Introducing a new series of interviews, features and documentaries from Red Lemon Club, the ‘RLC Creative Influencers‘ series seeks to tap into the minds of some of the world’s most interesting and influential creative people.
The influencer in question today is Mike Buzzard, an extremely talented developer and business-starter. The design team at ‘Cuban Council’, which Mike co-founded in 2002, recently joined Google, which is where Mike currently works as a Design Manager.
CC has worked on projects that include the Facebook logo, web design for NASA, as well as the branding identity for Quora and web design for Evernote.
I had the pleasure of working with Mike last year at Google+ and was struck by how down to Earth and relaxed he is.
I stole some of the family-man’s precious time to find out a little more about starting and working on creative businesses, creativity, working at Google and more…
RLC: How did you come to be involved in the company you founded, Cuban Council?
MB: In the late ‘90s I was drawn in by the online design community, which led to me providing development services for some of the inspirational portals at the time such as Design is Kinky, Newstoday, and K10k.
In 2000 I moved to San Francisco (SF) to work at a startup, and not knowing anyone in town, I had plenty of time to devote to my freelance work.
The following year my soon to be co-founder Michael Schmidt from K10k moved to SF and we began collaborating on various projects.
Eventually the freelance work grew larger than an evenings-and-weekends commitment, so I quit my day job and started working on a couple of pro-bono, but (relatively) high-profile projects that would help me get my name out there.
As a result, the first big client I landed was Epitaph Records in Los Angeles at the beginning of 2002.
“We had a watchmaker’s focus on detail and precision functionality.”
During that transition, Schmidt and I continued to work together on various freelance projects in a seamless manner with a shared determination for quality and detail.
Soon after that, Michael persuaded our other co-founder, Toke Nygaard, to move from London to SF so we could start a company together based on our common passion for crafting great experiences that were rich in concept, personality and whimsy, with a watchmaker’s focus on detail and precision functionality.
RLC: What were the most important things to focus on, in moving from the idea of the startup to becoming sustainable as a business?
MB: I’m someone who loves tools, so for me it was all about optimizing our processes with the use of tools. Fortunately for us, we had a lot of friends that were making great products and services who were eager to get our input and feedback.
We had hosting sponsorship from Media Temple as well as early adopter accounts for Basecamp and Harvest.
Over the years we used various other services for source control and deployment as well as CRM, but the hosting, project management, and time tracking/reporting tools were the ones that really allowed us to explore and optimize the business side of our little lifestyle company.
RLC: You’ve worked on some very solid and recognisable brands over the years. What is absolutely crucial, in your view, in a good brand?
MB: Stakeholder confidence. Sure you’re going to find better artwork for some brands than others, more clever and sophisticated visual details and configurations, more contextually adaptable lockups and so on.
But for the brands, people, products that we worked with, it was crucial that the stakeholder truly understood the what and why behind the decisions that informed the design.
“A successful brand or identity project for us was not one that that the client loved, but rather one that the client wholly believed in.”
This belief allowed the client to make good brand decisions long past our involvement, regardless of how abstract or eccentric the case might be.
RLC: As a self-taught developer, you’re no stranger to moving from an interest in something, to turning it into a valuable skill.
What can independent creatives learn about building value, from your experience over the years?
MB: Passion applied. Learning code for me was an addiction, the satisfaction from immediate results and the rate of evolution at early stages was so invigorating that I’d often go on 20+ hour coding binges in my earlier days.
“Make it fast, then make it better.”
My focus, even as a developer, was always on the user experience. I was always concerned about how slippery, or jarring, or solid, or fluid things felt.
I was very capable at expressing my visual concepts as a kid, but my later ability to execute visually in digital was limited, so when I found ways to express my creativity through experiences in code with web development I was hooked.
RLC: What kind of insight do you wish you had access to that you didn’t, in the early stages of your businesses?
MB: Most applicable to all things, I would say that I wish we had tinkered more in the realm of prototyping and experimenting.
“You could call it the agony of making something awesome.”
We had so many ideas for products and services, we even developed a few of them, but others never got off the ground because we couldn’t agree to start inching towards them rather than scrutinising over irrelevant details at the onset.
This was a self-imposed challenge that we often faced in our work as a result of setting such a high standard for creativity and quality. I suppose you could call it the agony of making something awesome.
RLC: Now working with the Google+ team and being a part of an organisation that prides itself on its creative output and happy members, what have you learned, that people running their own businesses would also find important?
MB: People like to make things that are useful for other people, and making things makes people happy.
Google has an amazing culture and organisational structure that encourages high speed innovation, the cost of which is a little churn here and lack of process there, but the benefits that are afforded the company and its employees are paramount in comparison.
At Cuban Council we had a quarterly event called “Richard Branson Friday” where we would not do any client work all day.
The rules were simple, at least two people had to team up to make something and then be able to present it at the end of the day.
During the presentations we’d all have a beer or a glass of wine and share our creations over a video conference between the various locations. I’d say that to me there’s a bit of RBF baked in to the everyday at Google.
RLC: You mentioned in a previous interview that you had cultivated an awareness of balance in life. One of the biggest struggles of our readers is balance, dealing with overwhelm and lacking time. Any big tips?
MB: My original partners in Cuban Council were both Danish, and coming from a socialist system there was great emphasis on taking care of our people, which translated literally from things like healthcare, to more abstract things like balancing their work and personal lives through vacation time, inspiration, travel, etc.
Ultimately, the key to balance for us was being able to prioritise our interests based on what was good for the company, and from our point of view the centre of that focus was its people.
If we focused on their needs so that they could focus on their craft, then we could collectively find balance in our lives and our work, which seemed to work quite well.
RLC: What’s your biggest creativity killer?
MB: Negativity. Life is full of challenges. There are constraints and considerations, politics and red tape, but there are always solutions, and more often than not the challenges make the accomplishments that much more satisfying.
Negativity can really sink a project and a culture, especially when things are in an early, more delicate state.
RLC: What’s one major change in the world you’d love to see happen in your lifetime?
MB: Creative problem solving applied to large scale social systems like public education, politics, federal and state infrastructure, community level resource usage and impact awareness.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t efforts being made towards using creative methods and processes to address large scale problems here and there.
But I would love to see continued momentum behind these practices where the learnings are broadly shared so that others can benefit from relevant insights and experiences that may be applicable to overlapping programs or services.
This also means that at the individual level we must be open to these learnings, rather than assuming that proofs from the past may have not decayed, therefore inhibiting us from adapting and evolving.
RLC: Who has been your biggest and most consistent source of inspiration over the years, and why?
MB: I have been inspired by so many people that it’s too hard to pick just one, but they all seem to have a common personality trait of being motivated by the limitations that many derive from perceived social confines.
It could be argued that much of what I have accomplished in my personal and professional lives shouldn’t have been achievable, mainly because of stereotypes and bureaucracies and rules designed to provide social structure.
I think that being ignorant to many of these governances combined with fortuitous timing has afforded me so many unique opportunities to observe and occasionally work with like-minded individuals that I draw endless inspiration from.
To my earlier point, those who are capable of finding solutions in constrained situations are the people who provide great inspiration for me.
Thank you Mike!
We hope you enjoyed this interview and this insight. Do comment below if you have any thoughts or anything else to add.