Today I’m joined by Marcus Whitney, author of the book Create and Orchestrate: The Path to Claiming Your Creative Power from an Unlikely Entrepreneur. In this interview, we discuss Marcus’s own path to success, which began when he was a waiter supporting a one-year-old child and with a baby on the way and has taken him all the way to where he is today–the CEO and founder of Health:Further and founding partner of Jumpstart Health Investors.
As New York Times bestselling author and songwriter Alice Randal puts it, “Whitney’s signature mix, grit and wit, empathy and tech-savvy, self-awareness and community awareness provide a powerful inside jolt that is one part enterprise strategy, one part self-management, one part community and reality awareness and wholly compelling.”
Marcus Whitney: I worked in the healthcare industry, so I have been watching how COVID-19 has impacted that industry, the front-line workers, nurses, clinicians, and people in the ER, which has been really tough to watch. Then also understanding how it’s impacting the healthcare economy, which is the largest segment of the US economy. So, when we look at unemployment numbers, you better believe that the healthcare economy is a big part of that.
Physician groups and dentist offices are closing and it’s hard for them to operate without booking. It’s hard for them to operate without revenue coming in the door. I’ve just been experiencing a lot of things like so many other people have and trying to adjust and trying to be creative and positive and find the bright spots in this very difficult moment.
Nikki Van Noy: This has been such an interesting time for me to do this podcast because I’m talking to a group of authors, of which you are a part, who wrote their books before the world seemingly completely changed in so many ways. So, it’s been interesting to hear if anything has changed in their thought process as they find themselves here at the book’s release versus where they were when they were writing in the book.
We will come back to that after we talk a little bit more about your story and the book, but I just wanted to bookmark that and let listeners know where you’re coming from at this particular moment in time.
Marcus Whitney: Yeah, I’m glad you’re flagging that and I look forward to that part of the conversation because that has been a big part of my experience this year.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. Okay, to get there, let’s go ahead and rewind and tell me what your life looked like back circa 2000.
Marcus Whitney: In the year 2000, I moved to Nashville from Atlanta, I was married with a one-year-old and my wife was pregnant with our second child. The background on me at that time was I dropped out of college and had tried to do some things in music that didn’t really pan out. We were living in Atlanta and just sort of felt like we didn’t have the community we needed to grow our family there.
She had some friends in Nashville and we were young and just sort of moved here. For me, this was sight unseen, I had never even been to Nashville before. I very quickly got two jobs waiting tables and was working as a waiter for six and a half days a week, double shifts and we were staying in a week-to-week motel. That’s where I was in the year 2000 and I knew that was not sustainable.
I was feeling a ton of pressure around my soon to be born son and what I was going to do to take care of the family and my wife was pregnant so she really couldn’t work.
I did the one thing I thought I could do in that moment, which was to teach myself how to be a software developer–teach myself code. My uncle worked at IBM and he had given me a computer when I was very young so I had some early exposure to programming, I wasn’t great at it by any means but I did feel like I had enough of an understanding of the basics of it to go on a journey of teaching myself how to do that.
This was before there were code academies and bootcamps and all these types of things. Back then, you just had to buy a book, teach yourself how to code by working through the book and then try to do real things, you know, build a website, or, build a web application so that’s what I did.
I did that for about eight months and was fortunate enough to land a job as a junior developer at a healthcare company called Health Stream and that started everything for me. I then spent seven years in the technology space as a developer but eventually moved into positions of leadership in smaller companies and became the head of technology at an email marketing company called Emma.
I did that for four years and that was the transition for me that lined me up for a life in entrepreneurship. While I was at Emma, I earned some equity as a partner so I got to feel what that was like, I got to manage people and I got to the point where I wasn’t the founder, but I was a leader in the company. I started to kind of itch for that founder experience.
Nikki Van Noy: That is stunning to me and especially, you sort of touched on this but placing myself back in 2000 and imagining taking on the task of teaching yourself software and coding with what was available then, it sounds Herculean to me. Although, admittedly, I say this as someone who is the least tech-savvy person you could ever hope to meet.
Marcus Whitney: It’s like if you try to learn a language when you’re young, you have a much higher chance of being successful than you do when you’re an adult. I’m so grateful to my uncle for giving me that computer on Christmas so many years ago and back then, it was an IBM PC junior and those computers, they didn’t’ do anything if you didn’t program them. You had to learn Basic. I’m grateful for that because that gave me the little bit of the confidence I needed to walk down that pretty daunting path of teaching yourself a brand new computer language.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. I always love looking back at life in retrospect and seeing how those smaller things, like getting that computer, can shape our lives so profoundly.
Marcus Whitney: Absolutely. One thing I’ll say about this entire book is, it covers the last 20 years of my life, probably the most fun part of it was just what you said. Going back and finding these really pivotal moments that just seem like things happening to you when they’re happening to you. But when you can take a multi-decade look back, you realize, wow, that was an inflection point, this was a tipping point. This was a fork in the road and just seeing all of these really important moments that when you’re living them, they just are these moments you’re confronted with.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious. Looking back at yourself in 2000 and seeing how far you’ve come, did you always have a vision for where you wanted to ultimately end up?
Marcus Whitney: Definitely not, that is one of the things I try to cover in the book. Back then, I just wanted to get a steady job that would pay me enough money that I didn’t have to be in a week-to-week motel, I could be in an apartment, my family could feel safe, and I could regularly put groceries on the table. I mean, we’re just talking about just the basics. I remember being so proud of our first little duplex apartment that we had and being so fortunate.
The folks who moved in on the other side ended up being good friends. It was the little things back then. Every small accomplishment gave me confidence and momentum to be able to dream about a bigger goal and that’s one thing. I don’t think I knew about myself until I had children, but children will sort of put you in a state of perpetual growth because they’re growing. Their needs are changing, and they force you to change.
You know, when my kids were infants and toddlers, they needed the basics. They needed something to entertain them, something to teach them but really, they just needed food and protection and clothing. They get older. Well, now we’re talking about schools and we need to put them in good schools. And then we start to get into social activities, we get into extracurricular activities and physical education and then you start to really think about mental health. And as they grow, they sort of force you to grow into dimensions that you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise and so, they’ve always been such a huge catalyst for my own growth and I feel like when I look back at the things that I did. It correlates very well with where they were in their lives.
Nikki Van Noy: You know, that reminded me of when I was pregnant. Someone told me, when you give birth and become a parent, you are reborn too. And hearing that, I was like well, that is some new age-y garble right there. And then, as soon as I became a parent and I would say, almost immediately, I realized, oh, okay, I understand what they were saying and it’s pretty accurate actually.
Marcus Whitney: Yeah, it’s transformative and it’s continually transformative. One of the most interesting things that happens is the teenage years. When they become teenagers, it almost is like nature’s mind eraser. It wipes out the toddler. Now it’s a little bit easier because we’re really into young adulthood at this point, 19 and 21, it’s not really teenage years anymore.
But, the teenage years were so difficult. I believe it’s like, they’re such good kids so they’re figuring out who I am, I need to rebel, I need to reject, I need to resist. That is all part of that window of time that so many other parents of teenagers have confirmed for me. It’s like an existential crisis for the parent because the kid who you raised, who you loved, and who you thought loved you the most is gone. When they’re gone, the ‘you’ from that period of time is also gone. Because you can’t still be that parent, you have to be now the parent of a teenager, it’s just a very different thing. You will be reborn again Nikki, I need to tell you this. There are phases to it.
Nikki Van Noy: I already live in fear of that because I distinctly remember being 13 and if Karma is real, then a real dawn is coming for me and I’m acutely aware of that and trying to slow down time where we’re at right now. Thank you for the warning and confirmation.
Marcus Whitney: Yes, enjoy every moment, this is such a special time.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. Back to you. I’m curious if there was always an entrepreneurial spirit in you or if this is something you discovered as you moved along your career path and learned more and more and saw direction opening up in front of you?
Marcus Whitney: I think the answer is yes to both. I think that I have had entrepreneurial tendencies for a very long time. They really stem in my love of creating. They’re not really about me loving selling. This is one thing I’ve learned about myself. I don’t love to sell but I understand that selling is the activity that allows me to sustain a creative lifestyle, so I sell. But I’ve always loved creating and living on my own terms. Now, when it was time for me to get out of that week-to-week motel, I knew that wasn’t practical so I went and I got a skill that would allow me to get the economic mobility to achieve that more important goal. The kids’ needs are way more important than my desire to create. It turned out I found that programming was a pretty creative endeavor. If you had to have a profession, it was not a bad one if you wanted to get paid well and create.
But, once I got my first job, it did not take me long to find out that I was not a great employee and I write about this. I was very opinionated, I did not understand office politics well, I think a lot of that was based on just my personality type. I see things that I believed, right or wrong are not optimal, and I seek to want to make them better, it’s almost something I can’t resist–I can’t leave well enough alone.
That tendency isn’t always the best for the corporate world. Where I found it worked really well was early-stage companies. The first company I was in wasn’t even a big company. They are now, but at the time, they were not a big company. There are probably a hundred or so employees there and that was just way too big for me. I can only last a year there, I ended up having to leave right before they fired me and went to a smaller agency that was about 15 people, it was a much better fit but even still I wanted to do things my way.
I finally landed in a startup where I was the fifth employee and that was where things were great because when you’re in a startup and there are five people, everybody’s doing two jobs so everyone is so busy, no one is in your shorts about anything.
That was perfect for me. I got to lead the technology and even sort of work on the customer service front because if there were support issues, it just didn’t make any sense to have it go through somebody else. There were only five or six of us at the time. If there was a customer support issue, I talked to the customer, I dealt with direct technical issues. That was fantastic and so my time at Emma, email marketing, was great and I got a firsthand experiential education being so close to the founders of that company.
Now, there’s no replacement for launching your own company or being the CEO but it’s a pretty good launch pad if you can be the fifth employee at a company and have a very good relationship with the founder and get to watch them very closely.
That was where I think I really got prepared and really also understood what I wanted to do in terms of being an entrepreneur.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes so much sense, you were walking yourself closer and closer to that experience basically.
Marcus Whitney: That’s right.
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me about making the jump to finally becoming the founder. What did that look like and entail for you?
Marcus Whitney: That was a big window of transition for me. I’d been at Emma for four years, the company had gone from burning cash and having a product that just did not work to having over a thousand accounts on the platform, generating millions of dollars. When I left, we were at 50 employees. It was the right time for me to go. It was the time where the company needed bureaucracy in order to get to the next level, in order to grow, and I just wasn’t really interested in that. It was time for me to go.
I left and started an agency called Remarkable Wit and it was really a software development shop. We would work with entrepreneurs, primarily, but also with some small to medium-size businesses on building web applications for them. I grew a team up to about 10 people and we generated millions of dollars in revenue but that’s really the genesis of this book. I used my reputation and my strong skillset in software, and some management skills that I had developed at Emma, I used it to very quickly launch a business. But there are all of these things that kept popping up that I did not understand at all and I made huge mistakes on. It was really where I started to understand that I didn’t understand anything about operations. I didn’t understand anything about human resources. I didn’t understand finance one bit. I didn’t understand service as well as I thought I did. I didn’t understand sales as well as I thought I did.
Probably most importantly, I really was inexperienced when it came to leadership. So, if I could say what the original reason for this book was and I didn’t know it at the time, but my first business grew spectacularly and also flamed out spectacularly because I did not have the solid foundation and an understanding of these core concepts that I write about throughout this book that really were important to my ability to sustain a business and to be happy while I was doing it–to enjoy what I was doing.
So, it was the recognition through that experience that entrepreneurship–there is a way of doing it. It is a set of skills, it is a set of concepts, there are frameworks, there are philosophies, and it is pretty messy. I didn’t see any book out there that comprehensively covered that for founders, especially for first-time or aspiring founders. So that was a lot of why I wrote the book.
Nikki Van Noy: Hearing this explanation is really interesting to me because one of the things that struck me immediately about your book is the title, create and orchestrate. Those words are so not conflicting but there is such a tonal difference between those two words and what they are. Creation is obviously this expansive untethered thing and then orchestration is such a solid pragmatic thing, and it sounds to me like that is part of what you learned is how to merge these two things together. Is that a correct interpretation?
Marcus Whitney: Nailed it. That’s what being a creative entrepreneur is. It is loving, existing in the chaotic process that is creation but also understanding you have to ultimately put a framework and a structure around that creation, and that inevitably that structure involves other people. You cannot do it all by yourself. When I say that, you can be a company of one. That is totally possible but even still you have to collaborate with other people. You need partnerships, you need marketing channels. So, there is still an aspect of it that is around pragmatism and structure and order. It is pulling at opposite ends, right? You know the chaos and the order are pulling at opposite ends and great entrepreneurs hold those two things in tremendous balance.
Nikki Van Noy: It strikes me that there is a lot of self-awareness in what you are talking about. You really have to understand where you excel and where you need to lead and also where you need to call in experts in other areas and let them do it their way.
Marcus Whitney: For sure. It was my experience. God bless anyone who comes into this process with tremendous self-awareness. I was sure to include any of my failures in the book because they are the moments that created self-awareness for me. I didn’t know what I was bad at until I failed spectacularly at it. So, to me, it was really important to include the various things that I did really, really wrong because that is where I learned so much of this stuff.
Ultimately yes, over time, part of self-awareness is based in humility. It is based on the ability to learn about your weaknesses and the ability to learn that in some cases you have to shore up your weaknesses. In some cases, you just have to avoid even touching those things and partnering with people who are really strong in those areas. I talk about partnering in that sense as well. All of these things are critical to entrepreneurship.
Nikki Van Noy: You cover so much territory in this book. In this limited time that we have here if there is one piece of advice you can give to listeners that you really want them to pay attention to as they look at either growing their entrepreneurial skills or stepping into an entrepreneurial role, what would that one critical thing be?
Marcus Whitney: The one most important thing is mindset. You have to have the right mindset in order to do this because it is not something you actually, ultimately control. So, you have to try to control the things you can, you have to be resilient. You have to understand this is ultimately a journey and not a bunch of milestones and being an entrepreneur is not about a goal. It is about a journey and a process and so the thing to work through is your mindset.
You have to have a very strong sense of belief and at the same time, you have to maintain a beginner’s mind and be willing to learn new things at all times. There are going to be people that are going to come in and they’re just mean people and you know they are going to project their own inadequacies or fears onto you. In those moments, you have to be resilient and you have to have a strong sense of belief but there will be moments where you’ll be confronted with people who are far more successful, far more experienced, far more capable than you.
There always is somebody who is and in those moments, you have to be able to be humble and that same sense of belief that you need to help you get through hard days and people who want to pull you down, you can’t let that restrict you from growing in moments when you are in the presence of people who are just quite frankly better than you at something.
So overall, developing the mindset of an entrepreneur is the thing and it is the thing you have to work on every single day.
Nikki Van Noy: How do you do that exactly on a day to day basis? How do you remain aware of your mindset and check yourself?
Marcus Whitney: So, I think part of that is who you put around you. Putting people around you who you respect, who you will allow yourself to be vulnerable with because they’ve proven that they will care for you. They will critique you, but they won’t do it with the intent to hurt you or to maim you. They’ll do it with the intent to show you something so that you can become a better version of yourself. Who you surround yourself with is a really big part of it.
The other thing that is not in the book at all–or maybe just very briefly but it is probably a whole other book I will work on–is you have to optimize the time you spend with yourself. I meditate every day for 20 minutes and I am passionate about it. The only thing I am passionate about is doing it every day but in terms of the quality of the meditation session, I don’t have a particular goal in mind. I try not to try very hard but a lot of what it does is just sitting down every day for 20 minutes.
Sitting down on the cushion gives me a good barometer on where I am. Is my mind totally crazy and overwhelmed right now? Am I very emotional or can I quickly access a sense of peace? Do I have the ability and the access to get to my breath quickly? And that check-in that I do in the morning gives me a really good read on how I am going to be able to play out the day and what I need to be looking for. That is a tool that I use. It’s a way that I generate daily diagnostic feedback on myself and get a sense of how I’m going to perform in the world for that day. So those are two things, from the outward sense–who do you have around you that you can trust that won’t hurt you but will tell you the truth and then what are you doing by yourself to take account of who you are, what you are good at, and how you’re feeling?
Nikki Van Noy: I have to tell you I was sitting over here silently cheering you as you were doling out that description of meditation because I feel like there is a tendency to put so much pressure on what meditation should be that it is too much, and so many people can miss out on the experience altogether because it doesn’t look a certain way. It can be an exercise in defeating yourself before you even get started.
Marcus Whitney: Totally. And I had to be taught that. I actually went to a meditation retreat, my wife bought it for me for a Valentine’s Day present, which was awesome. I went on this three-day retreat and I learned a bunch of stuff but that was the big thing I learned. I learned the importance of being dispassionate and it has changed my practice completely. I am never anxious or afraid to meet the mat because I know it is ultimately going to be what it is going to be.
Nikki Van Noy: Now I want to bring this back to where we started. I mean we are still in the midst of all of this but at this point, what have you taken away from this experience of running a business in the midst of COVID, in the midst of all of this social change? Where you are also in Tennessee, you were mentioning off the air. I don’t know if we’ve got this on the air but that also Tennessee was really, national specifically, was really rocked by a storm right before COVID set in and we all went on lockdown.
Marcus Whitney: So this has been just an incredible year. Yes, we were hit with a tornado on March 3rd and then basically the next week, COVID-19 madness descended upon the country and people started staying at home and buying out all of the grocery stores. April 3rd we had another storm that knocked out power for over 100,000 homes in Nashville. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a straight windstorm. This has been a crazy time to try to run a business and certainly a crazy time to launch a book.
It really threw me off in the beginning. You know, when the stock market was dropping out consistently and when the unemployment rate was just going nuts I almost just felt like it is an inappropriate time to do this, and I held back for two weeks. Then I came to this conclusion that this is going to be what it is going to be but the reason I wrote this book, my own personal reason was for me, and for people out there who I believe are like me, entrepreneurship is a life skill.
If you have the kind of personality that I have, which is framed up as an ambitious creative rebel, if you don’t know how entrepreneurship works, you can get into a lot of trouble. So, I believe this is not just nice to have, but for many people, this is a must-have skill set. I think that what COVID-19 has done to the world has only made that more so. I think it’s made the life skill of entrepreneurship go beyond just people who have the same personality as me.
I think that we are in a new world where technology was able to leap the entire world over the last four months. For the technology world, nothing has stopped. They are just moving even faster, quite frankly, because they are not even dealing with commuting time. Everyone is just home, they are always on, and they are advancing their prospects and they are eating up shares of the market that previously were owned by brick-and-mortar businesses.
So, I think this economy is going to get much more efficient and I don’t say that in a good way. I say that it is going to get leaner. There is going to be more automation than ever, and people are going to have to be creative and find ways to deliver value in order to make it in this new economy. I went from thinking this book was nice-to-have for a lot of people and a must-have for a segment of people to actually a book that most people probably need to read.
Even if you run a corporation, you have to be much more entrepreneurial now than you ever were before because the issues I am talking about are not limited to individuals. We are seeing large corporations file bankruptcy at a rate that we have not seen in any of our lifetimes. I ended up landing in this place where the timing couldn’t be better for my book in particular. If anything, I’ve just been ramping up and getting more excited for the launch of it.
Nikki Van Noy: I really appreciate that and I am so glad that you shared that so honestly. It is a terrifying time for a lot of people theoretically to launch a book but I think that having ideas out there, and you’re right, especially ideas like this is more important now than it really ever has been and people are looking for new alternatives and new ways of looking at things. So, I am really glad that you decided to move forward.
Marcus Whitney: Well, I am excited about it. I am feeling great.
Nikki Van Noy: Marcus, it was such a pleasure to talk to you. Again, the book is Create and Orchestrate. Marcus, where else can listeners find you outside of the book?
Marcus Whitney: The easiest place to find me is marcuswhitney.com. There you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter, you can download the first chapter for free if you want, and if you want a taste before you fully commit to buying the book. Also, I create a ton of content. I have a daily live stream show called Marcus Whitney Live and a podcast. So, you can find all of that stuff at marcuswhitney.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Best of luck Marcus.
Marcus Whitney: Thank you so much, Nikki.
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