“What you do on the side will be the reason you get your next career or start your own company. I truly believe this.” — Shane Mac
If you’ve ever met Western Illinois University alumnus Shane Mac (and chances are you may have… he’s a go getter that definitely gets out there and meets people), you understand his recently published book’s title, “Stop with the BS,” which he composed in one sitting.
“I forced myself to write the entire book on one train ride. 275 pages, 30,000+ words, on a train ride from Seattle to San Francisco and back,” Mac states in the book’s description on Amazon.
I had the opportunity to meet Shane, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business from Western in 2008, during a visit to his alma mater in 2010. Adam Haun, the president of the WIU Marketing Club at the time, asked me to compose a press release to help promote a talk Shane was giving at Western that April (the WIU Marketing Club sponsored Shane’s talk). In the process of putting together the release about him, I found Shane’s on Twitter and began to follow him. Of course, he immediately noticed his alma mater was following him.
As I recall, in our first digital interaction, Shane—being someone who doesn’t mince words (as clearly indicated in his book’s title)—made fun of the WIU_UR Twitter account because it “didn’t have any ‘@’ signs in tweets.” For those who don’t use Twitter, basically, he was calling me out for not using Twitter as a two-way communication channel.
As soon as I saw his Tweet, I informed him (a bit defensively, I must admit) via Twitter (of course): 1) the WIU_UR account is mainly a broadcast-oriented Twitter feed and 2) I had, indeed, had conversations and answered questions via @WIU_UR… It had just been a while since I had done that.
But he was right. He made me realize, again, the importance of maintaining a social media platform as another channel to communicate with constituents of any organization (be it higher education or commercial in nature). So I continue to make a point of using the University Relations‘ Twitter account to not only broadcast information, but also reply to applicable questions or Tweets about WIU and re-Tweet information from other WIU-associated Twitter accounts.
Since the time Shane gave his 2010 talk at WIU, he has continued to blaze a successful career trail in the world of online and digitally based business. Recently, he was in on the beginning of Zaarly, a company “created to help bring communities closer together,” and there he serves as the director of product. The company’s description on its Twitter account states: ” Zaarly is the marketplace where you buy from amazing local people.” It was named in Fast Company’s annual guide, “The Top 50 Most Innovative Businesses” in 2012 (read more about Zaarly, which is hiring, btw, in Shane’s answers below).
Last fall, Shane’s book, “Stop the BS,” was released (available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0615645119/) and, so far, has 60 customer reviews, all of them rated at four or five stars. With a title and reviews like that, I was compelled to check in on him and see what the book is (and his career has been so far) about…
Q: Tell me how you first learned about WIU and why you decided to attend Western?
Mac: I’ll be honest, I went because my best friend was going. Once I checked out the campus, though, I loved it. Small-town feel and I could walk to everything.
Q: What would you say are the most important things you learned in the classroom from your time at Western? What about outside of the classroom?
Mac: College is about the teachers, not the courses IMHO [in my humble opinion]. It’s also a time in your life where you think you know it all and have it figured out… yet you don’t. Once I figured that out, everything was different and awesome. I learned the importance of having great relationships, on a personal level, with my professors, about being humble and open to learning. I learned so much more from time spent [with my instructors during their] office hours or hanging at campus events than I would have from just the classroom. Something I didn’t realize until much later was how much college was really about learning how to learn. I wish I would have focused more on that in the classroom to discover what ways I learned best. The truth is, you’ll always be learning so having great teachers who help you understand the best ways to learn and inspire you to come to class make all the difference. I had just that.
I also learned that I can’t sit still for an hour and 15 minutes so Tuesday / Thursday classes were not my strong suit.
Q: You’ve had a very exciting and successful career so far. Can you give me a brief overview of it? Also, what, primarily, would you attribute your success to?
Mac: Well, first off, I think success is relative. I don’t really see myself as successful—I just like doing things I feel are meaningful and help make the world a better place. I will say, though, I love what I do, and it’s because of the people I get to spend time with. One of my favorite quotes in life is: “You are the average of your closest five friends.” I think about that every day.
Here’s a brief timeline of my life post-college. The only way any of this happened is because of the people who helped me, and I was able to work with and learn from.
- I graduated Western [in 2008] and became the business manager of a non-profit in Peoria, IL, while playing music professionally every Thursday-Saturday. (I play a one-man show, and I actually spent two years playing all the bars in the Macomb square!). Because of my music career in college, I had to make myself a website. Nothing special, just some iWeb template on my Mac. Little did I know, that would be the rocket fuel that sent me into tech.
- Six months after graduation I felt like there had to be more out there. I wasn’t really happy in the relationship I was in, and my brother lived in Seattle. He told me to move. I applied to a job at a tech startup, Cobalt Group. I got an interview. My music website was how they decided that I was “technical” enough to get the job. I got a call on November 3, 2008, and they said I start in a week if I wanted it. I packed my car and drove west.
- I worked at Cobalt Group for two years until we were acquired by ADP for north of $400 million. While I was at Cobalt Group, I joined Twitter. Twitter really opened my eyes to what’s out there. A random Tweet to a girl in Seattle led to coffee. I have to say, it was awkward at first but now it’s a norm. That led to her introducing me to T.A., who I went on to build Gist.com with four months later. I left Cobalt to build Gist.com. Gist was funded by Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder) and Foundry Group. We really believed in a smart address book as the world became more connected. In 2011, we sold Gist to BlackBerry (RIM) for a reported $40+ million.
- I poured my life in to Gist and needed a break. I headed to Iceland with my brother for a vacation. The day I landed, I had a voicemail from a friend I had met while working at Gist.com. We actually acquired his little startup while at Gist, so we had enjoyed working together. He told me to meet him at my favorite bar in Seattle as soon as possible, that he needed to talk. I went straight from the airport to the bar, didn’t even unpack.The weekend before, he and two friends had attended a Startup Weekend in Los Angeles and come up with the idea of Zaarly, a local marketplace where you can ask for anything from people nearby, a new economy of people making money doing what they love. Micro entrepreneurs. Ashton Kutcher wanted to invest, and they wanted to know if I was in. A few beers later and a handshake, I was in. We wrote up the papers, and I went home to pack (I hadn’t unpacked). I flew to Kansas City the next day, where one of the co-founders lived. We raised the $1.2 million seed round to start the company and have since been named in Fast Company’s guide for the “World’s Top 50 Most Innovative Businesses” in 2012, and Meg Whitman (CEO of eBay for years) joined as the head of our board.Again, the people are why I joined. We are hiring at Zaarly if anyone is interested
I’ve since joined a few startup advisory boards as well.
You may also notice a couple side projects I’ve done, Hello There and ask. Hello There was a tool I built with friends from Gist and Cobalt to help college students stand out from the crowd by making custom webpages for every job they apply for. We call it “the modern day cover letter.” It’s been profitable since we started it. The concept of ask. is just that we can learn by asking. I interview business leaders from around the world and ask them all one question and then post it online for free where everyone can learn from these people. I’ve interviewed the founder of Geeksquad, CEOs of fortune 500s, NGO leaders, and many others.
Well, that was long winded. To answer your other question, I think it comes down to a simple philosophy I’ve always had: Build it before you need it. Don’t expect it.
The common trait among all of these opportunities—which changed and led my life in a different direction—happened because of a relationship or skill I had created before the opportunity presented itself. I like to call it “True Luck,” not success. If you prepare for something before an opportunity exists, you can act on it. If not, you may never know that opportunity ever exists because no one would know to ask you.
We live in an age where almost all information is free… you can learn anything. We also live in an age where anyone who is knowledgeable in a specific area can be found and discovered. The only reason you can’t do what you want is ambition and focus.
Q: In the promotional text about your new book, it says it’s “for anyone who wants a new career.” What in your book do you think will help someone achieve obtaining a new career, as well as help a young person (just out of college, for example) start on successful path in his/her career of his/her dreams?
Mac: Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems like it helps if people think a little differently. One example would be the idea of what you learn in college revolves mostly around building the résumé and cover letter. If that is all you have, good luck.
I think the résumé is the last reason to hire you.
Let me explain. My point is that if the person who is going to hire you doesn’t have his or her mind made up by the time he/she sees your résumé, he/she will look for any reason to not hire you. Versus, if he/she already has his/her mind made up that he/she really wants to hire you, he/she will find one line that justifies why he/she should.
These days, more than ever, what you’ve done matters more than what you say you’ll do. Redo the [company's] marketing, sketch new products and send them over, learn to code, lead a team on the side… anything. Once you have the chops, you can find the path to the right person in any company with a lot of different tactics. You can reach out to that person and ask him/her something that is NOT talking about you wanting a job. You can be interested and helpful and not walk in the door asking for a job. That’s what everyone does. “Hi, I want a job… will you hire me?” Learn the skills for the job they want, and then make him/her want you, it’s much easier this way. Same thing goes for relationships
What you do on the side will be the reason you get your next career or start your own company. I truly believe this.
Q: What do you think the best career advice you have ever given to anyone (or a group of people) and why?
Mac: Focus on one company. Find a company you love and do everything in the world to get in there. Also, learn how equity and ownership of companies work. You don’t learn this in college unless you go to business school. Salaries don’t usually get you ahead, they just keep you going.
Q: What are your future professional goals?
Mac: To wake up every day and believe in what I’m doing. Help other entrepreneurs whether by investment or mentoring. Be around people who make me better. Every day. Give back. Create things that matter. Create a new economy of makers, creatives, artists and small-business owners.
I’d also love to teach someday. My finance professor, Dr. Tripp, at Western Illinois University tried to get me to stay in school and become a professor… that would be fun someday.