Good People, Cool Things
Good People, Cool Things

Episode 115 · 4 weeks ago

115: Artisanal Food and Business Simplicity with Mark Josephson

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Mark Josephson knows a thing or two about successful business. He's previously launched About.com and Bitly, and now he's paving the way for thriving culinary entrepreneurs through Castiron. 

Mark's dropping all kinds of knowledge, from the need for businesses to focus on simplicity, how culinary artisans can be smarter about their pricing methods, and why decentralization is going to be a major factor in the world — just not in its current format.

Good people cool things as a podcast feature and conversations with entrepreneurs, writers, musicians and other creatives. Get inspired by their stories to do your own cool thing, and here's your host, Joey held. Welcome to good people, cool things. Today's guest is Mark Josephson, founder of cast iron, which allows culinary artisans to easily set up a storefront and sell their fantastic food. Mark has also led a lot of companies you've heard of over the past twenty five years, including Aboutcom and Bitley, which I used earlier today to shorten some links. Love it fantastic all around. You're going to learn quite a bit in this episode, including some of the tips for starting a business during the pandemic what Mark has learned over a quarter century of living in the Internet age. The Internet certainly looked a lot different back in one thousand nine hundred and ninety six than it does today. We're also talking about some of the way software and technology can make life easier, some of the trends to be on the lookout for moving forward, and wrapping it all up with Mark's favorite Bruce springsteen songs. Make like a boss. Give a little five star review to good people cool things on apple podcasts or podschaser and then settle back, maybe maybe grab some nice food too and listen to this great conversation with mark. For people maybe aren't familiar with you, can you give us your name and your elevator pitch and then the type of elevator that we're riding on? Sure, Mark Josephson. I'm the founder and CEO of a company called cast iron. You can find us a cast iron dot me. CAST IRON is a mission driven company. We're focused on helping under represented, under resourced, underappreciated, underfunded, under celebrated entrepreneurs become successful small business owners. Are Customers, and I can talk more about our business. are focused on food. They make incredible food out of their license home kitchen or commercial kitchen, and we'd give them all the software, all the tools, all the content, all the resources, all the connections they need to actually start, run and grow that business. I've been doing technology, startup software companies, Internet companies for a very long time, over twenty five years, and been part of some fun teams. We've done some cool things. Some of them worked, some of them didn't, and the elevator we are in is beautiful glass elevator. There are brass handles that are very well shined. You can smell that they were cleaned recently and we're going up very quickly. It's an express elevator because we're going all the way to the top, of course, so we're skipping like the first fifty floors on this one to go up to like fifty two, a hundred. Love it. Love a good express elevator, the best. Just it's great. Ears popping. Oh yeah, it's like the trains over an Asia that are like it's like that close to being like technically breaking the sound barrier or something like that, where I'm just like, I'm glad this is on a track, because otherwise it could it could go very poor. Now you I definitely want to talk about cast arm, but you've intrigued me. You said some of the previous endeavors that you have have not worked out so well, so I'm curious what's kind of your favorite, let's call it, a spectacular failure that you've had. Oh God, I'll keep the personal ones out, and I don't know that they're spectacular failures, but you know, not every business. I'm proud of the business is that I've been part of creating that still exist and that are built to last. So the first startup I worked on was a company called aboutcom, and this was in one thousand nine hundred and ninety six through two thousand and three andcom one, and that business exists today. We took a public we sold it, it's sold a couple more times and it now lives. That I a see called Dot Dash, and that survives. You know, I ran a company.

I ran link short and company Bitley for six and a half years. That business is even bigger today than it was when I was there, which is awesome, and it survives. I ran a business with with some colleagues in advertising and Ad Network. That doesn't exist anymore today, and I guess that's a failure. I mean certainly failure, because it didn't not didn't survive. But boy did I learned a ton from that experience, and I think that's the most important part of things is, you know, very few people have a hundred percent success right with everything, but if you're taking stuff from it, which it seems like you are, and you've been able to apply it to a lot of the other things you're doing, I think that's kind of the most important thing. Well, certainly in the rearview mirror and when you're going through it it sucks, but I think you know, being honest about what you're good at, being honest at what's working, holding yourself and your team accountable to doing great things and constantly asking your question, yourself, the question what are we trying to do here, like, what is the goal and are we focused on accomplishing that and doing what we need to do, holding ourselves accountable and for cast iron, the goal is to help call in our artist it's like you were saying people that maybe don't have all of the resources, but they're making great food, they should be able to deliver it some people and let other people enjoy it too. Where did this idea come from? Yeah, it came out of partnership with my initial investors at Hi Alpha, which is a fund in Indianapolis, and you know, we were really thinking, trying to look at markets that could benefit from software, because I'm a software guy and it's what we do. And I remember looking at some friends of mine in my neighborhood, one guy who was making artisanal ice cream and its commercial kitchen about fifteen minutes away selling it for ten dollars a pint, promoting only on instagram and selling out like that. I knew there was this other I knew the other mom in my town who is a professionally trained pastry chef. This I was in this living in the suburbs when we started the company year ago, since moved back to the city, but she was making hot, fresh cinnamon rolls and leaving them on your doorstep on Saturday mornings right and I was like, okay, there's something really it interesting here. In this was peak pandemic, so clearly there were some trends and some tailwinds, but in seeing, you know, restaurant folks lose their jobs and consumer behavior change, the great resignation move towards independent entrepreneurship, and it just seemed like a no brainer. It's such a huge opportunity and one you can get really passionate about whether that's like you really care about these entrepreneurs who need help. And I've put on ten pounds since I started the company. No, no joke, because I'm ordering everything I see and it's pretty great. You consider yourself maybe not a full like chef, but like, do you enjoy cooking or are you just like now you're set because you've got all these great folks are working. I love to eat. I love to eat. I Have A, let's call it, a complicated lifelong relationship with food and now, my age, I need to be a little bit smarter about what I'm eating. You know, I don't think anybody would think I'm a chef or particularly talented food artisan, but I do really appreciate and celebrate the joy that can come with food and the relationships and the traditions that are centered around food. So I have we have three sons and my family and our youngest son has a lot of food allergies and it wasn't until he had those food allergies and we needed to continue to learn about how to deal with them, you realize how many of our traditions in our Cultures Center around specific foods right, like mashed potatoes that Thanksgiving with a all the butter and all the...

...sour cream and all the cheese. He can't eat it right. You know the chocolate chip cake that my mother made for my birthday for many years, he can't eat it right. Think about those things and and how central that joy and that feeling is it's an jerry. When I've talked to thousands of food artisans now and when I asked them why they do it, it's not for the money. It's for the moment of joy they get when someone they hand the the cookies, where they hand the pizza, the sour dough, and it's steaming hot and you know, you crack it open and the smell hits and that feeling goes through the your body and you smile like that's magic. I mean that's just it's magical and we all know it. It's universal, absolutely. I I'm thinking now of some of the food related memories I have and this I don't even know if this is really associated with a holiday. I guess it was around Christmas, but I took a friend to a place that I really liked and she's took a bite. I'd like almost passed out like onto the table just she look that good. Yeah, she was like the what was it? It was a restaurant that no longer exists. I it's called the Funkadelic, funca Delic Brunch. It was out here in Austin. I believe that they're they're re launchings as something new, but the the thing in particular that she bought. They had these Churro waffles that are just fantastically have like a little, you know, honey butter, I cinnamon icing kind of thing that you can dip them in and it's just I mean I had a similar experience the first time I tried it, so I was like, I'm happy to witness it from the other side. Yeah, look, I built and sold marketing technology at technology advertising and it's awesome. Those are great businesses. But yeah, like I mean, I mean I have I just had a today, a bottle of cold press organic juice from one of our artistans who had delivered it to my apartment, and I mean it's like it's amazing. I mean like it's just like I can't believe I get to work on this business with these customers who are creating these kinds of products. It's the dream come true. Yeah, that's super cool and one of the things I notice, like in looking at some of the other businesses that you've had, like Aboutcom Bitley and it looks like cast ourn as well, are all kind of maybe not based fully around but are strongly I focused on the concept of simplicity. Like you can get with cast on, you can get the storefront up in minutes. Bitley. I mean I use that all the time. Like I'm I can get a link that doesn't have six thousand characters in it, which is okay. So we as welcome. And so it seems like simplicity is kind of a focus of yours, because you're not trying to, you know, overcomplicate things. But how do you ensure with like all this software, all this technology that can sometimes be super overwhelming for people, how do you keep it so simple? Yeah, we talk a lot about that a cast iron. It's one of our core values for our product is around simplicity and it's one of the things that, if we do it right, it's a superpower and if you don't, it actually has the like exponentially inverse and, you know, impact and makes it incredibly harder. I think whenever possible you need to understand your customers as best you can. So, you know, we know our customers. We know what they look like, we know what that kinds of computers they're working on, we know a kind of bandwidth we they have, we know how they're spending the rest of their time and then we know that they're food artisans. We know they're making desserts or we know the I'm doing meal prep. So there's certain assumptions were allowed to make and then advance the product in that regard. So if you can take three clicks that, it's something that takes three clicks. Oh, I'm a baker doing cookies and their chocolate chip and saying what kind of...

...cookies do you make? Right, and you just jump them to a level and you advance. That is one way to do it and obviously you know when can you know? Reducing sometimes simplicity is also about reducing the options that you have and constraining choice. Sometimes too many things feels like a benefit to the customer, but really giving them fewer choices actually helps you get a better result. I see. Yeah, I feel I was actually just thinking about this. It's about have been earlier today. I saw an ad for like a video editing program and I was like, I thoughts, I'll check it out. I always enjoy that and it was a pretty it was a simplistic you know, men, you have choices to kind of like build your personality out, but it went on for it felt like too long and then at the end it was like all right, now, sign up before we even like tell you anything, and I was just like, I don't know, that was my favorite. Well, it's the best. The best products grow with you. So as you start to understand them better and as your business starts to get bigger, better than the product opens up to you. At the same time you want to go do something and you're like, oh wait, I can't do that now, I need to buy the next version, which is the right way to do it, because you can align your value with your customers success. You got to be aligned with them as they grow, and that means starting small sometimes and in being okay starting small. Absolutely, and obviously the past two years I look different than everything that came before it. Is there something that has surprised you, whether it's through running a business or, you know, the marketing or even just like communicating with customers, or anything that has surprised you about launching and then running a business in the pandemic? I mean every day I'm surprised. I think broadly it's been really interesting to see how many people are driven to create their own business opportunities and to be self reliant. I used to sell to companies in people inside of companies and build for for those kinds of folks. Now I'm building for independent one person shops and the line between their home life and their business life is sometimes not existent. And you know, there are so this that they're sixty five million people in the United States who classify themselves as entrepreneurial. And that doesn't mean like, you know, people on the coasts like me, raising venture capital and doing things like that, which is risky, but not like you know, risky, risky. And and here are these people, are customers who, you know, a lot of them don't have it, don't have other choices for careers right like they might be in rural markets or, you know, maybe a plant closed and went overseas, maybe jobs got you know, the Internet happened to their jobs or something, and they need to put food on the table. And that's like unbelievably motivating when you hear the stories of how hard these people are working, and that's surprising to me. I'm continually surprised at how much work it is to do something that they thought was going to be much easier. I find that's a common refrain in life. Probably it's like, oh, this should be like five minutes and then two hours later I'm still struggling through it. Exactly right, or is perhaps you can hear in the background. I think hope, surely my dogs can be quiet for forty five minutes. But you know, a last, a last and last, Mr Dad. It's fine. It's fine. Something else that I think is interesting as you obviously have a lot of experience just with the Internet in general and you've seen it kind of evolve. And back when when ABOUTCOM was starting, like, I mean, let's do the math. I was eight then. So like I didn't I didn't know what the Internet was. I think maybe I got AOL Instant Messenger within the next like...

...five years and that was kind of that and slingo are like my earliest Internet memories. So how have you, I mean this is probably a loaded question because it's like how is the Internet evolved over over your career? But how have you kind of like evolved your I guess you're e commerce and sort of like online strategies over that time? Yeah, I think broadly the Internet, it obviously has been totally transformational to everything, and the things that it hasn't transfer formed yet, it will. That's why I'm not going to. We're not going to go off on a Crypto, you know, nft rant here, because I'm not necessarily feeling that. But the push towards technic technology driven decentralized applications is very real. It happened to bookstores, right it happened to restaurants, it's happening to you know, you name it, to TV, to radio, it's going to happen to money, to it's inevitable. I think it's gonna Happen to everything. It's inevitable. And I think the probably the biggest, biggest factor in it that I see in it, relevant to our business but to all others, is how technology can level the playing field and the it is not entirely level, of course, but anybody with an opinion can start a podcast today, anybody with an opinion and anybody, anybody with a you know you can. You can create a course in sell courses. Anybody can create a TV show. Anybody can create anything they want and do that online now with the technology that enables that. And so when it comes to e commerce, why do you have to open up a restaurant to sell food? Why do you have to, you know, take on the rent and the overhead and the fifty employees and the liquor license and there was and the the all the craziness that goes with all that. Why? If you what your goal is is to deliver amazing food to somebody that makes them happy and healthy, like it's inevitable in the folks that you've been working with, like these entrepreneurs that you've seen, is they're kind of a consistent either consistent challenge or consistent. I think that they're overlooking that. You think they should be doing more of yeah, well, it's pretty consistently. Folks get into it because they're really great at making something and they they have a passion for it, and then find out that they're spending seventy five percent of their time on marketing or back office or financing, chasing down orders, chasing down payment, going back and forth with customers, all the things that's software and technology can really solve for them. So that's like our business opportunity. The other thing that we also see a lot of is people not pricing their food products the right way. It's almost apologetically like well, you know, should I be charging fifty dollars for a dozen cookies? And Yeah, you should because you spent it, first of all your costplus your time, plus the artisanal value of that and Incoura using. We look to use data and community and other data points to help reinforce the opportunity to increase pricing and things like that. But when you're a solo preneur it's nerve racking to raise prices. It can be anyway. Oh, absolutely. I as a writer, I feel that anytime I'm raising rights, I'm just like, Hey, here they are. You're not getting if you're not getting told no, good general, good piece of advice that we use as if. No, if nobody's telling you you're too expensive, you're not. So you can raise your prices and get more nose. As long as you raise your prices enough, you still come out ahead. That it's going to be. That's gonna be one of the quote graphics that comes out of there. You Go. I'd like it. Well, make the mental note of where. That's a question that I always like to ask. Is a question you wish you were asked more frequently,...

...and for you it's what are you most proud of? I've been married for twenty right in Nineteen Ninety nine is twenty. It's two thousand and twenty two two. Yeah, so that's twenty three years married. Nice. Can grab with my wife for many years before that. We have got three boys, nineteen, seventeen and fourteen. They all still like me. They're all good people, exceptional people, and you know, I just celebrated by fifty birthday surrounded by people I love who love me back like that's pretty, pretty cool. That's pretty cool. I'm I'm proud of that. What was the was the meal for the fifty birthday? Steak House, really good steak. You know, when you get turned fifty you can't really like have steak every day. You gotta space it out. Yeah, it's not like a just a random Tuesday. It's like, let me now, you gotta Win an award or something. Right, employee of the day. I'd like to say so if we can do it every day, all right. Remember I had a dirt right before the pandemic started. I had signed up for a gym, so that lasted about, I don't know, two and a half months, and then I was just like I can do this. It hup and I probably not as well as with a trainer, but I remember my trainer was asking me about what I was eating, because he's like, I don't know if you're getting enough protein, etcetera, etcetera. And he said that every day he had a steak and Brown Rice for dinner. And I said, and I was looking at him and I was like, you don't look like you're twenty one like that. Seems like this is probably not attenable for the long run, but I don't know. I kind of want to check in with him now it's been two years, and be like Hey, do you have to change that diet or what? Will say? Well, certainly when he hits I don't know how old he is, but when you or how old you are, but when you hit thirty five, everything changes, and then when you turn fifty at the world tells you you gotta change it up. So can't wait. I remember my experience. I remember actively between nineteen and twenty, feeling worse, like physically, like I'd go out to play basketball. I was like, I'm getting tired a lot easier, and I look back on that now and I was like you had no idea. There's I like much my like. I like having my three boys are pretty health conscious, or certainly aware. Kids these days are just so much more aware of what to eat and what not to eat, and I'm just like, dude, eat whatever you want because you're a teenage boy, like it's all okay, it's going to change. It's going to come day when you can. He now's the time to do it. Have another cookie. Yes, I would have a Bagel and cream cheese every day after school when I was growing up and it was fine. He said, that is that bad, because I'm still doing oh, I mean, I would still do it if I live near a big Olsh that you're in New York. You've got, I'm sure, within like plenty. Yes, spitting distance. You've got a pretty I've tried them all. Since you've got such a strong grasp of software and you've got a lot of experience with it, is there something not a lot of people know about in software that you're super excited about? Well, I don't know. People what people know and what they don't know. I hope maybe let's just say cast a, because I want more people to know about our business, but not I think about well, I could tell you that I think that. I do think that decentralization. I do think things like decentralized autonomous organizations which are starting to figure things out. I do think there's something or about nft's but not what we're seeing today, because today it's silly, in my opinion. But what's underlying that is like how to define and know what's real and what's authentic, and that's universal and, like I said before, the Internet and technology is happening to everything, and so to say, well, why should it be? Just what I can hold in my hand is what has value and that I know that it's real, and so I think that that that there's something underlying there that's going to be really interesting to watch. Yeah, I agree on the silliness of NTS and their current state, and it's always interesting to read stories of people, you know, shoving each other out of the way for something that maybe they they...

...can't even like authenticate that it's the real deal, I which is always always full. If if you go back to your question about how the Internet is changed in my career, I mean remember the websites you are on in one thousand nine hundred and ninety six, seven, eight nine two thousand and how different the experiences today and now, looking back at how simple and silly those might have seemed, and now you know, it's it's immersive, it's everything and we take it for granted. Back then, I trust me, there were a lot of really smart people saying this is not a real thing, it's silly, it's not real. And so, you know, I think if anything, it's looking at those things. And I feel the same way about crypto. I'm not, I'm not again, I'm not going off on a thing on it. But decentralization technology and abled the Internet's happening to everything. Yeah, I'm thinking of my I remember my sister and I made a geocities website and right, you know, with just like I think it was like music blaring as soon as you pop on and like the right the mouse with the like text that flows the that was groundbreaking back then. Yeah, work in progress like that. Yeahs never construction. So good, so good, the best, and things change. I wonder what we're doing today that we're going to look back on and laugh at, because it's going to happen, I'm sure. Absolutely. I'm very curious to say. Got To make a time cap so I have ever there. I'll be I'll be long, AB I will dry. I'm sure they'll be like podcasts, for for the deceased as well, so we can for dead people. We're gonna now with castarn specifically. Is there we always like getting scoops on the podcast. There's there's something that you're working on that you can publicly talk about, or is it all hush hush and we'll just find out later in the year? We're we actually had a really animated discussion today about our road map and the things that we're working on in the priority of them. We are getting ready to and probably will see soon, a new this is so boring to anybody other than people who build stuff, but, like you know, a better and more customized sign up and on boarding process. I know that's like Yawn for anybody who's I do, but like for me it's like it's your first chance to it's like when someone opens a door in a store and walks in like you, wit you, or walks by. It's your one chance to start that relationship and we obsess over that. So that's inside baseball and probably not at all interesting. But you know, no, I love I love seeing how the sausages May. It's a yeah, that's it's good. All right, mark, he almost off the hook here, but we always like to wrap up with a top three and typically I let the guests choose this and you did your top three Bruce springsteen songs. So what you got? Yes, I can prepare. Okay. So top three in this order. The first one is blinded by the life. The first song on greetings from Asbury Park. It is the first his first album. Madmen, drummers, bombers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat is the opening line to the opening song of Bruce Springstein's first album and it changed the world from there and you know there's no looking back. Number two is the EASTREET shuffle from the Wilderness in eastreet shuffle, his second album, in my favorite album, and sparks fly on EA street when the boy profits walk in handsome and hot, is the opening line to that one and it just has got the groove that is like contagious. And the third is is no surrender off of Bourne in the USA, because it's about I've just it. You know, I have a brother that I'm you know is my best friend, and you know my friendships in those relationships and you swear blood brothers against the wind and you know, you just you loyalty is everything to me and so that really resonates with me. Those three songs fantastic. My mom is also very big bruce springsteen fans, so I will stack up her answers. We'll see. Yes,...

...if there's overlap. Did you see blinded by the light, the movie that came out of it when yours out? Was that? Were you like you could insert yourself and that and it would be obviously not like the overseas element. But no, but I think the you know, we could do an hour on the universal messages and poetry Bruce Springsteen and how he speaks to me and my soul. So I do. I did it. Did there's parts of that to definitely resonated with me and still do. I and test. Yeah, I think just when a musician hits you like that, it's just like unlike. I mean it's it's a kind of comparable to the food thing that we were talking about of just like that. It just hits you in such a way that you can't you can't replicate it. Yeah, you can't. It's everything. He's everything. So if people want to learn more about you, learn more about cast ore and maybe debate you on your springsteen choices. Where can they find you? They can come to cast are, adopt me, or hit me up on twitter and APP Mark Josephson. Love it will mark. Thank you so much for coming on. This was great. I I'm glad we're doing this right before dinner because I'm going to get enjoy a great male now. It's going to be magical. Enjoy every minute and thank thank the person who made it for you. Yes, after I might be me tonight, but yes, I will. I will give myself a pat on the back for hopefully a job well done. We'll say it could, I'm sure, end up poorly. And of course we've got to end with a Corny joke, as we always do. Tried to keep it a little rock and cooking theme t here. But why doesn't Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day let anyone else in the kitchen while he's cooking? Don't know. Why does he not let anybody into the kitchen while he's cooking? Because he walks alone. Yes, good, after today, people, good people, cool things. Is produced in Austin, Texas. If you were a fan of this episode, go ahead and hit that follow button. That helps more people here the show. You can send me a message Joey at good people, cool thingscom. Thank you to all of the guests who have been on good people, cool things. Check out all the old episodes via the good people, cool thingscom. As always, thank you for listening and have a wonderful day.

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