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Big Omaha – Marc Eckō: ‘Just because you talk about it doesn’t mean you did it’

Marc Eckō speaks at Big Omaha 2011. Photo by Malone & Company.

Marc Eckō is a serial entrepreneur. His roots to business are tied deeply to his love of art and popular culture. He is the founder and chief creative officer of Mark Eckō Enterprises, a billion dollar full-scale global fashion and lifestyle company. Eckō was the youngest member ever inducted into the board of directors for the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He is also founder of Artists & Instigators, a venture innovation company and a Partner at SeventySix Capital, a top performing early stage venture capital fund.

I got the chance to meet Marc on Thursday at Big Omaha. He told me that people in the Silicon Prairie are really cool and very welcoming. He said that he’s always had great experiences working with Midwesterners and that he loves their motivation.

During Eckō’s presentation he talked about his background, his philosophy and what he’s working on now.

Background

Eckō is a designer, an artist and an instigator. In 1993, he started his business with his twin sister Marci and his partner Seth. He started out by painting T-shirts, and while he was a pharmacy major at Rutgers University, he started the company. He started by putting stickers up everywhere to launch a branding platform for Eckō Unlmtd. His brand now does over a billion dollars in retail internationally, his organization operates about 100 retail stores in North America and another 75 internationally with a lot of growth.

Eckō then used that brand platform to launch Complex Magazine, which is now a media network including 50 different websites with 18 million unique views a month and 250 million page views a month. His business has established a platform for him to do good things along the way and he’s very proud of his philanthropy. He started Sweat Equity Education and says it’s all about learning with your hands. He’s also been involved in the venture business which has led him to launch Artists & Instigators. It’s been in the works about two and half years.

How he got here

“Growing up in the 80s was all about keeping it real,” Eckō said as he showed various icons and photos on the presentation screens from the 1980s. He grew up in a very diverse community in New Jersey and was really into art. “I started painting t-shirts at a young age and t-shirts turned into denim jackets.” He really got into subway art and graffiti art. “I put the comic books down and I focused on trying to emulate the great graffiti artists.”

Eckō said that the 80s were a really unique time and that it shaped a lot of unintended consequences like Reaganomics, Just Say No To Drugs, the emergence and disruption and media culture around video gaming, AIDS, the hysteria of AIDS, becoming aware of a whole other community, Michael Jackson, Lucas’ Star Wars and Reagan’s Star Wars. He said that seeing the Challenger shuttle blow up and the attempted Reagan assassination really messed with his head. “It was an intense time; I remember it was really real.”

Branding Marc Eckō

Seven years ago when he launched Marc Eckō Cut & Sew he decided to market himself and try to figure out how to brand Marc Eckō. Eckō said that he went through a weird phase of discovery and started painting a lot. He had a painting factory in Chelsea and painted around 200 paintings in the span of 18 months. During this time period Eckō was seeking his authenticity and trying to figure out who he really was. “What I was hoping to discover was real, in the end was just perpetually disappointing and very synthetic and plastic, it was very un-real,” Eckō told the audience. This led him to try and figure out what is authentic and real.

Eckō’s philosophy: can we define authenticity by a mathematical model?

Eckō talked about the fact that numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth either. He gave various examples of perception and reality being very different things. He said that it’s important to have a unique voice and that being fearful in anything in life immobilizes you from expressing yourself. He said that action and talking about things are completely different, “just because you talk about it doesn’t mean you did it.”

What he’s working on now

Artists & Instigators is a platform that was started by Eckō to “build the AARP of pop culture.” This year Eckō launched a campaign called “Unlimited Justice,” a national battle to end corporal punishment across the United States. “People don’t realize this but in 20 states in this country you can physically strike a student as a means of discipline.” In the span of four weeks without using any lobbyists, the campaign got the state of New Mexico to change their laws on paddling in schools.

“How can we blend consumer facing and the extreme sport of entrepreneurship into a brand?” Eckō said that he wants to make unintended consequences, intended. “If Nike is ‘Just Do It,’ Artists & Instigators is get it done.”

His legacy

Eckō ended the presentation with a question and answer session. An audience member asked him what he wanted his legacy to be. “The only legacy I care about is what my kids think.”