Some individuals require no introduction. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years you’re familiar with the Marc Eckō brand, one that grew from a rhino on clothing with Eckō Unlimited to now dealing with video games, a publishing division and so much more. Having created a million dollar empire, Marc Milecofsky, a Lakewood, New Jersey native is one of the great entrepreneurs of our generation. A conversation with him yields a different kind of honesty however, about life, business and the importance of a brand. Marc’s openness about his failures and his missteps provide more insight than an entire catalog of self-help and how-to books. The journey from playing with graffiti designs in his parent’s basement to what we know now as the Marc Eckō Enterprises brand can provide inspiration to even the most terrified of potential innovators. Our interview is just the tip of the iceberg.
Marc Eckō’s latest project, the release of his first book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out is the topic of conversation for our discussion, but much like any journey, we took many unexpected turns on our path. Honesty is a reoccurring theme here. The book isn’t a guide to getting rich quick and Marc doesn’t provide the illusive keys to success. In fact, he reveals that the book is a guide for his own children about the obstacles they are sure to encounter in life. But, if it’s good enough for his children, than I for one surely need to know more.
Check out the full interview below…
Parlé Magazine: The book is out now and that will be our main topic of discussion, but I do want to start somewhat from the beginning if you don’t mind. I know your full name is Marc Milecofsky, but how did the Ecko nickname come about for you?
Marc Eckō: It came about from having a twin sister. So you really are going back to the beginning aren’t you?
…So my mother did not know she was carrying twins. I guess in 1972 when I was born the technology wasn’t what it is today where they do sonograms and what not. Since that wasn’t as pertinent as it is today my mother did not know and it was a shock. I came 5 minutes after my twin sister Marcy. I was the echo in the fluids. My mother complained of kicking in the lower part of her stomach but then kicking under her breasts but the doctor was like that’s impossible. So that’s where the nickname came about. It became kind of handy, identifying with Hip-Hop, specifically graffiti, coming up in the late 80’s as an artist. I definitely didn’t have the athletic ability to break dance so associating with the precision sport of art and graffiti in school it became my quote, unquote nickname.
Parlé: Quite the interesting story. I read a snippet of the book before I got the whole book, the part about being 12 years old and wanting this graphic screen printing equipment and begging your parents for it until you finally got it. As a 12 year old you obviously go through several stages of what you want to do and what you want to invest time in, but what was it about graphic art and fashion design that you knew that was the thing for you?
Marc: Well I think I was motivated by something far beyond the transactional part of business. At 12 years old, you want to cop the latest Jordans or whatever but you’re aware of the power of money and creating independence, but its really an abstraction when you’re 12. Even in a culture that kinda flosses so much and there’s so much bravado around money, I don’t think people are really intellectually equipped to understand the concept of money until much later in their teenage years. So there was this other thing beyond the transactional part of the business that I was pursuing. I was massively influenced by Shirt Kings of Jamaica, Queens and their capo, by the name of King Phade. There was a picture of him and the rest of the Shirt Kings standing next to LL Cool J on like a Black Beat magazine or something like that from back in the day. I remember saying, ‘wow, there’s a guy who can draw, he’s artistic and he’s leveling with one of the superheroes of Rap. When I was 12, LL Cool J was the shit. So it was like wow, a guy who’s painting sweatshirts they could write about him? And that really had a massive influence on me. I don’t think I had the maturity to be motivated by the business side yet.
Parlé: Part of the motivation for you in that snippet was being able to pay your parents back for finally getting you this equipment. At what point were you finally able to pay them back?
Marc: I don’t know if I was motivated by paying them back as much as I was motivated by proving that I was right. Its like in business and competition there are many different types of people who are motivated by different things. In business there’s certainly those that are motivated by money. There’s the one that’s motivated by wanting to win. And then there’s those that are motivated by wanting to be right. And you know, I think I was more in that build of being right. For a lot of parents when they purchase a saxophone or a used piano, or their children express an interest in a vocation, parents are reluctant to buy it because they are afraid that it’s going to get dusty and won’t be put to use. I was more wanting to show my parents that it won’t get dusty. There was going to be a good return on investment, it was going to build character and I was going to be able to do something with it. It wasn’t a motivation where it was like okay, ‘now I’m going to pay them back.’ The time in my career when that happened was with a guy named Alan Finkelman who was kind of an angel investor who swept in and helped bail us out when we were in a kind of financial hard spot about 6 years into the business. I was doing roughly 60 million dollars in sales and we were 6, 7 million dollars in debt, which effectively you’re bankrupt, you’re structurally bankrupt. He helped come up with payment plans for all our debtors and fix the gray areas and make up for my mistakes.
Parlé: As an entrepreneur, you’ve obviously been through a lot. Talk to me about some of the downfalls and setbacks, and why you progressed through them and never gave up.
Marc: I say that success is just the hangover of failure. I say that because I think we paint a picture culturally for entrepreneurs like they never lose or they never catch an “L.” Or that the brand of an L, is he had a bad day he just lost some money, but its more of a full contact sport than people think. I think there are a lot of fallacies in portrayal of the successful entrepreneur with the 80’s archetype entrepreneur, be it Donald Trump, Jack Welsh or with Hip-Hop, Jay-Z, Diddy getting on the Forbes list kind of template. But honestly it takes building something to really know that a bunch of failures in sequence gets to be that success and success is really a measure of how much you learned in order to not make those mistakes. I know people that are really just getting lucky that are “successful,” or they have a bit of a streak, which can lead to success in the short term but like real success I think is how much you learned from your failures. For me, I’m pretty up front about all that. I put that out there. Its the only way I know I how to talk about my victories is to be fully authentic and openly honest about my failures. I’ve had many, many, many failures. As my story goes, I don’t think my story is that exotic or interesting, but I think its my learning, my understanding that’s interesting. Hubris is the most toxic thing in business. When you think that you’re so right that you cannot do any wrong. Hubris basically deafens your advisors, it creates an esteem and you get wrapped in your own perception. I’ve seen this in business and I know that when I look at myself in that kind of outer body examination, its times when I’m had the most hubris, those are typically the instances where I’m prone to totally f*ck up. I’ve seen it with other people. I know when someone is drinking their own kool aid and is high on their own supply, those tend to be people who I do not f*ck with. They’re on my can’t f*ck with list.
Parlé: So, Unlabel, talk to me about the title, what made you go with Selling You Without Selling Out?
Marc: Well I wanted to do a send up on Unlimited. Ecko Unlimited is the brand that I built for the better part of two decades and then I ended up selling all my operations. That pretty much informed that book when I was reflecting on a lot of that. What I’m trying to say is refuse to be a label. I also thought about when you have a label on a shirt and it irritates your neck and how sometimes you just want to rip it off. I liked that metaphor, I liked what it meant. I didn’t want to use a title that was flat-footed. I figured if I used the word brand or branded people would roll their eyes. I think people, specifically young folks and the creative types, artists and inventors, are very conscientious of commercializing their work. And oftentimes when people hide beyond their art they almost are reluctant to share their work to the world and optimize the independence that comes with their creation or their art. So I really wanted to make the case that contrary to popular opinion there’s not really this war between art and commerce. Often people are using that as a defense because they don’t want to take action. People will be like, ‘I don’t want to, it’s not time.’ They’re almost haunted by being afraid of what it means to “succeed.” And the problem is they actually define success, consciously or unconsciously or culturally by how much money they’re going to earn. And that’s not really how you define success. And I talk about that in the book, creating wealth that matters. Its far beyond the transactional part of business that the really great ones pursue. That’s how you protect yourself from the general ebbs and flows of… life, right? You can only sprint for so long without being exhausted. Those laws of physics and nature are just a macrocosm of everything you do in business. Its like you’re not walking on water, only Jesus walked on water. As much as it feels like you’re walking on water for those short instances when you’re really shining, you’re not really walking on water. The question is what are you doing right and how do you become painfully self aware to those things and how do you harness that. And how do you understand that you can’t always harness that. Its not a button in a video came, you can’t always have that. That’s not how it works in the real world.
Parlé: How long was the creation process for the book?
Marc: About 2 years, I tried to lend 4 or 5 hours a week in a very scheduled fashion for a year and a half, then another 8 or so hours a week honing, editing, designing for 6 months. So 2 years total.
Parlé: For entrepreneurs who may be too busy to check out the book or just too engaged in their own projects, give them a quick look into what insight they might receive from Unlabel.
Marc: I ultimately wrote this book for my kids. It took me 41 years to learn what to say, 39 years to figure out how to say it and another 2 years to write it and put it together. I don’t think, I don’t prescribe to the way of thinking that there’s this silver bullet to be found in these management speak or marketing speak books. What I try to do is put down on paper what will serve my children well when they encounter obstacles. My intent going into this book, I had very conscious and deliberate intentions of not putting massive amounts of pressure or over quantify what success is going to be, but rather articulate something that I felt captured who I am, where I am in my learning so that my kids get something from their father rather than the stuff that I bring home. All I can say is that if its built for them, its built for the people that I love the most, to the extent that there’s some crossover to the average reader, I hope there’s something there for them as well.
Parlé: In the book you discuss a conversation with your dean, while you were in school, in your junior year studying pharmacy. He suggested you take some time off to follow your passion. Going back all those years ago to that day of that conversation, what would have happened if he hadn’t said that? If he was negative towards your dreams and suggested you stay on the course to pursuing your degree?
Marc: You know, most of the adults at that time of my career and even some of my friends, in that chapter you see some of my social network, my immediate social network was very negative. My social network, besides the people that I was rolling with to pursue the “dream,” my peers, that were my friends, really looked down the nose at me. What’s interesting, the friends at that time of my life were kind of begrudging and being cynical and here was this adult, this academic advisor who gave me this advice that was counter intuitive. There’s a part of me though that always thought that Dean Colaizzi was telling me to go because he knew I wasn’t smart enough to graduate. (Laughs) I always felt like he may have given me the out. What he later told me, later on in life when I was really blessed to get an honorary doctorate from the same school, Rutgers University, obviously not the pharmacy school, he came and he spent time with me at the breakfast before I spoke at graduation and he said he basically just knew. I never really questioned, I don’t know how things would’ve been different. For me, to be real, I think I was checked out. I dropped out, to drop in somewhere else. By the time I went to him, I had probably already made my decision but its almost as if I wanted that validation if just for the fact that someone in this other domain, in this case pharmacy, at the pharmacy school, recognizing, you know what, you’re probably going to be better as an artist. I don’t know why I even went to talk to him, other than the fact that I hoped he wouldn’t kick me out the school for lack of financial aid. The coolest thing about him is that he did work with me and he created these illustration classes, where I’d go to the chemistry labs and the pharma labs and I’d draw animals and these bioabsortion studies with like a rat and his belly split open. I’d just sit there and draw it and he’d give me credits. So I was very lucky. But I don’t think I needed his consent to proceed. I think I had already made up my mind. And I wasn’t on the right track academically. I was probably on the track to drop out or fail out ultimately because I was struggling because I was so consumed with this other thing, the beginning inklings of the business at the time.
Parlé: The idea of luck vs fate, I’d like to get your take on that. As an entrepreneur I think you always have to deal with the concept of whether its meant to be or whether you have to hope for the luck of the draw.
Marc: Well I do believe, my grandmother used to always say, God rest her soul, ‘the book is always written, and we all know how it ends.’ So what’s going to be is going to be so we should make the most of life. I think that there’s a certain degree of fate that leads relinquishing yourself to that. When you confront obstacles realize that God is giving you everything you need, no more, no less. And there’s some kind of divine order there. I know that helped me with the help of my grandmother and really my mother. That said, luck on the other hand is like this state of awareness. Luck is only as good as your ability to act on that state of intuition. Luck is being aware that there’s a window open and there’s a breeze or a draft coming from somewhere. Most people will be like, it’s drafty in here, but if you’re a curious person and you have an innate sense of intuition you want to know when to jump in and out of those windows and act on that sense of curiosity. That’s what luck is and it happens. There’s no doubt that there have been times when I have been at the right place at the right time but you know what I think about it, so have a lot of my peers! I know people on the come up who were a lot more reluctant to look into that draft. Or were scared that if they went to that window they might fall out. ‘If I go to the window to check out the draft, there might be a tornado.’ For me there’s no doubt in my belief that there is a deep ingredient that is in fact luck but those instances of luck you should appreciate them for what they were. Right place, right time, luck. But that in and of itself is not going to help you. Its like in a video game, its like one of those rare power ups when you get to be invisible or invincible. You know what I’m saying? You’re invisible and you disappear or you’re invincible and you can’t be killed for those 30 seconds, but if you’re going to count on that to play the game, you ain’t gonna win. But there’s no doubt that its important to acknowledge that. You can’t qualify or quantify the exact impact of that. It does happen, don’t begrudge it when it happens. Don’t be so prideful to think you’re so fly and so flawless in everything you’ve done to think that luck didn’t have a part in what you brought to the table, because it often does.
Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) is available at book stores everywhere as well as in e-book format. The book comes complete with tons of artwork by Marc Eckō. He shares his formula to authenticity and lets the reader in on some of his failures and missteps, as well as providing a detailed look at his successes. At 304 pages, this book is a great read for anyone thinking about creating anything.