An Interview with Mark Billik, CEO of BeCore
The people that make up experiential marketing agencies are often as engaging as the events they create and execute. Our founder and CEO, Mark Billik, is no exception, and we’re always fascinated to hear about his intriguing background that’s made him the great leader and bold entrepreneur that he is today. We had a conversation with Mark to learn about how he started BeCore, talk about his childhood in LA and Maui, and get a sense of how he’s been able to create a supportive, extremely creative, and fun company culture (he gracefully gives the credit to the rest of the team).
How did you get your idea to create BeCore, and how was the company started?
I left my previous job managing Cheesecake factory and started this skate property that got sponsored by Panasonic, and was on ESPN 2. I had a company called Anywhere Sports Productions, and the skate tour was called the National Inline Skate Tour. I was voted top 20 most influential people in inline history at the time. I ended up selling that property and started BeCore because I realized that the business wasn’t in developing a property and selling it to someone, it was in helping people connect with the consumers in the right way. I saw that firsthand when one of the sponsors that was trying to connect with young skaters had 60 year old dudes manning the booth, and it really wasn’t working. I went to them and said “Let me help you engage with this skater consumer.” And that’s really a better angle to service the needs of the clients.
How did you grow BeCore in the early stages?
At that time, I had a friend who was the first employee of Red Bull North America, and that anchored my business for a while. He would ask me if I could deliver products for events, including product samples, which was limited to a case and treated like gold at the time. And that’s how Red Bull got started, in an office that overlooked Gladstones on PCH at the end of Sunset Boulevard.
At the same time, I got a call from Fox Films for a movie called Titan A.E. They were looking to connect with the skater crowd, and do a dynamic PR stunt that had never been done before and cause a buzz. I came to them with an idea of building a big kicker, mega ramp as it’s known now as named by Danny Way, who wasn’t the inventor of it. The inventor of the mega ramp, to set the record straight, was Andy Macdonald, who did it for a photoshoot first. I didn’t know that to tell you the truth, so I came up with that idea because I saw that the average person couldn’t keep up with the 60 second runs with the technical trick names, it was too complicated to an average audience. So my idea simplified the skate run and increased the height, distance, and difficulty of the tricks, and crowds would freak out, and this was way before it was added to the X-Games. This is 1998, and Tony Hawk, Andy Macdonald, Danny Way, and Rune Glifberg were there, and I was featured in Big Brother, a famous skate magazine, and they called me a kook, because how could an inline guy pull off that event? We set a world record, Andy Macdonald won with a distance of 52 feet.
From there, it was servicing the growth of Red Bull, growing with them, from handling all their deliveries on the west coast, to handling events in Hawaii, kite surfing, and the Red Bull Air Race. We had a lot of opportunities to spread our wings and participate in many interesting marketing challenges and events, as Red Bull was a leader in the space and still is today.
Microsoft Zune was our next big client, with a popup shop and concerts around the country, followed by Nike, who was launching Nike 6.0. We were hired by them to help engage consumers at the Dew Tour and U.S. Open of Surfing, where they were the title sponsor.
From there it just expanded, and now we’re 20 years into this. We have great clients, Amazon, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, we still have Red Bull, Nike, and Microsoft, people who have been supportive and loyal to our independent shop on the west coast.
You grew up in Hawaii with an action sports background. Talk to me about your childhood and how has that affected the way you live your life and run your company?
I’m an old school skater (not a rollerblader), and I skated in Marina bowls, watching Tony Alva, Tony Hawk, and Stacy Peralta. When I was 12 I moved to Maui to live with my mom and grow up in that environment, which was completely different than LA. I gained a lot of street smarts, and ability to survive, from living in houses without electricity, to digging our own outhouses and gathering eggs from chickens. To watch football we’d have to hook up our car battery to cables to a black and white tube TV on the deck. Being born in the city and raised on Maui, I’m so grounded in being able to adjust and adapt to conditions and environments. That’s what helped me in my entrepreneurial career, being solutions-oriented. If everything’s handed to you when you’re born, you may not handle adversity well, but if you’re thrown when you’re 12 into an environment where you’re building outhouses and lighting candles, and gathering food from the garden, and hitchhiking to go surf with your friends, it’s a different side that I got to learn and experience.
Another part is my career in the service business, prior to BeCore. I was in the restaurant business starting in high school at a steakhouse, and when I went to the University of Hawaii I continued in the industry, working my way up to manager. When I left Hawaii and came back to the mainland, I took a job as Assistant General Manager at Cheesecake Factory in Marina Del Rey. That was a pinnacle moment in my life, really learning about guest service, and perceived value. That franchise is off the charts with how you get served, the value you get, and the experience you have once you walk inside. All of that has really honed in my skills, and is what I started BeCore on, and it still resonates in the people that are here today, down to the fact that we still put accouterments in the restrooms, mints or incense. That’s who I am.
And that’s what this business was built on, that extra thing, that over the top service, that think it through, figure it out more. You go to Cheesecake Factory in Atlanta or Redondo Beach, you’re getting the same service, the same jambalaya. If you order a burger with fries the ketchup is on the table before the food comes. You’re anticipating the needs of your clients. That resonates here within the company, and hopefully oozes out in every project and relationship we have, because it’s important and it’s how we’re built. When you look at our office board it’s ”Minds committed to being helpful.” If you’re truly being helpful, you’re anticipating the needs, you’re providing, you’re servicing. That’s who I am as a person. That’s what’s helped me throughout my career, and helped us here.
What are you looking for in employees? What makes the culture here so great?
The culture is made by the people here, for sure, it isn’t something that you make. You don’t create it, it creates itself, I believe in that. When you’re dealing with a company that is so service oriented, your people are critical to the success.
Ten second likability is something I learned from Cheesecake Factory that I’ll never forget. If you look at somebody in their eyes, you know if you’re going to want to continue the conversation. Do you look like a welcoming, nice person? I look at your demeanor, your disposition, how you hold yourself. I see that with Yeds, my executive assistant. Those things are really critical just out of the gate to hire the right people. That’s what I check immediately when hiring and meeting people.
I also like having someone working here who brings more to the table than just doing the job. We have been fortunate enough to hire some really dynamic people, that are qualified (or not even qualified, and it’s a risk), but then that person surprises you, because they have so much more to them than they showed right on the surface. You as an interviewer, you can see they came from a specific industry, and that’s interesting to me. If you look around, we don’t have a lot of people that came from this industry here, and that adds to the dynamic of thinking, and the solutions-oriented mindset that we have here. You get people that can solve things from their tribal knowledge, and their experiences that aren’t from an agency background. We have 50 misfit toys here, and I’m definitely one of them. My background in the restaurant business, and growing up with nothing, from food stamps, it’s interesting to see where your potential will lead you, and that’s critical to try to find that there’s a blossoming person in there that might have potential, rather than yes they can do the job and are qualified.
I interviewed several different people this week, and instantly I can tell one from the other, and some have an unknown, harnessed sun, and I try to see that in each person. You can’t hire perfect people all the time, so it’s not a perfect formula, but what’s interesting here at BeCore is that those people that aren’t that way get weeded out. The organization squeezes them out. I can use a surf analogy of wana (sea urchin), if you get a piece in your foot, it wants to get itself out of you, it will try to work itself out of your foot naturally if it can. You have people here who want to stay and blossom. You have Roger who is a 7 time grammy nominated artist, or Jen who has published multiple cookbooks. Everyone having robust backgrounds and personalities is valuable in hiring.
How did BeCore end up in the current location in the Arts District in LA?
I was renting from the guy who owned this building, and after 5 years of being a flawless tenant and paying on time, I decided that since I knew the market downtown was going ballistic (this was 8 years ago), it’s time to spend the rent money on a mortgage, and create a home court advantage. It was great renting our space, but it didn’t feel like us and we were restricted in what we could do with the building. We were really humming with Red Bull, and doing so many cool projects, including supporting Felix Baumgartner base jumping from space, and our office didn’t feel like who we were. It didn’t give us the playground we have now. We invested in ourselves, and we have been a company that’s been that way since day one. It’s been 20 years, and I haven’t pulled the chips off the table yet, I keep putting them back on the table. I’m an all-in guy, I just push. And I just did it again, hiring Steve, that was an all-in push. It was the right thing to do, and that’s what we’ve always been about. This venue gave us that canvas to paint a picture of what BeCore is and can evolve into. It gave us an extra runway to evolve, we added the fab shop, and now we’re adding a lounge, LA’s only indoor rooftop lounge (which we’ll do a story on soon). This space has been really helpful with our culture, with our clients who use the space, with the events we hold here. We just did an Amazon event here that was off the charts, we throw art parties. It’s been a huge asset, and it keeps employees wanting to work here every day.
Where do you see BeCore headed in the next few years?
We’re committed to building a better business. If you’re satisfied with what you’re doing, just status quo, that’s just not who I am. I’m a driver. I’m a hunter. I’ve been pushing this business along since I started it in my garage, and so I feel proud of the achievements we’ve accomplished. It gives me purpose in life, and I enjoy the 50 people that work here a lot, and I’m committed to them over the top, probably more than anyone I know that owns a company.
We always do a survey at the end of the year that asks how we’re doing, and what we can do better, and our employees can anonymously provide feedback. And some of them said we can look at the leadership, and the tribal knowledge of the leaders that are here from within this industry. And it’s true, I didn’t come from this industry, I came from the restaurant business. I didn’t come from the event world. And I totally believe that it overlaps, and it’s all adaptable, and it has obviously worked. But I didn’t spend the last 16 years at GMR, and before that another agency, like Steve. So because we lack that in our personnel, people felt like it could add to how we think, and how we execute, and help us grow. And I think it was from the heart feedback.
For the last five years I’ve been looking for a fourth stand to our current c-suite tripod. The addition of Steve is a commitment back to the business, to review, analyze, bring in other ways to think about how to run it. And that will allow us to propel to the heights I believe we deserve to be at, in my mind. And it isn’t a global agency, that’s not what we want. Double in size is probably where we’re going, and that feels like a really good number. That gives us enough to do all of the things I want to do for everyone in this company, and continue to do that. Steve’s clean look at what we do has been refreshing.
For the record, I couldn’t have hired a better person, I’m over the top, I could cry to tell you the truth. I interviewed dozens of very qualified people, including CEOs and presidents of companies, agency founders, and creative strategists for larger agencies. It came down to a feeling and a vibe I got from Steve (ten second likeability), and ultimately I did feel like I needed someone from this industry. A little bit of been there done that, but wasn’t going to be a been there done that and this is how it’s done. He’s not approaching it that way. He isn’t saying “This is how we did it at GMR and so this is how it’s going to be done” all of the time, although sometimes that’s what we need. You don’t know what you don’t know. But he’s applying a little of this and a little of that to find the best approach.
You own a business and you spend some of your time thinking about what are others doing differently, how did they do that, or how did they get those accounts? Is their life easier than ours? Well then we haven’t built the perfect mouse trap yet. And if we haven’t, push it back in, and that’s where Steve comes in. It’s exciting, there’s going to be some changes, and there already have been adjustments, and everyone here appreciates it and recognizes the value he’s immediately bringing to the table.
Any advice for entrepreneurs who want to be on your career path?
For entrepreneurs, your network is the most important thing you have. I tell this to my daughter who’s going to San Francisco State right now. She says she doesn’t really know what she wants to do, and I say that it doesn’t really matter. You’re building a network. Networks can provide you sustenance for your entire life, whether it’s friendship, love, financial support, or intellectual support. Creating a network, and reaching across the table, and being friendly and approachable, is all one thing, and very important to being an entrepreneur.
The second thing is being a good person along the way. Truly through and through, if you can do it 20 years, 40 years, every day 365, that will bear tons of fruit. The world provides for the people that are doing good for others. That is a critical thing in my life, and why I believe I’m here, why my timing is good, why good things keep coming, and why it consistently happens. You get dips and valley in any business, and plenty of them. You have to have faith in your ability to do good for others.
If you’re going to start your own business, you better be comfortable in your sales shoes. It comes down to sales 101: if you aren’t selling it, then nobody is buying it. How you sell can be different, with your relationships you can even soft sell. But business is always driven by revenue, so if you aren’t good at selling find someone who is.
Any advice for your younger self?
I wish I knew then what I knew now. I don’t have regrets, but there a few things I would tell my younger self. Try not to stress too much, everything will work out because you’re a good person. It’s hard to believe in that when you’re younger, so you have to trust that, but also work hard. Balance is always something that torments an entrepreneur. I think I’m doing a good job now, but there’s been some years where that wasn’t the case. Some things you just can’t do over, so don’t mess around with those. Every day I remind myself that even though you love what you do, and you are what you do, you are more than just a business.
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