Mark C. Winters | From Cyber Cafes to Rocket Fuel

John Corcoran  5:49  

what, honey? I quit.

Mark C. Winters  5:51  

She was not a fan. Yeah, it was and she was pregnant to boot. But you know, I had a plan. And so I went on to execute that plan. So it was that cyber Explorer. It was deep into the past.

John Corcoran  6:06  

Well, cyber Explorer, which was, according to your LinkedIn was started in 1995, which sounds like a business that was started in 1995.

Mark C. Winters  6:14  

Yeah, that That actually sounds like it’s it was ahead of its time in 1995,

John Corcoran  6:18  

which it was, I imagine it was what so what did you do?

Mark C. Winters  6:21  

So cyber explorer was a cybercafe. It was a full feature cybercafe. And so the process was that my first plan was I was going to start a specialty coffee shop. And as I looked at that, I felt like it was going to be difficult to differentiate. Actually, we were living in Milwaukee at the time. And I contacted Starbucks, because Starbucks was not in Milwaukee. So this is how early that was, Starbucks was not in Milwaukee. And I called him up and I said, Hey, I’d like to, you know, bring a Starbucks into Milwaukee. And they’re like, well, first of all, you know, we don’t franchise, we don’t need your help to do that. And second of all, we really have no interest in Milwaukee, we’re focused on, you know, San Francisco and New York and Chicago, and kind of just the top tier cities. And so that’s how early it was. So then I was gonna, I was gonna start my own, and just get the best real estate. So that way, when they did come to town, they would have to talk to me about the best locations. And then I started looking at how to differentiate and technology. So I found some places I found one in London, I found actually one in San Francisco, it was called the SF net that used to make these plywood boxes that you’d put a quarter in to access computers actually access a bulletin board network. There was one in New York and there was one in southern Canada, and there were any of these cyber cafes. And so I was like this is cool. This brings technology in, that’s a differentiating thing that can be really interesting. And so I got in my car with an old video camera, Sony video camera, and a notepad. And I drove across southern Canada, down through New York. And actually, there was one in Boston, there’s one in Cambridge, right outside Harvard. And I went to each one of these, I walked in, I talked to the owners, hey, you know, what’s, how’s this working? You know, what’s working? Well, what’s not I talked to the customers, I made drawings and took pictures of how they were set up. And then I came back to Milwaukee at the end of, you know, 10 days or whatever. And I wrote up the business plan for the ultimate cyber cafe, which was CyberExplore. Hmm, and how did it go? So it went great at the beginning. So this was my first first foray into entrepreneurship. And so I had to raise money. And my big lesson that I learned there is everybody wants to talk about it, everybody wants to see your business plan, everybody gives you green, you know, signals, like they’re gonna invest, but nobody’s investing until you actually clear their check. That’s the only time that you know that they have actually invested in you. I had to sign my first lease, which I know, it’s kind of an interesting dilemma there where you’ve got to have you’re committing to the lease, I kind of got to have the space before I can finish raising the money. And so it was kind of a chicken and egg thing where I had to wrestle with how far out on a limb I was, I was willing to go personally. And then in raising the money, you know, I had a lot of it, but I had a little bit more that I needed. And I really needed it to kind of close the lease deal and kind of get this thing going. And so I took some terms on the last chunk, that were probably some terms that I shouldn’t have accepted and gave someone something that’s called negative control covenants. Being an attorney, you probably know what those are.

John Corcoran  9:32  

But why don’t you tell the audience for those who don’t know?

Mark C. Winters  9:35  

So negative control?

John Corcoran  9:36  

That’s an easy way of dodging that question, but

Mark C. Winters  9:39  

you’ll be familiar with it when I tell you so basically, it seems safe because they can’t make you do anything. But it’s a list of things that if you want to do any of these things it is okay to be able to do them.

John Corcoran  9:55  

So what there must have been some deal breakers and well there

Mark C. Winters  9:57  

was about you know, 20 things on there. That list. But again, at the time in my brain, I was like, I just need the money, no big deal, I need the money, they can’t tell me what to do, right? If I need to do any of these things, you know, surely they’ll go along with it. So fast forward, we get the deal done, we launch it, we open it up, it was awesome. You know, we got this, this retail space, we had 20 different high end computer workstations inside this thing. So high end back then was a penny on 133 with a 20 inch monitor. So imagine the front of a 20 inch monitor, and it was twice as deep as it was massive monitors. NASA, we had these little things called a see you see me camera that set up on top. So we could do video networking. Wow.

John Corcoran  10:39  

And then we had all a very advanced or, yeah,

Mark C. Winters  10:42  

we had all of the workstations actually network together. So you could come in, and we could put a CD game into any of those. And you could play it from any other station. And do we had a T one line

John Corcoran  10:54  

that is super advanced in 1981.

Mark C. Winters  10:56  

Right? So we’re super fast people gamers would come in here just to play the games on our connection speed, because it was so much so much faster. We built a software system to control the interface. So you’d pay 29 and a half cents a minute. You know, to get access to the stuff on the computer, you could order from the bar, the coffee bar, so I built essentially a Starbucks in a store. So the guy who did go forward and kind of built the Starbucks in town. He and I partnered with him and said, Look, dude, I don’t know how to do this, why don’t you come in and show us how this works. We’ll brand it your brand. You know, and kind of give you some pub but you know, you help us kind of run this operation. So he did. So we had an awesome setup there.

John Corcoran  11:39  

And that was that in itself was a really smart decision rather than trying to tackle that into the business as well.

Mark C. Winters  11:44  

That was not going to be our expertise. And he was the best I could find out he was really good. And so yeah, absolutely. It was a that that worked out very well. And they made us our own blend, the only place you could get that blend was from us. And so then as I’m watching this thing kind of roll out, a couple of cool things happen. One was anytime the media had a story on the internet, which was Oh, all the time. Yeah, they needed a backdrop that kind of made sense for it. And so they had come to shoot up at our place, as we were on the news, and you know, news, magazine articles, all this kind of stuff, everybody was coming and doing that at our place, which was cool. We would watch the behavior of people using these workstations on login and pay 29 cent 29 cents a minute. And what I saw was they would log in, do whatever they were going to do, there’s lots of things they could do. And they’d log off, then they talk. And so it was really they were being really careful about how much time they were spending online. And that really wasn’t the vibe I was after I wanted it to kind of be easy. I wanted to try new things. I wanted the grandparent and the grandchild to be talking together and maybe the child teaching the grandparent kind of how things worked and showed him stuff and all that. And so I thought all right, how can we release that constraint? How can we get them to do that. And so I was thinking of other pricing models in the pricing model that I landed on as a health club, health club, you got this big expensive equipment that people don’t have in their homes, you’ve got other people there to show you how to use it, which we had. And it’s sort of social, you’re talking to other people, and there’s interaction that goes on. So that’s that’s kind of like us, how do they price memberships? And so that’s the answer, we’re gonna do memberships. And so we did a membership program where you could buy an unlimited limited day pass, or a week or a month or a year. And that was the key. So we did that. And all of a sudden, we had lines of people waiting to get on these workstations. So literally on a busy night, there’d be four or five people deep at a station trying to get on. So if you have more demand than you have supply, what do you do? Change your pricing. raise the price, right. So we started so we started raising the price, no problem. But we still had that level of demand. And so I got to the point where I basically doubled the price. Well, and we were still holding on. So this is all great, right? We got good signals, people are using it. They’re liking it, we’re getting lots of media exposure. So back to the business plan. And this being my first rodeo. And you look at the business plan, and you find that Mark had a little bit in there for working capital reserve, but not a lot. And so through that startup, we were burning through that as we were kind of approaching a positive cash flow state, and really close but we were out. And so we ran out of cash. And so I had to go back to the investors who everybody was happy to put in more money or the bank was happy to lend more money. Everybody was happy except for one guy. Guess which guy is; the last one, that one and for whatever reason he took a position where he’s basically like nope, not interested. And so we tried to buy him out. He didn’t want to sell out. We offered to sell out he didn’t want to buy us out. We offered to take the bank that I had a whole nother you know of bank arrangements set up to kind of transfer the assets and liabilities over and take that over, didn’t not want to allow that. And so the whole thing locked up. And it’s really, it was crazy. And we did after that. So I got to have probably the first internet auction where we were locked up and we sold all this stuff off via the internet. And I got to tell my pregnant wife. Well, yeah, that child was born during this whole process. And then she was pregnant with our second son. And so the meeting with employees for you know, telling them that gang this isn’t gonna work, we’re gonna have to shut down and everybody’s gonna have to go. She’s standing there with me pregnant with that second son, man. And so, you know, it was a hard one, but lots of lots of lessons.

John Corcoran  15:51  

How do you pick yourself up off the pavement after that half, you ever have a setback like that,

Mark C. Winters  15:56  

you know, I mean, it’s just raw have to, huh, and, you know, bless her, she, she stuck with me, and, you know, trusted that I would be able to find a way to kind of navigate out of this. And it was really focused on this far in front of you right now to figure out how to get as much out of this as we can. So we limit the hits that were taken, and then kind of jump in and out what’s next. And, you know, at that time, I mean, just just telling you really, really, she was like, you’re done no more of this entrepreneur stuff. And so I was really fortunate that the next thing I fell into was sort of an entrepreneur in residence for a huge company. So Amoco Petroleum was looking for somebody that was an entrepreneur to kind of come in and challenge all the stuff that they were doing, because they felt like they’d gotten big and slow. And so that was the perfect next thing for me, because it’s kind of being in a larger company, but being entrepreneurial at the same time. Yeah, exactly. I had a huge checkbook, tons of autonomy, I could kind of do my own thing. But the risk, there was nothing.

John Corcoran  17:04  

And it looks like you maybe about five years or so went by you had some good experiences, including experience. And then eventually you start your own, you go back to entrepreneurship, you find he found another company.

Mark C. Winters  17:16  

So that’s actually what experience was. So Experian was so I from Amoco a, one of the companies that I brought in to help us, sort of led me into a whole predictive analytics field. And, and that led me to a small startup company out of Los Alamos, New Mexico, which we then grew and sold to a big public company on the west coast. And I was part of that. And then I came out of that, and I hooked up with another one of these people that I’d brought in at Amoco, who was a, he was a legit rocket scientist, like these people had been within Los Alamos. And so I partnered with him, and we started another company that was focused on helping retailers and restaurants do site selection, which was one of the problems that I had faced using high end analytics, like, you know, artificial intelligence and genetic algorithms and all kinds of really interesting stuff. And so then we built that company up and sold that company to Experian. Mm hmm. And, and so that was another good one. And,

John Corcoran  18:16  

and then we were talking beforehand about you starting a blog, you acquire a bike company. Right? And interesting timing, too.

Mark C. Winters  18:24  

Yeah. So, you know, some people tell you, you know, quick, quickest way they can think of to lose a million bucks is to, you know, get into the bike business. And so unfortunately, I never met that person before we did that one. But yeah, so I was a big into cycling and, and there was a high performance bicycle manufacturing business that was in Texas, and I knew about it, knew the product, had lots of friends that did. And so got into that and actually built a really nice business model. We’re selling high end, high performance, custom bikes, you know, 10,000 12,000 $15,000 bikes. But you know, like, Oh, 2008 happens 2008 happens, your you know, your order list, all of a sudden, they’re, like, you know, are watching the news, and I’m not sure we should be spending that much money on one of these bikes. And so they just kind of started drying up. And so we had to,

John Corcoran  19:16  

it is interesting to notice, it is interesting to see, because a lot of right now this crisis compared to that crisis, a lot of these outdoor recreation companies actually are thriving, because it’s a totally different type of crisis. But people are stuck at home and like it’s impossible for people to get bikes these days, get bike carriers, anything related to outdoor recreation is doing really well. I don’t know if a $12,000 bike company is doing well. But maybe on the lower end. Yeah, I

Mark C. Winters  19:43  

mean, economically, though, this is a whole different situation than 2008 to 2008 the the widespread nature of the economic impact, you know, it was just it was a whole different deal. But you’re right I mean, there’s lots of demand creation for outdoor access. Activity products. Yeah, the strata we were playing out with with those bikes was, you know, it was the tippy, tippy top of folks that, you know, basically they can spend whatever, you know, whatever, they want to look good and go fast and

John Corcoran  20:13  

right. And or at least in 2007, they could, right. So let’s, let’s flash forward a little bit. You know, you go into, you know, coaching and consulting and helping other entrepreneurs, and you discover EOS entrepreneurial operating system, you discovered Gino wickman. And you strike up a friendship with him, and you become a certified us professional as well. And then you guys decide to write the book Rocket Fuel. So tell us about what Rocket Fuel is about, give us a little bit of a high level overview because I know that’s your focus. Now, you’ve got a couple of new things that you’re launching related to that.

Mark C. Winters  20:50  

Yeah, so Rocket Fuel really dives deep into the visionary integrator dynamic that we see in successful entrepreneurial companies. And basically the pattern that Gino identified and that we wrote the book together about Rocket Fuel is that when you have a visionary entrepreneur, you think about typically your founding entrepreneur, just their big idea generator, they kind of seek the future. And they play out there on the horizon, good at big external relationships. When you take somebody like that, and you pair them up with somebody who is much more execution focused, they’re great with the details and great with the follow through, they work through in between the other leaders in the organization to really make that vision happen. Those companies go to a whole different level than the companies that don’t have that combination. So it’s not a easy thing to get the right pair together. And then once you get them together, by their very nature, they’re so different, that they leave on their own, there’s a lot of friction there, they’ll buttheads, it can actually turn into something pretty negative. So we built a structure to put around that. And that’s what’s laid out in Rocket Fuel is, you know, here’s the five rules, you really need to put in place to take that negative friction and blend it into something positive that can really drive this company to a higher level. Hmm. And so you have a couple of new programs that you’ve developed which take those principles, those ideas even further, especially for this virtual world that we’re living in these days. And by the way, we’re recording this at the end of October of 2020. So talk a little bit about Rocket Fuel University. You’ve got the integrator Academy masterclass and integrated certification program. Great. So yeah, so Rocket Fuel University is sort of the entry point for everything, Rocket Fuel, everything. visionary and integrator relates to place for all visionaries, all integrators, and really anybody who is interested in their success so you know, there’s recruiters there profiling captures other people that can help them are interested in them. They join this Rocket Fuel University. And the first thing they do is there’s a sort of a foundational Basics video course called Rocket Fuel one on one that lays out all the basics, kind of right out of the book, but in a little bit more in depth via video. And then once you’ve got that you move into a community called the launchpad. And this is where you can you can talk and connect and share stories and, and really, you know, get help with whatever’s next on your path to move down this this Rocket Fuel journey from their the integrators that have identified themselves as an integrator, and they really want to become truly great as an integrator. We have the integrator Academy masterclass, where they go in, it’s a four week intensive with me, where they’ve got video based training. And then once a week, I get on a zoom call with them, and answer questions. And it’s a peer group model as well. So they can benefit from other folks in their cohort because we move one cohort through there at a time and really, you know, understand how to master their craft and become truly great as an integrator. And then as they graduate they get invited to apply to join our professional and certified integrator program. So these are the ones that really want to be able to hang that designation out there as a certified integrator continue to, to master their craft and get better and better, and play in that community of folks who are really at the top of their game, in terms of being an integrator. Great. Well,

John Corcoran  24:16  

Mark, I know we’re running short on time. So we’ll wrap things up with the question I always enjoy asking, which is, let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, much like the Oscars or the Emmys and you’re receiving an award for lifetime achievement for the thing you’ve done up until this point, and we all want to know is who do you think were the mentors? Were the friends the peers and the business partners? Who are the better investors, not the bad ones, the better ones? Who would you would acknowledge in your remarks?

Mark C. Winters  24:42  

Yeah. So I think there’s three people that come to mind for me, John, and one is my dad. So he’s kind of the original entrepreneur. He was a physician. And, you know, so in private medical practice for many, many years, which is that sort of a business and he was probably better than most in terms of running that. But you know, he was also at a ranching business. The US real estate development he was always kind of looking for these other things that he would start and and get involved with and make happen. So you know, thank him for giving me that exposure at a young age. Second one I have to thank would be Gino Whitman. You know, he and I have become great friends and I’ve learned a ton from Gino. He’s a genius in his own right. And, you know, through the work he did with EOS and then the journey we started together with Rocket Fuel. He’s been amazing. And then the third one would be my wife. You know, you heard me talk about some of the roller coaster rides that I took her on. And you know, she’s still with me, stuck with me and supported me and helped me you know, the whole way. So those would be my big my big three. Great and I actually have a copy

John Corcoran  25:45  

of Gina’s book. Yeah, elite francesa entrepreneurial leap, go check it out. Alright, so where can people go learn more about Rocket Fuel University, and I know you have another book coming out that’s gonna be coming out soon. Next financial freedom. So that’ll be cool to keep tabs on as well. Yeah, so

Mark C. Winters  26:00  

I’d say for the kind of everything I’ve got going on. And then the related side is for everything Rocket Fuel. And then I’m at Mark C. Winters on pretty much all the socials. So however you want to get to me there that that’s how to find me.

John Corcoran  26:17  

Perfect. Thanks so much, Mark.

Mark C. Winters  26:18  

Thanks, John, great to talk to you.

Outro  26:20  

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.