Mike Munter: It’s great to see you today.
Mario Schulzke: Hey Mike. Nice to see you. Thanks for having me.
Mike Munter: So, before we start, maybe you recognize this? [shows Mario that he is wearing an IdeaMensch sweatshirt] Maybe you don’t, but we’ll get that.
Mario Schulzke: I love it. I love it. You are a better brand ambassador today than I am—thanks for wearing that.
Mike Munter: Well, thanks for passing it along to me and for your friendship over the years. You and I had a little bit of an auspicious start because I copied your idea and your design for Inspirery.
Mario Schulzke: I remember when I first saw that and I was like, “what in the world?” But I think that I’ve always kind of believed that at some point I copied IdeaMensch, from someone, right? Like, it wasn’t a totally original idea. I’m sure it was influenced by a number of different websites.
And I pulled it all together so it’s a good way to pay it forward. I actually come to think of it—I remember there was, I was living in Portland and there was a website. I want to say it was like “PDX on the move” or something like that.
It was a download the questions, upload the answers kind of thing. This is like 2008, 2009. And that certainly helped inspired IdeaMench a little too. So, I’ve been grateful that we got to meet through the website and that connection.
Mike Munter: Well, I remember I sort of mimicked your design. I really loved what you were doing. Not only the concept of IdeaMensch, but also just the way you laid it out. I thought it was great and why should I change much?
Mario Schulzke: Well, you gave credit and I think that it was all good. I mean, we became friends and have been ever since, so it hasn’t like been a problem.
Mike Munter: Well, and since then, every six months, when I look at your site—it’s got a new skin on it.
Mario Schulzke: I try to. I’ve learned that in web publishing, if you’re not constantly trying to make small changes and small improvements, at some point you’re really behind the times and you start running into all kinds of issues.
I try to tackle IdeaMensch once a year, where I do a major design or devolvement overhaul, and just see if I can do things a bit more efficiently—a little bit better.
Mike Munter: When we came on here, you were sort of talking about some of the challenges of IdeaMensch and you were saying how you feel perhaps you’re not ambitious enough?
Mario Schulzke: Yes, I mean there’s always an opportunity to take a step back, right? Not everyone knows but IdeaMensch—I would call it a small media company, that I started in around 2009, out of a personal frustration.
I was working in advertising at the time—and this inability to bring ideas to life. I started looking and I was working with all these brilliant creatives and I started looking around and I started wondering who actually brings ideas to life?
Oftentimes, it wasn’t the highly paid advertising people. It was entrepreneurs. It was people who had an idea and through just an incredible, will of force or force of will, whatever that saying is, they made an idea come to life and made it happen.
I started interviewing entrepreneurs, just out of an obsession and trying to figure out what they did that we couldn’t figure out. And, over the last decade plus that turned into a real, small media company that is run by me and my wife Carlin, where we’ve interviewed over 6,000 entrepreneurs over the last decade. And, it accelerated, right?
I think in the first year I was lucky to do, four interviews a month. One a week. And then at some point I switched to daily and I think now we’re publishing 70, 80, 90 interviews a month. But it hasn’t always gotten easier, as you probably know too. There is just a lot of noise on the internet.
I think people are busy. I think sitting down and completing an interview—all of our interviews are done in writing and it takes a fair amount of work and sort of deep focus. That is hard to come by but, we’ve evolved and I’ve been really grateful that we’re still around.
It’s always been my goal to make IdeaMench the kind of company or the kind of media property that might be around a hundred years from now. Um, so when people look back and they say, “Hey, how did Mike Munter do this back in the early two thousands?” Maybe they will read your IdeaMensch interview.
Mike Munter: Yes, well, by then maybe it will be that you will tap on something and there willl be a virtual hieroglyphic that pops up in front of you and maybe you can have a conversation with them (laughing).
Mario Schulzke: (Laughing) I might not be around for that, but I certainly want IdeaMensch to still be around.
Mike Munter: Yes. Well, your unborn baby will carry the torch at that point, perhaps.
Mario Schulzke: Well, it’s interesting. I am from Germany and in Germany we have this concept—it’s called the Mittelstand business—and a lot of German companies, even famous German companies, are not that big.
They are, they have anywhere from, let’s just say five to 500 employees, but they have been family run and operated for generations. Because of that, when times get tough, when there’s an economic downturn of sorts like a true recession or depression or whatever it might be, they are not over leveraged.
They never went public. They never went the private equity route and brought on a bunch of debt. But rather it’s a family that has done well over the years, that is able to weather the storms a little bit more easily than a company that relies on public markets or that is over leveraged.
I’ve always wanted that for IdeaMensch. I have always wanted it to be the model and operation that could maybe be around a hundred years from now. I never knew whether or not I was going to even have a child. Now, hopefully we will have a child and there at least is the chance that at some point in the future, a Schulzke other than me runs that operation and carries the torch forward.
Mike Munter: Yes. You were talking a little bit about maybe—I don’t know if I’d call them challenges, but the thought process of carrying IdeaMench forward.
Mario Schulzke: Yes. We interview entrepreneurs and I think our interviews are pretty good, but they’re not—when somebody or most people and at this point, there are hundreds of thousands of people read IdeaMensch every month—but what tends to happen is that when you read one interview, a lot of our traffic comes from Google, and it is people researching other people.
Then on the front page, there might be the person’s LinkedIn page, sometimes there’s the IdeaMensch interview, and then you read the IdeaMensch interview, and I think that experience is a very good, positive experience because you want to learn about this person and really get a deep insight into who they are. That being said afterwards, after you read that one interview, you have very little reason to stay on IdeaMensch.
Because you just see another random entrepreneur who you don’t know, you’re not going to really enjoy it—reading that interview, you are not going to get a lot of value out of that necessarily. So what I’ve been working on and what we’ve been working on is trying to diversify our content.
The big initiative, if you go on the homepage right now, I think one of our sticky posts is a list of tech entrepreneurs to watch in 2021. Right. And that kind of content is there for two reasons: one, I want to keep bringing new people like to IdeaMensch who maybe had not heard of IdeaMensch before. Two, I want to diversify the content a little bit. I want to move away from just doing text interviews.
I have no interest quite frankly, to give people advice. For example, I work in marketing. I know there’s this big push of building in public, sharing your income, and sharing your lessons on what you learned, what worked and what didn’t work, and I think that’s great. I enjoy reading those, but that’s not what IdeaMensch is about.
IdeaMensch is not about me, it’s about the people who we feature. I’m really focused on trying to do an even better job of shining the light on the people who we feature in new and different ways. But it’s challenging, I brought on a social media person, I brought on another writer slash editor, somebody who helps us put together these big posts because IdeaMensch is a side project for me and IdeaMensch is a side project for my wife as well.
I need to make sure that whatever we on-ramp, I’ve got a system in place that even when I step away or my wife steps away for a month or two months or whatever it might be, we can keep going, we don’t just come to a screeching halt and stop doing what we do. And that’s not easy. The building of those systems and processes so they actually work is hard.
Mike Munter: Yes. Well, it’s also fun.
Mario Schulzke: It is—IdeaMensch, I’ve been working on it for, what is it 2021, for the last 12 years. Every Sunday when we sit on the couch and watch a movie, or we get done playing board games or whatever, I still love opening up IdeaMensch, and seeing what I can do better and what I can work on.
I enjoy that a lot more than when I have to work on IdeaMensch because something is broken, which as you know, that tends to happen from time to time too.
Mike Munter: Yes. Well, the systems are a lot of fun when they work (laughing).
Mario Schulzke: (Laughing) Yes. We had—a couple of weeks ago—we had a WordPress vulnerability through some plug-in, some malicious code got inserted into the site and I’m not a developer. My wife is not a developer. We have got really good systems in place to sort of like catch it and identify it, but then fixing it is a whole another story.
Whenever that happens—I felt very uneasy—and it all worked out. It wasn’t a big deal, but when you’re not a developer and you build something of the size of IdeaMensch, it can be quite daunting sometimes.
Mike Munter: It is. When a site goes down or it gets hacked, it brings everything to a halt. It’s like the power went out.
Mario Schulzke: Yes, yes, yes. I don’t even like to think about it.
Mike Munter: (Laughing) Yes, we have talked a lot about IdeaMensch. You said this is a side project for you. What is your main gig? What are you working on?
Mario Schulzke: Yes, I started IdeaMensch when I was working in advertising. I used to run digital strategy for different ad agencies up and down the West coast. Then in 2013, I moved back to Montana. I went to school here and I was the chief marketing officer for the University of Montana for five years. I still teach at the university.
So teaching is one of my gigs but I left the university three years ago and I joined a tech startup in Seattle that is actually run by two of my best friends who I went to both high school and college with and that company is called Geniuslink. I’m the CMO of that company. It’s basically like—if I have to describe it’s like a Bitly for commerce.
Mario Schulzke: Bitly is really great if you just want to link to a piece of content, but if you’re going to link to say a product where you hope to earn affiliate revenue, for example, a Geniuslink is a much better, solution.
Over the last few years, we’ve grown that company significantly. And that’s my primary—excuse me, I wonder if that’s my Slack—that my primary job. Then on the side, I love marketing—so, I advise a few different companies—still in a mini fractional CMO role.
Mike Munter: You have always impressed me as this guy who can come in, in the chaos of a startup or maybe a company that’s got some history to it, and can really bring some order, some clarity, and some direction.
Mario Schulzke: Well, thank you. I have been really fortunate in that I graduated college in 2002, which was—what it was called was the was “the.com bust,” right? There was all this buzz about the internet and then everybody stopped believing in it for a little bit. And that’s when I got into the industry. All I wanted to do was marketing on the internet.
I got in at the very beginning and because of that, I think I’ve gotten to see the early phase of Google, and then the social networks came into play, and then online video, and then SEO, and content. I think it helps to have dabbled in everything a little bit and just to help provide people with some perspective on what they might be able to do.
I have talked about the noise when it comes to IdeaMensch. When you have a business and you’re trying to market it, or you have a nonprofit, and you’re trying to
fundraise, you have a million different options. And none of them are necessarily easy.
The people who do Facebook ads will tell you, “Do Facebook ads.” The people that do SEO, they will tell you, “Do SEO.” I think it requires a little bit more nuanced perspective. I’m not really great at any of them, but I have enough experience and perspective to just like help people figure out a path.
Mike Munter: Well, that’s cutting through the clutter because in marketing, I feel like there’s—especially digital marketing—there are so many things you can do with it. It really is never ending. You can always write another article, build another link, find another social media outlet to share it. How do you—what’s your process? When you go into a situation, how do you create that focus, if you know what I mean?
Mario Schulzke: Yes. That’s a great question. I would say this, it starts by truly understanding who you’re trying to serve—meaning who is your target market? Often, we start by here’s what we got to sell. How do we sell it? I think that’s slightly the wrong approach. The right approach is more around who’s our target market? What problem do we solve for them?
If you really understand that, if you understand who your target market is and what problem you solve for them, then in my opinion—when we talk about target market—smaller is actually better. It’s not good to be like, “Oh, I serve these people and these people and those people and these people.” Then what happens is you serve no one. But if you have that focus and you think about your target market as what is the minimum, viable target market that I can serve or who I can serve.
If you really understand that, then it becomes pretty easy because then the next step, in my opinion, is to look for the people who are leaning in. In the old days of advertising, we made TV commercials, right? And TV commercials are designed to basically like capture the people, leaning back, like I’m watching a football game and an ad comes on.
I am not looking, I’m not researching beer or toilet paper or insurance. As a matter of fact, I’m leaning back, I’m trying to relax and I’m doing something else. Marketing used to all be about, how do we disrupt that? How do we disrupt that process and get those people to pay attention to us? And that is a tough hill to climb. Instead, if you understand who your target market is, what problem they have—how you solve that problem?
Then, the next step is to identify where and how these people are leaning in and how they are researching solutions to whatever problem they might have. Sometimes the problem is I want to make more money. Sometimes the problem is I want to lose weight. Sometimes the problem is I need a bigger water bottle that does not—where the water doesn’t get warm, even if I schlep it around all day.
But go where these people seek solutions to their problems and add value there. I call those places their water coolers because like in the old days when you worked in an office, and on Monday night there was show on TV—on Tuesday morning, everybody would stand around the water cooler and talk about that show.
That doesn’t happen anymore because we all watch different things at different times. There are a few exceptions to that, but very few, but I still think there are these digital water coolers where people go and they tend to discuss solutions to their problems.
I think the perfect, like water cooler example is Reddit and I’m not wanting to say, “oh, go market your product on Reddit.” But there is a sub-Reddit, a community, a water cooler, for just about any topic and any product.
I have an electric bike. There is a sub-Reddit for people who have just my type of electric bike. And all we talk about is like, we learn how to deck out our bikes, how to use them, when we have a problem what a solution might be.
Google is a water cooler—Facebook groups have are different water coolers. My whole point with marketing is you start there, start with the people who are leaning in, serve those people. And don’t just go there and be like, “Hey, look at my product, go back to my website.”
But instead, provide value, provide value, provide value and at some point, these people are going to “Wait, who’s Mario? Who’s this person was being really helpful?”
Oh, wow, he wrote an ebook about the topic or he developed a product that solved just this problem. I think that is like the best way to market. It is not like infinitely scalable, but that’s okay. That’s why, when we talk about a target market, it doesn’t have to be the biggest target market in the world.
Mike Munter: Yes. Well, I feel like I’m getting a marketing lesson here.
Mario Schulzke: Yes, well okay. I teach marketing. I’m supposed to know like a thing or two at least.
Mike Munter: (Laughing) Well, I appreciate it. It is interesting this common theme that’s coming up. I find sometimes people are afraid to step forward, especially in the digital space because they feel, maybe they have an idea, but they think someone is already doing that.
I try to encourage them by saying you’re going to connect with people in a way that the other five people who were doing this already could not connect. I think that speaks to what you’re saying about niche-ing it down and being small, trying to serve a small market.
Mario Schulzke: Yes, no it’s—I think Seth, well, I don’t know if Seth Godin coined that term, but it’s that imposter syndrome. It’s this, “oh wow, this has already been done and these people are better than I am.” Why do I have the license to solve this problem?
But the reality is you do, everybody does, it just takes effort and it takes work. If you’re willing to put in the work, I think most people are going to succeed. Now, I’m not like a great entrepreneur. I’m not some—I just don’t have the ambitions to want to get rich or raise a ton of money or have a famous startup mind. My ambition is much more long term.
And the idea there is, look, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I have endurance. I’m going to work on this. When others give up, I want to keep working on it. And you know what happens? You understand finance a bit and I understand finance a bit. Those efforts, they compound little by little, by little, just like the stock market compounds.
At some point down the road, when you look back at IdeaMensch, it never grew like this [gestures a steep uphill growth curve], IdeaMensch has been growing like this [gestures slow, upward growth curve]. At some point you look back and, I think it was Steve jobs who said said, “you can only connect the dots, looking backwards, not looking forward.” At some point you look back and you think, wow, thousands of people read IdeaMensch every day.
How is that possible? But I remember, at some point having 14 people read IdeaMensch and most of them probably had my last name. That’s okay too, but if you do something good and you provide value over an extended period of time, I think you you’re going to be really successful. It might not be an overnight success thing, but I think anybody can benefit from that and can succeed that.
And just like the last thing that I’ll say about it—now you live in Portland, Oregon, I live in Montana—whenever I come to Portland or I travel back to Europe. I go to some city—I see different ideas. A lot of those ideas haven’t been done in Missoula, where I live, but they’re good ideas and they might work here, right?
It used to be that we bought franchises. I’m going to buy a subway franchise. I’m going to buy a McDonald’s franchise. I’m going to buy a Quiznos franchise, or ice cream, this or whatever. I think now we’re not necessarily buying franchises anymore. I think some people still do, and that’s fine. It’s a different kind of business.
But it’s the same idea. If you see a concept that works really well in Portland, Oregon, there’s a good chance at a place like Missoula, Montana—it’s just a few years behind. If you want to take that idea or the core tenants of that idea and bring it to Missoula, Montana, you’re doing good.
You’re not just copying an idea, at least the way I look at it, you’re solving a problem for the people in Missoula, Montana. I think there are opportunities like that all over the world, the internet, it’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur.
Mike Munter: I agree. It’s such an exciting time with all the different ways to reach people through the internet. It’s just so exciting.
Mario Schulzke: Yes. And it’s not easy, but if you’re willing to stick with it then eventually you will succeed.
Mike Munter: We are wrapping up here—as you look to the future, and you can speak to IdeaMench or your life or whatever you would like, but what are you excited about as you look forward?
Mario Schulzke: That’s a great question. Like I have said, I worked in the administration of the university for a while. I teach at a university, now I’m going to have a kid. I’m really excited about education getting disrupted. I think we have gotten a taste of it right now with remote learning. I know that has not all been great.
But the reality of it is, for kids and young adults shouldn’t have to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars to get a collegiate education. I don’t think the answer to that is the government should just pay for everybody’s collegiate education. I don’t—that’s not going to happen in America—I think that is fine. But I think there’s a huge opportunity for education to be disrupted.
I think that’s a very positive thing because right now, most of my learning, I get from different online communities. I buy eBooks about different topics on Gumroad. I do little like mini courses. The reality is I learned more from them than I would from taking a class on a campus somewhere. Because the people who are teaching it are really true experts.
They didn’t just like study it, but they they’re doing it and they are sharing the knowledge. I think what’s going to happen or what I hope is going to happen is that at some point we’re going to figure out like how to accredit that information. How to basically say, you can learn about these topics over here and that counts towards a degree, and you can learn about these topics over there, and that counts for degree.
And we have some sort of licensing or governing organization, and we package that all for you. Now, you can earn a college degree. I’m excited about that because I’m excited about it, as a future dad who, I don’t want to have to save a half a million dollars for my kid to go to a physical campus in 20 years.
I think that learning can happen in different ways. I think earlier you alluded to, I don’t even know what the technical term for it is, but I have an Oculus Quest—I play around a little bit with virtual reality. I truly believe that in 20 years Amazon might be selling college degrees and they might be selling them for—if you’re a prime member—you can get a four-year degree for 10,000 bucks.
I think that’s a really positive thing. I say that as an educator, I say that as somebody who teaches at a university, but I truly believe that education ought to be disrupted and I think it will be disrupted. I’ve never been more excited about that.
Mike Munter: Yes, you will get—you will pay Amazon for the degree—then you will go to work for Amazon.
Mario Schulzke: Yes, yes. Yes. I think who knows, right? The other thing that, you know and I, we work on the internet and we have been working on the internet. The other thing that I’m kind of excited about is—I think the concept of the 8a to 5p job, and I need to go into an office from 8a to 5p every day, Monday through Friday—I think that’s going to go away.
And I don’t think we’re going to move to a place where everybody gets a guaranteed income but I do think that when you earn money on the internet, you now have the ability to live a completely different life. I think we are at the beginning of that—I think you have experienced that for a while because you have been a successful entrepreneur. But even my company, today’s Friday—we don’t work on Fridays.
We work Monday through Thursday. We used to have an office in Seattle. We don’t have an office anymore. I actually—I’m in an old warehouse—a couple years ago, I bought an old warehouse and I turned it into just like a personal office space. I got a gym in here and I have got a sauna on like. I just think that the future of work for those who are able to like build their own properties, build their own brands, and build their own reputation, is going of be incredible. I’m excited.
Mike Munter: Yes. I agree with you. I have this little belief that everyone should be an entrepreneur. It’s interesting—the psychology of that—because I have two sisters and they each have their jobs, but then they have these interesting skill sets.
My one sister has been in the daycare, the childcare industry for her whole life. I keep trying to tell her, you could do so many things with this. If you just started with a website, made some videos. People will find you and want to hire you to come in and train their teachers, turn their daycare around, help them take their daycare from something I do in my house, to an actual commercial business.
And my other sister gets a kick out of home organizing and she thinks, who would hire me to do that?” I tell her there are hundreds of people already doing this and you could do it because you’re going to connect to people in a way that others don’t and you have your own style and you might not get rich off it, but if you’re having fun, you are now getting to do some of those things like you just said, getting to set your own schedule.
You get to work the days that you want to work, hire and work with the companies and the people that you want to work with, and for me, that’s really exciting. Sometimes, I feel like I am maybe putting a square peg in a round hole, trying to convince people that you could turn this thing that you’re really knowledgeable about, into money, freedom, and a new way of life.
Mario Schulzke: And with your sisters, for example, I really love the idea of people starting businesses on the side. Starting any project or any company as like a side project because I think one of the risks to many ideas is that actually, when you have to monetize too early, because you need to rely on the revenue.
Whereas if you built something over time, while you still have a job. You come home at night and maybe for a few years, you work more than you otherwise would have, but if you do 30 minutes a day, a couple hours on the weekend, you can build some pretty incredible businesses over time. I know what ends up happening and I think this has happened to you and it’s happened to me.
I’m going to be 40 here pretty soon, if I didn’t want a job anymore, I don’t need a job anymore. And the reason for that is because of ldeaMensch and because of a little bit of this fractional CMO type advising that I do. And that’s amazing, right? Now, I would have never wanted to go and say, “I’m going to quit my job and start an agency, or I’m going to quit my job and start a website.”
But to build something little by little, by little, by little, over a long period of time, at some point, you have that option. We are not talking about decades, but we are talking about years. I think that is so exciting, but most people will never do it because—not because they’re not qualified, but because I think, maybe feel like they’re not qualified.
And with both IdeaMensch and with Inspirery, if we can inspire more people to take action and bring an idea to life, that’s what I want to do. That is what I want my impact to be. For more people to say, for your sisters to say, I can do that. I’m going to get started on it.
Mike Munter: Well, thank you for your time. I feel like you have so much to offer people. If the situation were right and someone reached out to you, would you be willing to be a mentor?
Mario Schulzke: Yes. I always, I talk to everyone and I truly enjoy it. And you may have sensed, I love marketing. I truly—I get excited when I talk to them about marketing. So, if anybody has got marketing issues, I don’t really—it’s not like I take on new clients, but I’m always happy to jump on the phone with someone and just brainstorm. If I can add a little bit of value, I love that.
Mike Munter: That’s awesome. Well, Mario, thanks a lot. It’s great to see you and thanks for coming on.
Mario Schulzke: Hey, Mike, thanks for having me on–have a great weekend.