Inventing Success One Good Idea at a Time

Steven Johnson quote

By Angela Noel

August 24, 2017

“I don’t consider myself an inventor,” says Max Markgraf. “I used to like the word maker, but that’s not right either. I want to consider myself a creator.” For Max, it’s transformation not modification that represents creation. He’s looking for the space between what existed before and what isn’t yet reality, but should be. He found that space for the first time in high school. And he called it Stallion Wear.

Max, a sophomore at the time, looked around at his peers and noticed something. Sure, people wore shirts, but were they funny? Max decided they weren’t. He needed to do something about that. He learned screen printing and had an artistic friend draw up some sketches. His favorite? A muffin holding a barbell.

Stud Muffin
Stallion Wear’s line of funny t-shirts included Max’s favorite design, the Stud Muffin.

Soon, Stallion Wear received orders from clubs and teams in and around school. Local community organizations needing team t-shirts called him up.  No one in his family was particularly surprised by this. He asked his mom for help getting started. His mom, Max says, used to tell people, “He was making deals at three years old.”

Every year, Max worked to improve his process, so much so that when he was in college his dad introduced him to a man who had recently opened a storefront screen printing business on a much larger scale than Max’s high school operation. Max became a minor stakeholder which meant he now had overhead. His partner had more business experience, but Max had extensive screen printing know-how. But, t-shirts aren’t free.

Both Max and his partner wanted to help the community, but they couldn’t keep producing t-shirts at the cost his partner wanted to charge. Max, not yet twenty-one, let his partner know things had to change if they wanted to stay in business. When they couldn’t reach an agreement, Max left and the business folded within a year. Like eating a balanced diet, Max learned an entrepreneur needs more than just one or two things to seed a successful endeavor. It’s all things in harmony that make the difference. “I always want to keep optimizing,” Max says. “See what’s good and make it better.”

Always be Optimizing

Screen printing had run its course for Max, but he took the lessons he’d learned with him. To Max, an essential question is: Why are we doing this? Finding the purpose behind the action helps him distill several possible options into a simple decision: go forward or stop. If the reason behind the action fills a gap, meets an unmet need, and drives progress forward–it’s a go. Otherwise, stop. The equation seems basic. But is it?

In the funny t-shirt business, and particularly for a young man, the question of purpose need be only as complex as why not do it or because it’s fun. For Max the adult, the reason behind why he does what he does has gained nuance.

“I’m going to start a company. But not yet.” Max is looking for the connection. He’s looking for the message that says: Yes. This thing I need to do. He’s not looking to fill a local market gap, as he did with Stallion Wear. He wants something more.

Max looks around at bigger problems. He thinks about the pain points we experience as we live in the world that someone like him could solve. Someone who decided one day to use his 3-D printer to print parts for a CNC machine and assemble it. Someone who’s always tinkering and finding the intersection between what is, and what could be if we only had enough imagination to see it.

Tinkering Towards Tomorrow

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, writes extensively about people like Max. β€œThe trick,” Johnson writes,”to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.” Max tinkers in order to add to his repertoire on how to build stuff. He doesn’t look at the demise of his screen printing storefront as an end-point, but rather as a beginning. The best way to educate yourself in creating is to fail. “Being right,” says Johnson, “keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”

Max started his own business, then became a partner in a larger enterprise. Then left that enterprise because he couldn’t see the future in it. He wasn’t leaving because he got bored or he wanted to chase girls and drink beer. He left because their visions didn’t align. Though the decision to part ways may have been the right one for Max, the business ultimately failed. Hard feelings on both sides make the memory bittersweet. Max took what he learned about partnerships, process, business, marketing, pricing, and more, and dissected it. Adding each new insight to his list of lessons learned. “I’m the guy in the weeds,” he says of himself, “nitpicking the problems to get to the next thing.”

What’s Next?
Ernie Solberg and Max Markgraf
Ernie, Max’s grandfather, had a huge influence on Max. With an 8th grade education, Ernie build race cars and the world’s largest earth mover. “He,” Max says, “was a true creator.” This picture was taken around 2006, when Max was eighteen and Ernie was helping him work on one of his first house flips.

Whether flipping houses, building machines, or designing prototypes of useful little tools like a portable sleeve for attaching a full-size bluetooth-connected mouse to a laptop, Max adds to his collection of skills. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not wasting time. Each experience is a lesson, each failure a success. Every moment is an opportunity to find that one thing. “This meaningless thing,” Max says of the thing that others pass by, “that’s what I’m looking for.”

And when he finds it, look out–he just might change the world.

If Max can do it, so can I. So can you.

Be awesome in real life.

Your turn: How have you learned from your experiences? What have you created as a result of what you’ve learned?


Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

17 thoughts on “Inventing Success One Good Idea at a Time”

  1. “See what’s good and make it better.” I like that. And I love the picture. Ernie must be very proud of Max.

  2. Creator is such a good title to aspire to, and Max’s careful definition of his role is interesting. I think you’ve provided us with a good role-model no matter what we do. To have principles, and to live by them, even when the majority question your actions, is something few of us are brave enough for. Thanks for making me think.

    1. Thank you for reading! I agree. It would heave been so easy to just “go along” rather than sticking to his vision. Obviously, this can have consequences. But I believe following your own star reaps the biggest rewards long term. I’m so glad you added your insight.

  3. This reminds me of the conversation we had last Tuesday. Starting something, but then changing courses because it’s not exactly where you want to be or what you had in mind. This takes courage! And, you are right. Every experience we have is a valuable learning tool, whether positive or negative. Great post!!!

    1. Thanks, Erin! I feel like I say this quote a lot, and I never thought I’d quote Dwight D. Eisenhower so often, but here goes: “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” I think Max is a great example of someone who’s got a plan, but sees it only as A way forward, not THE way forward. Thanks for your thoughts, Erin! You’re awesome.

  4. A true entrepreneur never sees anything as a failure it’s a learning curve. I am thinking that the creative lean was passed down through the generations. My biggest wish is for more older people connecting with the younger generations. It is being down in my own country of NZ and other countries. I think it’s great. Yes, never give up and never stop learning is my motto. Enjoyable post Angela. No wonder you received the award for most inspirational blogger πŸ™‚

  5. Hello Angela,
    What an inspiring post, and an inspiring story about Max.
    ‘Every moment is an opportunity’ and ‘I want to consider myself a creator’.
    Two very powerful quotes from him. Thank you for sharing this story.
    As for your questions, hmm..I think I’ve learnt that every encounter, every experience, is added to the big sack of experiences in our life’s journey that can shape us into the person we have been waiting to reveal. Under all the layers of conditioning over the years, we are already here.
    I have created for myself a beautiful online community that encourages each other because I was finally brave enough to share my ‘voice’ through words and images.
    Thank you for the opportunity to think about these questions Angela.
    All the best,
    Di πŸ’•

  6. That was an awesome story! I’ve been working on starting my own small business over the past few years and I’ve met with failure more times than I can count. Recently, I’ve figured out why my ideas weren’t working out, and it’s mostly because I wasn’t performing small scale market testing or idea validation. So I ended up wasting a lot of time creating products no one really wanted. I’m working on my latest project at the moment, and hopefully this time it’ll work out.

    I really like Max’s story, especially the part which says “Max adds to his collection of skills. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not wasting time. Each experience is a lesson, each failure a success.” That’s exactly what I’d like to show others and encourage people to try new things without fearing failure.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Thanks, Sanjay! I admire your persistence and drive! Finding out what you’re doing wrong is the soonest way to make it right. I’m sure other entrepreneurs will read your comments and see their own efforts reflected. Anything worth doing sure isn’t easy, that’s for sure. Thank you so much for reading and adding your insight. πŸ™‚

  7. I love how he followed purpose and meaning in what he did, how can you go wrong with that mentality? It’s easy to stick with something when you like you are making a difference.

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.