Icon-versations is an ongoing interview series conducted by RBD Creative’s president, Dorothy Miller Twinney, featuring some of Greater Detroit’s biggest, brightest, and most-influential stars. This month’s Iconversation is with Mark S. Lee, who is President and CEO of the Lee Group as well as the unofficial voice of small business in Detroit.
A Man with a Passion
I interviewed my dear friend, Mark S. Lee, on a very cold Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day over cups of hot tea. I’ve known Mark for well over a decade now, and I’ve watched him transition from a very successful corporate executive into the passionate presiding voice of small business in Metro Detroit. Despite his professional success, newspaper column, Crain’s Detroit blog, radio show, frequent television contributions and numerous public speaking engagements, Mark is surprisingly down to earth and accessible.
Mark is the President and CEO of the Lee Group, a consultancy organization focused on strategic marketing, planning, branding, integrated communications, and training and development. Check it out here: .leegroupinnovation.com. When not consulting with his clients, Mark is an adjunct at Eastern Michigan University, public speaker and the successful voice of CBS Radio’s Small Talk with Mark S. Lee. Add a weekly blog for Crain’s Detroit Business and an avid golfing pastime, and you may wonder when Mark sleeps.
I asked Mark if he could have foreseen where he is now 10 years ago when he was Senior Vice President of Marketing for ABN AMRO. “I made the decision to walk away from the corporate world when the company wanted to move me (professionally and physically) into an area that was not my sweet spot,” he told me. It was 2012 and the Lee Group had already been in business for four years at that point, but he decided to turn his attention 100% to full-time entrepreneurialism. He told me the transition was not scary as he had been trained in his corporate career for every different situation imaginable. “That was the nice thing about corporate; I had experienced just about everything possible.” His biggest challenge? Finding clients.
So he did what any small business owner with an incredible network of friends and colleagues should do. He started talking about his company to everyone he knew, and sure enough his first client came from that network. And then the second and the third, and so on. He credits networking and word of mouth for all his early and continuing success.
Mark consults with a lot of companies – new companies as well as established companies. His advice to anyone looking to start a new business is as follows:
- Find out what your passion is. Build a business plan around your passion.
- Make sure you have a plan. 80% of small businesses fail in their first 28 months (Bloomberg, 2013). What will you do to mitigate this?
- Research. Even if you can’t afford full market research, talk to your friends and colleagues and get a sense for whether or not there is interest in what you will be offering.
Becoming the Voice of Detroit Small Business
Mark was approached by the Michigan Chronicle to write a column focusing on entrepreneurialism and small business development. Michigan Chronicle is the nation’s oldest and largest African American paper. Mark wrote Small Talk with Mark S. Lee for three years. He highlighted numerous Detroit businesses and gave small businesses a real platform for their stories. His enthusiasm for the city and the folks starting businesses in the city was contagious. Yours truly was in one of his columns years ago when I started RBD Creative in Detroit.
He made the decision to expand upon his audience in 2013 when Crain’s Detroit Business asked him to write a nine-week trial of a blog that would focus on the small business community. That was three years ago. Read his latest blog interview with Ron Bartell of Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles.
While at a meeting at CBS Detroit, Mark quipped, “You guys owe me a radio show!” They all laughed a bit and then CBS Detroit said, “Ok. How do you want to do this?” Mark’s vision was to host a one-hour show with four segments in which local businesses shared their stories and provided tips and ideas to small business start-ups. “Think of my Crain’s articles as a radio show,” he told them. That was in June 2014. You can hear Mark Sunday mornings on Small Talk with Mark S. Lee on CBS Radio (WWJ 950 AM).
It was at this point in our conversation that we began talking about the man behind the national holiday we were celebrating. Dr. Martin Luther King’s first time giving his powerful “I have a dream” speech was in Detroit at Cobo Hall on June 23, 1963. We sat, mesmerized by the screen on Mark’s iPhone watching and listening to this incredible man, sipping our tea and both realizing the power of the orator we were listening to. Mark then posted the speech to Facebook and we continued our conversation.
Television came next for Mark. He had become the face and voice of the small business community in Metro Detroit, and Chuck Stokes invited him to participate on his television show Spotlight in January of 2015. One of his recent appearances was a summary of the big stories of 2015 with Mark’s expectations for 2016. You might wonder what those expectations are:
- Continued investment in entrepreneurship and continued growth in the region.
- Sustainability will be the biggest challenge in 2016. Small businesses need to start infiltrating the neighborhoods beyond the 7.2 miles that makes up Midtown to Downtown. “There’s 132 miles left that need businesses fanning out within.” Resources also need to be made available to new businesses to reduce failure rates.
- The Detroit educational system needs to improve. “There will not be a full renaissance until it does.” It’s great that young people are moving downtown, but once they have a kindergartener, they may move out to the suburbs.
I asked Mark what his favorite part of the renaissance of Detroit has been. “All the attention (national and international) that is rallying behind Detroit. But what makes me smile the most is how people are hugging Detroit. National media is taking a different twist now.”
“Is now a good time to start a business?” I asked him next.
“Yes. I encourage people if they’re thinking about it. It’s still relatively inexpensive in Detroit, and there are a lot of good, talented people with great work ethics in Detroit. If you have a business opportunity, the right plan, you know where you want to be in three to five years, I encourage people to work with their network and with their mentors.”
Mark was born in the heart of Detroit and was raised in Northwest Detroit. He got his first job at 10 years old as a paperboy delivering The Detroit News. Each day after school, he would take his little red wagon to the distribution center and collect his papers. He would unbundle them and secure them in his shoulder bag before delivering them by foot or bike to his route. Little known facts about Mark S. Lee? He was Aretha Franklin’s paperboy, and lived next door to Lawrence Payton of The Four Tops! Soupy Sales lived down the street and Paul Williams of the Temptations lived several blocks away.
Mark has always been positive when it comes to doing business in the City of Detroit and its surrounding areas. Even at the height of the recession, Mark was optimistic. He was right. We have a lot to be proud of these days. Mark is also one of the most dedicated professionals I know in this area. So I asked him, last but certainly not least, if he would share his “Principles for Doing Business”:
- Love what you do.
- Even in this technological world, it’s still important to have face-to-face interaction.
- Return phone calls within 24 hours.
- Surround yourself with good people. Not everyone is an expert in everything, but if you surround yourself with good people, it helps you to elevate yourself in the minds of your clients. Just as important, share the credit and recognize your team.
- Be an excellent leader.
- Don’t overpromise and under deliver.
- Treat people with dignity and respect. Do everything with integrity all the time.
- Remember that people will help you. All you have to do is ask.
At the end of our conversation, he looked me square in the eyes and told me, “I’m just Mark. This is who I am and what I do.”
Indeed he is.
Check out Mark S. Lee on his website (.leegroupinnovation.com), and get ready for his Small Business Workshop coming again in May 2016. Hope to see you there! RBD Creative is proud to be one of the sponsors of this workshop.