By Michael Hart
Here we are. Seven people from seven digitally-focused Scottish companies meeting some of the great and the monstrously successful in Silicon Valley on an immersive, once-in-a-lifetime, fact-finding mission. It’s impossible to overstate the sheer scale of this opportunity or the great privilege that has been offered to each of us; here are some of the people we met on day one …
IDEO is a product design company founded in 1978 by David Kelley and based in Palo Alto. They have redesigned the mouse for Apple, reinvented the classroom chair for American schools and reconfigured the nail polish applicator to make that tricky left hand to right hand coating easier. Wander through their offices (you can’t but we did in the company of project lead, Peter MacDonald) or scan the pages of their website and one thing becomes abundantly and consistently clear: creativity blossoms in a collaborative culture.
Perhaps that might be viewed as a somewhat trite statement but IDEO’s philosophy isn’t about getting a bunch of people together to pay lip service to the concept of teamwork, they customise the team to solve the problem. If it’s a medical challenge then they’ll recruit doctors, surgeons and nurses to work alongside strategists and product designers. If it’s aviation, then pilots and air hostesses will rub shoulders with engineers and physicists.
And in the middle of this perfect casting is the client. This is working together on an immersive level you’ll be hard-pressed to encounter anywhere else. And those clients who are the most resistant or even sceptical of the approach are the ones most actively encouraged to participate in the ideation process. Epiphanies duly follow and former doubters often become IDEO’s most strident evangelists.
The mission of SMULE mission is to connect the world through music. They create apps like Sing! Karaoke, Magic Piano and AutoRap which allow their users to make, discover and enjoy music. So far 1.5 % of the world’s population (125 million people) have downloaded their apps. Approaching their tenth anniversary it’s arguable whether SMULE can still be classed as a startup but the curious thing is the company’s apparent lack of a defined culture.
Jane Hu, SMULE’s head of monetisation, remarked that the majority of students in her year at Stanford University harboured desires to set up successful startups but gave little thought to what kind of company they would want to run. The proliferation of tech startups and the hunger to sell mean that the end goal is often simply financial reward rather than the building of a brand with a distinct philosophy and workplace culture. SMULE will certainly catch the eye of the investor but may find itself having to reverse engineer a set of values to appeal to future employees.
‘Done is better than perfect’ is the mantra that runs through Facebook like a stick of rock. Get it built, then improve it and improve it and improve it. Failure is not something to fear but merely an accepted stop-off on the way to the destination. That’s what drives Facebook’s culture of innovation. And it needs to. Because there are 19,000 people working in their Menlo Park campus. That’s more or less the population of Musselburgh or Arbroath.
But don’t be seduced or misled by the scale of the operation. It’s the quality of their people and their fine-tuned synergy that fuel the company dynamic. Two and a half hours in the company of Joel Pobar, Facebook’s Director of Engineering, made that abundantly clear. Joel has reconfigured working systems at Facebook with a deft mix of business acumen, psychotherapy and the common touch. Considering the intense pressure to succeed and that the team you’re overseeing is growing exponentially that’s not a challenge to be taken lightly.
Under Joel the subtleties of management and the disciplines of leadership are carefully and meticulously deployed. Individuals are coaxed, coached and cajoled, and teams are taken on a journey from forming, storming and norming to hopefully performing. This was a two and a half hour masterclass and a glimpse into one of the incredible minds behind one of the world’s most incredible companies.
Michael Hart is creative director of The Union.
Nathan Fulwood adds …
The size of the Facebook campus is difficult to put into context. Imagine Edinburgh Airport, double it, and stick a park on the roof and you’re somewhere close. Of course it’s got the free restaurants, the climbing wall, and frozen yoghurt stations (though we didn’t see any ballpits), but it was the people that were most impressive.
Our host for the day was a long serving Engineering Director and Albaphile Aussie named Joel Pobar. He showed a genuine and keen interest in the challenges facing our companies at both a personal and organisational level, and spend 90 minutes of his own time sharing his experience building high performing teams in one of the most competitive and high-pressured environments imaginable. His advice was freely given but hugely valuable. These insights will help massively as we grow our team back home.
IDEO: I was immediately inspired to action by the visit to IDEO’s Palo Alto Studio. Our host, Peter Macdonald (good Scottish name – but hailing from New England), was incredibly open and generous with his time and experience. IDEO have built a global agency around human-centred design, staying true to but also evolving their principles and disciplines as they’ve grown.
As a young creative consulting firm built founded on similar beliefs of expert advice, speed and collaboration and it was both inspiring and validating. Apparently it’s been said of IDEO that ‘they are the firm to call if you want to blow stuff up’ – to challenge the norms. I think this is an approach particularly well suited to the innovative and inquisitive Scottish mindset. As soon as we get back I’ll be putting some of their approaches into practice, challenging ourselves to tackle bigger, more meaningful projects, and building out a culture and confidence that’s not afraid to go for work on the global stage.
Nathan Fulwood is co-founder and strategy director of CreateFuture.