Conversation with Todd Marks of Mindgrub on CityBizList

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todd_marks_headshotTodd Marks, President and CEO of Mindgrub – the first and largest mobile app developer in the Mid-Atlantic — was teaching computer science and math in the late 90s. When the internet took off, it was obvious to him that would become a transformative platform for teaching and learning. With that notion and fueled by entrepreneurial drive, Todd quit his day job, waited tables at night, and started Mindgrub in his basement in 2002.

Fast-forward to earlier this year when the Google Glass API was released, Mindgrub wasted no time exploring its functions and started researching and developing apps for Google Glass. With product company viaPlace (a proprietary, white-label location-based service framework), Mindgrub has been working on location-based walking tours for Google Glass – university campuses, for example — and other wearable technology such as SpaceGlasses, iWatch, Pebble, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear.

In May 2014, mobile, social and web applications consultancy Mindgrub moved its offices from Catonsville to the Locust Point neighborhood of Baltimore City, more than doubling its footprint to support its growth.

Todd really never left the classroom, though. He teaches and lectures on technology internationally and sits on the advisory boards for Loyola University’s MBA program and the Chesapeake Regional Technology Council (CRTC).

What could Mindgrub Labs’ R+D have in store for mobile application development? There may be clues in the latest movie releases. Futuristic technology sci-fi film fan Todd says 2002’s Minority Report provided the catalyst for viaPlace.

Q.You’re a self-described high school math “teacher-turned- technologist,” and your vitae reflects a love of teaching and education technology. What influenced you to turn the corner toward entrepreneurship, and specifically, “tech-preneurship?”
A.When I was teaching in the 90s, it was obvious that the internet was going to be the next great platform for teaching and learning. The basic methods of teaching haven’t changed for hundreds of years and so I was excited to catch what was the first real transformation of our education system. I was both a computer science and math teacher, so I was always hyper-focused on the shifts of hardware and software in the tech industry. My ability to predict these landmark shifts and my entrepreneurial drive allowed me to hit the ground running in the tech-preneurship field.

Q.You’ve mentioned you were influenced by several early 2000-era movies that heralded some of today’s emerging technology – among them, Minority Report, I, Robot, S1mOne. How so? 
A.I was always really interested in “futuristic” technologies showcased in movies like Minority Report or the Matrix. I found myself wondering how they could actually be put into practice and the systems you might build to make them a reality. For example, the personalized advertisements sent by The Gap based on retina scans in Minority Report are now a reality through location-based technology. Now, rather than a business having a database of our retina information, they can simply send advertisements to your device via iBeacons based on your location and preferences.

In the Matrix, the instantaneous “brain download” of helicopter piloting instructions of course isn’t possible yet, but I can certainly see that instant information transfer being a part of the future, like images and information possibly being “projected” on the back of your retina. But of course there will be different interpretations.

Q.Todd, you’re our first “Chief Everything Officer” CEO interview. How did that descriptor for you come about?
A.
Well, it actually came about out of necessity. When I first started Mindgrub, I was the first programmer, first designer, information architect, tester, project management, and marketing. All of these business units still remain, and although they have grown quite a bit, they all started with me wearing that hat. And, amidst a hectic schedule, I still oversee most of these units, all while executing business initiatives that are really shaping Mindgrub in the mobile, web, and other innovative fields.

Q.How do you think your executive team would characterize your leadership style?
A.
I think I’ve heard terms such as visionary and inspirational thrown around the most. As the head of a technology innovation agency, and the largest mobile app developer in the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve got to be the visionary that looks ahead to foresee any opportunities or challenges. Meanwhile, I have to focus on those people who help move the company forward. I always try to help my team by giving them a solid foundation of support. My office door is always open to any problems they might have, work related or not. I feel like a big field of view is necessary, but not too big. My VP of Engineering, Sa’ad Raouf, always jokes that I “think bigger than most ordinary mortals do.”

Q.What gets you most jazzed about what Mindgrub is doing?
A.The biggest thing I’m getting excited about right now is the R+D that our Mindgrub Labs handles.They’re working on projects like Google Glass, embedded systems, augmented reality, advanced gamification— the types of technology that were formerly only seen in movies like Minority Report and the Matrix. Science fiction stuff. This sort of technology will become more commonplace over the next few years, certainly not the extent as some movies show, but we are already using connected cars, wearables, and other embedded systems that integrate with everyday products in our daily lives.

Additionally, we are making sure to cross train our developers in these innovative technologies. We are already seeing demand from business technology teams at large enterprise companies. These companies are really getting ahead of the curve and thinking about the evolution of their customer journey. When things like wearables and augmented reality products really hit the mass market, everyone else will be playing catch up and they will continue to stay ahead of the competition.

That’s one of the big services we offer our clients — rapid prototyping for anything from a mobile app to an innovative tech-based concept. You don’t see any other agencies in our market with this same ability, so we are excited to be a part of those types of projects.

Q.The Content Marketing Institute says that mobile’s next frontier is much closer than most realize, and exhorts brands to “get ready.” What are Mindgrub and partner company viaPlace working on in wearable technology like Google Glass?

A.Mindgrub is definitely leading that call to action. We were the first to produce mobile apps in our region and now we are the first to produce Google Glass applications. Recently, we created an app for ADASHI systems that would use Google Glass to help save lives by assisting firefighters. With this app, emergency responders can push building plans, electronic huddle diagramming, and any necessary updates to a firefighter’s Google Glass headset in order to help them do their jobs. In the next phase they will be able to detect where they and other fellow firefighters are in the building, which is always important in a dangerous situation.

Another Google Glass application that’s in the works is an app that lets surgeons see patient information as they are performing surgery. Google glass is a powerful technology for professionals that need hands-free access to information, fast. As you can see we’re not limiting ourselves to any small-time work with Google Glass technology.

Finally, a campus walking tour app has been released that uses our viaPlace location software to guide people around college campuses. It not only helps them find the right building, but it also integrates personalized data. Recruits, for example, can take a personalized and self-guided tour. Campuses are another great location for iBeacon integration. As you walk around campus your phone could receive information on campus landmarks or the departments housed within a building. Of course there are more applications beyond college campuses like hyper-local directions at destination resorts or large stadiums.

Q.We’ve heard you spend some of your downtime kayaking, camping, and canoeing. Decidedly low-tech, but given the Yamaha outboard owner app developed by Mindgrub and viaPlace, can we expect to see apps down the road for those?

A.Currently we have received a lot of interest in viaPlace (the software behind the Yamaha app) and we are working on our next round of funding for this proprietary software. The neat thing is that this idea came about as a direct request from our clients. They wanted to be able to control the pin placement and limit the usage to their service centers within Google Maps, so the demand is really out there for these mapping improvements.

As far as developing more for the recreational industry, I’m sure there will be more of this in our future. Typically, however, it’s the CMOs, CIOs, Digital Marketing Executives or Innovation Departments at large enterprise companies that hire us directly to develop these apps. So additional products that service the lifestyle industry will most likely come out of additional business with leading brands in this sector.

Q.What’s next for you? For Mindgrub?
A.Mindgrub is going to continue to expand its already large influence in the mobile and web development market. Our business is growing in the New York City market and will look to continue to place on the INC. top 500|5000 fastest growing companies list. And of course we will remain the leading technology innovation agency in the Baltimore-Washington area.

As for me? I’ll be focusing on growing Mindgrub as a service-based organization through additional expansion of service areas, such as our Marketing and User Experience departments. I will also be working with our core c-level team to establish product companies like viaPlace and continuing to build relationships with companies and organizations that need our experience and aptitude to execute their mobile, web, and social initiatives.

On a personal note, I will be getting married next summer, so I will not only be expanding my company, but my family as well.

*This interview was posted June 26, 2014 on Baltimore.Citybizlist.com

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