Mark Reale is a self-proclaimed “late bloomer” to Toronto’s growing tech biz. Studying economics and commerce at university wasn’t for him. Neither was the 9-to-5 of the finance industry.
“Go to things and do stuff. Nobody’s going to find you at your house. Twitter relationships are so much more meaningful after you’ve shaken someone’s hand.” —Mark Reale
His staff has grown as fast as his network, thanks to a commitment of simply being useful to others. He remains a humble learner as well as a generous giver – a professor at Seneca College’s School of Communication Arts, Reale began offering free classes in web media at the onset of the recent recession.
We spoke to Reale about being wary of “networking” events, lean times for entrepreneurs and the advice of the ancients applied in our hyper-modern, tech-manic world.
Q. What was it like starting your own business? Scary?
A. When my partner [Alkarim Nasser] and I met up, it was kind of a good fit. He helped me handle my clients and I helped him with his programming. Definitely some lean days—I think we ate nothing but rice and peanut butter sandwiches for like a year and a half.
Q. What’s the Yorkville Media Centre (YMC)?
A. At the end of 2008, [at the onset of the recession], we could tell there was a lot of future in the digital media industry. We wanted to put together a resource for people that were either paranoid about losing their job or making that switch—some resource that they could be a part of.
What we try to do differently at the YMC [is work on] an actual, real-life project. What the YMC curriculum would consist of is breaking that real-life project down into all the [pieces] involved.
The first season we ran it, we put together a 16-week program that would take place every Saturday for a couple hours. We didn’t fully know what we were doing. We had a general idea of what we wanted to accomplish and we had an idea for a curriculum. But man, it turned out to be one of the coolest things ever. It ended up attracting people from all walks of life. Some people were college students, some people were unemployed, some were already retired.
I remember the first day, kinda walking into the room. Since we ran it for free, I was pretty sure everybody thought it was a pyramid scheme or something like that (laughs). After talking for about 45 minutes, the tension in the room seemed to lift away and it just turned into a really cool thing. So we’ve run it four times now, twice in 2009 and twice in 2010.
Q. What have you gained from the experience?
A. It’s allowed us to expand our network. There’s a lot of technology and web companies out there but [the YMC] made us memorable. It was a lot of fun for us and it turned out to be really great for the community. Definitely nice to receive emails from people letting us know that what they learned at the YMC helped them land a job. It’s just a really great experience in a lot of ways.
Q. What are your thoughts on networking? Any advice?
A. Be wary of events that are specifically geared towards “networking.” Those kind of events are, like, you end up getting 80 people in the room who are experiencing the exact kind of problem.
For me, when there’s a big group of people together, networking kind of occurs naturally. The events we always try to do are educational-focused. Our number one priority is that people spend some time with us and learn some new insight.
[An important thing is to just] go to things and do stuff. Nobody’s going to find you at your house. Twitter relationships are so much more meaningful after you’ve shaken someone’s hand and had a chance to share some time with them.
Q. What is Lean Coffee Toronto and why did you want to be a part of it?
A. As [BNOTIONS] started growing, I needed to help on the business development aspect of things. I generally don’t feel like I’ve got great business acumen and I felt the best way I could develop it would be to spend more time around other business people. So I was really enthusiastic about starting Lean Coffee.
#LeanCoffeeTO is probably the awesomest meeting group I’ve ever had the privileged to be a part of. It’s at a time of day when a really dedicated person would show up: 8 a.m. in the morning on a Thursday. It’s like a natural filtering process. You don’t get the people that don’t have the energy to even get out of bed, you know what I mean?
It’s really topic-oriented. Kind of anti-networking: we show up there to discuss a business topic that is relevant to all of us and any networking that happens outside of that is like icing on the cake. And really sharp minds.
Q. A quote from your Google profile: “according to the ancients, being useful is the highest aspiration.”
A. Going back to school, I knew I wanted to get into tech because I was doing some web stuff on my own but I had no connections. My approach at that point of time was…to make sure I was useful to people in some way. That still sort of is my mentality.
One of the strange things about running free events is that, sometimes people take the approach that “Well, if it’s free, it doesn’t have to be good.” People pay with their time, know what I’m saying? I definitely don’t want people to feel like they wasted three hours of their life.
Ultimately, I feel like that’s the overall insurance you have in life: as long as you’re useful in some way, shape or form, or as long as you seek to be generally helpful—as long as you have that approach, you definitely can’t go wrong.
Q. What are your thoughts on social media and how it will be used professionally in the future?
A. We’re on the tail-end of Facebook and Twitter being new. An interesting phenomenon: whenever there’s new stuff, you always get a group of people that are kind of early adopters and then learn how to sell it without really knowing much about what they’re doing or how they’re providing value.
[Social media applications] are tools. If you’re a construction worker, your tools are a hammer and a wrench. With these tools [social media], they’re communication tools. They allow us to reach out and interact with people. For us, Twitter has been very beneficial. We were able to find people with technology problems and reach out to them and form an interaction which we were then able to cultivate into a relationship.