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!