Season 2, Ep. 20 – Meet the team: Gun.io’s Marketing Coordinator, Chris Johnson
We don’t have health inspectors knocking on the door during dinner rush, but there are plenty of other parallels between tech and restaurants, as our Marketing Coordinator, Chris Johnson, talks about on this latest episode.
Well, Chris, welcome to the Frontier. This is your first—you haven’t been on the Frontier, have you?
I have not. This is the first time.
It probably feels a lot like every other meeting you have with me during the course of your week.
Yeah. So we’ll go through OKRs and yeah, it’ll be good.
Yeah. Go through our GitHub milestones.
I’m seated in the corner of a WeWork, so, I found the quietest place possible.
Wow. How tech-company-in-2022 of you.
I know. It’s great. It’s amazing to be amongst people.
I hear you. Meanwhile, my mother’s in town. She’s staying with my brother, and she like, very sweetly just offered—she’s like, ‘Oh, I can come over and do yard work for you.’ And I was like, no. I was like, ‘I can’t have people around me while I’m working anymore,’ even though I’m like in the shed. I can easily close the door. I’m just like, it’s too—there’s too much going on. I can’t imagine like being in the office again. Like, how did we do that? It’s so crazy.
It’s been a very long time, and the last time I was working in an office was in a restaurant in the West Village, so it was—yeah, it was a little different.
Yeah. A little bit more stressful than our cute little jobs. Well, Chris, we usually start—this is like your, your staff interview, right? And so the point is, let’s tell people what you do here, how you got here, and then if you’ve got advice for people who are listening who are like, ‘Damn, that sounds like a pretty cool career path’ or ‘I’m in Chris’s shoes three years ago, how do I get to where he is now?’ We can share some advice. (Chris: Awesome.) So to start, what do you do here? What’s your job at Gun.io?
So I’m the, the Marketing Coordinator, which generally is responsible for all of the outward-facing PR, social media, anything that isn’t paid marketing is, I think, the easiest way to describe it. Just trying to engage with as much of our community as possible and expand our reach, however that is.
That’s a good way to describe it. I feel like I just have this image stuck in my head since listening to Emily Kramer’s episode of Lenny’s podcast last month, where it’s like, you know, your marketing team, you have your fuel and you have your engine. And in my mind, Chris, you’re the engine. Like you’re the person responsible for figuring out how to get everything we’re creating internally out into the world in front of the right people at the right time. And that’s not what you did at your previous job. So how did you—talk to us about your career path? How did you end up here?
I think it is, and it isn’t what I’ve done throughout the course of my career. I came up through restaurants. I was—I went to the University of Colorado and went into restaurants like right after I graduated. So you mentioned earlier career advice. I’d recommend not going into restaurants would be a good place to start.
No, no. It was amazing. It was a really amazing experience. I loved it. I still love restaurants. But I had a really cool—as far as the restaurant industry—a really cool career path and worked in some amazing places. I got to do the like ski bum thing in Colorado and study wine for a few years in Vail at the Sun Elk Resort and became a sommelier there. And then was able to take the opportunity to work with a restaurant group called Hillstone, which is like—kind of like a grad program in like restaurant operations and like really, like how do you make a restaurant make money, and then how do you scale that from one location to 50 locations? And how do make cheeseburger taste the same in Santa Monica as it does in New York? So a lot of like really boring stuff, but I think a lot of things that apply to any sort of business of how do you create systems and how do you make things repeatable. And then I went into another group, the Union Square Hospitality Group with Danny Meyer and was able to learn some really interesting hospitality and really like guest-centric type stuff and able to do some really, like goofy, off-the-wall things to take care of people.
And then from there, I went into the like entrepreneurial side and opening up small restaurants in New York. So, I think it all kinda came together in what I do now in connecting with people and using that experience of being like front and center in front of people to now try and put Gun.io in front of people, but just, you know, through a computer or through a PR or through however it is we can reach them.
I feel like—I’ve worked in restaurants as well, obviously not at the scale that you have, but when I think about the most similar jobs I’ve ever had, it is restaurants, teaching, and working at a startup. The middle of those Venn diagrams is chaos, I think? Like they all shared like, kind of like a steady state of like, what in the hell is going on? And also minimal direction. The restaurants you worked in and opened are much different than the ones I worked in, but I would imagine it’s the same thing where it’s like you, you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you walk in and start prepping for the day. Like literally anything could happen, and there’s no playbook. There’s no one—especially if you’re in charge, like no one else is telling you what to do. So you just have to figure out how to make sense of the chaos and like with as few casualties as possible. Have you found that to be true? Have you found that there are similarities?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think I—that’s kinda why I’ve taken this approach in my career now of like, I love to implement as many systems and like automate as many things as possible, because I—it’s just ingrained into me to like expect the unexpected. Like, you know, you never know when a billionaire’s gonna buy the social media platform that you rely on <laugh> and everything’s gonna go to hell. Like, you know—
We’re absolutely not referring to anything in particular.
Yeah! Yeah. You know? <laugh>, but you know, if you have everything else like taken care of and all your ducks in a row, it means when something like that happens, then you can spend the time that you’d need, like focusing on that to figure out what need to do to next steps. And that was definitely something that like in restaurants, that’s what makes or breaks you—it’s, you dunno what’s gonna happen. Either it’s the Department of Health comes in at eight o’clock on a Friday night, or your fire suppression system goes off, or some crackhead walks in the front door or whatever, you know, the craziest things can happen–like will happen to you. So just making sure that it’s not the little things that you can control that are gonna bring the ship down. It’s like, you know, if things go sideways, it’s because, you know, something serious happened.
Right. Something totally outta your control.
Gun.io is not your first job in tech. (Chris: No.) Right. Your first foray—so your first kind of step into a world outside of restaurants. Talk to us about that.
Well, actually my first like, real experience working in a company that was tech, like tech-related was, I opened up a restaurant for a company called nuts.com, which sells nuts online, very literal.
Great domain name too. Oh my God.
Yeah, it’s a really like—I mean, a really great study in like looking at the life of their business. They were like newarknutsonline.com and eventually bought nuts.com and their business exploded from there. (Faith: That’s unbelievable.) Yeah. The investment for Jeff was definitely worth it. But they, long story short, ended up with a restaurant space in Union Square here in New York, and a couple of months to open a restaurant and brought me on as part of that, to be the general manager to open up pizza place in this open air restaurant in New York City, in Union Square, which speaking of like expecting the unexpected was like one of the most like, bat shit times of my life. It was really, really crazy. Like, walk through the dining room in the morning—you couldn’t lock the doors to the restaurant at night—so like in the morning you’d have to like—somebody would have to go through and like pick up needles off the ground and like, you know, throw them away.
And there were like different seasons that like—oh, this is like the fly season and this is the bee season. And like there were birds that lived in the dining room. It was like…it was amazing. And there was a day that PETA had this protest out front that they were playing the sound of pigs being slaughtered out front of the restaurant during brunch. So there was that, it was really something, but very much a tech company, and like got like a little bit of a taste of it there. But then after a couple more restaurant openings, I worked with a company called Bin Wise, or Blue Cart Bin Wise, which was a transition that worked well, and I think if anyone is interested—it’s really hard to get out of restaurants, especially if you’re good at it— it’s hard to transition outta of restaurants into a different type of career path. One, because if you’re good at it, people want you to keep doing it. And once you get to a certain point, it’s really hard to take that step from like general manager or like director level into like ownership or into that like, you know, next significant pay grade. But what worked well about going from general manager or like director of operations, consulting into sales for BinWise was it was a product that I had used before that was in the beverage tech space. So that domain knowledge existed. So it was a really easy step for me to take. And unfortunately—well, fortunately, because I’m here now—but there was an acquisition—they acquired another company and ended up combining teams and laying off a decent amount of the sales team. But it was a great learning experience. I didn’t love sales anyways. I totally prefer marketing by a long shot.
Same, you and me both.
But it really solidified that it was <laugh>, it solidified that it was like, yeah, this is the move that I was making.
Yeah. That’s really good advice for folks trying to make an industry shift, right? Like thinking about, like for us, for example, if somebody wants to become a marketer or wants to get into sales, wants to get into any sort of like product or management, and they have been like a developer before, we would be thrilled to work with them, because they understand our customer better than most people understand our customer. And it’s the same with restaurant tech or ed tech, right? Like former teachers often go and work for ed tech startups and that’s—I had never kind of just like named that as like a smart decision. If you’re trying to make—if you’re trying to kind of switch your career, you know, go be the, the subject matter expert at a company for whom you are the ideal customer, right?
Yeah. I mean, there’s so much that you can learn, and there’s so much that you can teach, but it’s—you know, stepping into a company that you’re coming from, being that the ideal customer, you have that experience, you know, the experience of having lived it and you can’t teach somebody that experience of knowing those pain points and like really having that deep-down empathy for what that customer is feeling. (Faith: Right.) It certainly, like—in that sales role really helped me connect with a lot of the kind of like tough-to-crack customers that we had. You know, I was like—admittedly, I was not the guy that would work well, like being sent to like nightclubs to talk to them. But coming from a like fine dining and wine background, like an old school, like New York Wine Director somm that’s like got an all like old-school like French wine list. Like, I can get that guy on board type of thing.
Yeah. We can talk.
Yeah. Yeah. We speak the same language. You know?
And you understand the–understanding pain points in order to sell is one thing, but it’s also like, who are we building this product for and what’s important to them? And I think often that gets lost in no matter what company you’re building at. It very much becomes like, well, we think we know this about folks, or one or two people have requested this. And those voices are often louder than like your average restaurant manager who’s like, actually I have like no time to place my orders weekly, and I need a smarter system to do that efficiently.
Once again, I think that’s applicable. Like kind of to your point, those lessons are applicable in my role now, like something that I’ve always really stuck to is that your customers are always really gonna tell you what they want. If you just listen, the customer’s gonna tell you. And in restaurants, we had the benefit of the customer literally telling you, because you’re standing in front of them. But kinda like getting to where we are now with like, looking at changes in social media and people’s social media habits. I’ve been spending a good amount of time looking into our analytics and just looking at comparisons between different platforms. You know, there are some surprising statistics that I’ve looked at in the past, but now like digging into—like I’m looking at LinkedIn versus Twitter—you know, our users are telling us that they wanna find us like more on LinkedIn than they want to on Twitter. And that’s just, I think—you know, for me, like being reminded of that every now and then, like Oh yeah. Like once again, like here too, our users are are gonna tell us what, you know, tell us what they want.
Right. And I think that’s kind of like a lesson we’re in the process of like relearning, always. Right? Like as soon as we get a little bit too far away from what the customer is actually asking for, we’re like constantly reeled back in like, oh shoot, no actually <laugh>. And I think that’s just like common with anyone who’s building for a customer base. Right? Like, I was actually thinking about that today when—it only happens when I’m super stressed about something and I’m like, anxiously like trying to send a text between meetings and I’m already kind of like on edge. And if you have an iPhone, the like whole menu that pops up above your text bar, you know what I’m talking about, where it’s like you’re texting. But then like suddenly it’s like a video of your face except for you’re a zebra and like saying something into your phone <laugh>. And it’s like, who made this? I’m not the customer for this. Like, who thought that I wanted this? You know? And like, I can totally imagine being like the super excited PM like, you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna put this in the menu, in the text menu so people can like jump in and—and I zero times out of 10 want that to happen. But yeah, it’s literally right before I sat down for this call, I was like, who made this feature? <laugh>.
Ok, so you already gave like a—I don’t know if we did the opposite of bearing the lead, if we led with the lead here. But that advice around like, alright, if you’re looking for— if you’re making a career shift, look for a company that is for whom you are the ideal customer. Is there any other advice that you would give somebody from your experience over the last couple years kind of moving into the tech space from the restaurant space?
One, I think it’s like— it’s good to acknowledge that it’s challenging, and like getting that just like out there is like accepting that as a good thing. But also, there’s way more opportunity out there than I think I believed for a long time, and I think I—it’s something that I had wanted to do for a while, but I think I was overwhelmed by it, and it was—it took a lot of conversations honestly, for me to figure out like the best way to go. And I think I was lucky in that I have a lot of friends that are in the tech space. I have— you know, most of my friends anymore have all like, either are like, you know, if they’re in restaurants, they’re in like ownership or like in more in the business side, or they’re like totally outside of restaurants. So it’s just a ton of networking, a ton of conversations, and like really making it my goal to treat—like every conversation, I just wanted to set up one more conversation coming up, and that was it. And just holding myself accountable to— you know, like a project management type system of like how I’m gonna get this done. Like these are my goals to—like, my goal is to like, get a job outside of restaurants in tech, and this is what I’m gonna do to get it done. And it was like developing habits for myself that were healthy, that were like getting my head in like the right place. Like a year and—a little over a year ago, I decided I was gonna stop drinking after like, what, like 14 years in restaurants. Which was like—it was like, you know, I’ve done this for a while. Like, it’s probably like time to like, you know, take some time off and really focus on this portion of my career and my life. Right. And like, develop some other really healthy meditation habits and exercise habits and really get my mind right. And then like, beyond taking care of my like, you know, physical and mental self, like really nurturing relationships and like meeting people and then just putting the time in and deciding, you know, figuring out the way to go. If that all makes sense.
It does. I think that the mistake people often make when it’s time to look for a new job or think about a career pivot is they think of it as like one job to be done, which is find a job, right? When in fact, like there’s a whole—there’s like found—there’s bedrock that you have to get to before you can build a career backup. And it’s not just about like professional skill, right? Like so much of our personhood is wrapped into what we do for a living. And I think often there’s a lot of unwinding that has to happen from like the previous life to figure out like, who am I gonna be in this new seat?
These are things I can do to like, you know, make myself like better off, and here’s my goal. Even if I miss it, I’m gonna be better off.
Well Chris, this has been awesome. I’m really excited for people to hear about your story, especially that transition. I think that’s becoming like a theme with these staff interviews is everybody has like the craziest previous life and we didn’t even get into like all the cool stuff you do outside of work. So I think we’ll either need like a follow-up episode or we’ll have to talk to whoever does our social media and ask him if maybe you can add some like fun facts about Chris outside of work. But yeah, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for joining.
Thank you. It was super fun.
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