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Mark Casper is an entrepreneur and the Executive Director/President of Tech For Troops, a non-profit that gifts refurbished computers to veterans and their families. Mark and I talk about the journey into the military, his growth in the corporate world, and his eventual launch into his own business and ultimate takeover of Tech For Troops. For more information about Tech For Troops, go to https://techfortroops.org.

#119: Averting shutdown and creating growth with Mark Casper

May 12, 2021 • 51:53

SPEAKERS

Aaron Spatz, Host, America’s Entrepreneur
Mark Casper, Executive Director & President, Tech For Troops


Aaron  00:05
You’re listening to America’s Entrepreneur, the podcast designed to educate, entertain, and inspire you in your personal and professional journey. I’m your host, Aaron Spatz. And on the podcast, I interview entrepreneurs, industry experts and other high-achievers that detailed their personal and professional journeys in business. My goal is to glean their experiences into actionable insights that you can apply to your own journey. If you’re new to the show, we’ve spoken with successful entrepreneurs, Grammy Award-winning artists, bestselling authors, chief executives, and other fascinating minds with unique experiences. We’ve covered topics such as how to achieve breakthrough in business, growing startups, effective leadership techniques, and much more. If you strive for continual self-improvement and enjoy fascinating and insightful conversation, hit the subscribe button. You’ll love it here at America’s Entrepreneur.

I’m so excited that you are joining me right now for the very first legit edition of America’s Entrepreneur. So for those that are brand new to the show, I just want to welcome you. You’ve already heard the introduction. You’ve already heard some of the other things about the program, but what we’re doing here is we’ve consolidated The DFW Business Podcast, The Veterans Business Podcast into one new show featuring America’s entrepreneurs, industry experts, other brilliant minds. And so I’m so, so, so excited for the way ahead.

And so I want to jump right into today’s show. We’re going to welcome Mark Casper to the program. Mark is currently – he is the executive director and president for Tech For Troops. And it’s a really cool nonprofit. He’s got an amazing story. We’re going to dive into that a whole bunch of other details, but I want to welcome you sincerely to our very first edition of America’s Entrepreneur. So Mark, I just want to welcome you, sir. Thank you for joining me today.

Mark  01:58
Hey, Aaron, thanks for having me and I am humbled to be the first for America’s Entrepreneur. It really is. That’s amazing. Thank you. Fantastic.

Aaron  02:05
Absolutely. So the episode number will be 100 and some odd whatever it is up to now, but this is the first one. This is the very first branded completely with the new title and the new brand and colors and all that stuff. So it’s a pretty exciting day. I’m excited to welcome you and just hear more about your story. So with that, let’s just roll it back to the beginning. So, I mean, how did you get your start in business? What was your childhood like in terms of – was there any curiosity to business or were you just simply happy to be any other kid?

Mark  02:46
No, no. There was always curiosity to business. I grew up in San Antonio and loved my growth, my time there, honestly. It was amazing. I was that kid that was on a bike at eight or nine-wheeler, a ten-wheeler riding around, picking up Coke bottles for the nickel and dimes that you got because I was always trying to make money. I was mowing lawns, washing cars, all those kinds of things. So, no, I was always been interested in business. I never thought I would have my own like this, but that’s what I did.

Aaron  03:14
Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah. So some of those early business, like childhood business type memories are some of my favorite. I grew up in a Southeastern Virginia. And so, you’re my home state, man. You’re coming there from Richmond. So, as you know better than many, I mean, the leaves in the fall are insane and what that does to your gutters is insane as well. So I remember I was 14 or 15 years old, I was trying to crawl up on – or I’d grab a ladder and lean it up against a gutter and try to scoop out all the crap from people’s gutters and just make it happen, right?

Mark  03:54
You got to do two to three times a year because of the pollen and all the stuff that comes into it. Absolutely truth. And as well since I’m in Virginia, not in San Antonio anymore, of course, I heat my house with firewood. And so, yeah, it’s a big difference.

Aaron  04:10
Yeah. That’s super cool. So that curiosity has always been a part of you. You’ve always kind of had a bit of a business mind. So take me through then the remainder of your childhood and where are you got your start? You joined the military, but what was that journey like for you?

Mark  04:27
So I was one of those kids that I was smart enough to be dumb. I’ll just say it that way, right? I had a great GPA. I passed classes without studying, that kind of thing. But then I was unlucky enough… wow, how do I say this? I was unlucky enough to fall in with the wrong crowd. And luckily my parents saw what was going on. So we moved from San Antonio to Lufkin, Texas. And during that timeframe, I was spiraling a little bit, going down that drain, right? And my parents were like, “You got to do something with your life.” And I was so doing the whole poo-poo thing, “Mom, dad, I’ll be fine.” And then one day, one evening, my mom walked into my room and she said, “Why don’t you do something with your life? Join the Marine Corps.” And I’m like, “Makes sense. Let’s do it.” And literally, next day, I went down to sign papers for the Marine Corps.

Aaron  05:17
Holy cow.

Mark  05:18
And yeah, that started my journey out of Texas and to the Marine Corps for four years where I met my wife and still married, going on 37 years. And she has been my lifeblood, my lifesaver many, many times because I married way up. She’s a doctor in education and I’m just me.

Aaron  05:40
Just you. Oh, man. Well, and so let’s just be real for a second here, Mark. So that’s saying something if mom is saying go join the Marine Corps because usually it’s the other way around. Hey mom, dad, I want to go join. And there may be resistance or not to that, but it’s like, hey, you need to go do something, man.

Mark  06:00
Yeah, I had some great memories, honestly. And I had some good childhood friends at that point. I mean, I don’t know them anymore. They’re long gone. It’s been 30, 40 years now. But they saw what was happening and they were smart enough to recognize that I either needed to get off my duff and do some of my life or I was going to perish. So they were smart in that way.

Aaron  06:26
Yeah. No, that’s terrific. So how many years did you spend in before you punched out?

Mark  06:32
Four years. When the time came to get out, I went to the recruiter course retention officer and he’s like, “You’re going to fail in life. You’re going to blah, blah, blah.” And that just made my backbone a little stronger because I went back home to my wife that night. I’m like, “I’m afraid.” I mean, literally, because you’re getting out of something you’re told what to do, what to think, what to say, where to be. And then all of a sudden you’re out. And she’s like, “Don’t worry about it. We got it.” And I remember standing in front of the captain and he and I should have had choice words together but we didn’t because he was captain, I was not. And my last day, I was ecstatic, scared, but I still took that long road to where I’m at today.

Aaron  07:18
Yeah. Well, I mean, there’s so there’s so much unknown, right, coming out of the military. I mean, you express that so well. There’s so many options, there’s a level of excitement and a level of apprehension associated with that. And so you feel a little bit bipolar at times because you’re just like, man, I really miss it, but then I don’t miss it for a second. So constantly just juggling that, right?

Mark  07:41
That is the absolute truth. If you’re part of a brotherhood/sisterhood, and then all of a sudden, you’re not, right? And I remember I did the 52 cards getting out 52 days and get to the ace of spades and I stopped at the gate as I was getting out. And my last time driving through those gates and the MP of the Marine Corps, MP was like, “What are you doing? You can’t stop here.” And all I did was hand him the card and he popped me the snappiest salute I ever saw my entire life. And he’s like, “Yes, sir. Have yourself a good life, sir.” And I was like done. It was the coolest thing, right? But it took a lot not to stop, but to get out because you have a paycheck, you have health care. You have, you have, you have… and, yeah, it’s scary. You’re right. It’s bipolar.

Aaron  08:28
So it’s a perfect segue then to kind of contrast that into the entrepreneurial space then. So share with us a little bit, I mean, I know you’ve had several stops between where you are today and your post-military journey, but kind of walk us through some of that journey and some of that contrast.

Mark  08:46
So when I got out on ’87, I thought I had the tiger by the tail. That’s what I call it. And I thought the civilian world is going to beat feet to me and they’re going to make me a CEO. I’m going to be right because I have a mark almost. I’m a Marine. And come to find out, civilian world does not give a flying rip about you. And they still don’t. And quite honestly, and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just they don’t understand what you do while you’re in and what you go through and what you believe and how you act. So, my first job, I thought I had it. I got fired. My second job, I was working at a gas station making just about minimum wage, actually probably a little less by then. And this was back in ‘88, ‘89. So it was what? Three and a half dollars an hour. And then I kept making myself better. Went to school, had kids make myself better. And I got my first professional job – I’ll call that – corporate with Capital One in ‘99. So it took me a long time to get to that level – school, all that stuff. And then when it came time, I left out, went to Northrop Grumman, did a few other things as well.

But then around 2010, 2011, I was part of a group of vets who brought a movie called 22 because of the 22 vets who commit suicide. And it being around that table, planning an event with a bunch of vets where you knew you could say kind words and get away with it and nobody’s going to care. They’re not going to be offended because we all live the same way, right? That made me realize what I missed. What I was missing was that brotherhood and sisterhood where I could let my hair down a bit, so to say, right? And be part of a community again, at the tribe as they call it now, community tribe, whatever you want to call it. And that was the start of where I needed to go.

I own my own company, IT company. I was doing well. And I went to a networking event to try and make more business. And I ran into the founder of Tech For Troops. And that was in November 2015. So she invited me in to be on the board because I was on the board of another nonprofit for veterans. And when I walked in the door quite literally, I knew I was home. God told me I was home type of thing. Lightning bolts, thunder, unicorns, butterflies. Go ahead.

Aaron  11:13
No, no, no, no. I think that’s fantastic. I mean, in fact, well, we can get to that here in a second. What I like to do, though, is go back, and I think there’s a point that I would like for you to take a second and talk about. Because I think a lot of people have a perception that the entrepreneurial journey, you got to be all-in on day one and you got to continue to go. And I’m looking at your journey and there’s this understanding, you know, you went through a very methodical and long process in terms of gaining experience, bettering yourself and kind of preparing you for that eventual move. And so it goes back to our earlier discussion, which is that bug, so to speak, it never left you. That had always been a part of you. So walk me through what the circumstances that led up to that first jump.

Mark  12:09
Yeah. I go back to my wife and I’m very lucky. Trust me. We talk about our jobs and our journey and everything that we’re doing in our lives. Every night we have probably an hour-long conversation about what went right, what went wrong, and we’ve been doing that for probably 30 years now.

Aaron  12:26
That’s so cool.

Mark  12:27
And then, yeah, it really is amazing to have a sounding board, a soulmate sounding board. But every job I had, I took the good and the bad from my bosses because I was with small companies, right? I was with veteran-owned companies. I was with huge conglomerate – Northrop Grumman and Capital One companies. And they all treat their employees different. And I always wonder why. What’s the big deal? I can see a small company and how you treat your employees because I can have somebody walk in my door and there it is. Or a big company, I still had a manager, I could walk in their door, but it’s not the same. And I always had that bug to have my own company where I could have a family, have people walk up to my door and say, “Hey, I got a problem. Can I talk to you for ten minutes?” You bet, sit down. Let’s do that.

So in talking with her, we always took the good from all of my managers and took the bad and said, “Here’s what they’re doing wrong. Don’t do that when you become a boss.” When I started my own company, don’t do that. Makes sense. So I always took from the Capital one’s and the Northrop Grumman’s and the other ones what to do and what not to do. Do we make mistakes? You bet. We’re human. We’re going to make mistakes. But if you follow your guide star, you’re going to be okay. Because very few of us are in a company where a single mistake from anyone – employer/or –  is going to make you fail. And I tell my employees that while I’m here at Tech For Troops. There’s nothing you can do that’s going to destroy us. If it’s bad, we will work through it together. I will not fire you unless it’s really, really bad. And there’s never been that because I trust them and they that I’m going to have their back. So they do their best.

So that’s been my journey. It’s that whole conversation. I got a marketing degree from VCU. There are other classes, project management. I went through – what do they call it? NT server, new technology, Microsoft NT technology training. I got that as well. So there’s always that little bit that I keep learning and learning and learning and learning. And then the best thing I do is listen to you, to others and just say, “Oh, that makes sense. I love that line. Let’s incorporate that into my life, into my business.” So there’s always a journey. No matter what book it is I read, whether it’s a fictional or nonfiction, there’s always something you can read and I’m a big highlighter. If I like a book, I will destroy it, right? And I’m writing down notes for myself because I’m like, oh my God, this is what I want to do. Not the company, but that thing, how they treat somebody. So that’s the journey.

Aaron  15:09
No, it’s a really neat way to kind of see how you’ve absorbed all this and how you’ve kind of processed this over the years. Because what you’ve been able to do is you’ve been able to synthesize all the pros and cons for every leader in every leadership style and management style, and just the way that we treat people, the way that we interact with clients and all these different things. And so you’ve done this informally with your wife for so many years now that it’s become second nature. And so when you’re finally ready to go, you’ve got a really good idea of what that’s going to – and no doubt, you probably even practice this in your own opportunities in whatever corporate role you were in. You’d just take those learnings and apply that to whatever your role happened to be at that time.

Mark  15:59
It’s easier when your boss trusts you because we’ve all had those bosses who are just – I don’t understand that kind of mindset. If you want me to do something and I do it, let me do it, right? Don’t keep coming back with changes and things and I don’t like that, I don’t like this. You tell me to do something, I’m going to get it done, but trust me to do it. I don’t know. I can say it that way. A lot of people understand exactly what I’m talking about. But when you have – I’m thinking of one certain manager, which I will not mention a name, that one certain manager where I did the same thing three different ways. And even then, it wasn’t good enough. And I did it each way she wanted me to. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And nothing. I mean, that was not a pleasant environment to be in, I’ll put it to you that way. So I took from her how not to treat people, right? Because her poo instinct I’ll say it that way, but everybody else’s did. And it was like, oh my goodness, I can’t do that to somebody. That’s crazy. That’s not who I am. So yeah, I always took from every manager I had even the people around me as well, how they treated other people.

Aaron  17:12
No, that’s awesome. So then walk me through then the process of when you eventually went out and started your own business.

Mark  17:24
Yeah. So, actually, it was at that organization and having issues with that boss. And I went to my wife and I’m like, “Babe, I got to do something else. I got to go out on my own.” And she’s like, “Well, you have IT skills. You have project management skills. You have leadership skills. You have the strategic vision as well as to what you want to do. Go do it.” And I got very lucky with her in supporting me. Because as you know, starting a business, it was probably two years before I got a paycheck, right? She supported us the whole time. But amazingly enough, probably six months after I started that company, I started making money. So two and a half years in the journey, that’s when I walked into Tech For Troops. And I was successful, right? I was starting to make some, be able to repay the bills that I was creating and be able to get ahead of where we were really, really well. Because I’m making decent money as a contractor or consultant. And then all of a sudden, I’m back to Tech For Troops money. So it was a journey that I had to have to get to where I’m at.

Aaron  18:36
I mean, there’s so much pain involved with that. I mean, I’ve been through that. I would argue there’s elements of me that are still going through. There’s always something you’re learning. There’s always discomfort. There’s always a new thing that you’ve got to master. You just didn’t have time to go address it because you’ve got 36 other things. You knocked ten things off your list and 15 things get added, right? And so it’s like there’s this continual – but it’s a continual learning. And I think this is just – I’m making incredibly broad assumption here, but just from my observation of interviewing other entrepreneurial minded people, there seems to be just this perpetual curiosity to learn, to improve, to do things better, to better yourself, to better the organization, to better mankind, I mean, whatever it may be, but there’s always seems to be this tenacious obsession with trying to just continuously improve. Does that sound accurate or do you disagree with that?

Mark  19:36
No, no, no. You have to. I would say something along the lines of if you’re not moving, you’re standing still. And it is the honest truth especially as an entrepreneur, as somebody who wants to change the world, make a lot of money. Whatever that passion is for you, if you think you’re going to be able to take a vacation and turn off the computer and your phone for two weeks, good luck because when you get back… So you have to continually work and it’s not a 24/7 day, although sometime it is. Sometimes it is. It’s more along the lines of where your passion leads you to your creation of new things. I’m extremely lucky. One of my best friends sits right next to me over here in front of me. And he doesn’t work for Tech For Troops, but we both have ideas and we bounce it off each other. He runs his own company. I run my own company.

Aaron  20:28
That’s cool.

Mark  20:28
And it’s hey, how about…? Hey, can this be done? Is this being done already? Do you know of…? And it’s always something that’s going to elevate both of us, but one of us to the next level. And whether it’s we now have a data center at Tech For Troops and he came up with that idea, right? So how about you get all this stuff in? Why don’t you use it? And I’m like, I’ve never really thought about it. That’s why. So we put together a data center and eventually we want to rent out space for webpages and cloud storage and that kind of stuff. But you’re always looking to elevate yourself and somebody else. For Tech For Troops, it’s other it’s veterans. But yeah, absolutely.

Aaron  21:11
Cool. So let’s go ahead and go there then. So tell me the Tech For Troops story. You had talked about how we’d kind of – I guess I’d accidentally interrupted you, but we’d kind of started to talk about how you’d walked in. You immediately felt like you were at home and this is where you needed to be. So take it from there.

Mark  21:31
Yeah. So I took the tour. We had a Tech For Troops as we had 750 square feet at the time. And this was December 2015. And I took the quick tour. It was two rooms and some warehouse floor space. And that was it. There were no walls, no nothing except for these two rooms, which is where the wiping took place for the hard drives refurbishing took place.

Aaron  21:50
Mark, sorry. Can you just explain? So those are not getting completely lost right now. What does Tech For Troops do?

Mark  21:57
Yeah. So Tech For Troops is a nonprofit based in Richmond. Looking to expand everyone. But what we do is we receive equipment from corporations and individuals. We refurbish it. So we make it new-ish. We wipe the hard drive. Data security is 100%. And we gift it or we give it to a veteran that’s in need, whether they’re homeless or they’re in poverty. And here in Richmond, behind this wall behind me, we have a training facility where we teach up to 24 vets at a time literally how to turn a computer on, how to use a mouse, how to get online, what’s Wi-Fi, all that kind of stuff. And in doing all of that, we create or we get in a lot of electronic waste – old computers, old servers, routers, switches, stereos, you name it. We get all that stuff in. And we recycle. We’ve recycled close to half a million tons. No, not half. But yeah, close to half a million tons in six years. I mean, because we put out about a hundred tons a year in recycling.

Aaron  22:58
Wow.

Mark  23:00
Yeah. So it’s a big deal.

Aaron  23:01
Yeah. And that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Okay. So then pick it back up from where, you know, just the whole genesis of it and the growth and the story behind it all.

Mark  23:13
Yeah. So when I finished the tour, the founder looked at me and she said, “Do you want to be executive director?” And I was like, “Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.” Because I was home and I knew I was home. So thanks to my wife. I went home that night. I said, “Hey, guess what, babe, I’m going to shut down my company and become the executive director of a nonprofit.” And she was a little incredulous as she should be. She was like, “You’d never run a nonprofit.” And I said, “I know, but this is where I belong. And if I don’t do this, my life’s going to be miserable because I know what I was supposed to be doing.”

And it took me a couple of months to shut down and move into Tech For Troops completely. My mom passed during that time so I spent a couple of weeks with my dad and all that kind of stuff, right? So that was in March going into April when I came back in full time and started getting my feet wet. And then by mid-May, late May, the founder came to me and said, “Hey, guess what? We’re out of money. We’re going to shut down.” And I was like, “No. No, we’re not.” I took a significant pay cut. Making no money already, I said, “No, I’ll take a pay cut.” And this is where the leadership entrepreneurship comes in. I had two employees at the time as well, and I’ve kept them whole, and I’ve took less money. And I’m not doing that to pat myself on the back. That’s just, I think, good quality leadership for your employees, right?

So back and forth with the board a couple of times and then September, Labor Day, we had a quick coffee at a Panera and she said, “You either take it over or shut it down.” I said, “I’ll take it over.” And she said, “Good.” And she handed me the sheet of paper with these 25 things I had to do by October 6th, right? So I had a month, 30 days, to transfer everything into my name. And I got it done somehow. Honestly, I don’t know how, but I did. And at the same time, I was still coming into work at Tech For Troops, doing everything I could to make those few dollars to stay afloat, pay the rent, pay my employees, everything else. And yeah, it was a lot of long hours. It was horrible, just straight up horrible, but it happened.

And then brought on three new board members. And that was in October. And January 2017, we received a gift and the guy who gave it to us, he refuses to talk to me. Weird. But we got 3,000 laptops from FEMA and I’ve called them since that time saying, “Hey, can we get some more?” And he’s like, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know where you got it. You didn’t get it for me.” I’m like, got it, done. I’m not going to come back. And that literally put us on the trajectory up. And currently, we have 7,000 square feet. We need more space cause we’re running out again and we just expanded last January. So the last year, January. We did a whole bunch of moving and shaking around. Behind me here is the 24 seats training facility. We have an online sales presence room because we get in stereos and cameras and we get in boxes and boxes of DVDs. So we sell them online to help make ourselves solvent, all of that stuff.

I know there’s questions out there. If you give computers events, why do you have an online? Well, because I got to pay my bills. I got to pay my rent. I got to pay my employees. But as well, we triaged all of the equipment that comes from mice to keyboards, to power cables, to everything. And it gets separated into three different categories. One is straight up recycling, right? So we do recycle a lot. The second part is I use a laptop. If a laptop does not have a camera, it’s sold online because I can’t give them a computer without a camera because of telehealth or education today. But that was a decision made a long time ago. No camera, we don’t give it to a vet because they have to have a camera. And they get i5s and i7s.

Aaron  27:13
Wow.

Mark  27:13
Most of our vets receive computers that are worth around $350 to $450. And they’re good. It’s good quality stuff, i5s and i7s. And then the middle stuff that we get in, that’s online sales presence stuff, and then the good stuff goes to vets. So that’s how we triage it. So if anybody has any questions about giving us equipment, we’re going to make sure that the vets get the best stuff.

Aaron  27:37
That’s really cool. And then the whole point behind having more square footage is simply that so that you’re able to receive more products coming in.

Mark  27:46
Absolutely. So yeah, one of the really cool things that just happened today, probably about 20 minutes before you and I started talking, Aaron, is that we’ve been working with the federal government, one of our House of Representatives. And she is creating legislation for Tech For Troops and other nonprofits across the nation that do what we do, other constituencies, but veterans, students, inner cities, seniors, you name it, the digital divide or digital inclusion, whichever one you want to use, to be able to receive federal computers. And we got noticed today that we’re almost on creating the legislation for having it to be submitted to the House. And then we’re going to get senators involved as well and then have it go to the president for signature. And we’re probably 85% confident it’s going to happen.

So there’s half a million-ish computers a year warehoused by the federal government. And if you think of that number, half a million, that’s a significant amount. And if this goes through the organization AFTR, we’ll be able to receive up to 40% of that. So that’s a boatload of computers. I’m going to need more space. Plus we’re talking to corporations across the nation about the data security and getting their stuff anyway. So we need more space.

Aaron  29:11
Oh, yeah. I mean, and there’s such an opportunity there. Because one, I mean, federal government is humongous and there’s so many different departments and different agencies and all these other things. And so working that process out, I mean, that could be just a perpetual source of product, which would be fantastic. And then of course, everybody has to end-of-life their hardware at some point anyway. So if you’re a large corporation and you’ve got a fleet of laptops issued to your employees, I mean, it would just make sense. Do I pull the hard drive out and destroy it? Do I just throw this whole thing into the trash? Or do I hand it off to a nonprofit, get a tax write off at the same time while I’m also serving a community? So, I mean, it’s a win-win-win. I mean, everybody wins in that set up.

Mark  30:03
All the way around. There’s a stat that I saw the other day where 40 million tons of e-waste goes in the landfill worldwide every year. It’s like 800 laptops a second. Think about that. It doesn’t mean 800 laptops go in landfill a second or a minute. I think it’s minute. Sorry, I won’t say a second. Make it a minute. But still, I could use 25 minutes of those and we could change the world for the veteran community across the nation and their kids. I could change the world. Make it easier to get a job and to go to a telehealth and to order from hopefully your local companies.

Aaron  30:49
Right. Yeah. Well, so, what’s been the biggest challenge other than having to do a 30-day turnaround to get the company everything in your name? But beyond that, what have been some of the lessons? Just so think of macro here and then you can go as micro as you’d like. But taking a lot of the entrepreneurial lessons that you’ve learned just over your career, and then now it’s really hitting home. I mean, it’s a pretty big deal. I mean, you already shared with me one, which was you taking that pay cut there for a time in order just to stay afloat. But what have been some of the other things that you’ve learned or seen through this journey?

Mark  31:24
So as entrepreneurs understand and get a little more successful and a little more stable – I think that’s the better word, not successful, more stable – where they’re able to pay themselves a decent salary, I don’t make a lot, but that’s not what I’m worried about. But you got to have good people around you who understand your mission, who are passionate about your mission, and it doesn’t have to be a nonprofit. It could be a grocery store. It could be whatever it is – a bakery shop. If they’re passionate with you about what you’re doing, that is key. And with that, though, the next thing you have to do is network. Whether you like it or not, you have to go out and shake hands and introduce yourself, put your card in their hands and ask them to come in for a visit. Even if you’re a consultant, you have a single room, come in and talk to me. Let’s talk and see how we can make your life better because I need to make your life better.

That has been one of the single biggest drivers of Tech For Troops is I’m willing to go anywhere, do anything and talk to anybody. And it makes it easier as awareness grows because that’s how a company grows. It’s through awareness. It doesn’t have to be a boatload of advertising. It can be as simple as shaking a hand and saying, “Here’s who I am. Here’s what I do. And here’s why I do it.” Have your 30-second elevator pitch ready every moment every day and always, always, always have a business card in your pocket. Because if you don’t, there could be a missed opportunity that you’re like, crap, that was a million dollar sale right there because I didn’t have a business card or my elevator pitch ready.

Aaron  33:02
I’d like to throw something at you. I’d like to see what you think. So this has been something that I’ve learned from just some mentors of mine. And I just like your input on it and see what you think. But for me, I’ve learned a lot just in this journey of – like I said, it’s been incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s been some of the most rewarding time of my entire life. I’ve loved it. I wouldn’t say I’ve loved every second of it. Let’s be real. But looking at the experience as a whole, it’s been phenomenal. I mean, it’s just been fantastic. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment or adversity.

But the point, though, I’ve learned from some really, really amazing people that they’re always looking for opportunities to help people. And I know it sounds so cliché and maybe there’s a different way to phrase that, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be for – so let’s say you, Mark, you’re going in and you’re talking to somebody, you’re networking, right? You’re talking to somebody. They want to know about you. You want to know about them. You’re developing a relationship. And then the conversation turns to a point where then you’re able to say, hey, you’re like, what’s one of your biggest challenges right now? What’s when your biggest needs? And it may have absolutely zero to do with you. You may not be the guy that can deliver that medication to that problem, but maybe you know somebody who can.

And I’ve seen that play out so many times and not really even just for myself, but there’s a few other people that I really sincerely look up to that master this. And it’s always insane how that works. Because then you become a connector of sorts to people and you become known as the guy who can get things done and trusting eventually there’s going to be an opportunity where you’re going to do business. And I don’t know if I articulated that very well or not, but what’s your thoughts on that?

Mark  35:03
I am in 100% agreement with you. And I’m going to agree what you said really at the original start of that it’s a glutton for punishment type of thing. Because you’re going out, you’re doing your deal, you’re talking to folks, you’re trying to create business, but at the same time, when you hear a need from somebody else, and I’m a firm believer in what I call soul satisfying, right? When you help that person take their medicine or get the medicine to help out with that, that makes it all worthwhile. Whether it’s a vet or not. I get calls from folks, “Hey, I have a need.” And they’re not a vet, but what can I do? Well, guess what? I know a whole network of people who do what I do out there that can do that for you.

“Well, I need to have this picked up.” Well, I know a guy who does that too. And it might cost you a bit, but if you didn’t know about him, he’s a great – everything we do, it’s a circle of life. Everything. And as one of the things I keep finding out doing this job is that the world is an incredibly small place as with seven billion, almost eight billion people in it. It’s an incredibly small place. And word gets out when you’re a good person and you’re doing good things. And then people look for that. Because whether they’re doing good things themselves or not, they still gravitate to good. Nobody gravitates to bad. Nobody wants to gravitate to bad. I should say it that.

Aaron  36:36
Yeah, no, I love the way you said that. Because I think that is the logical connection there that maybe a lot of people don’t understand. Okay, Aaron, Mark, this the sounds really nebulous and feel good. No, I understand. There is absolutely strategy and intentionality and tactics and things that you do need to master and do well at when it comes to business development. And I’ve been on that journey myself too, right? But at the same time, though, if we’re going to talk and act selfish for a second, all of those efforts where you’re helping other people, it will benefit you. It just may benefit you in a very, very indirect way. If nothing else, just great reputation and becoming a person that people know that they can count on, they can lean on. If they need help, they know that they can count on you.

And eventually, again, not to sound so kumbaya and it’s all going to just come around together because I don’t subscribe to that. But I do believe though that with that reputation, exactly what you just said a few minutes ago, Mark, there’s this attraction about that. People start to kind of attract those types of people around themselves. And if you’re not that kind of person, you’re not going to be connected to that. And so it just kind of continues to breed itself, which I think is really cool.

Mark  38:01
You’re absolutely right. And I’m going to go back to my parents being as smart as they were, right? Or are. My dad’s still alive. They’ve always told me since I was a little kid, the only thing you have in this life is your name. That’s it. You can’t take anything with you when you die. So the only thing you have is your name. So if it’s a good name and you’re known for being good, then that’s more important to me than anything else in life. I want my kids to know, my grandkids. I have two granddaughters. I want them to know that Gramps is a good guy, right? I’m not an old curmudgeon. I want to have fun with them.

Aaron  38:39
Right. Yeah. No, that’s really cool. That’s really cool. Well, so then moving into present day. So you shared with me a little bit of things that you’re working on currently. What do you foresee, I guess, as being some of the challenges? Obviously your space has become a problem. How are you as an entrepreneur thinking through the scale and expansion problem and how you’re thoughtfully solving that without overextending yourself?

Mark  39:06
Oh, that’s a great question. And I worry about that on a continuous basis, literally. Am I reaching too far? Because we need to expand not just here in Richmond, but I think across the nation as well. So I have to go at it in two different ways. Here in Richmond, if it all works out right and I pray that it does, we’ll be able to buy the building, right? And that will elevate us and allow us to do some things that we can’t do right now because we’re not allowed to. So that conversation is starting with the building owners. They already know that I want it. We’ll see where we go from there. But I’m not going to push them. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. When they come to that decision to sign the lease, then we’ll figure that piece out, right?

In terms of overextending myself and expansion, I want to do it one at a time. One location at a time, I should say. And the first being either DFW or Green Bay, Wisconsin. And the reason why is even though everything we do is cookie cutter, I could take everything, plop it to the next place and it should run. It’s going to take training. It’s going to take patience. It’s going to take education. It’s going to take networking throughout that area. And I’m asking for funds from locations to be able to do that. So I don’t want to set up for failure or the amount of stress I went through. I’m pretty sure I took 10 or 20 years off my life that first year, right? Pretty sure I did. But I want to set those people, those employees, that site manager, up for not instant gratification success, but close enough to where they feel comfortable to make decisions on their own and that I trust them doing it. That’s where the education comes in of what Tech For Troops does and everything that we do.

So overextending myself, I am desperately trying not to because we’ve been in conversations with other locations on top of those two and I’m like, whoa, whoa, I can’t, I don’t have the bandwidth. I’m not doing it as much as I think it would be really cool to open up four locations in one year, my gray would be white and I’d have more bags under my eyes.

Aaron  41:23
We certainly don’t want that, Mark, man. We want to keep you healthy and strong, man.

Mark  41:28
Trying to. Trying to.

Aaron  41:31
No, I asked because I think it’s always fun to kind of go through – I mean, and this is a part of my brain that just never shuts off, right? And I’m always analyzing businesses and their operations and how they do things, what are they doing differently than everybody else can’t seem to get right? Or what could we tweak – I mean, I’ll do it in a restaurant, I’ll do it in a whatever. And so there is that curiosity, right? But I like to learn from others and like, okay, well, what is Mark thinking about that maybe I wouldn’t think about when it comes to expansion? So what’s going on through his head in terms of how is he having the intersection of capital and product and sales? How is he making that intersection happen as gracefully as possible? And there’s probably not a very solid black and white answer to that. I think it may be a little muddy.

Mark  42:27
Yeah. There’s not. But one of the things I did is I looked at my organization. I have eleven employees. Two that don’t work here. So they work from home. But the others do work here. And my director of ops is phenomenal in sales. So he’s really good at ops as well. So making sure everything works back there and we’re shipping out and we’re getting in and all that kind of stuff, but his first passion is sales. So I changed him from director of ops to sustainability platform leader, meaning he’s going to have national reach and he’s going to have employees at different locations being in sales. So that part that I’m going to worry about, I don’t have to worry about as much because I have a partner in making this happen and making the sales piece come apart, right? Because what we’re going to need more than anything is equipment to be able to flip that at Green bay or DFW and then have the online sales presence to be able to make ourselves sustainable.

So doing that, and then I looked internal again to one of my other employees who I know has the skillsets to become the ops manager or director of ops manager, right? So we changed titles and stuff because titles mean a lot to different people. And I don’t want them to be – not pigeonholed, I don’t want them to feel like there’s one better than another. Because being us being so small with eleven employees, like I said, I want them to walk in my door if there’s an issue. So I want them to feel like they can all talk together, walk together and kumbaya together, good and bad. At the same time, because it literally is a family atmosphere, let’s support the veteran community. So how are we going to make that happen? And I think in making those two changes and people – and then actually, I took another one and promoted her into online sales supervisor. And she had no idea that was coming. That just happened last night. And she was like, all right.

Aaron  44:24
That’s cool.

Mark  44:25
But you put the gentle pressure to succeed and to perform and you have a recipe for success, especially if you give them the mentorship to be able to do that. So it’s holding their hands while they’re walking down the hallway.

Aaron  44:44
That’s right. Well, and I don’t mean to embarrass you because you’re a pretty humble guy, but that doesn’t come about accidentally, right? That takes intentionality. And so that’s a testament to your leadership and to your ability to mentor and just cultivate trust, right? And it goes back to our earlier discussion towards the beginning, right? Why do people leave bosses in general? Just talking about Corporate America. They don’t necessarily leave jobs. Yes, there might be jobs that legitimately suck, that you had to take for a short period of time. I get that. But if you’re in a role that you really enjoy, you’re doing what you really love, maybe you’ve got a team of people that you’re working with that you really love, but your boss is a bear for any number of reasons, where does that crap feeling come from? Just in my opinion, it comes from a lack of trust.

When you were articulating earlier about the picking apart a solution over and over and over again, even when it was done exactly as it was requested, that doesn’t breed trust. And then I know that’s just one example. And there’s like a million other ways that we could kind of dive into that. But when you are cultivating an atmosphere amongst your employees, or amongst your team that cultivates trust and they don’t have to feel like they’re going to get punched in the face every time they screw up, right?

Mark  46:12
It’s true.

Aaron  46:12
You bring the best out in people. And I think you’ve been privileged to experience that a couple of times in your career, but then now you’re in that situation too where you can do that for other people. And guess what? They ended up doing really, really good work most of the time, right?

Mark  46:28
I’m totally on board. And when you’re doing good work and people see it, people outside the organization see it, I should say, then they come to you looking for a job, right? I mean, why not? And then you’re able to – it sounds wrong. Pick the cream of the crop. But we bring interns and – well, take out COVID, take out the last year. We bring in interns probably ten times a year from the local community colleges. And they come in either they get their hours or to do whatever they’re doing. But invariably, there’s a couple of them who walk in, out of that ten, probably three to five, who come in and go, “Do you have a job? I love working here.”

Aaron  47:08
That’s cool. Wow.

Mark  46:28
They’re doing something right back there that is making cosmic waves in the Richmond area.

Aaron  47:21
Well, and you’re connecting people to purpose, right?

Mark  47:24
And that too.

Aaron  47:25
And I think that’s critical. It’s not, hey, let’s make Tech For Troops big for the sake of making it big or let’s make Tech For Troops awesome because it has my name on it. And darn it, you’re going to build it for me. It’s not about that. There’s a vision, there’s a mission behind all that that is so important. And that ties people, that ties you all together from a deep – I mean, let’s just be real. It’s on this deep, emotional level, you’re connected to this purpose. And so when you get out of bed in the morning, you know that what you’re doing is making a difference. And it maybe that day’s task list may not look so pretty, but you know that, man, everything I’m doing here, it serves a really amazing purpose and I’m just glad to be a part of it.

Mark  48:08
Well said. And I agree with 100% of that.

Aaron  48:12
Yeah. Well, Mark, I’m excited for you, man. I think you’ve got something here. That’s why I’m just pumping you up, but I also want to get other people pumped up too. I would love for people to get connected to you to learn more about Tech For Troops, see what part of the whole chain that they would fit in. Whether as a consumer, as a donor, as a provider of the equipment itself, whatever those needs are. So are there any other needs that we haven’t already covered that you want to take a minute and talk about?

Mark  48:47
So honestly, and I know it’s not – yeah. So as we start to do our expansion, whether it’s one or the other first, it doesn’t really make a difference. Because the other one, not that it’s going to be put on hold, but I want to make sure one’s right before I go to the next. So whether it’s Green Bay or DFW. If you’re in those areas and you’re listening, reach out, find out where Tech For Troops is, how we are. Reach out to me, techfortroops.org. And see if you can volunteer just to see what we’re doing. Our biggest need in those locations is going to be awareness because we’re a brand new nonprofit walking in the door. And you’re going to say, “I don’t know who you people are. It doesn’t make a difference what you’ve done. You have to prove it here now.” And I’ll ask for your support in advance if you’re in either one of those areas.

Aaron  49:39
No, that’s fantastic. And they can go to techfortroops.org. Is that right?

Mark  49:43
That’s correct. FOR. Yeah, there it is. Yep, techfortroops.org.

Aaron  49:48
Oh, yeah. I didn’t ask whether it was a number four or written out.

Mark  49:53
It’s written.

Aaron  49:53
So it’s written for, FOR. So TECHFORTROOPS.org for those of you listening on Spotify and Apple.

Mark  50:02
Correct.

Aaron  49:53
Well, awesome, Mark. And then is that just the best way for them to reach out to you directly? Are they able to find your contact information on the website?

Mark  50:12
Yeah, it’s there. I get all the emails and I’ll probably get all the emails for the rest of my life, which is cool. I don’t mind. I like talking to folks and hearing what their needs are or how I can support them. But as well, eventually, we’ll be – in the next two weeks, we should have our swag up on our webpage. So if you want to sport a Tech For Troops shirt, we’re going to start a contest, T4T travel shirt. And so I’m going to be wearing one at Green Bay and DFW when I come down. Hopefully, Aaron, I’ll see you there, but I’ll take a picture out in front of the Whataburger, right? This is where Tech For Troops is right now. And so everybody can start snapping pictures and selfies at the volcano edge at Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

Aaron  50:59
Oh, that’s cool.

Mark  51:99
Something like that, right? Just do some cool stuff like that because we want to just spread the word and awareness of how we can support the veteran community.

Aaron  51:07
Love that. Love that, Mark. I love what you’re doing and I just want to thank you for spending so much time with me. It’s been a blast having such a fun conversation with you. Thank you.

Mark  51:18
I have completely enjoyed it. Thank you, Aaron. And thanks to all your listeners as well.

Aaron  51:26
Thanks for listening to America’s Entrepreneur. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review or comment on your preferred social media platform. Share it out with friends, family, coworkers, others in your network. And of course you can write me directly at aaron@boldmedia.us. That’s aaron@boldmedia.us. Until next time.