy searching for the loopholes.
M: And it always worked! In eleventh grade, I ended up in a small town of four thousand people in Montana, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I decided to go to college there and graduated four years later. It was about ten years ago when I started my career in advertising, doing digital strategy work for big agencies.
I: So you were working to pay for college or working as an intern as the start of your career?
M: I come from a rather poor family in a small town in Germany, but my parents put everything on the line to pay for my first semester in college with the expectation that I would go from a D-student to an A-student and hopefully get a scholarship somehow. I ultimately did land a scholarship over time so not all of my school was paid for by my parents, but I did clean toilets for a bit of time to make money
I: I'malways so inspired by how people do it pay for college and go to school and work at the same time. I feel quite lucky because my parents paid for college and I had no debt, but I'malways intrigued by how people do it since I'mnot sure I could. Was it hard for you?
M: No, because I was very driven at that time. My mom was a nurse and had to get a second job to help me pay for my tuition. If you eat sausage in Germany, you ll know the casing is pig s intestines. My mom cleaned those, which is a high-paying job. She would work in a hospital during the day and then at night clean the casings. I still feel horrified talking about it. I knew I wasn't going to muck around in college and I knew I had to do my part so I started by cleaning toilets. Later they promoted me to become an R.A. and then my room and board was paid for. I was in college. I had to do my part, which I started with by cleaning toilets. Then I became a Head Resident and ran the dorm, which was amazing because then all my living expenses were paid for. And every summer I'd still go home to Europe to be with my family.
I: That shows so much character about who you are. So how did you start working in advertising immediately after college?
M: In school I was a finance major for most of the time, but I hated it I couldn't see myself working in finance in any way so in my senior year I changed my major to marketing. Finance bored me and marketing seemed more creative. So I landed an internship at American Express the only agency in town and once I graduated there, they immediately hired me as a full-time employee.
My boss was an amazing guy who had thirty years of experience and to this day, is one of my best friends. When I graduated college, I started as a publicity coordinator in the agency and learned constantly from him, but three months into it, in my full-time role, he left to go and work in the big city. And so there I was not learning much from the girl who was above me she was 25, I was 21 and we were both stupid. It just wasn't a good environment for me to learn anymore, so I had six months left on my work permit and decided to move to a bigger city, Seattle, and work for a company I admired, and more importantly, work for a senior executive that I could learn a tremendous amount from. I literally wrote down five companies: Microsoft, Nintendo, Colon Weber, Cranium, and then an ad agency, which at the time was called Wong Duty.
I literally started cold-calling, trying to get informational meetings with senior executives, and ended up becoming Pat Duty s intern at Wong Duty. I was supposed to work for free, and I literally sat in the broom closet next to his office, using my own computer and just did whatever I could to prove myself. I begged myself into that internship and though I run IdeaMensch, I'mstill a part-time employee of Wong Duty today.
I: What was your goal in working with Pat?
M: To learn as much as I could. To be a sponge in the room. The thing I always tell recent college graduates is this: it's not about your job title. it's about your boss s job title. That held so true for me because I went from being someone who made thirty thousand dollars a year in Montana to begging my way to a free bus pass in Seattle. But it didn't matter to me that I was an unpaid intern because I was learning an incredible amount from the only guy I wanted to learn from. Nine years later I can say that I've only worked for CEO s, I've never had a boss who wasn't the guy running the company.
Obviously when I started, I spent a lot of time carrying projectors and setting up PowerPoint presentations and didn't get to say much, but I was always in the room and able to learn directly from the CEO s men and women who ran the companies themselves. This was a tremendous advantage and has served me so well over the years and applies to entrepreneurship because you re always learning or should be. You can learn from blogs or by working for someone, but the important thing is, is that you want to learn.
I: it's gusty that you started cold-calling companies. What was your process to do that because a lot of people are scared to do it?
M: This is going to sound ridiculous, but when I lived in Seattle, I lived on the floor of a woman s apartment whom I'd never met before. I lived there because I helped her write a business plan for something she wanted to start, and I shared a room with her and her four-year-old child. There were three of us in the bedroom and I slept on the floor. At that point, I had little to lose. When I say I cold-called people, not only did I cold-call, but since I didn't have a cell phone, I would call from public phones.
But at that point, I didn't care. I had gotten to Seattle without a job. I was staying on someone s floor. I didn't have a cell phone. My girlfriend and I broke up in Montana and I had put everything on the line. There was just no way that I was not going to pick up the phone and call. My situation forced me to be fearless, and I was scared about other things, but not to pick up the phone.
Another rule that I've learned is When in Doubt, Email. Whenever I'min a situation where I don't know what to do next or I need to gain momentum on a project or where I need to open a door, I ll literally email strangers. Sounds strange, but it works wonders.
When I started IdeaMensh, it started with interviews of only my ten closest friends. Then came three or four more people who I was awkwardly able to guilt into doing an interview. I knew I needed to gain some momentum because the interviews were not going to come by on their own. One night I had a few too many drinks at a dinner and I went home and emailed Seth Godin, whom I didn't know personally, I was just a fan of his blog. I saw his email address in the back of one of his books; I had bit of liquid courage at the time, which is fine because when other people get drunk have liquid courage, they go and talk to women. I decided to email Seth Godin.
The next morning I woke up and I said, Crap, Mario. What did you do last night ? I checked my email to get ready to write an apology email to Seth, whom I had a huge man-crush on but I was still a stranger. To my surprise, he not only emailed me back but also agreed to do an interview. He went on my website, found the questions and answered them.
I: That s awesome. Seth is really fast.
M: Yes, and that was the first time I emailed somebody I didn't know and it opened a huge door for me because every email I sent after that, I mentioned I'd interviewed Seth Godin.
I: That s a great way of getting unstuck, instead of just sitting in panic not knowing what to do. What s another tactic or tool that works for you?
M: I live by a rule I call Focus on what you can't copy, which implies that anything I can copy, I will. So, if I start a new website or see something that someone is doing that I admire, the first thing I ll do is copy it so that I don't get lost in perfectionism or overthink what I need to do. So many people overthink and get stuck and just never end up starting so to avoid that you just copy from someone else. By that, I don't mean pull a web copy off someone s website, but when you start something new, just get a basic theme, don't worry about a Twitter background yet! I've run IdeaMensh for two years now and I still don't have a Twitter background! Just get started on the stuff you can copy and do the same with opening doors and building relationships. IdeaMensh started with a basic Word Press theme with a logo that was literally auto generated by that theme.
Five years ago, everybody thought that they could build a better shopping cart than Amazon a better user experience, Flash and what not. What they missed is why not copy what already works and focus on the content instead?
I've also learn that you have to test out your ideas fast because the longer you think about it without taking action, the more likely doubt and fear will sneak themselves in. Seth always talks about shipping and I love that because you can take any idea and act on to make it happen. You ll get momentum and then once you keep trying faster and faster, you ll gain momentum and then things will become easier. I always say to people, fail fast.
I: I want to come back to the idea of mentorship because personally, though I've taken a lot of action, there hasn't been anything I've done that wasn't achieved without the help of another person or a great mentor being there to guide me. How has having a mentor been integral to changing your life?
M: That s a really good question. I have a lot of mentors and I'mfortunate in that way. I get to learn a lot from people through IdeaMensh and what I would say is that mentorship has always provided positive nudges for me. They won't necessarily say Hey Mario, you re doing this wrong but they ll help me with ideas and pushing me forward positively. I email Seth all the time and he encourages me about my ideas, which always makes me feel like continuing to pursue them. So for me it's about those little nudges and I have a list of about twenty people who over the years consistently provide those nudges. Sometimes it is advice, sometimes a warning, but successful people want to help you.
When you re sitting in a room and not pushing an idea forward, it's a lot harder to get mentorship but when you re working on something and you re putting it out there and you re exposing it to the world, you re going to get to know a lot of different people. Those people might end up being friends or mentors, and the thing to remember is, don't always look at what you can get out of a relationship, look at what you can give first. I tell this to recent college graduates, don't just email someone, Hey, I'mthis person and this is what I can do and this is what I want. Can you help me ? Instead, have something to offer. Bring out something you can give away. For me, when I graduated college in 2002, I set up my personal blog and figured out how to set up blogs. After that I probably set up a hundred blogs for business executives or people I ran across, and it was a great thing to give. And after college you have a lot to give you might be really good at social media or analytics or understanding your generation. Those are all gifts you have to give. You can't just be selling things or yourself to people all the time, it doesn't create the right tone for long-time relationships.
I: So you would set up blogs for free for account execs. or CEOs?
M: Yes, all for free. I have a hosting account and I probably host close to two hundred sites, and I don't charge anyone because it costs me only a miniscule amount to host a website for a friend. And over the years I've hired a lot of college graduates the ones who would email me and say Hey, I know you re working on this project. Let me know how I can help. Often it was as simple as doing online research or putting together an interview list, so it doesn't have to be rocket science, but the thing I cared about was someone being proactive and opening doors by trying. They're not just coming in and saying Here s what I want from you, they're saying How can I help you ?
I: That s great. Want to share a pivotal business lesson or two with us?
M: The first lesson is to try as fast as you can. Yes, just try. One hundred percent of the time, trying is better than not.
The second lesson is: don't overwhelm yourself. I know people with to-do lists with 80 things on them. Whenever I do a list like that I get overwhelmed and don't know where to start, so I don't do anything. When there s too much on my plate I feel paralyzed and not smart enough to know where to start!
So here s my challenge to you: Try to accomplish three things every day. Just set out to do three things every day that will move you toward a new idea or a new job or a new project or a passion, whatever it is. It applies to everything – finding a job, losing weight, starting a business. With only three things you ll actually be able to accomplish something and can use that momentum to keep going, instead of feeling helpless. So do three things, not seventeen, not sixty-four, not zero, just three.
The last lesson is, and I believe in this concept whenever I'mstuck or in doubt, email a stranger. And if you email me, I ll get back to you and if there s something I can help you with, I ll do it! Get in that habit of reaching out and of opening doors.
About: Mario Schulzke is the founder of IdeaMensch, a community he started to help people bring their ideas to life. The site features interviews with entrepreneurs such as Seth Godin, Tony Hsieh, Jessica Jackley, Craig Newmark, Nancy Brinker and Gary Vaynerchuk. Before this, Mario spent 10 years managing digital strategy teams at advertising agencies on the West Coast.
He s a first generation immigrant who came to America at the age of 16, from Germany and now lives in Montana. Learn more about him here.