Introducing Mitch Solway, a seasoned marketing leader with an impressive track record of success in the Canadian tech industry. With over 20 years of experience, Mitch has spearheaded marketing efforts for renowned brands like Lavalife, FreshBooks, Vidyard, ClearFit, and FundThrough.
Mitch, in his role as a fractional CMO, works closely with CEOs and Founders of startups, both in their early and growth stages. He offers his invaluable expertise in developing effective marketing strategies and setting up a top-notch marketing department, thereby adding immense value to their businesses. From developing targeted plans aligned with growth objectives to assembling winning teams, Mitch takes the lead in ensuring marketing success.
During the interview with Mitch, he imparted invaluable insights and advice that are beneficial to both marketers and entrepreneurs.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in your field?
I’m really just one of those folks that was born interested in marketing.
In fact, I had my marketing future all planned out. From majoring in Marketing in both my undergrad and MBA to landing my dream marketing role at Procter and Gamble.
This was back in 1990 – so the concept of a tech startup wasn’t even around. Heck, voicemail and the internet hadn’t been invented yet!
After 3 years at P&G, I’d learned a ton about being customer focused and how to write a great recommendation, but the pace and culture of a big company just didn’t seem to line up with what really drove me. I was far too keen on actually getting stuff done, and testing and learning.
Working with a recruiter, I ended up landing a role as the first marketer at a startup in the telephone dating sector where my entire job was to figure out how to grow and scale the business.
The category was completely new, so unlike P&G where everything was about “best practices”, all of a sudden I was here to actually pioneer an entirely new growth playbook.
And I was hooked!
The company went on to become Lavalife, one of the world’s leading online dating services. I was there for 9 years as we grew from $2 million to over $100 million. My last 2 years I was the VP Marketing, overseeing a department of 26 people.
There were lots of ups, and some hard downs, but there was no question in my mind that working at growing and scaling startups was where I thrived.
And that’s where I’ve happily spent the past 30+ years.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
Without question the biggest challenge I faced in my career came when I launched my own startup in 2005 – an online dating service focused on single parents.
This seemed like the perfect time to try my hand as a founder. It was a big leap for me. And I quickly learned that a founder’s life was not for me.
Dealing directly with investors, being accountable for payroll and basically responsible for the whole shebang felt, well … .uncomfortable. I definitely had trouble sleeping at night.
Plus the relationship with my co-founder became unhealthy.
So, I was basically miserable!
What did give me joy during that time was building the product, the marketing and getting to know the customers (who were some of the nicest folks).
The challenge for me was getting myself out of the situation because I felt accountable to so many people – including our investors which included friends and family. I didn’t want their investment and faith in me to fail.
After seeking out advice from people I trusted in my network it became clear that my own sense of accountability was not actually healthy or serving anyone. They also encouraged me to take control of my situation vs feeling a victim of it. So, with my newfound confidence I found a way out. This included winding up the company.
While this was definitely the most challenging and difficult time in my career, it reinforced where I was at my best.
And that was in supporting founders by driving and owning marketing.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your career, and how have they influenced your approach to leadership?
Nearly every major issue boils down to people.
I’ve learned a ton, but this has been the most impactful and liberating lesson learned.
Every day we hear about this team not getting along with that team, or people complaining about their peers or managers or plans or programs.
As humans, we’re great at generating dysfunction!
The good news is that it can always be resolved. Because it’s just us, people.
As a leader, I’ve learned that “upsets” are most often created by poor communication, misalignment and by making assumptions about others intentions. Therefore, my job is to always assume good intent from everyone. And when issues arise, not focus on “blame” but focus on untangling the root cause – which is almost always a misunderstanding.
It’s why building and supporting a culture of trust is so paramount to building a high functional company.
It’s also why my orientation is always around setting people, teams and companies up for success.
That’s what we all want.
And as a leader, it’s our job to create the conditions for that to happen.
One thing that people don’t know about you?
Most people don’t know that I used to be a professional magician.
From the age of 12 all through university I was that guy that did magic shows at kids’ birthday parties. I didn’t have a rabbit, but I did become famous for my “cookie trick” where everyone helped me produce chocolate chip cookies. Even at an early age I understood my customer!
Today, I have an extensive magic library of over 400 books on magic. If we do a Zoom call you’ll see my magic bookshelf in my background.
What advice would you give to young professionals or entrepreneurs who are just starting out in your field?
Take advantage of your opportunity to do things and learn. Working in a startup is such fertile ground. You have this unique opportunity to own something, get stuff done, learn so much about every and any area of marketing.
So be sure to enjoy the journey of discovery and definitely pay attention to what you really enjoy, and what you don’t. This will guide you in your career.
If you have a bias for action and a curious mind, there’s no better place to work than in a startup.
As we conclude this interview, our heartfelt gratitude goes out to Mitch Solway for sharing his valuable insights and journey with us.
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