by Sam Beiler | Last Updated on 05.25.2021
Love podcasts? Check out the latest episode of Small Business, Big Growth to listen to our complete conversation with Jon Mercer, founder of Stacks Co. and Startup Bucks, now available on ApplePodcasts
We sat down with Jon Mercer to talk about his journey from the corporate world to the world of entrepreneurship, and how his mental health influenced that journey. Today, Jon is the founder of Stacks Co., a coworking space in Doylestown, PA and Startup Bucks, an organization offering support to entrepreneurs in Bucks County, PA. But he didn’t start his career on an entrepreneurial track.
Instead, Jon’s parents, both entrepreneurs themselves, urged him to pursue corporate jobs. “I think they knew the instability of entrepreneurship and to them corporate seemed like a nice, safer place,” he explains. So, following a successful college internship, Jon went to work for Johnson & Johnson as a digital marketer.
His climb up the corporate ladder at J&J eventually found him working for a division of the company located in Australia, an experience that was initially very satisfying. “I thought I was going to stay forever,” he admits. Jon enjoyed the warm weather and sense of community he found with other expats. And, on paper, Jon’s new position seemed like it would satisfy his inborn entrepreneurial drive. The reality was much different.
“It was kind of blue sky, entrepreneurial but, in reality, in a big company, 10,000 miles from headquarters where you have so many layers above you,” Jon pauses, trying to explain his dissatisfaction with the work. “[I] just ended up kind of spinning my wheels on a lot of things.” These feelings eventually culminated for Jon in an overwhelming sense of burnout.
He decided to take some time off to focus on his mental health. He spent 6 months traveling the U.S. before deciding he was ready to return to Australia. But Jon had no plans to go back to J&J. Instead, he wanted to pursue an idea he had during his time off to fight mental health stigma in the corporate world.
“My idea was to start a workplace mental health campaign initiative that would find senior business leaders in Australia who can talk about their experiences with depression and anxiety or any other mental health condition that they had,” Jon said. “…I would never talk about it at work because there was a stigma around it. And there were no role models to look up to and say, Oh, you know what? So-and-so talked about it.” Jon’s initiative eventually turned into a nationwide awareness campaign featuring leaders from some of Australia’s biggest accounting and consulting firms.
Jon was in the midst of translating his Leading Minds campaign into a full-time career path when life got in the way. “My dad wasn’t doing well back in New Jersey. He was older, he was 78 and suddenly diagnosed with cancer. He was stubborn, old school,” Jon recalled. “He said, you know, ‘no, I’m going to be okay, don’t worry. You don’t have to come back.’” But a few days later, when Jon couldn’t get a hold of him at home, he was informed that his father had been admitted to the hospital. “So the next day I was on a flight back home and within 10 days, my dad had passed.”
As an only child of separated parents, Jon was left in charge of his father’s rental properties which had fallen into disrepair. He decided to stay in the U.S. and run the Leading Minds campaign remotely while he oversaw the necessary updates to his dad’s properties. This sudden change in trajectory got Jon thinking about the small businesses that shaped his childhood. “I always grew up around entrepreneurship,” he explained, describing his father’s general contracting business and the beauty salons his mother owned.
Jon explained that the hard work required to turn things around with his dad’s investment properties became part of his grieving process. “I really was walking a mile in my dad’s shoes,” he recalled. “I was grateful that I had that opportunity, but I had to kind of work for it.”
It turned out that Jon enjoyed the flexibility and freedom the remodeling projects allowed him, as well as the hands on nature of the work. Taking on the various roles involved in his father’s business was a good experience for Jon, even if it wasn’t something he wanted to do long term. “I think there’s value in that with any business really, to go in and do as much as you can. Just learn it,” he said.
After wrapping up his father’s business affairs, a relationship led Jon a couple hours west to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Still working virtually and without the remodeling work to keep him connected to other people, Jon had the idea to start a weekly meetup for local entrepreneurs. He knew from past experience that working in isolation added to his anxiety and simply sitting in Starbucks wasn’t right for him either.
He hosted his first meetups during slow, daytime hours at restaurants, arranging ahead of time to cover the tab for coffee and tea for the attendees. When, after only 3 weeks, the weekly meetups had grown to 15-20 people, Jon began to consider the idea of a coworking space. Nothing like that existed in Doylestown and there was clearly a need for it. So Jon began looking for a space and, two months later, Stacks Co. opened with 12 members.
“It was always an iterative process,” Jon says of the coworking space’s first year in business. “[I] didn’t go in and say, we’re going to spend $250,000 to fit this place out and bolt things down on the floor and rip walls out…no we’re going to work with what we got,” He recalled. “My approach is that if they come, then you build it.” This strategy worked and membership grew to 80 in just 18 months.
The community he created at Stacks inspired Jon to found Startup Bucks, which provides additional support and resources to local entrepreneurs. Today, both ventures are thriving. At one point in his life, it looked like mental health struggles would derail Jon’s career. Instead, he created his own path, helping others and creating new communities along the way.
Jon’s message is simple: “Even if you’re a solo founder or you’re a freelancer, or you’ve got your own thing and you’re a sole proprietor, you never have to do it alone.”
Want to hear our complete conversation with Jon? Check out the full podcast episode here.