This interview with Mark Nathan, C.E.O. of Zipari, a health insurance software company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant for The New York Times “Corner Office”


Q. What were your early years like?

A. I grew up in a small town, Delmar, outside of Albany, N.Y. I was always building stuff, like forts and BMX trails. They were big projects. We would spend weeks building a trail, or forts with two or three stories. It would always take a bunch of people to get them done.

I was pretty industrious as a kid. When I was around 10 years old, I would take a wheelbarrow and wagon and go door to door to collect people’s old newspapers. This was back before people recycled in their homes, but there was an industrial market for recycling newsprint.

I had my whole garage filled up with newspapers tied into bundles. And I put them in the back of our station wagon to take them to the port. I’d get about $15 per carload, which was a lot of money back in 1978.

I then created a company when I was 16, selling high-end stereos directly to people. I’d deliver them, set them up, and people would still pay 30 percent less than they would in a store.

My core values come from my mother and father. My father was a brilliant man, and could have been a doctor or lawyer or anything. But he wanted to work 9 to 5 for the state so he could be home more with his family. They both were involved in all sorts of charities. My mom really taught us about networking. She can talk to anybody.

What were some early life lessons for you?

I had a philosophy teacher in 11th grade who said something that always stuck with me. He said, “There are all these definitions and types of intelligence, but the one that I like the most is the ability to adapt to an environment as quickly as possible.”

I always think about that and look at people that way when I’m hiring. Can they adapt into this different environment? Can they step into a role where they’re not necessarily comfortable, and how long does it take them to adapt?

What about your college years?

I wanted to do liberal arts, but I studied electrical and computer engineering. I figured I could pick up literature on my own. So I set a goal for myself, through all seven years of undergrad and grad school, of reading 50 literature books a year — Kafka, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, all the classics. Doing that helped me get a particular job later on, because I was able to show them I wasn’t just a technical guy.

When was your first management role?

It was in my first job out of college. I was 24 and managing about a dozen people. That’s when I first started developing my style. In the morning, I would go around to people and ask if they needed anything to help them do their jobs. And I’d do that again in the afternoon.

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