Tinker: an exercise in branding.

A bit of an update if you don’t follow my company’s blog. We’ve rebranded our UK studio to Tinker with a new url, new logo, corporate colours and everything ( for official release check out the official blog post) which was the result of more than a year’s worth of work in figuring out exactly how to talk about what we do, how to communicate it, to who and why.

A comment that people have made was “oh I liked the .it” and that’s ok coz it’s not going anywhere. Again read the blog post for that.

But it became very very clear quite early on that the joke was on us as far as our UK presence was concerned. What had started out as a pun (“tinker it”) then became a monster to manage in terms of brand message. With a dot, without, exclamation mark, without? Capital t or no? Corporate companies we deal with had their finance department or admin departments capitalise the IT because they assumed quite naturally that we were an IT firm. You can imagine how happy that made me.

The .it was also misleading in terms of url vs real location. A woman who I met recently who is managing director of a company I would consider in our ecology and are located nearby our office asked me “how often do you come to London then?”. I wanted to crawl under the carpet. “We’re based around the corner from you”. “Oh I thought you were in Italy”. This was a normal thing to assume of course, but one I didn’t think would impact our ability to reach the right people. And of course it did.

When you run a business, I figure 3 years down the line, it’s ok to admit that the logo you designed one sweltering April afternoon in the middle of the furniture fair (this year marks my first break in attending that particular event) and the website that was put together rather rapidly are part of a history but can always be improved on. That message can change, like companies change and adapt. The big difference these days is being able to play the Google analytics/juice game in a smart way, making sure everyone on Twitter gets it and that the people you work with know why you’re doing it. It’s hard work, but the attention span is quite short, so I think you can afford to change more often than what would have been regarded as safe in terms of marketing a decade ago. Work in progress, as usual.

Running a studio (comment 2)

I realised I don’t write very often about my day job here, perhaps because this feels like a different space that I can use to talk about the meta-job of running a company. Last year, I wrote about running a business but I’m very interested in the dynamics of running a design studio at the moment since we’ve just finished moving for the 4th time in our London office and are part of London’s so-called Silicon Roundabout.

Once upon a time in Ivrea, I borrowed a bunch of DVDs on the Eames’ work and was totally fascinated by 901, their studio in Venice California. Through the years that studio and their work in general has actually been more and more of an influence and reference point. The big challenge in the 21st century activity of running a business is deciding what you are defined by. Are you defined by your work? If so, which part of your work will people hang on to as a mental hook? In our case it was Arduino even if we didn’t develop it, and don’t even sell it anymore. Are you defined by the people in the business? If so how do you give them a voice outside of the business? In our case, I push people to speak at conferences so that I’m not the only one people see. Are you defined by your approach? If so, how do you communicate that? Really hard but I suppose we’re slowly getting there.

One thing I’ve been really looking into lately is how to build culture internally and what that culture means. I’ve come to the conclusion that business culture comes from the types of habits that are formed. In our case, that habit is around sweets. Let me explain. Everytime someone goes somewhere for a conference or a holiday, they always come back with sweets from that place. Small thing, but that makes the office feel like a family which is important when some people are full time and others aren’t. Some people have office breakfasts, friday morning meetings, ours has weekly office emails, sweets, Bantam and Google docs.

Running a studio (comment 1)

It’s always scary and entertaining when a concept that comes from programming techniques kindof made me think of the way I run my company.

Instead, most of a program’s overall functionality is coded into a single “all-knowing” object, which maintains most of the information about the entire program and provides most of the methods for manipulating this data. Because this object holds so much data and requires so many methods, its role in the program becomes God-like (all-encompassing). Instead of program objects communicating amongst themselves directly, the other objects within the program rely on the God object for most of their information and interaction. Since the God object is referenced by so much of the other code, maintenance becomes more difficult than it otherwise would in a more evenly divided programming design. […] While creating a God object is typically considered bad programming practice, this technique is occasionally used for tight programming environments (such as microcontrollers), where the slight performance increase and centralization of control is more important than maintainability and programming elegance.

Things I need to remind myself of

Celebrating nearly 2 years as the CEO of a small and dynamic interaction design company I thought I’d collate some thoughts on starting up your own company in interaction design as this be useful for someone out there.

Money is important. When you start your own company, (i’m talking normal company here and not web2.0. There is no angel, VC or other convenient fluffy forms of funding here) you’ll realise how much cash flow rules your world and every decision you will ever make. Want to do r&d? Where’s the money coming from? Want to make stickers, buy a printer, pay people? Where’s the money coming from? Get an accountant fast and get one who cares about your business. If you’re around 10 people, get a part-time CFO, just a few days a month will do, you’ll need someone to be the bad cop with money, otherwise, you’ll end up spending your days chasing after people.

Don’t fool yourself, the types of people who understand what you do are few and far between. You will spend 80% of your time explaining to people what you do and trying to make that come to life for them. Be prepared. The fact that there are over 50 schools around the world that teach interaction design and physical computing does NOT mean that there is an established industry to settle in. You’re the weird kid on the block. Hang out with people from the advertising industry, they will teach you a lot. Learn about what people who are high up in companies need to hear and what their comfort level is. Make yourself understandable and flexible enough to not seem too risky or threatening. Otherwise, people won’t know what to do with you.

When you start a company, it becomes part of you in (i’m assuming) the same way a child does. Weekends are a write-off, you’ll work every evening and time “away” will be hard as you try to grow a business that eventually doesn’t need you to feed it everyday. That will take years. I’m not there yet.

Never forget what motivated you to do this, if you start sounding “bored”, then you’re doing something wrong, stop right now and get a regular job.

I’m blessed to be surrounded with the absolute most wonderful, talented, creative, weird people I could imagine. You’ll spend more time with these people than with your significant other, so choose them well and build a team you can rely on. This will be crucial when times get rough and you’re running out of steam.

Having a good relationship with our clients will matter A LOT. Choose them as carefully as you would choose a girlfriend/boyfriend and remember that good business is when there is a benefit for both parties. If you’re being bullied, something’s gone wrong.

As a creative person, if you decided to be at the head of a company, you’ll have to quickly accept the fact that your creativity will only be required 5% of the time. The rest, you will spend paying bills, meeting clients, handling invoices, sending reminders, arranging meetings, going to conferences and other things that will inject life into your business. I spend more time on Powerpoint, Excel and Word than I do using any creative suite. It’s part of the game, and you’ll learn to enjoy it. It makes the creative times that much more intense and precious.

So there. I’m sure I’ll think of more later, but I these are probably the most important things I can think I’ve learnt in the past 2 years.