Coaching the Emerging Entrepreneur: Virtual Coffee with Simpliworks’ Malik McCray

Just about every day, Don gets asked for coffee or a virtual coffee from rising entrepreneurs so they can ask him advice on how to grow their companies or if their ideas have value. And even though he has no time for it, he quite often says yes. Well, we recorded one of those conversations, with Malik McCray, CEO of Simpliworks who graduated from NC State with a BS in Business and Management, Entrepreneurship focus in 2019. Malik’s business is off and running, and he had some great questions for Don on how to take the next step in growth.

Donald Thompson: Just introduce yourself, your background, your company, and then just fire away, man. And however I can help. I’m happy to do.

Malik McCray: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate it. So of course, my name is Malik. I graduated from NC state with a business entrepreneurship degree. I started working on my first business, in college, late junior year.

I was buying and selling products from established us manufacturers and reselling them back on Amazon. You know, so it was a pretty passive, business that I was able to build while in college. you know, so as I grew that business that first year, you know, I really started to see some of the challenges with those growing pains.

You know, so it was one of those things where it’s like, okay, how can I grow my business? you know, And with the limited capacity that I do have, you know, so as I started working, to expand that and work with, I was also worked with some services, some other brands and things like that. I realized that what I was doing wouldn’t scale as far as a promotion goes in, Amazon, selling.

So I started working on a technology solution with some co-founders. I, rounded them up with. Diverse talents, you know, and say, Hey, how can we program this standing and to a software solution that can reach more people, more businesses, and. You know, create that similar type of impact. you know, so for the last 10 and 11 months, we’ve worked on the software play.

we developed a three-step advertising solution, you know, so someone with no experience, PR promoting products on Amazon can come in and seamlessly deploy, scalable advertising campaigns, industry steps, you know, so for a small business, that’s a great value add being able to, you know, really expand your team size without adding the additional overhead.

but before an enterprise, you know, that has hundreds or thousands of products, sometimes it really helps them get over that human capital constraint that comes with product promotion. and you know, and really that’s how we got here today. you know, so I’d love to ask some questions around that, but you know, more specifically, Where I think my questions are going to come are in a thought leadership.

you know, that’s one of the key things that, you know, admire about you and kind of how you approach content, and that strategy. And, you know, I know it’s important, especially when you have these new and disruptive ideas to communicate them. And actually, where I think my questions are gonna to come during this call.

Donald Thompson: No, I appreciate the background on your business. And I think it’s timely. Number one, because with the pandemic, with the change in the way, commerce is continuing to go any insight and value add in and around e-commerce right, is going to put you in the right discussion with, with all types of businesses, because people are very much constrained.

Obviously with getting people into a store today, right. Messaging. So I think your timing is good. So fire away, how can I help?

Malik McCray: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, more specifically on a thought leadership, as one of those things that I personally, you know, struggle with is, okay. You have these ideas that you want to communicate.

it’s not necessarily you’re facing imposter syndrome per se, but it’s like. One are you in, is there enough credibility to present some of these concepts, publicly for a very sample on LinkedIn? And is there a specific type of stance that you should take when you’re, you know, an earlier entrepreneur, a first time founder, even, and how do you, how would you recommend kind of approaching, communicating your ideas to a public audience?

Donald Thompson: So I think it’s a great question. So yeah. So restate it right when you’re an emerging entrepreneur and you’re getting started, right? What’s that credibility level that allows you to get started? One of the things that, that I’ve found personally is there’s different ways that you can jump into a swimming pool.

Right. You can dive all in right. And flash and everything else. Or you can dip your toe in the water and you can gradually get fully submersed. And I think when you’re an emerging entrepreneur, one of the things that people are interested in is why you started the business, why you pick the market that you picked and what you’re learning about that market.

Malik McCray: Right.

Donald Thompson: And that is a very humble way to become a thought leader. A lot of times you do think thought leader and 20 years of expertise thought leader in five successful exits in your startup or your business, really LinkedIn is an information exchange platform. Right? And so your information value is not predicated.

On your historical experience, as much as what you’re learning and how well you communicate, what you’re learning. And so one of the things I would start with again, why you started your business, why you picked the market, that you’re in, what you’re learning about that market. And then what are some things that you’re continuing to read and refine?

What other sources of information do you intake that you then can share? And that’s the one and that allows you to get started. Because the biggest thing in developing your own personal brand is developing the confidence to share it an opinion independent of what people may or may not think about that opinion.

It’s not really about the audience in the beginning and the beginning of developing thought leadership content. It’s about learning what you believe.

Malik McCray: Hmm. That’s right.

Donald Thompson: That’s right. Sharing of what you believe is a secondary component. What do you believe? What do you think? What do you forecast? Right. If you’re a business and putting yourself out there is a courage and a confidence issue, but both those things can be learned by dipping your toe in the water.

The other thing I would say is that you should become in general business, a curator of other content. That’s good. And be very simple. If you like something that someone shares on LinkedIn about leadership, about entrepreneurship, about business, the economy, comment on it, like it share Hmm. Becoming source within your network of somebody that identifies other good content.

Okay, giving feedback to other thought leaders is a great way to dip your toe in the water of doing it. But you’re not putting yourself out there saying this are the next top 10 things in e-commerce when you’re still learning. Those are a couple of things that I encourage people to go ahead and get started.

I’m a super fan of LinkedIn because initially general people hold true to the purpose of the platform, which is to share credible, powerful. Business related content

Malik McCray: right

Donald Thompson: now. Right. Always agree with your perspective on business, but generally it’s not about what kind of Cheerio’s your kid had. It’s usually not overly political.

It’s usually about promoting in a thoughtful way, your ideas, your business, and things that you think can help move the economy forward. And I think it’s been a great platform and very successful doing that. So I’m a big fan of LinkedIn. Right.

Malik McCray: Absolutely. That sounds good. That sounds good. Yeah. It’s definitely something that I plan to get more engaged in, and starting to do some of that, those micro, things, you know, commenting and things like that.

but it’s, you know, you know, taking a stance, I think that’s, that’s the key takeaway there take a stance on some of these concepts, especially when you don’t and you see them, you know, start, actually have, and you’re like, well, should have taken that stance. This is that right. Right, right. Okay. Okay. That sounds good.

That sounds good. you know, so when it comes to, networking with some of these, you know, thought leaders, getting involved, with them, whether it’s through webinars, whether it’s on their comments and things like that, how do you approach, you know, opening some of those dialogue. Or how would you recommend a founder without that, again, that credibility opening some of these dialogues, other than just going out there and doing it, which is what we’re doing here, but how do you recommend, you know, open up some of those dialogues, so that you are immediately a value add to this, thought leader or, you know, influencer.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. I can speak from the perspective of what I’ve done as I’ve grown my personal brand and relating to other people that I want to get to know better. In that digital space. One people love compliments if they’re sincere, right? I mean, so if you read something from in fact there’s a, there’s a book called crossing the chasms by Jeffrey Moore, and this is an oldie, but goodie in business, right?

This book was written probably 20 plus years ago. And Jeffrey Moore was one of the first powerful business kind of thought leaders of, I don’t know this new economy, if you will. It’s digital space. But anyway, one of my colleagues, Kurt Merryweather read something where Jeffrey Moore was talking about innovation in diversity and inclusion.

He reached out to him. He sent the article to me. We both comment on it. We liked it. It was good stuff in thinking about diversity equity inclusion, as a point of innovation, we then reached out to Jeffrey to see if he’d be on one of our podcasts. And he said, yes, Wow. Wow. Here’s the thing. Most people don’t actually ask.

Most people don’t actually ask where there’s a mutual benefit between the thought leader and use the recipient. So guess what if Kurt or when Kurt inter interviews, Jeffrey, right. He’s going to get more time with somebody that we

Malik McCray: admire. Right, right. We’re

Donald Thompson: going to create the podcast, then we’re going to promote it.

That helps Jeffrey’s consulting business because he still has got to earn a living. Right, right. He doesn’t make all of his income from writing books and saying smart things. He has a consulting business where he goes in and he works with clients. And so if through our promotion engine, we promote what he does.

We’re both having a win-win situation and there’s value to that. Right now, if we didn’t ask, if Kurt didn’t ask, if he’d be willing to engage with us deeper, we would have never

Malik McCray: known. Hmm. And

Donald Thompson: so it started from, we commented on something that he wrote. He liked it, it was authentic. We thought it was smart.

We complimented him. It was authentic. We believed it. And then Kurt was strong enough. Courageous enough, just to ask, Hey listen, would you be willing to have a 15 minute dialogue and talk about some of the things we’re doing? Maybe we can help each other and said yes. Now sometimes people say no, sometimes people ignore you.

It doesn’t matter. It just means job. It just means put yourself out there and try. But the key is authentic because a lot of people will link with you on LinkedIn though, for your stuff. And then they’re immediately calling you to sell you something immediately. That’s not a digital relationship built on real connectivity.

It’s based on you being a number. And nobody really likes that. Right. I’ll kind of tell when there’s potential authentic opportunity for synergy. And I typically respond to those. And just like, in your case, you and I met, I was on a webinar. I think Gabriel Gonzalez is that right? Yes. Invited me to come and speak to an entrepreneur accelerator class.

I was happy to do it. I shared some ideas. You reached back out and said, Hey, listen, what do you think about getting a few more minutes? I’ve got some specific questions. My answer was, yes. It might take a few weeks. But I’m happy to

Malik McCray: do it. Right.

Donald Thompson: And then you and I are developing a network and now our networks are there to help each other.

and so I think it’s, it’s pretty simple as long as things align. Now, if you were building a pottery business, pottery businesses are amazing, but I’m not.

Malik McCray: Right, right, right.

Donald Thompson: You’re building an e-commerce digital business, a tech founder. These are things I’m interested in. So me and you knowing each other can have value now or in the future.

So I said yes.

Malik McCray: Right, right, right. I love that. That’s a great response. Thank you. And I’d

Donald Thompson: love to switch

Malik McCray: gears there, you know, and, and, move more into that technology focus. you know, so. One of the challenges that we faced when we’re bringing this solution to market similar, you know, you think about, self-driving cars, how they first entered the market.

People weren’t were a little bit wary about, you know, handing over their, their lives really to technology. and one of the things that we’re asking is for these businesses now to hand over. Their entire promotion to technology, you know, and it’s a, it’s a kind of a change of practice, change of behavior.

you know, in what businesses typically do. So could you provide any type of insight into maybe, even if you’re, you know, you had an instance there when you brought, disruptive technologies, to, a new market, how did you approach that education process? you know, or is it something where you just got to find the customers that are ready to adopt an adopter early?

Donald Thompson: Now it just so happens. You should read Geoffrey Moore’s book because crossing the chasm is really good because it talks about how to take technology and find those early adopters is one of the key things in there. But anyway, but one of the things that I would also recommend is start with businesses that I don’t want to say don’t have any other choice.

But that are looking for innovative ways to start and do free trials.

Malik McCray: Hmm case studies

Donald Thompson: because you’ve got us figure out a small way to pilot something before somebody is going to fully trust what you’re doing. Right. So instead of going after a client and saying, look, this is how we can take over your whole stack of e-commerce we’re expert in Amazon.

We’re going to take you to the moon. They’re like, yeah. Sounds good. But no,

Malik McCray: yeah,

Donald Thompson: absolutely. Versus right. Hey, listen, what’s an underperforming product that you have. Hmm, but you’d like to think about a different way of taking it to market on Amazon. We’d love to test out our new technology with you on that.

Malik McCray: Hmm. Hmm.

Donald Thompson: Pilot test proof of concept or words that I think should live within your marketing. Right. In my case, you know, Amazon has all different kinds of products on Amazon. The business was started with books. Right. So you can find a lot of authors that are launching their books and leverage that as a product.

Hmm, you get started and then show technology companies or other clients, other types of products over time, just like Amazon evolved from selling books to selling widgets, to selling baseballs, to selling, vacuum cleaners, selling washing machines. A book is a physical product where they target audience based on John

Malik McCray: rhe.

Hmm. Hmm.

Donald Thompson: And you have a lot of authors that need exposure for their books, but you’re rinsing and repeating your system. So you want to find products that you can work with. People on that are easy for them to adopt your portfolio, that the barrier and the fear level is lower and then test your success story, and then you can move it to other products easier.

Malik McCray: Okay. That’s actually an interesting approach. Thank you for that. Okay. yeah, I have a up, I have a followup question around that. You know, so one of the challenges, I think, when it comes to targeting, the low hanging fruit versus targeting by our data customer, you know, so you touched on something there, which is, actually very in line with how we see our solution.

you know, 80% of product catalog is going on promoted, you know? So you talked about those under-performers why are those under-performers not performing a lot of times, they’re just not worth promoting relative to their best performers or top 20% because they’re not. Gonna yield the re the, the return is not worth the resources that are going to go into it, you know, but with that, with that in mind, we found that our ideal customer and a customer that’s getting seen a quickest adoption is going to be an enterprise level, but those sales cycles often can take a lot longer and deals that we do have to us.

We do have a warm. So when it comes to bouncing, okay. The right customer versus customers that can validate your solution, how, how might you, those would be the lower hanging, lower hanging fruit there. How might you, maybe recommend navigating that?

Donald Thompson: Yeah, I think, you know, a couple things ideally finding the ideal customer is something that’s taught in business schools all the time entrepreneurship programs and makes perfect sense.

Hmm, unless you die while you’re trying to sell it.

If you’re, if you’re dead, that’s a really matter. Right. So my thing would be, how can I approve my process in my ideal customer is anyone that allows me to, to prove my concept and process. And then over time, March through the, the, kind of the corporate hierarchy for that enterprise client. The other thing that is interesting with larger, clients is, again, I’m going to restate this people.

People are not going to choose a new upstart first, something that is going to get them, right. It’s not going to

Malik McCray: happen. Right.

Donald Thompson: People will choose a new upstart when they’re chasing something that’s innovative. So you might want to portray your e-commerce play with Amazon tools as a testing platform for new and innovative ways to sell products on

Malik McCray: Amazon.

Donald Thompson: Hmm. Now, now that person that is that buyer that needs to now move more product in that e-commerce platform was like, you know what? I always need new ideas. I’ve got five products that are struggling to products that are in beta. Here’s some things that I want to test and try. I’m willing to put five grand, 10 grand into working with these young folks in their new way of thinking about.

E-commerce marketing with

Malik McCray: Amazon, changing the narrative

Donald Thompson: and changing the messaging and the mirror.

Malik McCray: Right.

Donald Thompson: That is very important now to you, what do you care? What do you care if you’re a testing platform or a pilot platform, if your ideal customer is now bringing you into the fold?

Malik McCray: Hmm Hmm. And

Donald Thompson: so a lot of time, our messaging of what we are, who we are, what we do is.

Misaligned with the fear and the risk and the reward, motivation of the person we’re trying to convince. And that’s what you got to align your messaging with the person that you’re trying to

Malik McCray: convince. Right. Right. That’s good. That’s good. I love, I love when you give these responses because I’m always looking for up questions, so well, so

Donald Thompson: I appreciate that.

I appreciate that.

Malik McCray: you know, so, and w we can bounce around topics if that’s good with you, you know, just so we can get some diverse, feedback and things like that. You know, so you talked to about diversity and inclusion. I know that’s what you you’re really focused in on with walk West. you know, so how do you see that, that I guess that, mission, changing not necessarily would walk West, but on a national stereo scale and even a global scale over the next two to three years, you know, when you see the protest, the black lives matter protest, you’re starting to see a lot of these new movements coming up.

now in, you know, of course not to make this political, of course, of course, with the election coming up very soon. How do you see things changing over the next few years? regarding the public perception over minorities, and, you know, different groups like that, is there, is there anything that’s very macro that you see change?

Donald Thompson: Yeah. So let’s look at it from a business lens versus just a social lens. So he knows that I’m talking to want to understand how to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into their talent acquisition program. Okay. CEOs that I’m talking to want to understand how to create diversity, equity, inclusion, programming into their marketing and messaging

Malik McCray: programming,

Donald Thompson: because the demographics of the United States are changing.

And that doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,

Malik McCray: that’s just

Donald Thompson: the demographics of a nation are changing and you’re doing business in that nation. Then you have to have a multicultural language, a multicultural language skill set that is not there today in many companies. So companies are looking for people that can link the emotive and the economic drivers around DEI.

So what I see. In the future is that those that can incorporate diversity equity inclusion as a part of their brand mix, as a part of the DNI of how they do business are going to align with the, what I, what, not what I call, what people call the triple bottom line. Right. And that triple bottom line has to do with social right.

Environmental and financial. Right. So that full sustainability of an organization is real. Right. And so therefore that trend is what some people ask me all the time is the guy going to be a fat? And I said, well, let’s not think about it like that. Let’s think about generationally. Do generations, Z people want employers who are socially conscious and fiscally conscious and environmentally conscious.

The answer is yes. Therefore, because DEI is a part of that. It’s not going to be a fad, right? Because recently the appetite of the country is changing. What is loudest are the people in power currently that are resisting the change to the future? Do you remember when people thought that rap music was going to be a fat.

Malik McCray: I do now it’s 60% of all music consumed,

Donald Thompson: right? So you can with, with something that starts out as a fad, moves into a trend and then becomes a part of the cultural fabric, you can either be on the front end and a leader and adopt it and win, or you can be a spectator. But DEI stand alone is not really the conversation that I’m having as much.

It’s really, how does it interrelate into building a winning culture that creates a dominant presence for a company, right? And then diversity equity inclusion is the tip of the spear, a certain what we’re talking about right now, but it is a, it is, it is a component within that triple bottom line. Right.

And I think that’s really an important distinction that I like to make when I’m talking about, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Malik McCray: I agree. I liked that a lot. I liked that a lot. yeah. And that, you know, that gets me thinking kind of around, You know, you’re seeing it in the investor landscape as well that these companies are investing into those benefits corpse with that are focused on triple bottom lines and actually getting better returns.

You know? So now it’s not just do the right thing. Now it’s these businesses are making you more money.

Donald Thompson: It’s when you’re pitching your business, like you have to have in your pitch deck, how you’re going to help people profit and planet.

Malik McCray: Right. Right. Right.

Donald Thompson: And get legs into your point. It’s now becoming a statistically relevant in terms of those, those companies that think about that triple bottom line are becoming more successful.

Malik McCray: I agree. I agree. And we, I think we have maybe time for one more questionnaire. you know, so I have a question around, raising capital, specifically in this

Donald Thompson: area. Yeah,

Malik McCray: I’m experiencing that.

Right? Right.

Donald Thompson: Especially raising capital as a person of color. It’s even harder

raising capital as a person of color in a pandemic,

Malik McCray: but forget about it, you know? You know? Yeah. That’s that’s Yeah, that’s, it’s definitely changed our perspective and kind of how to approach it. you know, and we’ve gotten good leads. We’ve gotten good leads, but you know, it feels like we get to these points and the finish line just keeps moving and it’s like, okay, I want to see this.

And we do that and a little bit more and it’s like, well, I kind of want to see this. one is that common, you know, moving a goalpost. And is there something, is there a preventative measure that maybe, you know, you would recommend, founders to kind of consider when they’re having these investor talks and thinking about how can we shorten our time to cash?

Donald Thompson: a couple of things come to mind. One when people continually move the goalpost, it’s a polite note.

Malik McCray: Right. And

Donald Thompson: you just gotta be careful of whether or not people want to see some, see the way you ask the question is a little different or the way I would answer the question. If somebody keeps moving the goalposts, that’s a polite note.

If somebody says, when I see these two or three things, I’m willing to invest at this amount and that’s, and that’s a requirement for them to be a part of your vision. Right, right. Different than them saying, Hey, keep in touch. Really love what you’re doing. Hey, when you do X, Y, Z, like call me back. I really want to take another look,

Malik McCray: right?

Donald Thompson: No. Right. Somebody, somebody that’s serious in their intent. Right. We’ll say, you know what, like what you’re doing, like you guys as a founding team, like you all as a founding team, excuse me. And I need to see these couple of things before I can really take things to the next

Malik McCray: level.

Donald Thompson: Right. And then your followup is okay when we do these things,

Malik McCray: right?

Donald Thompson: Is it check forthcoming and you want to make sure that you’re, you’re doing their time too. cash and investment space is still a function of the number of people that you talk to so that you continue to hone your message. You’re only looking for, if you’re in the angel round, still in that, that seed round before venture, I don’t know your complete business, but let’s say, you know, how much money are you trying to raise?

Malik McCray: 500,000.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. So you’re still in the seed round. Like perfect, perfect. Cause I’ve experienced in that space, right? If you were saying I’m trying to raise 50 million, I’m probably not. I’ve never done, never done that, but half a million dollars different things is, is in my swim lane. It’s a function of talking to enough people that believe in you and your vision,

right? And when you do that, you’re only looking for a handful of people that believe in you and your vision. It’s not, you don’t need a hundred, right. 500,000 is 10 people that can write a $50,000 check five people that can write a hundred thousand yet.

Malik McCray: Right.

Donald Thompson: So the numbers aren’t insurmountable. And when you do talk to people and they tell, you know, the biggest learning is why not,

Malik McCray: and why not

Donald Thompson: now?

And you ask them to be as truthful as possible so that you can learn,

Malik McCray: right.

Donald Thompson: So that you really take it on the chin, but that you

Malik McCray: can learn

Donald Thompson: and go forward from there. So Malik I’ve enjoyed it. My friend, the questions were great. I hopefully they were helpful.

Malik McCray: No, these are great responses. Thank you. And

Donald Thompson: you know, if I can be of service to you, let me know.

I’ll probably put, put this out. I’ll give you a shout out when I push it out on social. Okay. And do you and your company a shout out for what, what we’re doing, and please continue to reach out if I can be great. Thanks so

Malik McCray: much, Donald. This was super helpful. A report to reconnect again soon.

Donald Thompson: All right, man.

Talk soon.

Malik McCray: Have a great week. Thanks, bye.

Full Episode Transcript

Malik McCray Simpliworks Donald Thompson Podcast

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit

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