June’s Spotlight: Mark Surkin of Dineable

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9 to 5 grind.

Mark Surkin, CEO and Co-founder of Dineable, brings tech to the dining room table in the best way possible. Created with the customer in mind, Surkin blends his background in IT with his dedication to living with dietary restrictions in our world today.

LG: Tell us about yourself!

Mark: Anyone can probably get a pretty good read on me by knowing 4 things:

  1. When I was 13, I asked my parents if I could spend some of my bar mitzvah cash to buy… WINDOWS 95. Seriously. My idea of fun was sitting at home installing an operating system.
  2. Baseball is the greatest sport in the world and I dare you to try to prove me wrong.
  3. I believe that reading is one of the most important things anyone can do with their free time. Sci-fi, romance, self-help, history, whatever. Just read.
  4. I love to travel and have been lucky enough to do a lot of it. But even when it’s not possible, anyone can go anywhere with a great recipe. Food is universal, and even when there is no common spoken language, all it takes to make a friend is a taste and a smile. That’s why Dineable exists: to give everyone a seat at the table.

LG: You’ve launched Dineable. How did it all begin?

Mark Surkin, CEO of Dineable

Mark: Like most IT people, I can’t help myself from trying to solve problems with tech when I see them. I’m food-restricted. So are many of my family and friends. Getting together over a meal always began with exhausting conversations about who can’t eat what – sometimes among ourselves, sometimes with a server or chef.

There had to be a better way, and I wanted to find it, because I was tired of repeating myself and tired of feeling isolated, frustrated, or just plain hangry when there was nothing around for me to eat. I knew others shared my perspective, and I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to fix the problem.

LG: Describe the Dineable brand.

Mark: We get that food counts to everyone, each in their own unique way. Dineable helps anyone get food right for them, and we help anyone serving food to get the information they need to serve each guest at the highest possible level. We are all about hospitality – the simple act of knowing your guests as well as possible enables anyone to create magic moments.

LG: How did you build your company’s marketing strategy?

Mark: Marketing has always been kind of nebulous to me. I’m fascinated by it, but it’s not something I’ve ever figured out how to do effectively on my own. I watched Mad Men but whiskey didn’t seem to help much! So instead my team and I worked hard to define the segments we wanted to go after, and the order in which to go after them, and we hired you (Lauren) to help us get to where we want to be. In the end, whether it is marketing or sales or building software, it is all about having a great team.

Dineable

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Mark: Our first major LOI was with one of the biggest auditing firms in the world. Talk about starting with a major success! From a company perspective, it is humbling to consider that most startups fail and that Dineable is still here, finding new successes each week. A few weeks ago we had to move our team meetings to a larger room. Walking into that full room was an amazing moment.

We failed a ton as we’ve been building this company. It is the nature of new things and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Remember my story about installing Windows 95 when I was 13? The most exciting moments for me was when an error message popped up, and I got to figure out how to fix it. Specific to Dineable, the initial product we rolled out had incredibly poor UX. We were so focused on building something functional and keeping it secure, that we lost sight of the core value of our product, and thus it was not presented directly to new users, and we provided very little guidance to existing users. We had a great team of software developers but only a part-time adviser keeping track of UX. If I had that to do over again, I’d have adjusted that balance.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there?

Mark: Talk to everyone you can, and be gracious and helpful. You never know who someone knows or where they can take you.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as an entrepreneur with a growing team and your home life?

Mark: Honestly I don’t manage it very well. I’m lucky to have my wife, Katie, be so patient and supportive of me, even while I spend most nights working until past midnight. I’m writing this interview at around midnight on a Saturday night, in fact, after getting home from date night. We don’t have kids and I’m not sure how anyone does this with kids. They deserve a ton of respect. And probably a few naps. For myself, Dineable could be the most important thing I ever do professionally. I truly believe the world needs a system to help get food right, that this is an incredibly rare opportunity to help a lot of people on a very large scale, and I’m super passionate about the work we are doing.

I do try to just ignore the pile of work once in a while and spend time with family and friends. Even a few minutes with my cat, or an afternoon with my nephew can rejuvenate me and fuel me through my next late night of work.

LG: What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a young adult?

Mark: “Stop and think.” Also, a bonus: “Stop comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.” I think I read that second one in an airplane magazine interview with Rob Lowe (the actor), and it’s really stuck with me.

LG: We’re all ready to use Dineable! How do we get started using the app?

Mark: If you’re food restricted or have a special diet, click here to create your own, free, personalized food profile and start sharing today!

If you’re an event organizer or food preparer, click here for the easiest way on the internet to ask guests if they have food restrictions or a special diet.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dineable, visit dineable.com.
Author’s Note: A special thank you to Mark and his passionate team for bringing me on to learn more about marketing in a tech start-up setting!

May’s Spotlight: Lynn April of Fresh April Flours

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9 to 5 grind.

It seems fitting to kick off my spotlight series with my first client, a business partner-turned-friend, and hardest working woman and recipe master in all of Philadelphia. My inaugural feature begins with Lynn April, the creator lady boss behind Fresh April Flours, a food (with sprinkles of life and family) blog bringing easy and delicious meals and treats to your kitchen with simplicity in mind.

LG: Tell us about yourself!

Lynn: I’m Lynn, full-time mom, full-time antibody purification technician, and self-taught baker. When I’m not wrangling children or at work, you can find me in the kitchen or behind my camera lens photographing food.

LG: How did you get started with Fresh April Flours five years ago?

Lynn: I started Fresh April Flours as a place to share my recipes. From 2010 to 2014, I baked and decorated custom cakes. It was really fun until it just wasn’t anymore, so I stopped. I wanted to continue sharing my cakes with people, but I also wanted to branch out into other desserts, so I started the blog to sort of “document” that. What started as a place for me wound up a place for all of my readers.

LG: Describe the Fresh April Flours brand.

Lynn: Since I’m self-taught, you won’t find anything super fancy on my blog. Instead, you’ll find real recipes from a real person. I love taking the time to learn something new or challenging and teaching someone else how to approach it from an amateur standpoint, but I also know that sometimes it isn’t realistic to want to make croissants from scratch because they take literally all day and you get 8 of them. What I do want FAF to bring to the kitchen, though, is quality, tested recipes that make you feel good about what you’re putting into your food. When you make quality recipes, and something you put time and effort into, sharing it with others becomes a celebration. My favorite thing to hear is that one of my recipes reminds someone of their grandmother’s or makes them nostalgic for something they had growing up. Helping people learn how to get back into the kitchen in a fast-paced, instant gratification world is what I aim to do with FAF.

LG: How did you build your company’s marketing strategy?

Lynn: Honestly, I’m still learning this one. My husband’s background (before he became a personal trainer and gym owner) is in marketing. For the most part, he helped me figure out what to do prior to my outsourcing of marketing, which was the best thing I have done for my brand thus far. Marketing is probably the hardest part of owning this brand, as the digital world we live in is constantly changing and moving a lightning speed, and all I know how to do is bake, take pictures, and write about my recipes. What I depend most on is word-of-mouth and sharing on social medias from my readers. Pinterest is my #1 traffic source followed closely by Google. I didn’t put myself there – other people did. The brand, in a way, markets itself!

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Lynn: As far as success goes, when I realized that blogging was actually making me decent money, I started paying for things like vacations with that income. We’ve been on a few vacations in the last few years paid for solely by the blog, and that’s liberating. Overall, the blog itself making it to the 5-year mark is a major success in and of itself, considering this is not my full-time job AND we have two young kids. When it comes to fails, I actually can’t think of a single one. Nothing I’ve done along the way has set me back or broken me down. Everything has been a step forward. Except my baking fails. I have a lot of those. Do they count?

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there?

Lynn: It sounds cliche, but do not compare yourself to other brands. The food blogging world is humungous and quite saturated. There are food blogs out there I could only dream of being as popular as. And some of my most loyal and regular fans/readers have no idea what those blogs are. I say the same thing to my husband whose gym is within a few miles of some major “big name” gyms — your people are with you for a reason. You are their person/brand. While quantity is important in the business world, so is quality and loyalty. If you can build your brand to be trustworthy, necessary, significant, and timeless, people will stick with you. And that can take you far.

LG: How do you manage the balance between your roles as a full-time scientist, blogger, wife, and mom?

Lynn: Coffee, a supportive spouse who gets it, non-negotiable me time (the gym), and regular quality time/dates with my husband.

LG: What’s one thing you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a young adult?

Lynn: You’re going to marry someone who loves to talk about business strategies and ideas. Listen to him in those early years… He knows what he’s talking about.

LG: We’re dying to know. . . what recipe must we try from your page?!

Lynn: Oh my goodness, you’ve got to try a yeast bread. They’re so NOT as intimidating as people make them out to be. My Italian anise bread, cinnamon babka, or funfetti cinnamon rolls are great places to start. As far as my most popular recipes: blueberry lemon pie bars or, believe it or not, my make-ahead breakfast casserole are fan favorites!

Interested in exploring Fresh April Flours recipes? Visit freshaprilflours.com. Want to know more about Lynn and her company? Visit https://freshaprilflours.com/about/faq/.

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Lynn who will forever be my first marketing client, her eagerness to support this new venture, and her willingness to be spotlighted!

How To Understand Your Value and the Worth of Your Time

I’m back! The end of February and the entire month of March was one big whirlwind. Between work and personal travel, new and fast-growing clients, and the last of my graduate school classes, the last 6 weeks have flown by in a blink of an eye. My travels took me north to Boston, south to Charlottesville and Nashville, west to Los Angeles and seemingly everywhere in between. I toted my laptops along my travels, checked email constantly, and tried to keep up with the world I was separated from back home in Philadelphia. Along the way, I walked the fine line between living in the moment and concerned about my to-do list. It hit me. . . our time in minutes, hours, days, and weeks is so precious. I’ve learned a few things in the last few months that I’d like to share with you:

1. Be Present

Our world moves faster and faster each day and as I get older, it seems like the years pick up speed. Put your cell phone down, avoid checking your inbox for a few hours, do something you love, and celebrate time with your co-workers, your friends, and your family. Exercise your best time management skills by carving out time to work and carving out time to be more present. We only get so many trips around the sun.

2. Be Clear, Honest, and Concise

My safety net when working on projects with clients and co-workers is to not communicate until a project is done. Although it strays from my comfort zone, I’ve found that I build stronger, more personal, and mutually-beneficial relationships when I’m clear, honest, and concise about what’s on my plate, what I’m prioritizing, and what I’m able to do. For example, a client sent me a project that I knew would be a time commitment, and one that I wouldn’t be able to focus on for a few days. Although it was challenging to admit I didn’t have to immediate time to dedicate to the project, I shared that I’d be able to finish by a specific date. By doing so, I gave the liberty to the client to decide the sensitivity and urgency of the project while setting a deadline for myself. I was also able to avoid potentially taking far longer than the client expected me to complete the project or rushing to get it done when it wasn’t a client’s priority. Never underestimate the power of asking, “what’s your timeline for this project?”.

3. Say “No”

Yup, it’s as simple as that. Women, far more than men, find it challenging to say “no” when asked for favors or more work in fear of being viewed as weak, powerless, and ineffective. Humor me. . . what’s one thing that’s been heavy on your mind or pressing of your time in an unpredicted way? Now think, what would have happened if you said “no”? Let’s practice saying “no” more. Your time is more valuable than you give credit to.

4. Prioritize the Right People and the Right Things

In one of my graduate classes, we practiced an activity of active listening during a conversation with one of our classmates. We were held responsible for engaging with the person through eye contact, appreciative question-asking, no distractions, and full comprehension of what the individual was sharing. Seems simple enough, right? Think again. The exercise was a reminder of how frequently we enter a conversation or sit down at the dinner table with a mind full of distractions and our phones in hand. This goes along with being more present, but always focus on the people and things who matter. When you come home from work, refocus your energy to your loved ones and leave work at the door. When you’re out with your friends at dinner, put your phone down and talk. It’s simple.

5. Understand Your Worth

After working in the freelance sector for over a year and a half now, the time to bill my client’s rolls around and I get a pit in my stomach. I’ve done the work, done it well, everyone is happy, and I still shave a few billable hours off the invoice or don’t charge the full value of my work. Why? It’s the same premise of why I show up early to work or stay late in my full-time job. I feel like I owe something more to my company than it gives me (literally, in pay).

As a business professional and woman, it’s important to remember the value of your time, your thought, and your attention. You are not a volunteer for your client or for your full-time employer. Fight for your salary, your hourly wage, your next job or promotion, and what you deserve. It comes with the territory. . . if a client has an issue with the way you bill, it opens the possibility of a discussion or the end of your partnership. Regardless, you’ll be proud that you defended your worth and your time.

I hope you find value in these easy ways to be more defensive of your time and value while being more present with those that matter.

Until next time. . .

Lauren

25 Conversations with Strangers

A few months back I was feeling rambunctious, uncertain, and directionless. I had applied to a government program down in Washington for after I completed my masters. I had prepared my application over the course of six months, spoken to people within the program, and completed the intensive exam prior to hitting “submit” with a wing, a prayer, and a dream. I was ultimately denied and received no feedback or reasoning behind the verdict. The path I thought I was on was on had just come to a dead-end. . . Now what?

I wish I could claim to have more of an understanding or give you (my lovely reader) an accredited recommendation on how to move on emotionally and psychologically from disappointment. . . but I can’t! I can, however, tell you that having conversations with strangers in coffee shops helped me come to terms with the fact that everyone has a crisscrossing, up-and-down, crazy life journey and departing from the expected is okay. Most importantly, an understanding that failure was fine and inevitable.

In November, I drew twenty-five blank lines in my journal and promised I’d fill the lines with names of people I’d have a cup of coffee with prior to May (my graduation month). And before you pass judgment, yes, I know that quantity and quality are very different things. I was thoughtful about who I spoke to and asked of their precious time. The number “twenty-five” felt like equatable to the number of minutes, effort, and uncomfortable-ness I wanted to dedicate to myself in search of answers and insight. Now, as we reach the end of February, I’m about half-way to my goal. I want to share with you what I’ve learned thus far from my journeys.

1. People are willing to help

When I made my list, I knew I’d have to reach out to people I had no connection with. I found their email or LinkedIn inbox and explained why I was interested in speaking to them. I was overwhelmed by these stranger’s willingness to help another stranger – blocking out time to talk and going as far to buy my cup of coffee. Some of the people I “cold-called” were my best conversations because there was so much to talk about. As I got into the rhythm of networking, people began recommending their friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – near and far. Through my conversations, I realized people are so willing to help and “give back” to young professionals in exchange for the help they received along the way. You just have to be willing to ask and show up to the table.

2. No one predicted their path

I spoke with vice presidents, major gift officers, marketing professionals, consultants, entrepreneurs, and everything in between. Despite varying careers, everyone shared the same sentiment. . . no one predicted their path or ended up doing what they sought out to do. It’s okay to begin your career one way and hop to something different. Likewise, it’s okay to have not a clue what you’re doing. Everyone starts somewhere.

3. Education is key

Education is a constant theme in my writings, but one that was present in many of my networking meetings. The professionals I spoke with encouraged education, had graduated from prestigious programs and universities or were on their way to returning to the classroom. Taking classes is an investment in yourself and your organization/employer. Education is key to your career and personal growth.

4. Relationships are priceless

I’ve heard and read so much about relationship-building and its importance in the workplace and professional world. I frequently see people view relationships as strategic moves on the game board of the corporate/nonprofit world. I’m here to remind you that people thrive on connection. . . and authentic connection at that. Meeting with the vice president of your company is valuable, but building a relationship with your colleague who sits next to you in your cubicle is just as important. Relationships are priceless, but it’s clear to others when your networking is inauthentic or transactional.

5. Questions need purpose

Since I was little, I’ve been “the planner” in every group. I’ve come a long way in living life more in the moment, but I take the good aspects of being a planner to my work and professional development. Before meeting anyone for coffee, I did research on their background and came prepared to ask meaningful questions about their career and journeys. I brought my notebook to each conversation and shamelessly took notes and did so afterward, too. Take the time to ask questions with purpose and intent.

6. Everyone has been where you are

I’m 24 and feeling the growing pains of my mid-twenties. The funny thing about age is literally everyone who is older than me knows exactly what it’s like to be in my shoes. Everyone knows what it’s like to be where you are. Whether you’re doubting your next move, unsure you’re in the right profession, or even in the right city, a stranger or fellow professional might provide guidance your friends and family can’t. You’re not alone on the journey to find your “dream job” or simply happiness in your day job.

7. Follow-up can vary

Many of my conversations thus far have ended with emails filled with resources, further connections, job application links, and promises for follow-up. On the other side, many ended with a “thank you” and well wishes. I found that not everyone has the capacity, interest, or inclination to keep expanding on the relationship – which is FINE! I left many conversations feeling like I got the most out of it being present in the moment and soaking in time with another person who has experiences and knowledge to share with me. I recommend to anyone beginning their networking journey to be thoughtful in follow-up and read whether or not the person wants to continue the relationship past the initial meeting.

The short of it? Get out there, order yourself a cup of coffee, and talk to a stranger. I guarantee you’ll learn the world is a lot smaller than you think and six degrees of separation is a very real concept.

If you’re interested in beginning your own networking journey, please don’t hesistate to reach out. I’d love to help you make your plan and get started! Email me at lauren@talkabouttown.org.