Leaving Ireland: Brainpark Founder Mark Dowds on Connection, Transparency and Fifty-Mile Runs
I interviewed tech entrepreneur Mark Dowds at the headquarters of his company, Brainpark. Brainpark, a Bay Area software company, specializes in bringing people (and resources) together around pertinent, real-time information, thereby dissolving organizational silos and paving the way for lofty performance. Mark sat down to tell us the story behind Brainpark, where he serves as founder and CEO.
Before Brainpark, Dowds founded Creationstep, a company designed to provide financial support to startups, with fellow entrepreneur, Bobby John. In order to financially support Creationstep, Dowds also did consulting for more traditional companies. Working in both arenas simultaneously, Dowds realized that traditional companies were pretty disconnected from “what was coming next,” as represented by the entrepreneurs Dowds was meeting in Creationstep. With that realization, Dowds and John began working toward a software solution that would help bring these two worlds together, developing Brainpark.
Doug Kirkpatrick: So, we’re live with Mark Dowds at Brainpark, and so let me just start out and ask. Mark, tell us your story. How did you go from Ireland to the CEO of a tech company in the Bay Area?
Mark Dowds: Moving from Ireland was one of those – go back in the history of that. It’s a different story on its own, really. I was a young entrepreneur, worked family business when I was younger, and we got to experience some success when I was early 20s, and shortly after that I decided that I was going to retire from business and to focus on working on helping young people and developing their ideas.
So in working in doing that, I did that in Ireland for a while and then got the opportunity to go to speaking conferences around the world, and one of them was – invited to speak at was in Vancouver, and at that time I’d just got married, so I brought my new wife. We went to Vancouver, and there were – I think there was about 500 to 700 youth workers at this, so had a fantastic experience, and on the way home, my wife sort of suggested that we should move to Canada, so it was – I think my delicate response was, “Yeah, talk to me in 20 years,” ’cause I loved Ireland so much I never wanted to leave.
I think that when we left, our going-away party was Claire dancing, me crying in the corner, so I did not wanna leave, but when I got here or when I got to Canada, I really enjoyed it, so I ended up continuing to do that.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Excellent.
Mark Dowds: So when I got to Vancouver, ended up working at setting up a similar type of environment, where I could work with young people. Had a few friends there that I knew, and we worked together to really help nurture their ideas, and the idea was if you’ve got a biology student who wants to set up an ideas factory, our job was to really nurture them, work with them, help find out their path, see if we can provide their first computers or get them the basic essentials of what they needed, so it was a charity. It was not for profit. It was much more of a mission for life to really bring change and meaning, but what evolved eventually is that some of these ideas and some of these young people then had ideas that needed to be commercialized, so then we ended up building and getting those going.
So that’s really the history of how I transitioned to Canada and got into startups, really. So that’s what – I’ve been doing startups in the sense of either starting them or helping seed them or help others nurture to get them going for 12 years now, so I’ve been involved in that more than I can count at this stage. Ended up moving to Toronto, which is sort of where all the capital is and everything is in Canada, and went there.
Ended up then connecting with another chap called Bobby John. Bobby was at that time just getting awarded with Entrepreneur of the Year for Canada and top 40 under 40 guys and stuff, so he’d just – he’d created a company called Personus, previously known as Caught in the Web and got bought by CGI, so he was a guy; he’s 37 today, so he was mid-20 – he was just coming out of university and had already grown a company to 140 staff and getting bought, so it was quite a – but a very bright, poised decision-maker. So we decided when we met to put what we’d gotten together, basically, and take his enhanced engineering background and mine on the startup side of things, put that together and see what we could come up with.
So, we started a company called Creationstep together, so this goes back – I think now it’s – I wanna say eight or nine years, something like that, and with Creationstep, the idea was it’s a step towards creation in the sense of something would be redemptive to society and beneficial and a step towards creating your own idea or company, so it was a double pun. So with that, we came up – we met folks that had ideas and we would work with them, and then we would have our own and find people who wanted to lead them or work with us on them.
Some of them, when I look back, are – we mock each other. Some of them were the most harebrained, [laughter] stupid-ass things you could ever think of. I mean, they were innovative, but they made no business sense whatsoever, and I think part of that – there’s a naivety to it, I think, because coming – that we wanted to work with ideas with young people, startups, and I wasn’t really that financially driven, but, I mean, I’ve learned the benefits of a lot of those things the hard way, because all these things were funded by our own money, so Bobby and I basically, we would do some consulting and work on the side and spend it all on these crazy ideas. Thankfully, our wives didn’t kick us out but probably should have on a few occasions.
So Creationstep really went – when we got it going, we set up a center in Toronto, which was about a 3,000- or 3,500-square-foot loft right downtown, and we called it Indoor Playground, and we got – the subtitle was “The Center for Innovation,” ’cause the idea was we’ll have a center. We’ll have other startups. We’ll hold community events, where basically startups and geeks and the local community can hang out, can work during the day, and we would give back, nurture and help. So it was something that we just did on our own. It wasn’t backed by anybody else. It was just one of those thing we thought we’d do that’d be meaningful.
So we ended up drawing a lotta folks, got very connected into that community, and some of the startups that we’d done started to make some money, so any of the money then that came in, we took that and put it into new ideas, and then some of the folks that would hang out into our playground or local community we’d find in Toronto would be startups that we would find and invest and put money behind them sort of right there. So it really got really in the ground level into a lotta companies, but in the middle of doing all of that, I started to have an idea and it was spurred somewhat by Bobby.
So, what I was doing to sort of pay the bills and stuff, since I was doing some consulting – I’m trained in various forms of coaching and therapy. I think we talked about this before, so NLP and I’ve done bio-energetics, and then I was doing a master’s in industrial psychology at the time and specializing in system psychodynamics with how people and systems interact to change in organization. What I ended up having this unique rule for a bunch of companies, like News Corp subsidiaries, PricewaterhouseCoopers, RBC, a lot of the big brands, is that at an executive level if there was difficulty, like if there were two people that weren’t getting on or if there’s multiple folks in the team just not seeing eye to eye or changing a com structure that’s gonna really radically affect everybody, I would be asked to come and work with the team, take them on an overnight or take them away or come work through the issues.
So I ended up having a bit of a knack and a love for seeing people understand each other, so a lot of reframing, rethinking and getting that dynamic going, so when I was working with a bunch of these folks and coming from that unique history and coming from a guy who’s working with a lotta young people into this corporate setting working with sort of peace and reconciliation, for lack of a better term, was to realize that they were so disconnected with what was coming next. So I would listen to what they were doing and then planning for learning or planning to educate and bring up new folks and realizing they haven’t a clue what GenY even is. I mean, these guys that’re coming up are gonna completely disrupt and destroy these companies if they wanna participate in them.
So I started to ask questions around, “What’re you gonna do for to prepare for this?” and it would be either tumbleweeds – nobody would have an answer – or else it would be – one of them would be, “We’re working on an e-learning strategy, which is gonna take me five years to develop one of those videos and they’re gonna click through them,” and I’m thinking there’s not a chance any of these young people I know are gonna ever wanna do that. Plus, this whole new group were being branded as the heroes, this next generation, because of what was going on, so they’re the ones that’re actually working on making a difference.
They don’t wanna sit and click through screens. They wanna learn faster. They wanna move faster through the organization, and so I realized there’s a massive gap here. At the same time, a large organization had retained Bobby to look into the learning side of things they were considering in LMS, and Bobby was doing research in that, so we ended up then chatting about this, but what I was saying is that there were young people within these large organizations that were saying, “We don’t even know who to go to for what,” yet there’s all these massive gaps. So we ended up then Bobby and I just chatting and saying, “Well, there’s something – there’s a gap in here. There’s something that needs to – and a software that could help develop community that would enable people to earn from one another,” and so we actually started the company. It was called Community Learning.
So going back probably – this is about four years ago now. That was the first iteration of this. We began to play with the idea of Community Learning and to get it going, so Bobby and I again were doing this under Creationstep but at the time was one of our projects. It was something that the two of us had funded ourselves, and I had begun to pull back more and more from everything else I was involved with, ’cause I got infatuated with this one, and so everything – every piece of research I did just seemed to point that there’s a big gap, so once we got that going, it was – we then had bigger decisions to make, but that’s the basics of how I got into this role.
Then there’s a contending story, obviously, but from Ireland to that, that’s the construed, long, laborious part of the story, which was actually a lot of fun, and I was really – I think I was faced with a moment where I was actually getting quite comfortable financially again with some of the other things that were going on, yet I was at that point thinking that I really wanna do another big one myself. I wanna get my hands around a really big problem, challenge, to go for it, so I think those things all combined really – ’cause at that time I was 37. I’m thinking by the time I’m 40 I wanna feel like I’ve done some of the things I wanna do, which I realized that’s quite a normal crisis for people who’ve never actually realized it, so [laughter] –
Doug Kirkpatrick: That’s exactly right. Very good. So, great story, Mark, so take us from Community Learning, then, to Brainpark. How did you make that transition?
Mark Dowds: So one of – a local guy here in Alamo here in the East Bay – his name is Scott Walchek – he’s one of our advisers. Scott’s been very successful throughout his career as an entrepreneur, and sitting down with him, I was filling him in on here’s what we’re doing; here’s what we’re thinking. He understood it quite clearly, had some very tough stuff to say to me, as usual, in a very nice, delicate way, but basically said, “Listen to the name,” and realizing that what we wanted to do was work within enterprise sales, selling to enterprise and transforming them, and he said, “Well,” he said, “for an enterprise, Community Learning – it sounds like a nonprofit, sounds colloquial,” and I realized you’re absolutely bang on, so the next thing was, “What else’ve you gotten? Have you got another name? I get the vision; I get that as descriptive, but what else you got?”
So, I had this – the consulting that I used to do on the side was I’d use Brainpark, and so I thought, “Well, I’ve got this thing called Brainpark,” so he said, “That’s it. It sounds stronger, better and matches it,” so he quickly – I think we were just in the process of we had just incorporated Community Learning but basically just spun it all around and spent a little bit more money at the beginning, thinking we’ll bite it off now, and so that’s how it became Brainpark.
At that same time, then I went – I said to Bobby that I wanted to really put all my efforts in this and go full time with this alone, which meant then finding leaders for some of the other things that we were involved with. There was a few of them we just shut down, because he realized that he had a choice to make: Either I tank it with multiple things, or I put 100 percent into one. So I went 100 percent into one, and then Bobby helped with the transition of the other stuff, and then Bobby came on at that time as well, both of us as cofounders, and he was the CTO, so that was the beginning.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. So talk about your product. What does Brainpark software do?
Mark Dowds: What it has evolved to do today is really that it helps to connect people within an enterprise, so one of the things is Charlie Watts from Rolling Stones once said, “I never really learned how to play the guitar; I just watched people,” so it’s one of those things where if we – what our system does, it helps connect people around the business issues that they would have interest or concern around, and they’re able to learn and watch from each other’s behavior, so someone new that comes in our organization can post a question and quickly learn from those who would have that expertise, which is – that natural connection is really essential, so the stronger the connection becomes, the greater the conversation and the faster a company can act.
So, in a sense, we put Brainpark in the middle and we help you become more innovative and create hopefully in the middle of it a stronger and happier culture, because there’s so many companies today that are all siloed, and part of the reality of the world is they’re disparate. They’re at different places, so trying to have a software and a system approach that’s gonna connect that company together effectively is really – well, that’s our mission, what we’re about, so that’s the basics.
So, if you have, as I said, a question that you want, you can simply post it, and our software helps – basically it evolves and learns what somebody’s good at it, what they will know, and then we basically write that question and try to get that information from the people in the organization who would know the answer to it best. Or, if you wanna poll a company, for instance, if you’ve been working on a new product and you’ve got a new design and you wanna have feedback, you can post that within Brainpark, and what we will – you can add in whoever you specifically want, but in addition to that, we’ll make sure that is socialized more effectively.
Today, most people do it on a group e-mail, and it’s a group e-mail nightmare that comes back, so companies that utilize Brainpark radically reduce their e-mail inbox, which nobody complains about. My e-mail inbox is predominantly external, clients and stuff that I’ve gotta deal with. Internally, most of our stuff lies all handled within the product.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. I know you’re a believer in a free and democratic workplace, so how does your software products support that?
Mark Dowds: It’s one of those – it’s been a great debate over the last while, because there’s been a desire for us to really get in and transform companies, because a software like this really enhances transparency, because all of a sudden you’re aware of what everybody else is doing. There is aspects of privacy. We have to have that for any corporation, and the general thing, the default, is open, so all of a sudden what was private and behind e-mail alone is now open and other people can participate.
And so, for instance, if you have an idea or an idea that you’ve got, so you’re posting an idea and you’re asking everybody to come back and either vote on it or comment on it. Then you could be the janitor who’s got this idea that never had a voice in the company before, and then you gain influence throughout the company, so it basically really reworks the organizational structure naturally and if you allow it.
The problem is that scares the life outta some people, so there’s organizations that we have been in and then they’re seeing what we – what the system will do, and then we’re just shut out. So the mission for us is to help transform a culture, but what we’re finding is it’s more those companies that are already going in that direction that want a software – so we’re more like a support infrastructure for leaders and companies that wanna move in that direction. If you’re a company that wants to keep things closed, keep hierarchy strong, we are just the wrong group to work with. We’ve tried, and as much as we may smile and be nice about it, that’s just – it’s a very, very disruptive technology.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Well, you blogged recently about the hoarding-versus-sharing mindset. Do you think that the sharing mindset is going to just take over organizations inevitably, or are we always gonna have this dichotomy between sharing and hoarding going on?
Mark Dowds: It’s a great question, Doug. I mean, I think we’re always gonna have that dichotomy, but I think the default has been to hoard over the last season, and I think the default’s gonna change to be more open and sharing and socializing. Well, I think one of the things, again, is that generationally we think of what’s happening. I know that this is being stretched. It’s not just a generational thing, but we’re certainly being influenced by the last generation or the ones that are coming up. So, those that are under 30s right now behave totally different than everybody else, so they’re showing up into the workplace after university, and they’re looking – everybody’s still doing e-mail.
Their communication’s on Twitter, on Facebook, on all these other – they’re used to having things open and transparent, and through that you’re naturally aware, so I always like listening to Benioff’s speech last year at Dreamforce. With that he said, “How come I’m more aware of what my friends are doing than what my sales force is doing?” And it’s because social media really did change the game, so I think inevitably, yes, you’ve got a whole new generation that’re gonna post that and will behave differently and folks will have to change.
But it’s not as black and white, I think, as open or closed as I think we’re gonna have a lot more – we’re gonna have to really change how we view people, because if things are gonna become more and more open, we’ve gotta become more and more trusting, which means then we gotta rethink our hiring procedures. Who are the people you’re hiring and why are you hiring them and do they like their job, or what are the real drivers? So I think all of this is gonna force everyone to really rethink what’s culture. What’s the sort of culture you’re creating, because if you’re just hiring people as a piece of meat, that company’s gonna go down very quickly over the next 10 years.
I think there are a few institutions – I think if you think of cell providers, so cell, cable, all of the things that we spend a lotta money on: insurance, all these sorta things. I mean, traditionally we get airlines, for the majority some of the worst service that you’re getting, but they’ve sort of got us by the short and curlies, but as soon as a solution – as soon as there’s some new law passed that you can bypass these things, it’s all gonna change, ’cause everybody’s looking out. There’s nobody likes that model anymore, and you can even tell by looking in the eyes of people that it’s just horrible.
Actually, a good – what really got me into having a passion for changing the workplace was there was a moment where Claire and I had to go – we were living in Toronto and I had to go to Detroit to get our – we were doing our interviews for Canadian passports, and when we were – we had to be there early in the morning, and the hotel we were staying at was part of – it was in the GM Building, so we happened to be on this sort of over a walkway bridge, basically above where everybody files in to go to work, and I remember it being – and it was 9:00 a.m. or something, but basically everybody just starts – the whistle blows and everybody starts filing in. And I’m just watching this inanimate group of people. It’s like they looked the same. Nobody’s talking, thousands of them. They looked bored before they even showed up.
It’s almost like – I used to say the same thing about people with church is you have all this life outside, and as soon as they get to the doors, everybody gets domesticated, so it’s just whatever’s happened just sucked the life out of them and it was like watching the living dead, and it was one of those moments that I said, “There’s not one person that I can look here – I can’t see a smile. I can’t see any joy,” and I’m thinking, “Well, what sort of a world are we creating? We’re saying we live in a democratic world, but for the majority of your life, folks are working for a dictator. We’ll bomb the world to protect democracy, but we’ll become subservient for those 8 or 10 hours of a day.”
So, it was one of those things I thought I wanna make a difference in that. The consulting was beneficial and helpful, but I realized from a scale perspective I can’t meet with every executive around the world, and in fact even with executives you need to have something a little bit more systemic.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Brilliant. Now, you use the metaphor of a journey on your website to describe ideas that need collaboration, so how far along the journey toward freedom is your company? Are you right where you want to be right now, or do you have farther to go, or how do you perceive things?
Mark Dowds: We have a long way to go. Well, one of the fortunate things is that we were reasonably self-aware when starting this company, so we got the luxury to start this company and saying one of the core things we are focusing on is culture, so there wasn’t a lot of transformation to do.
What we’ve been successful at is transparency, strong contribution, everyone having a clear voice so that no matter whether if it’s myself or the founders or whoever’s saying, “Here’s what we think is next,” it would be very rare to be in a room where I don’t have at least a few people asking at least for clarity or challenging it, so it’s – which is, again, really, really hard to find, ’cause there’s so many folks look up to the boss in a way that’s – well, they’re looking at them as they know everything, where at the very beginning I said it’s my job in this company as a facilitator. My job is to create a culture is to make sure communication’s clearer and everybody’s talking, because I’m not smart enough to know what the customers are thinking or what to build, so I think what we gotta do is just being open, stay connected with our community, a wider community, and go from there.
One of the things that we do is quarterly – now, we used to do it every two – twice a year, but quarterly we all get together as a group. We just did it last week, actually, and we run it – I facilitate that, where I give them a theme of, “Here’s the general theme of the three or four days,” and then if you’re familiar with open-space facilitation methodology, that’s what we do, so basically that’s what runs our company so that everybody – the staff will show up with their own ideas, concerns, interests, passions, and they post it down and then everybody votes on it, and depending in the end what moves the room is then – that’s what ends up setting our quarterly goals.
Everybody’s aware of what’s happening with clients. Everybody’s aware of what’s happening in finance. Everybody’s aware of those things, so I don’t have to show up to those saying, “Here’s where we’re gonna go,” or, “Here’s what we’re gonna do next.” I actually spend more time listening to that, surfacing what they have got and then serving it. So our job as leaders really is to become the guys that get behind the troops here. They’re the ones that’re doing the toughest part of the work, so our job is to make sure they’ve got everything to do it well.
So, that part of the thing that we lack at the moment is – which came up at the retreat – is that as we’re growing, we’ve got the systems and processes documented, and we have it set out in a way that to make sure that we don’t lose it. There is a fear is that – ’cause part of what we did on our retreat was imagining ourselves five years from today, so we’re several hundred people. How are we doing this? What was our experience like within the company and who does what? Which was interesting, because it drew out people’s interests, desires, plus future thoughts, products and all of that, but at the same time it really did expose that we have something fantastic today, but we need to be very, very careful on what we’re doing to make sure that we don’t lose it, that it doesn’t sort of bleed out the door.
One of the things that we’ve focused intently on is our hiring, so we’re very, very fussy on who we hire, so what we will typically – we’ll probably interview 20 to 30 people if we’re hiring one, so we’re pretty – it’s a very tight group. There are no real – there’s no politics. We do fight it out and we do have all that good stuff that goes on, or I think if we didn’t do that, we’d probably be dead, but the nice thing of what we got is we’ve got a lot of folks who do know how to dialogue, have a deep respect for one another and a commitment that’s deep enough to be able to say the tough stuff, so we don’t wanna lose that, so we don’t hire rock stars. We don’t do crazy incentives or unique incentives, so we really do work as a whole.
Everybody’s an owner, so that’s one of the things where, when we come together, there’s no hierarchy. We’re all owners here. What are we gonna do to take our company forward? Does that answer your question?
Doug Kirkpatrick: That helps a lot. So what do you look for in a person, in a new employee? What makes the ideal Brainpark employee?
Mark Dowds: Number one – we asked this recently through everybody when we all – because everybody agreed it was funny. It was like number one was humility, so it was humility and everybody said humility and humility and the comments was just that’s, I think, number one, and not false humility, not someone who’s coming in saying, “I’m not good at this,” but they really are and all these stuff. It’s more like someone who knows what they’re good at but knows and respects everybody else’s opinion and somebody that’s willing to learn, so if somebody thinks that they’re really, really smart or very, very clever or if they have those opinions of themselves, that’s not gonna fly very well.
We’re a pretty confident bunch, but we’ve learned to know the difference between confidence and arrogance and to know – so, yes, humility first, and servitude, so I mean, I spend as much time with people – we all do – in settings outside of work before hiring as much as we can, so John here who’s working here, I spent some time with him. He came, actually wanted to work with us, said, “I’ll come work for free,” and I said to him, “I’m interested, but, I mean, there’s still a commitment on my side that you probably want something, so what have I got to deliver? So it’s never free to me.”
It was great, but very rarely you find someone like that, but I took him downtown, went in socializing within a wider group and did notice that he’s the guy that sorta comes – if there’s a homeless guy on the street that needs $1.00, notices them, cares for folks, coming in here, noticing that there was a dodgy blind. Then he pulls out a toolkit from his car, does the things that other people don’t do, so that type of servitude and eyes to see and care for other people is very, very important.
Obviously a group, I do look for smart people, but those that really are – I think learning is the one biggie, is folks that are very, very hungry and keen to learn from one another. So it is humility, respect, learning – those are the things we look for first. I mean, a lot of the skill base – if someone is intelligent and hardworking, self-starting-type person, the skill can be – that’s the easy part. We don’t do – for the developers, I mean, folks come typically with working similar with good résumés and that sort of stuff, so we know that they’ve got the skill. We just think, “Will they fit in our culture?” and there are so many.
We have this thing that we’re starting in the company called the “wall of shame,” but we’re really into transparency so we thought this would be funny, ’cause there’s loads of things that we all do that we’re all totally embarrassed about, so I thought we’re gonna publicize them, and not just for us, for anybody in the world can see them, so that’ll be up soon. We would love to have done one for crazy hiring stories, which we can’t publicize, but it’s just some of the folks who’ve come in and things they’ve said or done, people who’ve blatantly lied to us in questions.
But, yeah, we’re pretty fussy about – anybody who’s joining us or wants to join us quite often will come to our retreat, and there’s a bunch of times where we’ve had multiple people come to retreat. They get to see if they like us, and there’s folks that’ve come to our retreat that wanted to work for us. By the end of it – mostly because I think they realize that they wouldn’t fit culturally, because we are very open, and that scares a lotta people.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Well, Mark, you mentioned NLP, and you run in ultra-marathons and you’re a minister. Have any of those disciplines contributed to Brainpark, and if so, how?
Mark Dowds: I think they all have. I think there’s definitely the fun – I mean, there definitely is a little bit of a DNA in a company that comes from the founders. I think that, I mean, I’ve seen that right across, so that’s – for me what I gained out of NLP was this aspect of bringing a voice and confidence, knowing who you are and what you can bring, so some aspect of meaning to the world. The other aspect of the skills that came from that is skill bases around dialogue, so I think, yes, those things have definitely led into it.
From coming from being a minister and being involved in youth work and that side? Absolutely, I think, because my view in the world is that my job is to make somebody else shine, so that’s really come across within the company, so all of us really are focused on making sure one another flourish to do the best job, so hopefully that servant who’s there – I think our customers see that as well. We’re very high-touch. We’re very concerned. We just don’t wanna sell software. We really are interested in – our mission is really connecting a company so that they can really sing. We wanna see big smiles on people’s faces. We wanna see people love their jobs, so I think that part comes from that piece of the background. What was the other part you said it was?
Doug Kirkpatrick: You run ultra-marathons.
Mark Dowds: Yeah, well, I think the ultra-marathons is probably my way of staying calm and collected through navigating chaos, ’cause my job’s very stressful. I mean, if you wanna have a democratic company, that means you’re gonna have a lot of dialogue. You’re gonna have a lot of folks asking questions that nobody else would wanna hear, so there’s a lot more time invested into listening and processing things that go out. So my role, I mean, outside of being responsible for finance and capital, really closing the bigger sales, leadership – I’ve got the legal; I’ve got all those things, so I’ve got quite a lot on my plate, so getting away into the hills most days for my run – I try to get an hour and a half to two hours every single day and longer on the weekends, but that allows me to really think through issues.
When I come back, if I go in the morning, I’m in work and I’m the most calm, collected guy you could ever meet. There’s nothing you could throw at me that would faze me. Or, if I go at the end of the day, I’ve processed it all and I show up for dinner with my family with a big smile on my face, so I’m very disciplined, so I come to the office very early, and I give myself – so I’ve got time most afternoons. The only problem is when I travel I don’t get the – I really don’t wanna do that, but I’ve done, I think, 14 ultra-marathons this year, so it’s –
Doug Kirkpatrick: Wow. That’s a lot.
Mark Dowds: Yeah. I’m getting into biking. That’s the next one. I’ve been mountain-biking a lot, but I’m getting a road bike. Did my first road-bike race last week, so I quite enjoyed it.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good.
Mark Dowds: It nearly killed me, but it was – ultra-marathon running destroys your feet. There’s only so much you can do after one big race. Quite often you need to have it with that. The biking allows me to do that in between.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. Well, let’s talk about your customers. You mentioned your customers. Do you find that your larger customers are interested in freedom and democracy in the workplace, or are they just interested in better ways to collaborate?
Mark Dowds: There’s a little bit of both. We definitely have some customers, like a Great Harvest Bread, for instance, that are really wanting – who value workplace democracy. There are others who really do engage with us, first of all because they’re looking for a tool that they wanted their people to collaborate on, and that part of it is is that’s when we get to sort of listen to them and also – “educate” may be the right word, maybe too strong – but at least nudge things in the right way or help them to think about why they’re really wanting everybody to collaborate or what are the opportunities if you wanna implement a tool like that.
So what’s the real driver, because if the driver is trying to force people together, it’s not gonna work, and a lotta folks wanna put in a software tool and get the top-down and say everybody’s gonna use this. Meanwhile, everybody’s compliant, doing some of it but giving the middle finger inside. It’s like the whole line is a man chased against his will is still of the opinion still, so you can’t really force change and behavior. So we’re seeing more come to us. The inbound is growing and a lot of it has come through the participating or them realizing that this is the type of company that we are as well, so I think there’s a lotta folks wanna go this way, but there’s still – some are scared.
And I think also even some leaders who do never learned this stuff at school so they’ve been trained in finance, but now they’re the senior leader of a large organization but don’t have the emotional quotient to be able to lead in that way, so I’ve met a lotta folks like that that really wanna have the dialogue, wanna do it, but just don’t have the capacity to know how to. So, we are seeing change. We are seeing a lotta companies, more companies coming that way, but there’s just as many that’s around straight-on collaboration, ’cause it’s more and more folks are becoming aware that you gotta do something. You can’t just have e-mail and SharePoint and hope everything works.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Well, you wrote a whitepaper about aware organizations, so can you talk about what you mean by an “aware” organization, and what is context?
Mark Dowds: So, running an aware organization is that, I mean, especially with so many people working – a lotta folks working from home or working in different offices, and even if everybody’s in the same building, different floors and even cubicles, so there’s so much that’s happening in an organization that you have no clue about, so I was inspired years ago when I was doing some of my research and papers by Gore Associates and organizations like that. Anyway, one of the first ones – I think it was the – was it Malcolm Gladwell that sort of made it a little more popular, I think. Wasn’t Malcolm Gladwell –
Doug Kirkpatrick: Tom Peters?
Mark Dowds: Wasn’t Tom Peters when they talked a little bit more about the Dunbar Limit and the capacity of not all of us – we can remember – natural community happens somewhere around 100-odd people, and then after that you need to have systems to make it connect. So what we wanted to do, again, within Brainpark, we said, is that if you’ve got a system that’s enhancing that, where you’re more aware of what people are doing within the natural context of their work, then there’s this natural awareness that can I think potentially span beyond the Dunbar Limit.
So, I mean, I know within using, say, even Facebook or Twitter within thousands of people that you’re navigating with that. I mean, there’s a heck of a lot more, and I seem to know what they all do, and any time I meet up with them, some of the friends, they seem to know what I’m doing or ask me about my last race or doing with that, so if you’ve got all of those things going on within a company, if you can break that nut – can you imagine showing up to another office to people that you really have never even met face to face but you already know them? You get context and understanding about their life, so there’s rapport, and you can actually have – you don’t have to actually start by saying, “Here’s what I do. My name’s Mark, and here’s what I’m into,” ’cause across an organization you can break that down quite quickly.
’Cause within an organization that’s, say, 1,000 people, I mean, I have over 1,000 followers on Twitter. I’ve got over 1,000 friends on Facebook, and it all seems to work between us, so within an organization if you can have that, I mean, that’s dynamic, ’cause then it’s a totally different experience, I think, for work. So, understanding context of really information, a lotta things and has been socialized before, put in files or put in SharePoint, there’s no real context to where it originated or how it formed or what’s the intent of the person behind it or through your system, like Brainpark, that’s what we actually bring is we heighten the awareness, but you also get the context and you know why people are doing something, so that’s the basics of it.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Another aspect of your product is kind of what you alluded to just now: capturing of this collective intelligence around an idea or an innovation and preserving the benefit of the enterprise, even if somebody goes to a different organization, so can you talk about the value of that a little bit?
Mark Dowds: I think one of the things as we’re not – I mean, today more and more everybody says innovation’s vitally key, ’cause there’s been so much turmoil in the marketplace, so innovation really does begin with ideas, so if you study the formation or the growth of 3M, it came from the odd rogue or unknown person that really made that company what it is today. The company has very little to do with what it originally started to be. Unfortunately, in other companies there’s no clear process to field an idea internally, so what we do is we have the ability for somebody to post an idea. It can be completely open to everybody, and then folks can come in and read it so they have their own vote.
And it sits there forever, so the thing is then if somebody else in three years’ time decides to have a similar idea, one of the unique things of what Brainpark does is it has a recommendation engine, so it surfaces other related content. So, for instance, if you buy a book on Amazon, it comes back and said, “Hey, other people who bought this book also did this.” We have something similar built within Brainpark, so you start a new idea or you post a thought. If there are ideas related to that or are similar to that, our algorithm basically picks them up and surfaces them, so on your screen you can see, okay, I’m working on this and here’s my latest thought or idea. You can see six things that are directly related or other people have had similar things in the past.
They may even still be in the same company and you can immediately connect with them and say, “Hey, look, I’ve had this idea. I see you had it a few years ago. Is it more ready for market today?” So it helps them in ad hoc connections, so that’s one way where people can get ideas really flowing.
So people wanna have a voice to ideas. We used to have it where just post an idea and people would comment on it, but we realized that’s not enough. Folks wanna have – at the end of the day somebody who wants to view that at a later date or in the middle of it. They wanna say, “Well, what’s everybody really think about it?” So we have that voting capacity on the ideas, which people seem to like.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Brilliant. So software’s a very competitive industry, as you know, so how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
Mark Dowds: Culture. That’s really it. I mean, there’s a bunch of folks that I’m not gonna outsell. There’s some folks have tried to corner particular aspects of the market, and I’m not gonna take it. The one thing that we have is to say, “Look, we really can turn around a culture, and we’re physical, as well as virtual.” Every customer we have, we designate a concierge for them, so they will show up physically. They will be involved with them and the product naturally connecting people, so that service side of things is really strong for us, where a lotta companies are just selling software and hoping that it works, letting somebody else within the company worry about it. We’re realizing that what we wanna do is to help nurture companies, because we have a mission and we really wanna participate with them.
So that’s our uniqueness, but I think we’re really focusing on culture and saying, “Here, this what we wanna help you have a phenomenal culture of innovation,” is really the only unique part of it, because you’re right. Software and enterprise sales is abased, so we gotta shine and let people come to us in some ways in that, and then once folks get involved with us, they don’t regret it, but we’re trying to sell above many other corporations. When they’ve got – when they’re 10 times bigger with bigger budgets, it’s not easy.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Absolutely.
Mark Dowds: So we’re differentiated based on who we are. Our product is different. There’s nobody today that has a recommendation engine surfacing that type of content that’s as smart, but a lot of times features are not the thing that closes a deal. It’s who the people really are, so it’s marketing, marketing, marketing.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. So are you having fun?
Mark Dowds: Yes, I am. There’ve been times when I haven’t. I mean, I’ve been known to be a guy who really does what he loves. I mean, I wanna be the one of those guys that has no regrets, so I do intentionally take myself out of my comfort zone to do something crazy in my personal life all the time, so within the company there’s been times when I’ve thought, “Why did I start this?” ’cause it’d been – there was specifically, to go back about 18 months, there was a time where I had a vision for an aspect of the product, and I was the only guy that really was running with it so that the team that I built no longer really believed that would be the best approach, so it was one of those times where I had to pull back.
And it was pre what we could sell, so I ended up feeling neutered for a while, going, “So, they don’t need me. The team don’t need me here. We’ve created a self-managing environment. I can’t yet sell this. I’ve brought in the capital,” so it was a really disillusioning time of really having to come back and think, “What do you do as a democratic leader when those parts work?” because I had choices to really push forward in other ways, but the toughest part of that season was to be quiet and to watch and to serve.
So, yeah, there’ve been times where it’s been really hard. There’s been times where I haven’t enjoyed it. There’s been times when I’ve doubted myself, but today, yeah, I mean, I love it because it’s hot and heavy: big challenges. I’ve got competitors. We’re taking business from competitors, and I love that, and I love to close. I mean, I love meeting with somebody and closing business, so as long as I’ve got a really good challenge and there’s lots of moving parts, I’m okay.
I did an analysis years ago when I was doing this at my psychology degree, and they did this analysis of my personality that said where would I flourish most? And it was really interesting, because the things they surfaced are typically things you never think of, ’cause we typically take jobs in industries because there’s a family or somebody you know; there’s a familiarity to it, where this one came back saying the two things that I would flourish in would be either managing a zoo or an airport.
And initially I reacted in a class going, “Who on Earth came up – why would I be a good zoo manager or an airport” – and I go, “And this is stupid. I’ve never thought of it,” and I was thinking from a passion perspective. I’ve never had a passion for that sort of stuff, and one of the guys had said, “Mark, have you considered the commonality between an airport manager and a zoo manager?” and they said, “You thrive in chaos.” So that’s really – as long as there’s moving parts and chaotic and big challenges and I feel like it’s war-room-type behavior, I’m happy.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. Last question: What’s your vision for Mark Dowds after Brainpark?
Mark Dowds: Mark Dowds after Brainpark is – that’s a big question. I mean, I think it’s a tough one for me, because I’m still not thinking of moving past Brainpark at this point. If somebody decides to – I mean, eventually we’ll get to either a size where there’ll be somebody better to front the company. At that point, if they still want me involved, I would like to still focus on culture or building or nurturing that in the company.
If I don’t end up in that position, if somebody buys us or something else happens, I will – I think what I’ll probably focus on is in working with the guys in Haiti, so when part of my running has been to help Haiti Partners, and I would love to do a lot more in working and helping that and thinking about – that’s a big challenge in the sense if you think of managing chaos and being in that position. Big draw to that. That’s a big love of our family, so I’d love to be helping and doing that.
A lotta folks have said, “So, what’d be the next startup?” and for the first time in my life, I’ve thought, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if there is another one. But then other folks have said, “How do you feel when you’re in Mile 40 of a 50-mile race?” and I’ll go, “I’m never doing another one of these again.” “So what do you do the day after a 50-mile race?” I say, “Sign up for the next one,” so the moment I’m very narrow-minded or no vision on this, but I definitely – the bigger dream of my life is I’ve always had a great knack of being able to make money, and I’ve a great love of startups and ideas, so what I would like to be is free enough to be able to recognize and see those ideas and still support a few of them, but instead of doing loads of them, I would probably like to choose a few ideas every so often and get involved with them and help make them successful.
So, I think in that way I don’t necessarily wanna be the front guy in the next season but someone who can really have influence from behind, so not a traditional angel investor. I’ve done that. That’s not as much fun, but to be involved financially and operationally with a few. I think that’ll probably be where I’ll end up.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Very good. Mark, thank you.
Mark Dowds: Doug, thank you. Appreciate it. Thanks for coming down.
PUBLISHED BY THE MORNING STAR SELF-MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE, APRIL 21, 2011