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Entrepreneur Profile: McKensie Mack, TIM App

Small Biz Interview McKensie Mack

Entrepreneurial inspiration often comes from unexpected places and unforeseen life experiences. While some people are born entrepreneurs, other people never expect that they’re going to start their own business – until they discover the limitations of the situation that they’re in and begin to explore new ways to make a difference.

McKensie Mack is a Chicago management consultant with a background in linguistics and language instruction who is developing a new interpersonal communication training app called TIM: The Communication App for Awkward People. Her journey to entrepreneurship was in part inspired by discovering that the job she thought she wanted wasn’t really quite the right fit for her skills and interests – so she set out to create value in a whole new way.

 

How did you get started in entrepreneurship?

I graduated from the University of Chicago and studied linguistics and traveled in Europe, and I had been interested in working as an interpreter and translator. But during my first job out of college, as a language interpreter for the State of Illinois, I quickly realized that the work wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I found myself feeling limited because all day long I was just repeating what other people said, and that experience showed me that there were lots of communication barriers happening that I, as a state employee interpreter, wasn’t able for ethical reasons to intervene with.

So on the side, just for fun, I started a language school. I had traveled abroad in Europe, so it was based on that. I would have language workshops on topics like “How to Deal with Rude Cashiers at the Grocery Store” or “How to Stop Your Co-Workers from Eating Your Yogurt at Work.”

And people loved my language lessons, and it actually ended up being pretty successful. And I also had another job for a while working in management at Rosetta Stone. Over time, I decided to combine the experiences I had running my language school and working in management at Rosetta Stone and turn it into an app – TIM: The Communication App for Awkward People.

TIM is still in startup mode, but it’s an interpersonal communications training app about taking the lessons learned from working in personnel and helping walk people through communication in real life situations, with an experiential component.

 

How does your TIM app work?

TIM shows people how to navigate specific situations and scenarios and improve their communication skills. It could be workplace scenarios or social scenarios – from weird or awkward things that happen at work to things in your social life.

I saw a need for this type of training because adults tend to have a need to be perfect. There are lots of times where it takes extra effort to get adults to engage in conversations – people will often think to themselves, “I don’t want to say this because I’m not sure if it’s right.”

TIM is about distracting people from perfectionism and getting them to engage a little more in everyday life and interactions. It brings people out of their shell a little bit.

The inspiration for TIM started when I was invited to present at an event for startup entrepreneurs with a few hundred people – I did some workshops teaching rapid-fire Mandarin Chinese, saying simple things, like: “Hello, I love you, goodbye.” We had people do a workshop where they talked to an actor on the phone and the actor would answer, portraying a Chinese grandmother. And the people suddenly had to think and react on the spot, even though they only knew a few words of Mandarin. It showed them how to engage with someone in another language even while knowing very little of the language.

The goal for the TIM app is to start with a freemium model and work our way up to offering premium subscriptions to larger businesses. Building the app this way, it relies heavily on human connection with other people on the other end. But there is no automated or canned connection – it’s all about getting people to connect in authentic ways.

 

That’s interesting – I’ve read that improv comedy has become very popular recently in corporate training because it gets people to be spontaneous and open up and change their perspective on communication; is TIM based on a similar concept?

This app is somewhat related to that improv side of corporate training – because it is about spontaneity, and connecting with people in different ways – but it’s also about language learning and communication strategy. Communication strategy is not about grammar and vocabulary – it’s about a knowing how to navigate a specific experience. Our brains consciously decide in the moment if what we are learning is useful.

My goal put people – who might feel awkward in lots of situations – in a position where they improve their communication strategy based on what is actually happening to them in real life.

Traditional academic learning is very structured; I want this app to explore a different style of learning that is based on real moments and that helps people retain more of what they learn.

 

In the era of social media and smartphone addiction and the rise of introverts, are people becoming more awkward?

That’s a great question. I’ve been reading a book called Quiet about how extraversion became the default, most desirable personality. Every time I give people my pitch about “communication app for awkward people,” they say that they relate to it – people say, “Oh, that’s me! I’m awkward!”

In the social media age, especially for millennials, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the presentation of who we are. We are quick consumers, so people want their presentation and appearance to be perfect – the world wants us to give them a package that can be consumed quickly and easily. People often walk into a room and act like they’re trying to be “perfect,” which actually just makes them more awkward.

The work I do is about empowering people to be visible. If you’re uncomfortable, that’s OK! If you feel awkward, that’s OK! You don’t have to put on this cloak of invisibility. The American Dream is to make a lot of money and have no problems and have everyone think you’re perfect – but of course, that’s not reality.

The TIM app is so unique because it’s about putting people into situations that are specifically awkward and uncomfortable, and then letting them learn from the tension and grow from it.

 

What are the biggest surprises or learning experiences that you’ve encountered while running your own business? 

I really learned how much control you do NOT have over anything. I was talking to a mentor earlier today about being visible and putting your product out there – the only thing you can control is making your product great. You can put it out there, but you don’t really know how people are going to respond to it. For example, building a revenue model, you can make a plan, but what works today might not work tomorrow. A business is a living, breathing thing – it goes in lots of directions that you might not expect.

 

What made you want to be an entrepreneur? Did you always feel entrepreneurial or were there some particular experiences or inspirations that made you want to have your own business? 

The first epiphany was when I started interpreting for the State of Illinois. I saw a need to do something different, but because of the bureaucracy of the system, these were needs that I couldn’t fulfill. From there I started working with Rosetta Stone part-time and within 3 months got promoted to management – and I expected that because it was such an international company focused on language learning, this would be a really diverse company. However, it turned out that I was the only person of color in management. And again, but in different ways, I felt like I wasn’t able to have the impact I wanted to have based on the limitations of the system that I was in.

And then when I started running my own workshops, I realized that I was able to really teach people what I felt was most important for them to learn based on what I needed to know when I traveled. And even while running my own business and not making money from a traditional job, I found that – surprise – I could still afford to eat! And I was buying real food, not just ramen.

So now, when I do consulting and I ask the client about company culture, I ask them “what do you want employees to feel when they walk into your space”, “what do you want them to feel when they leave your space” and “what are you willing to sacrifice to make that happen”? I help people recognize gaps in their own organization’s environment and culture that they might not even know are there; I can put myself in that position and not feel powerless.

 

There are studies that show that traditional corporate organizations often underutilize women’s talents – especially women of color, who often WANT to rise high in the corporate ladder, but then find themselves getting disillusioned or discouraged or shut out of opportunities for career advancement. Do you feel like the traditional corporate employment model is not welcoming enough to women and women of color, and perhaps entrepreneurship is more viable and encouraging by comparison?

Entrepreneurship is great, but it’s not the only answer. There are entrepreneurs and there are “intrapreneurs” who bring that entrepreneurial spirit “into” the organization where they work already. Sometimes I don’t encourage women to be entrepreneurs because I don’t want to box them in; it’s often more about the spirit of entrepreneurship – success is about identifying your value and then communicating that value wherever you go. But you don’t have to quit your job and start your own business to do that.

I see lots more attention recently being given to women in entrepreneurship, which is great, but there is also a lot of great work being done inside of organizations. But for women who are talented and being underutilized – if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I would encourage women who are being underutilized to find a way to get challenged and grow, whether it’s by getting a new job or starting a side business or even pursuing entrepreneurship full-time.

Lots of people have started businesses where the environment at their old job was bad, and it made them want to leave. Lots of companies would be better off if they would invest in making sure that their cultures and environments are right so they’re not losing out on all this talent.

 

Follow McKensie Mack on Twitter @McKensieMack. Follow the TIM app on Twitter @gofindTIM.

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