What would you do if your boss asked you to call the world’s biggest pop star to ask him to appear at a company meeting? Panic? That wasn’t an option for Mark Achler when Steve Jobs asked him to call Michael Jackson.
It was 1983. Thriller was at the top of the charts and Achler was responsible for the worldwide introduction of the Apple IIc computer. He suggested an onsite launch for Apple dealers, and Jobs wanted Jackson for the entertainment.
In a pre-internet world, “I called the telephone operator and said, ‘Look, I know you can’t tell me this, but if you were me, what would you do?’” recalls Achler. “And she was really smart. She said, ‘He records under this label, so call the label and ask for his business manager.’ And that’s how you do it!”
Jackson was willing, but wanted $5 million for a one-hour performance. Achler says Apple’s board of directors burst out laughing—and they hired Herbie Hancock instead.
Problem-solving and innovation are hallmarks of Achler’s career in technology though it’s one he didn’t imagine during his time at Purdue. With an interest in history and working with kids, he pursued social studies education and completed his BA in history in 1980, thinking he was eventually headed to law school. But shortly after he graduated, his father, who was an early adopter of Fortran and personal computers, suggested that they open a computer retail store together, and his path veered in a different direction.
Achler found his niche as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, building and selling four companies and working the other side of the table as an investor. When he’s worked within an established company’s structure, he has sometimes called himself an intrapraneur, who “takes a lot of risk inside a corporate structure to try to create new, meaningful, scalable projects,” he explains.
His comfort with risk has sometimes driven his wife crazy, he admits. “I’m pretty fearless,” he says. “I’m confident in myself and my ability. And I’m comfortable that I can figure things out.” His confidence, however, is tempered by experience. “I’ve certainly had my hat handed to me a couple of times. So there’s a healthy dose of humility, too. But I love the adventure of exploring new ideas.”
His curiosity about what customers need and enthusiasm for improving lives is visible in the products he’s associated with, like those of Emmi Solutions. Emmi, one of the companies he cofounded, where he served as president and then CEO, provides online patient education, such as videos explaining surgical procedures. Doctors prescribe these resources to help patients feel more informed about and comfortable with their medical care. Though medical experts are key members of the team, what makes the videos so effective is that they are written from the point of view of the patient, not the doctor.
“There’s so much arcane terminology in medicine that for many people, the information goes above their head,” explains Achler. “We wanted to create an experience that was simple, calming, and personalized.” Emmi videos are used by a number of medical centers, including Indiana University, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the Cleveland Clinic, and Cedars-Sinai.
Improving lives isn’t all serious business, however, and Achler’s most recent position was senior vice president of new business, strategy, and innovation at Redbox—the company responsible for those instantly recognizable red kiosks in grocery stores, pharmacies, and McDonald’s, which transformed the video rental industry with its inexpensive offerings. Achler launched the company’s video game rentals, as well as helped formulate the strategy for a streaming movie service. He also started an initiative to sell tickets to live events, which is currently in beta testing, and attaches a convenience fee of only $1 to any ticket.
Part of delivering the best product, Achler says, is having true empathy for your customer. While Redbox customers often say they’d like to have every movie or TV show available to rent, further research identified that what they wanted most was value and convenience. Adding more selections to the kiosks would increase the price and the wait, as others browsed the choices. “We knew our customer so well that we were able to build a business around what they wanted, not necessarily what they said. And we were able to prioritize accordingly,” he says.
After leaving Redbox in April 2013, Achler is considering his next move. He’d like to spend more time with his family, as well as on causes he cares about. He’s an active mentor for tech entrepreneurs at Techstars and Chicago High Tech Academy, and he recently joined the board of Embarc, a nonprofit that offers cultural experiences to high school students in socially and economically isolated neighborhoods in Chicago.
His concern for community is also evident in the way he works; maintaining good relationships with others in the tech sector and creating jobs are important to him. “I believe that companies with certain corporate values, and more importantly, a culture that believes in and promotes them, actually deliver better shareholder results, because those values provide a context and framework for decision making,” he asserts.
Some of his own values were honed at Purdue. While Achler says he always had a strong work ethic, holding down multiple jobs to help pay for college, he cites history professor Jon Teaford’s constitutional history class as one that forced him to study hard. “It was the first time I really put in that extra effort to nail something—and I liked the results of that,” he says.
Read on for Achler’s responses to our version of the Proust survey.
I loved my history courses and professors, especially Jon Teaford and Charles Ingrao.
My favorite memories of Purdue are sunny autumn Saturdays watching the Boilers play football. I also have fond memories of my dorm friends from Cary Quad and my fraternity brothers at Phi Delta Theta.
My greatest achievement is creating, building, and selling four companies. In addition, as a venture capitalist and as one of the leaders of Redbox, I helped create jobs for thousands of people and their families.
Living Person I Admire
Bill Gates, because of how he has redefined philanthropy.
Idea of Perfect Happiness
Equal balance between self, family, work, and giving back.
What I’m Reading
1633 by Eric Flint and David Weber
Profession I’d Like to Try
I’d like to try running a movie studio.