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Today, we got to chat with Mark Williams, a notable figure in Minnesota’s home-building scene. He’s the brain behind Mark D. Williams Custom Homes and the Curious Builder podcast. Mark’s take on crafting not just homes but communities and bonds has reshaped the industry’s standards. This conversation dives into his entrepreneurial spirit, his philosophy on construction, and what lies ahead for his company. It’s a straightforward yet profound look at what makes Mark tick and how he’s building more than just houses in Minnesota.

Looking back at your childhood, do you have any specific memories that foreshadowed your path as an entrepreneur and working with business owners?

The daily thing is, when you’re a kid, you don’t realize my mom and dad were both entrepreneurs. My mom was an interior designer. My dad was a builder, my uncles on both sides of my family. Everyone around me owned their own business. So if everyone around you does, you think that’s normal. I wouldn’t know what working in corporate America looks like or sounded like, not till high school or college. I remember going to design centers with my mom. My mom would bring her kid so she could be with the designers. Dad would come home, we’d have dinner at five o’clock five-thirty, and then he would go meet with a client from six to eight o’clock. I thought that was normal. I thought that’s what every parent did. And then moving home, we would move every couple of years, because that’s what you do in building. I would run around the job sites and play rafter tag with the framers, climb up on top of the roof. Once I could start, being a little bit older, I would go clean the job sites. That was all very much a part of respecting the trade partners but also making sure from a marketing point of view the house was always acceptable to the client if they came by.

Did your family discuss work during dinner?

I’m 43, having those conversations with my kids who are seven, five, and three now. I can’t specifically remember that being discussed. I’m sure we did, everyone went around the table and talked about their day, but I can’t recall any specific conversation about that. I think the thing that spoke to me the most was communication and lifestyle. He would have us answer the phone or make phone calls. I never really learned communication early on, really empowering us to be a part of it, even if it was only making a phone call.

Can you describe the first house you built and how your career evolved from there?

Everything I’ve done has been single-family. The first house was about $600,000. My real estate agent bought my house. Then I bought a lot down the street and started another. The first five or six homes were spec homes, but by 2008, I was only three-four years in, and the recession hit. Many competitors went out of business, and I survived. As the market returned, having built for nine years, I was a known commodity with a good name in the community, and we started building higher-end homes. I haven’t done a spec home in almost 13 years because my skill set is better at designing for individual clients than predicting public wants.

Did you have any outside funding or investors during the early days of your career?

No, I would go to the bank when I was going to build a home and borrow from the bank. But other than that, I’ve never taken on a partner or any sort of investment income for my entire career. I’ve always run a debt-free business, which probably stunted my growth a little bit. In hindsight, if I had borrowed more money, I could have expanded more, but I could have also lost a lot more. So it was just the path that I took.

How has the demographic of the buyers you serve changed over time?

My career has had three quantum leaps up. Initially, a high-end custom home was in the 500 to 600 range. Then, I built my first million-dollar home around 2013 or 2015, opening up my business to a higher-end client group. Around 2019, we built two to three four million dollar homes during COVID, a challenging time. Now, the homes we build are usually in the two to four million range, and I suspect we’ll take another leap up to the five to ten million range. Every five or six years, we take a strata leap in clientele, allowing us to grow and evolve as a business.

Can you talk about the significance of branding and rebranding your company?

New Branding for Mark D. Williams Custom Homes

Two years ago, I rebranded the company with a new logo, website, and overall brand to match who we had become. It’s important for companies to have someone outside look at them, as it’s easy to not notice the changes within. I considered changing the company’s name to make it easier to sell in the future, but ultimately, we needed to update our brand to fit our current status. Once I started thinking about our company as not just a high-end building company but as a marketing brand, we took another leap up. This rebranding coincided with starting my podcast, The Curious Builder, and it has exploded, reinforcing the custom home company and vice versa. Sharing information and learning from mistakes is a big part of what I’m passionate about now.

What drives your approach to business, particularly in relation to knowledge sharing and transparency?

“It’s not like there’s a secret sauce to running a business. It’s just about sharing and so I really feel like that’s really my main mission now is to just simply share.”

Did you do any research on starting a podcast before you began?

Zero, zero, zero… I jumped off the diving board and hoped that there was water in the pool by the time gravity affected me. I didn’t have any strategy, I didn’t think about whether it could make money or whether I could get sponsors. I only cared about, can I give a microphone? Can I give a stage for people to share their story? And people connect so well to stories. That was really my driving force.

How did you manage to grow your show in such a competitive space?

I got lucky naming it the Curious Builder because very few podcasts have the word ‘builder’ in it. So if you type in ‘Builder podcast,’ I usually pop up one in the country. We write a blog, transcribe every single interview, and hide it on the website, so all that SEO information is just a ton of information out there.

How did you approach sponsorships and brand deals with no prior experience?

I learned so much in the first six months, from negotiating brand deals and sponsorships to realizing when I listen to my own podcast what not to do or to ask more open-ended questions. I’ve learned a lot in a short period. I even secured four or five sponsors before launching a single episode, raising money for something that didn’t exist yet. They essentially said, ‘We trust you’re good at other things you do, and we believe you’ll be good at this too.’ So, I’m really grateful to those who initially gave us seed money.

How do you balance your responsibilities as a podcast host, custom home builder, and family man?

Curious Builder Podcast with Mark D. Williams

My kids are still pretty young. They’ll come and visit if I have a parade home or a show home. I try to work out early in the morning, get home at 7:00 to get the kids ready for school. Between seven and eight is family time. I drop off the kids every day at school. I’m in the office by about 8:30. I leave at 4:30 every day, pick up my daughter at 5:00, and then we have dinner every day at 5:30. I don’t work at nights or weekends. My wife would not go for it, and I’m a much better morning person than a night person. So I always tell my clients, you will not get emails from me at night or the weekend.

Have you faced any challenges with clients regarding your work-life balance, and how have you handled them?

I had my biggest build to date, a four million dollar modern home. He wanted to meet on weeknights and weekends, and I recalled that story from another builder. I said, ‘John, I want you to know, I’ve a young family and at 4:59 I’m done for the day. I won’t meet at night and on weekends.’ I was lucky, I think he respected that I drew a line in the sand. We worked together for three years. I made sure to match him with an architect who could meet nights and weekends. That was a huge proof of concept for me. He loves his house. He’s a great client, and I share that story a lot because building a home is a very intimate process.

Have you ever been tempted to cut corners in your business, and how do you manage the financial responsibilities to your clients?

Not in an obvious way, but once you start managing many jobs, it’s easy to inadvertently mishandle financial responsibility to your clients. Recently, we’ve started setting up separate bank accounts for each of our clients. So, a down payment goes into its own account. Many people do this, and I don’t think most do it on purpose but can find themselves in trouble without realizing it. Being financially literate and understanding how to keep finances separate is key to staying healthy. Nothing specific comes to mind regarding principles being challenged because in Minnesota, we have to warranty a house for 10 years. If I take a shortcut, I could face consequences 10 years later.

Who have been your mentors or influential figures in your career?

Definitely my dad. I talk to him daily even now. My clients have also been mentors in some ways. Early on, several people chose to build with me because I was young. Some clients are mentors in a strange way. My peers are probably my biggest mentors now. I gain a lot of energy and ideas from others. The people who give you the best advice are sometimes your family members, your cousins, other business owners. Being open and vulnerable allows people to help you. People are likely to share their failures and successes, and their storytelling helps you level up your career, business, and life.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your early 20s or 30s when you started your business?

The three things I would have done earlier include joining Builder 20, where you partner with 20 other builders of similar status across the country, meeting for three days twice a year, for a total of six days, to review financials and everything else. I wish I had done that from day one because there are so many things I’m learning now, having grown up in the building business without formally studying construction. Opening up to the network earlier would have been invaluable.

Additionally, the podcast has significantly broadened my perspective, allowing me to connect with builders outside my state daily. It made me question why I hadn’t branched out to speak with more people sooner.

Lastly, I wish I had engaged in networking at a much earlier age. I’m part of a networking group now that isn’t related to building but brings business owners together. Networking would have greatly benefited me early in my career by sparking new ideas and opportunities.

Would you ever consider getting into multi-family construction?

No, it’s probably not what I’m good at for one thing. It’s going to take a lot more money. So the barrier to entry would be very difficult unless you partnered with someone that had a bunch of money and said we want you to sell it. I would do that but never… There’s definitely a need for multifamily, especially smaller multifamily… but I would need someone, you would need a developer that says, ‘hey, we have the money, we’ll do the development. We want you to build it and sell it and market it.’ But I won’t have the wherewithal to either take the risk or have the money to invest in that kind of a deal.

How would you introduce your podcast, The Curious Builder, to someone who’s not a builder but is interested in the building business?

Each interview comes down to two things. One, I want to shine a spotlight on the business owner and have them share their story because everyone’s story deserves to be heard. It adds value to society and to those familiar with how they’ve built their business. The second thing is, if you own a business, I’d argue that 70% of all businesses are the same. It’s the other 30% that makes it unique and different. All business owners can learn from others regardless of the industry… It’s through sharing their story and how they run their business that listeners gain insights. It’s not all builders; it’s entrepreneurial owners related to the building space. I love talking to people about their business, and that’s the real joy of it.

What do you do for fun?

When I’m not working or spending time with my family, I would say Athletics, so I started getting into ultra-running last summer. I did my first ultra marathon, and this year, I have my second and third one. So, ultra running, tennis, hockey, downhill skiing, mountaineering, adventure sports, and basketball, hockey. Pretty much every sport, that’s my interest. Yep, and I’m a big sauna enthusiast. I’ll be in the sauna probably three times a week. It helps you sleep better, recover better. I’ll send a text to five or six people saying, “Hey, I’m having a sauna at 8:30, who wants to come over?” and people around the neighborhood will just come over, and it kind of ends up being like a community lodge of talking.

Can you share more about the significance of awards in the building industry and how they have impacted your business?

mark williams
Builder of the Year Award (2021)

In 2021, we won Builder of the Year, likely the smallest builder to have won that in Minnesota, voted by peers. We’ve also won several Reggie Awards for house design. We’re known for boutique building, focusing on three to five homes a year, emphasizing experience and quality. I prefer high-end architecture and don’t do spec homes, never building the same home twice. This suits my ADHD, as I can’t focus on one house for too long and need diversity. I don’t mind what I build, as long as it’s unique and well-done. Clients see we care about our work, which is why they choose us.

For anyone interested in learning more about what I do, the Curious Builder podcast, and Mark D. Williams Custom Homes, our website is a great place to start. It’s not just about promoting what we do; it’s a gateway to the educational content we’re passionate about providing. While the Curious Builder started as a podcast, it’s evolving into a much broader platform. Alongside the podcast, we’re developing a range of services including networking opportunities, events, and consulting. It’s becoming a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the building industry, offering insights, connections, and knowledge. So, if you’re curious about any aspect of what we do, I encourage you to explore our website and see how our expanding offerings can serve your interests.

Thanks to Mark Williams for spending time with us and offering his insights. Mark’s impact on Minnesota’s building sector and the wider entrepreneurial world is undeniable. We’re excited to keep an eye on what he does next and we bet you are too. To our GREY Journal readers, let’s dive deeper into Mark’s story. Drop your comments, thoughts, or questions below. Which parts of Mark’s story struck a chord with you? How does his way of blending construction with community influence you? Your input makes our discussion even richer. Can’t wait to see your responses.