Hustle! Hustle! Hustle! — 3 Ventures as an Entrepreneur
This is Part 2 of a series on shifting from Services Leader to Product Leader. Please also read Part 1 — The Dead-End of Professional Design Services, Part 3 — Chance of a Nighttime and the interlude Crash Landing
If you want something, go get it, period.
— Will Smith in The pursuit of Happyness
“Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!” yelled coach Horwath as we were practicing for the upcoming final playoff game. Our AA ice hockey team had won the City and Regional championships and we were preparing to win the Provincial Championships. Ice hockey is in my blood, I started skating at 3 years old on our backyard ice rink in Winnipeg, Canada, taught by my mom who was earlier on the Canadian Olympic Speed Skating team. I started playing ice hockey at the age of 6 in the early 1980’s on outdoor rinks in -15c winter weather (we covered our faces in vaseline to avoid the terrible frost bite!). After that championship year when I was around 14, I stopped hockey to spend more time playing drums in a punk band (think skate-punk from the early 1990s like Superchunk, Jawbreaker, and early Green Day), on competitive skateboarding and on snowboarding. I loved team sports, so the punk band was the replacement for it, and the other individualist sports solved my need for creative self-expression.
Around this time I also had my first experience with political action and entrepreneurship. It was different than all the years I spent working at my dad’s business Prairie Mobile Communications working on walkie talkies and 2-way radio systems; shovelling snow for elderly couples; babysitting; or delivering ad flyers door-to-door.
The experience was to create the first public-private partnership indoor summer skateboard park at the local indoor hockey arena. I was lucky to be involved from the start with my friend Jeremy Hennessey to design the skatepark, working with the local CIBC Bank branch manager, the local City Councillor and SK8 Skates. CIBC was motivated because we always skated in their parking lot, scaring away their clients. The local councillor was interested for various reasons and Sk8 Skates was our best skater-run shop in Winnipeg, supporting the skate community and holding competitions (which I participated in). We succeeded, and it was great! The model also spread to 2 other locations across the city the following summer, providing a much-needed space for our ‘sport’ (which was an ‘delinquent nuisance’ at the time) when schools were closed during the summer.
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. — Karl Marx
Hustle! — Open Form Architecture (OFA), 2008–2011
The story: Co-founded OFA with Maxime Moreau and Maurice Martel, first while we each worked around the world: Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Montreal. We were student friends, with Max and I being very close and having worked on many projects together. We started doing competitions in 2004, and in 2008 we all moved to Montreal to launch OFA on New Years Eve 2008.
Responsibilities: co-founder; business strategy and development; managed clients, projects, competitions and research projects; setup and managed the office finances and accounting, banking and regular monitoring of cash flow and P&L; setup and managed the IT infrastructure, software and hardware systems; co-responsible for HR and hiring; creation of the first 2 OFA websites and developed the 3rd OFA website with an external consultant.
What worked: we doubled our compound annual growth every year; we were recognized across Canada; we successfully won and completed 2 research grants; we were published in trade press and newspapers; we curated one exhibition in Montreal on digital design practice; we hired great staff and built a number of great architecture projects; we created a fantastic branding with Typotrope.
What didn’t work: we accepted and kept some bad clients and projects (for cashflow reasons which backfired); we didn’t succeed in finding any urban design projects (local professional rules forbid architects to do them); we hit a glass ceiling for small offices (local tendering process was very restrictive to protect larger firms); we had a long-term team misfit between the 3 founding partners; I decided to return to Europe in 2011 (story for another time), and a few years later the other 2 partners separated to form their own firms MXMA and MMA.
Above all else show the data. — Edward R. Tufte
Hustle!— Spatiomatics, 2015
The story: Spatiomatics was created in order to work on the UN-Habitat Urban Design and Planning Labs back in 2015–2017. I created the name and later used it as a vehicle to explore some early product ideas around design and geodata collaboration, inspired by the problems I saw in Myanmar working on the Yangon City Extension Masterplan for UN-Habitat.
Responsibilities: Founder; market research; competitive landscape research; business strategy and business model development; branding; financing and accounting; UX/UI prototyping; sales.
What worked: Carried out 20 very in-depth interviews with actors across the industry in: GIS, software development, city development, property asset management, global institutions, urban economists, etc. (it is still a source of inspiration); I participated in the ECE Startup Program at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship in Rotterdam to work with investors, business strategists, lawyers and other entrepreneurs to prototype my business model (I still have some incredible friends from this experience); I spoke to over 25 potential customers during the short program to hear their pain points; I developed a UX/UI wireframe and function prototype with Adobe XD; I developed multiple business models to test with customers; I integrated a legal strategy (pre-GDPR) regarding privacy and software licensing.
What didn’t work: I learned that the opportunity timing wasn’t right. Yes, there could be a product/market fit, but the business model is challenging and market adoption will be difficult. I would also need to build up a team to pursue the venture seriously because it’s a very ambitious proposal; it’s even important to create a community around the ambition, including academics, GIS specialists and software developers. Cities will not be a good customer for the product; the AEC industry is far behind in potential adoption; and the GIS community typically sides with either ESRI (terrible monopoly) or QGIS (open source) — and currently rarely use online platforms for regular workflows. Potentially the solution is to focus on the data flow APIs that glue together the functionality of other software. I’m optimistic that there is a pain-point to solve, however there have been well-funded companies with exciting products that couldn’t yet make this work, such as the amazing Flux.io. What I developed still doesn’t exist, and there are some technical reasons for this as well.
I don’t mean a bricks-and-mortar architect. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artefact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear. — Richard Saul Wurman.
Hustle!— KCAP Computational Design, 2018
The story: When I arrived at KCAP in mid-2013, I couldn’t work effectively with the hardware and software tools in use at the office. I advocated extensively to introduce Rhino3D and Grasshopper to the office and succeeded in mid-2014. From that point I slowly built-up the computational design workflow and trained staff on my own initiative. This role evolved slowly and by mid-2018 I was given two extra roles in addition to my other roles as an Associate Partner: (1) help optimize the project workflow of KCAP, and (2) develop new business opportunities for KCAP in the delivery of new products and services.
Responsibilities: Business strategy; product development; business model and business plan development; customer interviews; partner outreach; product development and testing for internal design tools; building algorithms for Grasshopper scripts; python programming for Rhino3D and Grasshopper; file interoperability between various software; overall office workflow optimization proposals and implementation; training of staff; publishing extensive material on the KCAP Intranet for training, learning sources, inspiration, etc.
What worked: built the computational design team from scratch; training of staff (ongoing); developed many internal scripts and workflows through build-test-release iterations; developed many working product prototypes (MVPs); received and developed internal KCAP product requests (backlog); created new organizational teams and structures to merge CAD graphics, 3D visualization and computational design (business process reorganization); developed a simplified business plan for a spin-off company serving new client services and products; implemented a hybrid Agile project management methodology (adaptation of Scrum) that also applied to my design projects; helped implement an intranet (Wordpress), internal messaging app (Twist, then MS Teams) and agile collaboration tools (Asana, backlogs).
What is still hard: Many designers don’t want to change their working methods (an industry-wide challenge); staff changes defeat training effectiveness; it’s very difficult to change part of the office from services to products; there’s little appetite for financial risk to develop new products; no hiring of sales person to engage first customers.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. — Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The latest step on my journey as an entrepreneur is to hit business school. For 10 years I’ve wanted to do an MBA or Executive MBA (I know… opinion is mixed on the value of an MBA). After rigorous research and visiting of schools and interviewing students and teachers, I decided to start the EMBA program at IMD in Lausanne and started in February 2019. Since it’s a modular program, I could complete the first of three modules, Foundations for Business Leadership (FBL) just before the birth of my second boy and then take a short break. It was a dream come true to finally join a cohort of 60+ amazing and experienced leaders from around the world to broaden and deepen my business skills after all these years of entrepreneurship. Surprising enough, I found the topic of Supply Chain incredibly fascinating, probably due to its complexity.
It’s now mid-2019 and this personal article follows Part 1 in this series. Next I will dive into the roles of Services Leadership vs Product Leadership (Part 3), and tell the story of my two sabbaticals learning how to: build web applications (Part 4) and code with python for software and data science (Part 5).