Aaron Dignan: Being a Leader Means Giving Up Control

Aaron Dignan: Being a Leader Means Giving Up Control

Aaron Dignan wants to know if you’re doing the best work of your life.

He suspects the answer is “Not yet,” “No,” or “What even is life?”

In his view, it’s common for people today to feel a sense of disillusionment about their careers. “A lot of the promises that we were given one, two, three decades ago about what work should be and how great being a leader would feel are kind of falling flat,” he says.

That lack of fulfillment isn’t the fault of the individual, or even the company. According to Dignan, it’s because we’re living with the outdated architecture businesses were built on a hundred years ago: good at delivering to shareholders, but no match for today’s demands of transparency, equity, and purpose.

Long before he would become an an entrepreneur, Dignan was your average high school kid, working jobs at Office Depot and the local mall kiosk, experiencing his first brush with the feeling of untapped potential. “[My managers] were only interested in me serving as a cog in the machine,” he recalls. Now, as the founder of the organizational transformation firm The Ready, Dignan coaches corporations on how to avoid making the same mistakes.

Recently, he published his learnings in the book Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? which takes aim at the underlying assumptions that keep companies clutching at Stone Age ideas of control and outdated tools like compliance, accountability versus responsibility, and method versus principle.

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Q. Your book title references the novel Brave New World, which warns against a dystopian hyper-capitalistic future. Are you optimistic about what’s ahead or do you similarly foresee something equally dystopian?

A. I’m optimistic that we have a chance. In the next decade, the decisions that we make about our institutions, communities, and organizations are going to dictate the kind of future we live in. Everything from inequality, to automation, to globalization, to climate change are all ultimately subject to our ability to come together and solve problems in new ways. We’re right in the eye of the storm. We’re either going have a breakthrough in the next decade that leads to dramatically different outcomes, or we’re going keep doing what we’ve been doing. So, the title is no accident. It’s to say, “It’s now or never, folks.”

Cover of Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan.

“Brave New Work” is Aaron Dignan’s latest book on workplace culture. Photo courtesy of Aaron Dignan.

Q. A premise of your book is that what made strong organizations has changed over the last 100 years. What do companies need to realize in order to evolve into the future (or, really, to acknowledge the present they’re already in)?

A. If you look back 100 years, although the world had some big changes around industrialization and after World War 2, markets didn’t change that quickly. There were three networks, two brands of cornflakes. Today, there are 20 kinds of Oreos. We’ve gone from a world where the competitive landscape and its dynamics were so simple and slow to one where they are extremely dynamic, unpredictable, and crowded. Back then, the thing you needed was scale, compliance, efficiency, and consistency so that you could create products that were safe and available broadly. It worked really well to solve the problem of: How do we lift everyone up? How do we make sure there’s enough food for everyone? However, as the dynamic shifted and we mastered that stuff, the challenge became: How do have meaning at work? How do we have greater connection? How do we have inclusivity and equity? What we need today is the most adaptive, responsive, human-centric supply chain. We need the ability to create things that meet our changing needs on the fly.

“I was definitely a micromanager at one point and I found it exhausting. It wasn’t sustainable. Even if it did work, it was working in spite of itself rather than because of itself.”

Q. Is it possible for legacy organizations to move faster, behaving as they’ve always behaved? Is that even the goal?

A. The question is: are we looking for speed or are we actually looking for responsiveness? When people talk about corporate agility, we mistake it for speed. But speed is a byproduct of working in the right way. It’s not the goal. We can all just be faster and do terrible products that people don’t like and don’t work faster, right? Right now, we have leaders at the top who are reacting to all the information that’s flowing up to them and then making a decision that then cascades all the way back down. It takes forever and the information gets distorted by the time it reaches them. So yeah, you can try to speed that up by just yelling at everybody to go faster but that’s not the answer. The answer is to be more adaptive, more agile, more responsive to what’s going on so that you’re sensing more continuously and more pervasively.

Q. What’s an example of how an organization could reorganize to be more sensing versus directive?

A. Every organization has an operating system (OS). An OS is the assumptions, principles, and practices that you put into play. So, the metaphor of “the intersection” is a great example. How do we get two roads to cross without anybody hitting anybody?

The two different operating-system solutions for this example have two different sets of assumptions about people. The lighted intersection with the red, yellow, green light assumes that, generally, people ought not to be trusted, that they need to be told what to do and when to do it, and that we need an elaborate set of signals and controls to manage that behavior. It requires compliance and it does not require a lot of presence of mind. There’s this sort of passiveness to the way you participate in a lighted intersection. If the light’s red, you pull out your phone, check your email, turn on the radio. You’re not present in the space until you’re told what to do and then you jump back in.

“What we’re actually asking leaders to do is trade one kind of control for another, one kind of power for another. In the past, you had control through compliance. In the future, you’re going to have control through transparency, social pressure, and responsibility.” 

A roundabout, on the other hand, has a different set of assumptions: that people can be trusted and need to respond to just a few rules, such as going with the flow with traffic and giving the right of way to people already in the circle. A roundabout leaves room for judgment. And it’s sufficient for it to outperform the lighted intersection in most contexts on almost every measure.

The same thing is true with work. We have a lot more command and control than we need and it’s holding us back. In most organizations, the operating system says on paper “We hire the best people and we trust them and they have these ambitious goals.” And then we treat them like they’re five years old. It’s bonkers.

Q. As the founder of Undercurrent, you led the startup from being an ‘intersection’ company to a ‘roundabout’ company. What was that like to give up that kind of control?

A. Even with people who crave control, my most common experience is that they are actually quite frustrated, stressed out, and overwhelmed with the reality of what it feels like to run an organization that way. That was my experience, too. I was definitely a micromanager at one point and I found it exhausting. It wasn’t sustainable. Even if it did work, it was working in spite of itself rather than because of itself.

“It’s not easy to buck the incumbent system and move away from the status quo. There are real risks. There are real challenges and some of those challenges are to our very egos and identities. The good news is it is happening.”

What we’re actually asking leaders to do is trade one kind of control for another, one kind of power for another. In the past, you had control through compliance. In the future, you’re going to have control through transparency, social pressure, and responsibility. Does the designer of a roundabout have as much control as the designer of a lighted intersection? I would argue they have more control. They’re getting the outcomes they want more often and more consistently.

Q. In the book, you say you’re not necessarily trying to build a harmonious system. You’re trying to for a better one.

A. Yes, the emergence of what works is exactly what you’re looking for, right? You’re looking for a system that is resilient; that is, enabling and growing and becoming without having to be directed by some hero leader. The thing about the roundabout is it works a hell of a lot better when the power goes out. When the unexpected happens, that system is resilient. When the unexpected happens at a stoplight, it’s complete pandemonium. If you think about financial crises or other things in business that totally uproot the system, if you have the right OS in place, you can be resilient. But if you don’t, it’s a complete nightmare.

Q. Based on your experience working with legacy companies, do you think they’ll be able to embrace organizational shifts like this?

A. It’s not easy to buck the incumbent system and move away from the status quo. There are real risks. There are real challenges and some of those challenges are to our very egos and identities. The good news is it is happening. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations moving in this direction. You can start connecting the dots for shareholders and owners and say, “Hey, we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can have a system that is more human-centric, complexity-conscious, more people-positive and produces better outcomes for shareholders.”

The issue now is how fast can we part with some of the comforting ideas of control and success towards something that’s more aware of the possibilities and more willing to get after these operating system opportunities in order to make better things possible. I haven’t decided the future yet. I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. I’m just straight up worried and invested.

Q. You’re in the sensing zone.

A. Yeah. I know that we’re on the edge of the knife. So I’m trying to sound the alarm that we still have the chance to really transcend all this stuff and to start going to our next chapter. Or we can go backwards.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2JC1sZJ

Fake Love’s Layne Braunstein: To Survive the Future, Be Upgradable

Fake Love’s Layne Braunstein: To Survive the Future, Be Upgradable

When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.

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Layne Braunstein is the co-founder of Fake Love, the New York Times creative studio behind incredible multisensory experiences for clients including Samsung and Nordstrom. Braunstein will be at the 11th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 8-10 in New York City.

Q. What is a skill you believe to be futureproof?

A. I have worked in every possible industry as a creative— agency, post-production, TV network, gaming, brand side, media, and startup—so the first skill I’ve cultivated is the ability to pivot without fear. That means the ability to change an idea, a project, or even my career when it’s needed. I never pivot without looking towards the future; I gather a deep understanding of what’s next and take a giant leap forward into the void.

The second thing is to never stop learning your craft. I aggressively look for new ways to express myself and tell stories for my clients. I never pitch anything that I don’t understand how to mostly make myself. And I can’t do that with a Google search; I have to get my hands dirty. In experiential, nothing replaces hands-on knowledge of what you are proposing. Creatives with that knowledge will rise above the other creatives who are just riding this newest wave in advertising.

Q. Why will these full pivots and hands on approach be so important in the future?

A. It’s important to be a multifaceted creative in the future, because you never know what your next path will be. Don’t be a jack of all trades, master of none. At the same time, don’t just think you are going to be a UX designer and nothing else. The wave of talent coming out of art school today has that mindset. We all should, too.

Q. What’s a time in your career that you realized the power of all those pivots?

A. I realized very early after starting Fake Love, that having those skills was a huge advantage. We were basically starting a new industry that merged advertising, marketing, event production, interactive design, and tech startup into one: experiential. We were a three-person company back then, and walking into a room with deep industry experience in all those things felt very powerful. I could speak everyone’s language.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone looking to cultivate this approach?

A. If you are looking to be an innovator, don’t just list that as an adjective in your bio. Really live it. Don’t become an I do everything creative, because that is replaceable as well. Think of yourself as an upgradable creative: always willing to leap into new territories, be better, and change yourself.

 

Hear from Layne Braunstein and more creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2TCYw3B

Design Debate: Should You Enter Design Contests?

Design Debate: Should You Enter Design Contests?

In our newest design debate, Isabel Castillo Guijarro, Gijs van den Berg, and Wael Morcos explore the pros and cons of trying to win a design award. Ready, set, debate.

1. Competitions can validate your work and facilitate new connections.
Isabel Castillo Guijarro, freelance art director, designer, and illustrator

When I first got to New York, applying to design awards was a great way to get ahead with my visa application. But I would have applied to awards without needing a visa: A win can be hugely valuable, especially at the onset of your career.

After school, I took part in AIGA’s Command X, where you have 24 hours to respond to a brief. For me, the event became way more than just a competition. I was so shy and nervous standing in front of the crowd presenting my designs, so when I got back to New York, the first thing I decided was to do more public speaking. My takeaway ended up being nothing to do with design at all, but rather, I learned how to sell an idea—which is vital for professional life.

“The price means you also have to be careful when deciding which award to apply for. For me, I apply to the competitions that designers I admire have won in the past.”

I’ve also won the Society of Illustrators award, which was a hugely validating win for me. I didn’t go to school for illustration but instead learned on the job while working at Refinery29 for the past five years. To be selected as a winner along with so many talented illustrators, who have all been trained in the discipline, made me think: ‘OK, maybe I really am an illustrator after all.’ The award also brought me exposure: lots of people wanted to work with me because they saw my work at the competition’s exhibition.

Awards are expensive, of course. But because of the price, you become a bit more critical of your own work. You’re not going to submit 10 different designs—instead, you need to slow down and carefully consider what to submit. The price means you also have to be careful when deciding which award to apply for. For me, I apply to the competitions that designers I admire have won in the past.

Ultimately, what has counted most for me is attending the award ceremonies themselves and meeting lots of talented people through them. Last year when I was attending the Society of Illustrators award ceremony, I commissioned artists that I met there to do things for Refinery29. On the flip side, I also met loads of art directors that hired me to freelance illustration for them. Because of these experiences, I’ll definitely be applying to other awards in the future.”

2. If you’re creating work to win awards, you’re in an echo chamber.
Gijs van den Berg, creative director at KesselsKramer Amsterdam

It’s a big statement, but I think awards can be a bit of a disease. First, you win one. Then you win another. And then they suddenly become an obsession—a reason to make work. If you need confirmation and validation with your work though, that will ultimately lead to frustration when you don’t win. Then you’ll become jealous, and then that’ll create bad atmosphere in your workplace.

I’ve worked at KesselsKramer for ten years, and we don’t submit to the award shows any more. Previously I worked at an agency where we did: I found that desiring awards means making work that you believe will win. It becomes a goal in itself, and then the client’s needs get lost. You’re designing for other designers.

“The judging process can be a bit superficial. It’s important to hear context instead of just scrolling on a screen and giving things a star.”

By looking at what your competitors and colleagues are doing, you inevitably create similar work and never get outside of your comfort zone. I strongly believe and encourage creatives to look at photography, film, art, performance, and music, because they’re much better fields to find inspiration in. Crossovers can lead to much more interesting work. If you’re creating work to win awards, you’re in an echo chamber.

I’ve judged a few awards too. You have this screen in front of you and before you know it, you’ve spent five hours flicking through work quickly. I believe every idea deserves a bit of context and explanation though. If I see a poster, I can judge it on its layout, but if I see a poster hanging in a particular spot and I know its context, then it changes my opinion on the design. The judging process can be a bit superficial. It’s important to hear context instead of just scrolling on a screen and giving things a star.

There is also the financial impact of applying to awards. It’s expensive, especially if like us, you make work for many different categories. It’s much nicer to use that money to organize a great party every year for all of your people.

3. Design awards can be dangerously discouraging.
Wael Morcos, partner at Morcos Key

When it comes to design awards, I’m conflicted. Awards are a form of peer approval—they’re validating for those trying to find their career path. But they’re also expensive, aggressively marketed, and sometimes flawed in their evaluation.  

For me, awards were very helpful as an immigrant entering the USA. When you’re an Arabic designer in an American, English speaking community, it’s welcoming and encouraging to see that your work is appreciated and understood. Accolades can help outsiders understand your contributions as a creative practitioner.

“There are a lot of different types of competitions out there and it’s important that a designer, especially a young one, understands where the work fits best.”

But one issue is that award clubs can be too sleek in their marketing. There are a lot of different types of competitions out there and it’s important that a designer, especially a young one, understands where the work fits best. It’s important to know what’s worth paying the entry fee for—and that might not be evident to fresh graduates.

While the judging process of awards can be flawed (flashy tropes tend to drown out quieter narratives), the annuals and publications produced are interesting. They’re historical records giving a glimpse to the kind of work the design industry was interested in at a particular time. That’s why I appreciate the competitions that put together a panel of judges who are experts in their fields of study.

Ultimately, I don’t think awards are a necessity for someone’s career. They’re just one tool for putting yourself out there. It has become easier with social media and the art of self promotion for people to achieve visibility through hard work. Whether through design competitions or online self-promotion, designers talk amongst themselves and the industry forms its discourse. What’s missing is nuanced critique that bridges the divide between deeper analysis and exciting form making.

What’s interesting to me is how communities—local communities, minority communities—might enter into that kind of conversation and be represented in these dialogues. For peer- reviewed competitions, it’s important to create spaces where these voices are acknowledged. That could be through diversifying the judging panel or by bringing new, local voices to the table.”

 

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2T38Dct

How These Designers Found Success on the Fringe

How These Designers Found Success on the Fringe

Can you quantify wonder? If so, Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy of Brooklyn’s CW & T studios have mastered it.

Partners in art and life—the pair are married with children—Wang and Levy have amassed an impressive following for their often whimsical inventions, eight of which have debuted on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. So far they’ve conjured everything from a poster designed to sharpen your ability to decipher scale to an iOS app that tests your internal sense of time and an indestructible “forever jump rope”, in the process melding tech, industrial design and product development with a hint of performance art. Their most successful project on Kickstarter to date has been a $99 minimalist stainless steel pen that raised $282,000 from more than 4,000 backers; its successor raised $148,000.

Last month, the multi-talented duo celebrated the shipment of one of their most unusual projects: the Time Since Launch single-use clock, similar to the tickers used to determine marathon winners. Once you pull the clock’s pin, the clock begins to count the days, minutes, and hours of your life, ending at 2,738 years. Designed to mark momentous occasions such as a wedding, birth, or the day you quit smoking, it’s meant to chart your “personal epoch.” But where do such fantastical ideas come from?

In the interview below, Wang and Levy share the inspiration behind their ideas, their process, and how they enable others to connect with their offbeat products.

Prototypes of CW&T's latest Kickstarter project, Time From Launch. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Prototypes of CW&T’s latest Kickstarter project, Time From Launch. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Q. How did you get the idea for the Time Since Launch clock?

Levy: It started as one of Che-Wei’s thesis projects while we were in residency at the MIT Media Lab. It’s one of several devices we’ve made to alter our everyday relationship to time. Traditional devices such as clocks, watches + calendars are practical but tend to only address scales we’re familiar with—seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years. Time Since Launch references something much more significant than we can wrap our heads around. It draws inspiration from John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, where the astronaut wore a 12-hour stopwatch on his arm on launch, synching it with mission control and tracking stations around the world. This created a shared global timezone centered around the mission. The ability to own time like that, to let anyone create their own moment zero, is a beautiful thing, and something we hope to give people with this piece.

“After the initial burst, a prototype will often live with us for a few years before we decide if it’s good or interesting enough to sustain the long and painful process of bringing it to market.”

How do you create these fascinating products?

Levy: On the simplest level, everything we make is something we want for ourselves. We often find a small void or need in our lives, then furiously search for a solution. When we can’t find one that we find satisfactory, we make it.

What is your process?

Levy: We’ve set up our studio and workshop to work seamlessly so we can move an idea from sketch to functional prototype as easily and as quickly as possible. After the initial burst, a prototype will often live with us for a few years before we decide if it’s good or interesting enough to sustain the long and painful process of bringing it to market. For example, we designed and prototyped Pen Type-C in 2016 (the latest product in their popular pen series), and lived with it and tested it for three years before finally pulling the trigger (after sorting through manufacturing and launch).

Four of the Type-A pen with ruler case laid on a grey background.

The Type-A pen is a minimal, stainless steel pen that doubles as a ruler and is meant to last forever. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Do you know when you’ve hit a successful product, or is it always trial and error?

Levy: We treat every project we start as a lottery ticket; entrepreneur Darius Kazemi first made this analogy. We think every lottery ticket we buy is going to be the big one, but the reality is often surprising and unpredictable, so we just keep trying. There is a lot of deliberating and back and forth, but more often than not we have moments when things just click. But if that moment doesn’t happen, we naturally shift to something else. Since it’s just us two, we need to both be fully on board to bring something into the world.

“If you’re going to make something, do it in the best possible way. Don’t cut corners; you won’t sleep at night.”

What is your creative experience and how has it influenced your work?

Wang: Growing up in Tokyo, I spent a lot of time browsing stores like Tokyu Hands, a paradise for design object and tool lovers. I would come home inspired and sketch product ideas but failed miserably since I didn’t have the necessary tools and skills. Later, I studied architecture at the Pratt Institute, where I now teach, and picked up fabrication skills like welding, sewing and glass blowing. At the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU (ITP) I gained a solid footing with software and electronics and met Taylor. After, we launched our studio, did residencies at Fabrica and EKWC, got married, and spent two years at MIT Media Lab and then Autodesk’s Pier 9, at each institution picking up whatever skills I could without knowing how (or if) it would benefit my design process.

Levy: Growing up in Montreal, I was always coming up with weird business ideas I would get excited about, staying up late to sketch them out and plan, but which often didn’t look too great in the morning. In college, I studied Film and Computer Science. I knew I wanted to do something related to art + science, and this gave me a foundational understanding of how computers work. After undergrad I went to ITP, and suddenly working with software + hardware became accessible and empowering in a way where I could use it to be expressive. To me, our work feels like solving little problems on different scales, in different media. This can take many forms, but you’ve got to get the job done in the best possible way that is also honest and respectful to others.

What do you believe good design should do?

Levy: As designers, we feel very sensitive about occupying people’s time, money and space. It’s a privilege. Design should lend a positive emotional experience, whether this is through work that empowers people through knowledge or by using the best possible materials and manufacturing processes to make sure something lasts.

The Key Wrangler is a keychain (and bottle opener) that keeps your keys in order and easy to access. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

The Key Wrangler is a titanium keychain (and bottle opener) that keeps your keys in order and easy to access. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

What do you hope to achieve through design? What inspires you both?

Levy: We hope to bring a spoonful of joy and a regular dose of delight every time someone interacts with something we’ve made.

Wang: We get inspiration in some similar, and some different ways: Taylor finds the way computers work fascinating and beautiful, while I am inspired by looking at art. We also spend time teaching (the pair co-teach a hardware/electronics class at SFPC) and the energy students bring is very inspiring, especially when we teach them how to use technology for creative expression.

“One thing we try to do is be as generous as possible with information—why we are doing what we are doing, and what it is about a project that gets us excited. This could be sharing some weird or difficult manufacturing process, or a quirky detail that makes us happy.”

How do you get people excited about your projects?

Levy: We never know if people are going to be excited! One thing we try to do is be as generous as possible with information—why we are doing what we are doing, and what it is about a project that gets us excited. This could be sharing some weird or difficult manufacturing process, or a quirky detail that makes us happy.

Do you have any tips for creators hoping to use Kickstarter?

Levy: Just be honest, both to your supporters, but mainly to yourself. If you’re going to make something, do it in the best possible way. Don’t cut corners; you won’t sleep at night.

What new projects are you working on?

Levy: We always have about 15 or so projects at various stages of completion. Some might never see the light of day. But we’re excited about our watch, and working on a time capsule, a pizza-holding solution, an electric bike, a pepper mill…some electronic sculptures and so much more.

 

 

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2IWe4KC

Kat Holmes: To Be Successful, Ask ‘Whose Voice is Missing?’

Kat Holmes: To Be Successful, Ask ‘Whose Voice is Missing?’

When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.

***

Kat Holmes believes good design is design that includes everyone. As the director of UX Design at Google and author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, she subscribes to the World Health Organization’s definition of disability as a “mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment in which they live.” Kat will be speaking at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, taking place May 8-10 in New York City.

Q. What is a skill you’ve cultivated in your career that you believe to be futureproof?

A. Taking a moment to consider whose voice might be missing from the conversation and seeking out a range of perspectives is an evergreen practice. I always learn something new when I take the time to listen.

Q. What brought home the power of taking into account missing voices to you?

A. When I was at Microsoft, I was on the team working on the design of a digital personal assistant. At the time, there were no tools for doing voice-based conversation design. So we had to make it up as we went. None of us had ever been a personal assistant or worked with one. We didn’t know where to start. We may have been experts at technology, but we realized we weren’t pros at what it takes to help out humans. A powerful resource for us was meeting with people who were professional personal assistants. They were able to help us understand their role and share their expertise for how a human creates a great experience for another human. Through that, we realized the value of recognizing whose voices or expertise are missing.

Q. Why will this be important for the future?

A. Because creativity thrives in unlikely intersections between people. When you consider whose voices or experiences aren’t included and you seek out those perspectives, solutions emerge that would not have been possible were it not for the unexpected intersection. This is how we begin to develop a diversity of ways for people to interact with the products and solutions we create.

Q. How do you get better at realizing you’re overlooking an important perspective?

A. I always tell people that it’s like brushing your teeth: it’s something you have to do every day. Developing any kind of skill requires a conscious effort to practice that skill. If your intention is to pause and recognize what voices or expertise aren’t represented and are needed, then you have to commit to doing exactly that.

 

Hear from Kat Holmes and more creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2XLdPVY

Let’s Meet: How to Prevent Big Companies from Wasting Your Startup’s Time

Let’s Meet: How to Prevent Big Companies from Wasting Your Startup’s Time

Hunter Walk

“Big companies most effective asymmetric warfare tactic against startups: requesting endless meeting.” That was the tweet which started a funny back and forth of corporate-speak that Pando’s Michael Carney summarized in Shit Big Companies Say. My original quip was prompted by a lunch with a friend who works at a BigCo CorpDev and often meets with startups. She’s awesome – very smart, understands BigCo very well – but seemed surprised when I suggested she was probably underestimating the time impact of these meetings on startups. “But usually it’s just a 45 minute or hour chat and we don’t ask them to prepare anything,” she said. Hmm, that’s kinda like sitting down in a restaurant and assuming the amount of time you spent eating is all that goes into making a meal, forgetting the total effort it took to gather, prep, cook and serve.

It’s usually innocuous. BigCo isn’t trying to…

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A Print Magazine About Cannabis Has High Hopes for the Future

A Print Magazine About Cannabis Has High Hopes for the Future

Cannabis is having a moment. Legalized for recreational use in 10 states (and counting), the once contraband substance has entered the sunny mainstream. Visit Portland, Ore., or Los Angeles, and you’ll find dispensaries that cater to a wide range of tastes and aesthetics, featuring inviting brands with products that purport to do everything from boosting energy, to quelling anxiety, to helping with sleep.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon, says Anja Charbonneau, editor-in-chief of Broccoli, a triannual women-centric print magazine dedicated to cannabis culture. When the publication launched in 2017, “there were maybe five companies I could think of that seemed consumer friendly and design forward,” she says. “Now there are so many.”

The nascent industry has also spurred a surprising revival of print media. Because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, the industry is largely barred from advertising on Facebook or Google, leaving an opening for niche magazines to make money through advertising. Today, there is a small but growing group of paper publications that cover cannabis.

The former design director of the successful lifestyle publication Kinfolk and a long-time casual cannabis user, Charbonneau was early to both the resurgence of independent print publications and consumer-friendly cannabis. Broccoli has seen its readership steadily climb; its upcoming Spring issue will have a circulation of 30,000. Free for its first year, the magazine now has a cover price, which Charbonneau hopes will provide a financial buffer should demand from advertisers ever soften.

In an interview, Charbonneau explains why she’s tentatively optimistic about print media, her plans for Broccoli, and her hopes for the cannabis industry as a whole.

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Q. How do you describe Broccoli, and how has the magazine evolved since it launched in 2017?

A. It’s pretty much the same as when we started. We wanted to make a magazine that touches on all the creatives sides of cannabis — art, culture, fashion — and tells stories that are about cannabis or cannabis adjacent.

We have shifted from saying it’s a magazine for women. Our team is still all women, and we work with mostly women or non-binary contributors, but anybody can like [the magazine]. Sometimes the people who need to see these perspectives the most are the ones who fall outside that realm. I like when we have male readers, because than I know they are consuming content made by interesting women! And so we’ve tried to be more open about saying who the magazine is for.

“There are a lot of women who are turning to cannabis for all the mysterious things that happen when you have a uterus.”

Q. What are some stories you’ve run that you’re really proud of or excited about?

A. The most popular story from our fourth issue was about what we know and don’t know about cannabis and reproductive health. There are a lot of women who are turning to cannabis for all the mysterious things that happen when you have a uterus. The article was followed by four mini personal essays written by women who use weed for health reasons. There was a funny one from a mom whose doctor recommended she try weed during her pregnancy. She was super Christian and very scandalized by it. [The doctor] said, “Do you want to keep this baby?” Because she had such bad nausea. People really responded to the personal stories, but I’m glad we balanced it with, “Where are we scientifically?” One of the interesting things about weed is that we don’t have a lot of science around it. [Editor’s note: Cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it difficult for researchers to study.]

For the third issue, the most popular story was a profile on these amazing nail artists, these two sisters called Lady Fancy Nails. A photographer pitched it to us. It featured close up shots of this amazing nail art, which had a 420 theme. People loved the nails.

Broccoli's editor-in-chief sits next to a desk.

Anja Charbonneau, editor-in-chief of Broccoli. Photo courtesy of Broccoli.

Q. What trends are you watching in the cannabis space?

A. I am interested in initiatives that are focused on equitable lawmaking at the start of the legal innovation process. Every time a new state legalizes, it’s an opportunity for the rules to be set up in a fair way, so people without the same resources as the rich white guys can still gain access to the industry and get licensed. It’s something that people care about a lot, but no one’s really gotten it right yet. There is so much problem-solving to be done on the legalization side. I definitely don’t want to talk about CBD anymore.

“There is so much talk about digital exhaustion, and the decline of digital media when it comes to advertising. I hope what we are doing in print can redirect a little energy back to the real-life stuff.”

Q. Most licensing programs reject anyone with a criminal record, which means communities of color that have disproportionately suffered from the war on drugs are, in many cases, excluded from participating in the industry now that cannabis is legal. How do you think about social justice issues in terms of the magazine?

A. We tell stories, and share people’s stories. It’s helpful for us to make sure we are telling stories that touch on these subjects. It’s easier to find people now because the industry is growing so fast. We can say, “OK, who is doing really great work in Oakland? Let’s put them in the magazine.” They’re online so it’s easy to find them.

We have a really interesting woman in our spring issue. Her name is Nina Parks, and she is part of Supernova Women, which is a group of women of color based in Oakland who are working really hard to bring awareness to equity issues. They have a radio show, they’re at City Hall. Their lives are that story; they’ve been affected by the war on drugs. They’ve dealt with having a business, having that business taken away because when everything shifts with legalization you kind of need to start over. So we interviewed her about: “How do you deal with the amount of change that’s happening all the time? How do you keep going? What can people do to help?’ Her interview is great because she isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes, it’s super hard. Sometimes you need to take a minute and then get back to it. She is really fascinating to follow – she’s my source for what’s happening in California, and what issues I should be paying attention to. She’s been in it longer than me.

Financially speaking, we’re doing what we can to support initiatives and non-profits who are working to help people harmed by the war on drugs or other social inequities. As a small startup without traditional financial backing, our give-back fundraisers are smaller efforts than what a big company might be able to do, but we hope that other brands will see that even small companies can find ways to help.

A page from Broccoli magazine.

Broccoli’s editor-in-chief says the decision to make a print magazine was a result of wanting to give people a personal experience disconnected from the digital space. Photo courtesy of Broccoli.

Q. The media industry is struggling, particularly print. What made you decide, ‘I think I’ll start a cannabis print publication’?

A. Kinfolk sparked an indie print revolution — we saw a lot of titles coming to life during that time. There is so much talk about digital exhaustion, and the decline of digital media when it comes to advertising. I hope what we are doing in print can redirect a little energy back to the real-life stuff. It’s an interesting challenge that we’re in; We are making a print magazine at a time when digital doesn’t seem to be doing well, but print is kind of an experiment.

If you think of the tangibleness of using something like cannabis, it’s very personal; it’s very much something you do in your own time, which is disconnected from the digital space. It felt like they mirrored each other: a print experience and a cannabis experience. Also given the weird secrecy that surrounds being a cannabis user, it felt like maybe people would be more likely to read about it in print, rather than something they click that is tracked online.

“The industry changes so rapidly that it’s a waste of time to plan for the future, in a way.”

Q. How were you able to make the publication work financially?

A. We don’t have big financial backing, and we don’t have investors. I had savings to work with in the beginning, but it was the type of timeline where if we didn’t break even with the third issue, we wouldn’t be able to continue. One of the weird things about Broccoli was that we made the magazine free for the first year. Rather than charging the readers we took on sponsors. If you’re a cannabis brand, you can’t advertise on Facebook. You can try on Instagram, but you might get your account deleted. We went with an advertising model and distributed the magazine pretty broadly from the start.

Now that we have a cover price, we are starting to work with more traditional distributors. You’ll be able to find our upcoming Spring issue in Barnes & Nobles, and Chapters in Canada. It will be so much easier for people to find it.

Q. So Facebook and Google can’t siphon off all your advertising dollars, as it’s done for virtually every other vertical.

A. Totally. We’re at a really unique point of time. When the day arrives that cannabis becomes federally legal and people can sell online, it will be a totally different situation.

Q. Does that worry you?

A. I can’t worry (laughing). I can think about maybe the next six months. That’s it. The industry changes so rapidly that it’s a waste of time to plan for the future, in a way.

A page of Broccoli magazine reads "Seeking arrangement."

Photo courtesy of Broccoli.

Q. Are you profitable?

I mean, not really — [the revenue] is sustaining the company, but we are still so young that everything goes back in. But by the third issue, we were sustainable.

A. I know you don’t want to talk about CBD but — what’s the deal with CBD? Does it work?

I think it depends on what you are trying to achieve, and where the CBD is coming from. We are in a funny spot right now where we need more research, but people can safely experiment with different cannabis products in a way you can’t with pharmaceuticals. It’s important that people listen to their bodies. As a consumer, I’m wary when I see brands lean heavily on the words, “studies show.” Sometimes I get my Instagram trigger fingers out, and I’m like, “What studies?!” There is plenty you can say about what we know weed does and how people experience it without relying on ambiguous studies. It’s like piecing together a puzzle: we have a general idea of what the picture might be based on the little research that we do have. So approach it all with an open mind, and be ready to experiment. There are plenty of options. If one thing doesn’t work, you can always try something else.

 

 

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