November 19, 2012
"Our engineers and scientists actually go and build their own prototypes and test the rigs themselves. And the reason we do that—and I don’t force people to do that, by the way, they want to do it—is that when you’re building the prototype, you start to really understand how it’s made and what it might do and where its weaknesses might be. If you merely hand a drawing to somebody and say, “Would you make this, please?” and in two weeks he comes back with it and you hand it to someone else who does the test, you’re not experiencing it. You’re not understanding it. You’re not feeling it. Our engineers and scientists love doing that."

Sir James Dyson, he of bagless vacuum cleaner fame, talks innovation, design, and entrepreneurship with Wired’s Shoshana Berger in How James Dyson Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary. I loved his description of the hands-on working environment he fosters at his company (above), while I also liked his take on patents, namely that they’re critically important when used correctly: 

If you really want to improve technology, if you want things to work better and be better, you’ve got to protect the person who spends a lot of effort, money, and time developing that new technology. But you can’t patent something that another skilled engineer in the field could have calculated or done with his basic knowledge.

You listening, Apple, with your patented page turn insanity?

And, well, now that we’re on the topic of patents, I loved this recent tweet from hacker/artist, Zach Lieberman:

So what happened next? I asked. Lieberman’s reply:

That link details changes to US patent law that came into effect in September, and those that will kick in in March of next year. It’s well worth a look…

April 20, 2012
"Don’t fire the people first. Fire the plan first."

How To Fail Less is a nice Q&A with entrepreneur Steve Blank, who explains his methodology of the “Lean Launchpad” for teaching entrepreneurship. Based on the idea initial hypotheses are most often entirely wrong, this approach to creating a business shares a lot in common with the design techniques of prototyping and iterating. 

[Story via Erik Van Crimmin]

April 10, 2012
"Humanities majors may well learn a great deal about the world. But they don’t really learn career skills through their studies. Engineering majors, conversely, learn in great technical detail. But they might not learn why, how, or where they should apply their skills in the workforce. The best students, workers, and thinkers will integrate these questions into a cohesive narrative."

Overlooking the fact that the Peter Thiel teaching at Stanford is the same Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids $100,000 to drop out of college and start a business, this is a great recap of Thiel’s first course at Stanford. Student Blake Masters took detailed notes, and there are some real gems (not, it should be noted, necessarily captured verbatim). The above comment shows the recognition of a workforce that can integrate inputs from diverse source, while this quote should also be borne in mind by all would-be entrepreneurs:

Channeling Tolstoy’s intro to Anna Karenina, all successful companies are different; they figured out the 0 to 1 problem in different ways. But all failed companies are the same; they botched the 0 to 1 problem.

I was also fascinated by Thiel’s interpretation of “the problem with big business,” which comes down to a question of scale and design:

North of 100 people in a company, employees don’t all know each other. Politics become important. Incentives change. Signaling that work is being done may become more important than actually doing work. These costs are almost always underestimated. Yet they are so prevalent that professional investors should and do seriously reconsider before investing in companies that have more than one office. Severe coordination problems may stem from something as seemingly trivial or innocuous as a company having a multi-floor office.

Thiel also gets into why people should ever embark on a startup in the first place, and it’s not, he advises, in order to merely copy what already exists. You can learn a lot if you shot for the moon and miss. But:

If you try to do Groupon for Madagascar and it fails, it’s not clear where exactly you are. But it’s not good.

And then finally, he details some questions all entrepreneurs should pose to themselves. I say we’d all probably benefit from taking a conscious look at where we are:

First, what is valuable? Second, what can I do? And third, what is nobody else doing?

December 26, 2011
"Western governments are obsessed with promoting small businesses and fostering creative ecosystems. But if large companies are the key to innovation, why not concentrate instead on creating national champions?"

In Big and Clever, The Economist takes a look at my former BusinessWeek colleague, Mike Mandel's hypothesis that today's economy favors big companies rather than small ones. It's an appealing theory, but the two reservations raised are smart and important:

  1. Big companies might be good at incremental innovation, but they’re generally more concerned with sustaining their big business, not engineered to disrupt effectively.

  2. Actually, it might not matter whether the company is big. What really matters is whether it grows. “Progress tends to come from high-growth companies. The best ones can take a good idea and use it to transform themselves from embryos into giants in a few years.” Most importantly, it’s these companies that create jobs.

The arguments both for and against are compelling. What’s more gratifying is that this is a genuinely intelligent discussion of a topic that continues either to baffle or be treated in the most superficial manner imaginable.

December 19, 2011
"When I caution them that they might have to have their uterus removed because of reproductive infections, they just say, ‘So what? How long are we going to live anyway?’"

Stark commentary from Indian women who weren’t interested in using a new type of sanitary pad, despite its cheap price. An Indian Inventor Disrupts the Period Industry purports to be a success story of a male entrepreneur’s dogged pursuit of truth about an issue he’d never experience personally, and his willingness to go to extremes to understand why things are the way they are is admirable. (Though frankly, I understand his family’s dismay at his decision to collect used pads; yes, the functionality of pads needs to be tested, but I’d imagine there are other, less visceral ways to do this.) But there’s also a much larger, cultural story here. Until the intended audience, the women who might actually use these pads once a month are prepared to think of themselves as cherished and valuable members of society, no product can make a real difference.

[Story via Deb Mills-Scofield.]

December 16, 2011
"I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world."

— Google co-founder, Sergey Brin weighs in (in a post on Google+, natch) on the Stop Online Piracy Act, the controversial proposal that many Internet entrepreneurs believe will “undermine entrepreneurship, innovation, the creation of content and free expression online.” Read an open letter sent to Washington “to protect Internet innovation”, signed by Brin and other heavyweights,  including Reid Hoffman, Jack Dorsey and Marc Andreesen.

December 15, 2011


"Billions worth of value created by tech start-ups with designer co-founders you probably don’t know about."




The phrasing made my brow furrow a little, but here’s the point: design can add value to a company’s bottom line value. At least, that’s the claim on this interactive infographic from The Designer Fund, the Silicon Valley-focused outfit that’s betting its farm on the idea that design should be an integral part of the start-up mix. 

The Designer Fund has had some good coverage and momentum (see this piece, in Fast Company) but this piece of marketing takes a page right out of the design-based innovation playbook: Create something visually compelling that people can play around with (interactive flashcards that show the company logo and details on one side and then flip to reveal the design founder); your audience will learn almost by default and you’ll have kept the conversation alive. 

What’s good about this is that there’s actually something worth talking about here: design really has been involved in some pretty compelling startups, including Internet old-timers such as YouTube (Chad Hurley: BA in Fine Art) or Flickr (Stewart Butterfield; previously a game designer) and newcomers such as Etsy (Rob Kalin; furniture designer) or Kickstarter (Charles Adler; background in interaction design.)

Now, granted, designers can’t possibly take all the credit for these companies’ success. And some of these designers have hardly had a traditional design training (Butterfield studied philosophy; Adler is a mechanical engineer). Nonetheless, this is a smart way to grok some old data and raise design’s profile in a traditionally engineering-focused realm. As Enrique Allen of The Designer Fund is quick to add: "we’re not making the claim that tech startups with designer founders are statistically better in some way, instead we are highlighting interesting case studies to explore further."

"Billions worth of value created by tech start-ups with designer co-founders you probably don’t know about."
The phrasing made my brow furrow a little, but here’s the point: design can add value to a company’s bottom line value. At least, that’s the claim on this interactive infographic from The Designer Fund, the Silicon Valley-focused outfit that’s betting its farm on the idea that design should be an integral part of the start-up mix. 

The Designer Fund has had some good coverage and momentum (see this piece, in Fast Company) but this piece of marketing takes a page right out of the design-based innovation playbook: Create something visually compelling that people can play around with (interactive flashcards that show the company logo and details on one side and then flip to reveal the design founder); your audience will learn almost by default and you’ll have kept the conversation alive. 

What’s good about this is that there’s actually something worth talking about here: design really has been involved in some pretty compelling startups, including Internet old-timers such as YouTube (Chad Hurley: BA in Fine Art) or Flickr (Stewart Butterfield; previously a game designer) and newcomers such as Etsy (Rob Kalin; furniture designer) or Kickstarter (Charles Adler; background in interaction design.)

Now, granted, designers can’t possibly take all the credit for these companies’ success. And some of these designers have hardly had a traditional design training (Butterfield studied philosophy; Adler is a mechanical engineer). Nonetheless, this is a smart way to grok some old data and raise design’s profile in a traditionally engineering-focused realm. As Enrique Allen of The Designer Fund is quick to add: "we’re not making the claim that tech startups with designer founders are statistically better in some way, instead we are highlighting interesting case studies to explore further."

December 12, 2011
"Everyone is saying you need a designer to be successful, but most people don’t know what a designer needs to be successful—and it is up to you to figure out if you are just a name on a list and will be a resource to be consumed or if this is a chance to be an integral piece of a culture that is driven by design."

Three Questions Every Designer Should Ask Before Joining a Start-up contains some really great advice from Phineas Barnes, formerly of And 1 basketball shoes and now a principal at First Round Capital. Well worth a read.

[Story via Ryan Jacoby.]

November 28, 2011
"Designers can’t wait to be “hired” to enhance or improve these offerings. We must be active participants at their inception. If designers are truly skilled at identifying unmet human needs and creating the breakthrough products to address those needs, then, increasingly we will need to prove our value as entrepreneurs."

I’ve been banging this drum for some time. Designers need to be able to explain why they do what they do in terms to which others can relate. Yes, business leaders need to sharpen up too, and learn to respect and trust practitioners of a profession that might just provide the keys to a sustainable future. But it’s a two-way street, and there’s a long way to go before the potholes and bumps of confusion are filled in and the tarmac of true collaboration runs smooth. (No excuse for that verbal butchery. Sorry.)

I was really confused by the U.S. myopia of the recent Fast Company issue on design, but in American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next? Frog VP of creative, Robert Fabricant, poses some important questions for those in the States to ponder. In particular, I liked his analysis of some of the American tech giants’ approach to design, which seems more grasping and desperate than considered and strategic. And yes, Apple, that’s you too: 

Under Apple’s influence we are watching an entire generation of aging geeks recycle their early experiences with technology as iPhone apps with the look of Pong or Blade Runner. It feels like Back to the Future. Is this the future of American Design?

November 21, 2011
Rob Giampietro: Ten Tips for Those Starting Out

Rob Giampietro on Design, Writing, and Pedagogy is Justin Kropp's interview with Project Projects principal, Rob Giampietro, who gives insight into the graphic design process and the evolution of the discipline. Giampietro concludes with a series of advice for those just starting to build a studio; tips that can in the main be applied to entrepreneurs from other disciplines, too. Smart stuff.
  1. An untended garden quickly becomes a field: plant what you want to grow.

  2. Have partners, but don’t do the same things: make sure you both do something you enjoy.

  3. Hire people for what they can teach you, not for what you can teach them.

  4. Everyone should be able to take criticism: creative trust is built on critical honesty.

  5. Design is only one part of the puzzle: savor the discussion, development, debate, and dissemination of your work just as much as the making of it.

  6. Goals may be arbitrary, but not having them will be maddening when there’s no one else to tell you if you’re doing a good job: set 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year goals at the outset.

  7. When you take your favorite clients out to lunch, it’s a good time to propose what you’d like to do together next.

  8. Knowing more designers doesn’t necessarily translate into having good clients: spend your development time wisely.

  9. Be known for something: it helps.

  10. You will never work harder than when you’re building something: find balance. Sometimes the best way to solve a creative problem is to take a vacation or read a book.
[Link via Ellen Lupton.]

November 18, 2011
Roger Martin on Fixing the Game

Roger Martin, dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, swung by our office this morning to talk strategy with Monitor partner, Steve Goldbach. Martin’s latest book, Fixing the Game, uses the NFL as a way to illustrate that it is actually possible to think about the global economy (and capitalism) in a responsible, less than destructive way. I live-tweeted the early morning affair; here are the collected tweets along with some extended comments:

"Roger Martin reflects that Occupy Wall Street is a reaction to fact that corporations have created damage rather than growth."

"The problem society faces, says Roger Martin, is that the best way to become rich is to trade value, not create value."

Asked to reflect on the Occupy movement (Zuccotti Park is a mere stone’s throw from where we were sitting), Martin said he thought those involved are asking a key question: why is it that organizations that are paying their executives so much money have created so much damage rather than a better economy, more jobs and growth? What protesters are responding to, he added, is the degree to which our economy has become a game of trading value, not creating value. There’s an important nuance here: this isn’t antipathy to the idea of wealth per se. “Americans in particular will cut slack to anyone creating net value,” he said. But the games of the market have become zero sum.

"Roger Martin schooling us on reality of stock market, incentives and pressure of expectations that can’t possibly be met."

The pressure of stock-based competition causes executives to do crazy things. Martin hypothesized that Pfizer might find a cure for cancer and see its stock jump trillions of dollars. No chance to bask in the glow of, you know, curing cancer; the company would simply be under pressure to do the same again the very next quarter. That pressure is unsustainable.

"CDOs provided the first "infinite market"; at height of crash, derivatives accounted for 3x global economy."

Never before in history have executives figured out how to keep expectations rising forever, Martin reminded us. That’s because in the main, real people had to buy the product. By creating synthetic credit derivatives such as CDOs, executives created the first infinite product, which they could slice and dice ad infinitum. Genius, right? Until it wasn’t.

"We take it on faith that heavy compensation creates organizational performance. There’s no proof for this." 

Behavioral economists are beginning to look into compensation theory, but for now, our assumption that high pay will result in “best” performance is based on nothing but our imagination. “There is no data; not a single study,” said Martin.

"P&G’s "kitchen logic": baking soda in a fridge cleans your fridge, so baking soda in toothpaste must clean teeth. Actually no connection."

I loved this story, from Martin’s experience at Procter & Gamble. “Kitchen logic” is where something feels right so it must surely work. Not so much. Baking soda toothpaste sells incredibly well… but it’s actually a “pretty crummy” product for cleaning your teeth.

"Looking at balance sheet/income statement has become the default. Companies are bad at describing strategy."

 "If you can’t talk about a company in more sophisticated ways, you look at the numbers. That’s the default," said Martin. "Chimpanzees grunt because they can’t speak English. We can’t have a more sophisticated understanding of companies so we look at balance sheets and income statements." There is a different way, he outlined: to understand a company’s strategy along qualitative dimensions. Sadly most don’t do this. "So we default to this base level chimp grunting and then we wonder why we get it wrong."

"Roger Martin calls for ban of stock-based compensation and three tiers of capital gains tax, with 2x rate on short-term holding periods."

Create three class of capital gains, he said. Long-term; two weeks to a year and then tax anything less than that at twice the normal rate, with a million dollar exemption that would mean that 98% of Americans would remain unaffected. The point, he said, would be to have a punishingly high taxation on short term holdings.

"The only useful reason for being on a board is to protect democratic capitalism."

Martin, who’s on the board of companies such as Thomson Reuters and Research in Motion, professed that he doesn’t find serving in this capacity at all enjoyable. The question for him is why you’d want to add another layer of agents above company leadership. After all, board members are human, too.

"Focus on serving customers, not on maximizing shareholder value or on making money."

"Have cause and effect straight in executives’ minds," Martin advised. Teach them that if they keep focused on the initial goal of the company and serve customers, the money will take care of itself. "If I start thinking about money, it won’t take care of itself." This might sound a little Pollyanna-ish, he acknowledged, but simply focusing on maximizing shareholder value will just create myriad other tricky problems.

September 1, 2011
Issues of Scale

In October, I’m co-chair, with GE’s Beth Comstock and Richard Whitehall of Smart Design, of the DMI-organized conference, Design at Scale. It’s shaping up to be a super event, with a ton of amazing speakers who will all add unique insight into this difficult topic. Questions of scale — how to do it, when to do it, why it’s apparently so enormously difficult — seem to dog the design industry. So I was interested to read this piece by Atlas Venture partner, Fred Destin, who writes about how premature scaling all too often kills startups stone dead. He’s writing from a technology standpoint, but it’s worth thinking about in terms of the design entrepreneurship that seems to be bubbling up right now. In particular, I liked his explanations of why startups scale before they’re really ready:

  • llusions of product market fit or price discovery
  • Confusing Founder Heroics with a Repeatable Model
  • Unprofitable Scaling / Absence of operating leverage
  • The Tail Wagging the Dog (Board Pressure)

Well worth a read. Story via new DMI president, Karen Reuther.

August 11, 2011
"Small, agile startups disrupt entire industries because they look at traditional problems with a new perspective. They’re fearless, because they have less to lose. But big, entrenched incumbents should still be able to compete, because they have massive amounts of data about their customers, their products, their employees, and their competitors. They fail because often they just don’t know how to ask the right questions."

In There’s No Such Thing as Big Data, writer Alistair Croll looks at the conundrum facing big businesses looking to innovate. He tells the story of a fervent fan of United Airlines, whose company was acquired and whose new corporate overlord had a contract with American Airlines. United surely noticed that it lost one of its best, most loyal customers, but did they do anything about it (and thus try to win a big new piece of business?) Did they heck. As Croll writes:

Companies have countless ways they might use the treasure troves of data they have on us. Yet all of this data lies buried, sitting in silos. It seldom sees the light of day.

Even overlooking the inevitable security questions that arise from new applications of customer data for a second, it’s worth thinking about this issue. And worth bearing in mind that for all the sophisticated technology involved in gathering these reams of information, it’d take a human being to decide to act on the collected patterns, connections and insights. That’s what drives innovation, and somehow I find this heartening.

June 22, 2011
The Designer-Driven Startup: Why and How

A nice series of posts over at the blog of Storytree, a new service aiming to allow people to “capture the stories that matter.” Storytree is in part funded by the Designer Fund, the interesting new setup which has built a strong community of design world luminaries and actively looks for startups with designers as part of the founding team. 

In The Designer-Driven Startup: Why, Storytree CEO Matt Sullivan (at least, I think it’s by him; the blog posts aren’t signed) discusses how a design-focused business is different from either old-school “business-driven” companies or the newer-school “hacker-driven” companies currently populating the Valley. The problem, he writes, is one of focus. Hackers design for themselves, because that’s all they know. Designers, meanwhile, are trained to figure out how to build for others. This might seem like an inconsequential nuance, but this has a huge impact when building products of scale.

Meanwhile, in The Designer-Driven Startup: How, he goes on to detail the company’s design approach: figure out who the audience is; figure out what they want; figure out what to make that gives them that. It’s an interesting insight into how designers might think about leading a company. The next post in the series will about challenges they face. Looking forward to it.

June 20, 2011
"While I prefer doing startups when the going’s tough, money is scarce, and engineers are unemployed—the best time to start a company is always two years ago, and the next best time is now. So now it is."

— Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake is at the startup game again, pre-announcing her new venture, which she describes as “something consumer-facing, something social.” For now, interested observers (given Fake’s track record, chances are there’ll be many) can sign up at the holding URL: 2bkco.com.