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How To Launch A Billion-Dollar Business From A Lakeview Cafe, Explained

By Ariel Cheung | May 11, 2016 6:42am
 Marvin Russell spends his days in Lakeview cafes, working on his next big idea.
Marvin Russell spends his days in Lakeview cafes, working on his next big idea.
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DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung

LAKEVIEW — Marvin Russell has always been one to break from the pack.

He abandoned the long line of Notre Dame alumni in his family to attend Illinois State University. After eight months working at CareerBuilder in 2003, he left to create his own marketing agency.

But the risks paid off for the 38-year-old entrepreneur. His startup, The Ocean Agency, was acquired in 2014, and now he's ready to ink the million-dollar deal to sell his tech software company, My Site Auditor.

Reporter Ariel Cheung daydreams about her billion dollar ideas.

Without a backward glance, Russell's already on to the next thing: Checkli, a mobile app built on extremely simple, shareable checklists. And this time, he thinks he's got a billion-dollar idea on his hands — one he created working out of Lakeview.

"A lot of people roll their eyes and think I'm crazy," Russell said. "But I've already been acquired once, and I think this will change the way people think about checklists."

Early on, Russell said he learned to manage his attention deficit hyperactive disorder with checklists. But the Michigan Avenue CEO felt most apps like Wunderlist and Evernote were weighed down with too many options for streamlined use.

The Checkli app focuses on simplicity and shareable lists. [Screenshots/Checkli]

Checkli is simplicity in the extreme: Users can create checklists, but the only other key component is the ability to share the lists on social media. In one case, an earthquake relief organization in Ecuador shared its Checkli list of supplies for victims of a recent earthquake on Twitter.

"Checklists basically fulfill a part of the human brain we don't have," Russell said. "We're not stupid; we forget things because our brains aren't built to remember more than five items at a time."

Russell tried the traditional climb up the corporate ladder right after college, but his job at CareerBuilder wasn't the right fit, he said.

When he quit to launch his own agency, "my parents, everybody, my managers were pissed," Russell said. "They were making fun of me."

Russell had the last laugh 10 years later, when The Ocean Agency signed CareerBuilder as a client.

"That was a big moment for me," he said. "My parents were very unhappy [at first], but now they're the proudest."

What started as a website in 2013 has grown into a web and mobile app with 30,000 users, and now Russell wants to grow its use worldwide. Tired of stuffy boardrooms and offices, Russell works remotely from a rotating list of coffee shops in Lakeview, where he lives with his wife.

Intelligentsia on Broadway is his favorite, as Russell prefers the standing work spaces to sitting all day in chairs. Bow Truss, Next Door and Dollop are his other go-to spots. Instead of a suit and tie, he shows up in a T-shirt and jeans.

"I'm basically the new model of the business person," Russell said. "What I've found is that it's definitely not the smartest people in the world who are the most successful — it's the people with the most passion and desire."

Marvin Russell created Checkli for users who want a simple checklist app. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

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