Ep. 218 – George Brooks, Founder of Crema, on Lab Fridays, Business Innovation, and Culture

Ep. 218 – George Brooks, Founder of Crema, on Lab Fridays, Business Innovation, and Culture

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger founder of insideoutside.io, a provider of research events and consulting services that helps innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Interview Transcript with George Brooks

George Brooks, CremaBrian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation, I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today with me is George Brooks. George is the founder of Crema, which is a digital product agency based out of Kansas City. So right here in the Midwest, welcome to the show.

George Brooks: Thanks, Brian. Its’s good to be here.

Brian Ardinger: Well I’m excited to have you on. A couple of reasons. One, you are also a podcast host like me. Your podcast is called Option Five. You talk a lot about product development and that, close to the core of all the stuff that we talk about here at Inside Outside Innovation, when it comes to what does it take to work and live in this new world of change and disruption.

George Brooks: Yeah. Thank you very much. I’m excited.

Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about Crema. How’d you go about forming this company and tell us a little bit about what you do.

George Brooks: My background is in design. So, I started as a design agency first, and really that was as a freelance designer going out on my own. And we talk about when sometimes entrepreneurship innovation happens because you have this dream and this vision, and sometimes you’re just pushed off a cliff and you have to figure it out as you fall down. And mine was being pushed off a cliff.

My oldest daughter was in the hospital for the first seven months of her life and I couldn’t be at work. I couldn’t be at the agency that I was at. I needed to be there. She was super critical. And so, I left that job and started freelance design about 10 years ago. Well, actually gosh, 12 years ago now. And the story used to be 10 years, right? Time has passed.

Brian Ardinger: And Coronavirus adds another three years for this last six months.

George Brooks: I know. So true. So, I started freelance designing. I don’t have any business background. So about two years into that, my best friend and I had always dreamed about doing a business together. And I said, I think I accidentally started a business. And it looks like this agency work, doing a lot of design work for other agencies, and for developers and entrepreneurs. Can you make sure that I’m actually paying my taxes and doing all the things that I should be doing? And so, he was finishing up his MBA and so Dan and I joined together about 10 years ago and Crema is about 10 and a half years old.

What we do today has changed since the beginning. We’re now a full-service digital product agency. So, we do everything from user experience, design and consulting, strategic direction workshops, coaching, agile process training, all the way through. I have almost 40 full time employees now and focusing on actually providing full-stack product teams. So, design development, test engineering, product management, and we deploy those now, used to be a lot of startups and early stage companies. Almost all the work that we do now is with large enterprise innovation teams around the world. A lot of fun.

Brian Ardinger : Well, we seem to have a very similar background, 8 or 10, 12 years ago I started in the startup world and started the Nmotion startup accelerator and starting early stage teams, helping them get up and going and that, but starting these things in the Midwest is a little bit different. So, I want to talk a little bit about what has the evolution been like and what have you seen starting and building companies here in the Midwest, especially like 10 years ago versus what it’s like now.

George Brooks: When I first was freelancing and going to the first startup weekend that took place in Kansas City. And I had no idea what to expect. I think I probably overdressed and looked way too fancy for what kind of event. I had no idea. My wife didn’t know that I was literally going to disappear for three solid days. And that was kind of back in the day when you tried to build a full stack of product in three days, right? It wasn’t about putting together a pitch or a deck or something. It was like, we’re going to build this thing. So, you just pulled all-nighters to make it happen.

And I think during those days, it was that new wave of creative thinkers and entrepreneurs, at least coming through Kansas City specifically. It felt like the next wave since the early nineties, when the Sprints of the world and the Cerners of the world started here in Kansas City. These large enterprises, and there really have been a gap where you saw new innovative companies coming up.

So, ours was spurred on by Google showing up and we got to win the Google fiber contract. And that was a big deal at the time. What are we going to do with gigabit internet? And then really what I think we saw as a quick rise, lots of activity, lots of moving around and trying to put on events and then kind of a dialing down to where you saw people…it got weeded out pretty quickly that the chaff fell through, If you will, to figure out where are the people that are going to sustain doing this work. Who’s going to stick around. Who’s going to actually survive the hard work it takes to start companies and sustain innovation.

And I think that’s where we’re on that next wave of really the companies that have stuck. Even the new companies that are starting now, now have an infrastructure of enough great of companies that have been through it the last 10 years to say, here’s what it actually takes. It’s not all fun and games. Let’s actually get to work. And I think that’s what I’ve seen, at least in the environment. For Crema, it’s about iteration. It’s about refinement.

And so, we’ve had to iterate on ourselves and experiment with new ideas and offer our services in a different way and use different language. And UX was like this super-hot, nobody had heard of term. There were two letters that shouldn’t be next to each other. And it got us work in the beginning that doesn’t get us work anymore. Right. Everyone does UX. So, we have to innovate and continue to iterate to stay relevant.

Brian Ardinger: I think the other dynamic that seems to be similar to what I’ve experienced and seen around the country as well is there was a lot of buzz around startups was how do these companies move so fast and create something from nothing? And that’s how I got pulled into the corporate innovation front is because bigger companies were coming to me and asking those same kinds of questions.

It sounds like you have a similar type of ride from the standpoint of you were building and iterating and getting things up and going and old established companies were craving that ability to do that. So, talk me through that transition from working with startups or building brand new products, and then moving towards a more established organization.

George Brooks: One of our clients for a long time was Kauffman foundation and Kauffman was in that weird space in between, right? They’re a massive organization, you know, nationwide and have influence worldwide and yet, they teach entrepreneurship education. So, they want to have this educational spirit. But they’re locked inside this bureaucracy that comes with having a large foundation. And I think that was with working with them, that we said, okay, you can think entrepreneurially while still working in an unfortunately bureaucratic environment and still do incredible creative work.

It was at that point that we opened our eyes. We said, okay, well, wow, there is more opportunity here, but look at all these amazing companies around us. So, we started having conversations with some of the companies that were here in Kansas City. And for a long time, we’ve since pulled back from saying this, but for a long time, we used to say, we’re like your startup team for hire, which was this idea of like, let us come in and think like a startup, because you don’t know how to. And we would talk about the second wave, right? I mean, that idea of you’ve gone to the point of your business is starting to top off of its innovation curve. And how can we go through the second wave?

Now that’s since changed a little bit because now it’s, you have to make it part of a norm that you’re iterating, you’re innovating and almost every team is responsible for doing it. And so, we’re seeing a lot of enterprises, it’s becoming common language. We have to fight the battle of it, not being a commoditized idea. To just commoditize innovation where you can just, okay. I just know the resources I need to pull and get it done. And how do we still keep it a creative process?

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Brian Ardinger: It does seem like a lot of the terminology and methodologies have moved over from the startup realm and are being used by more internal product teams and that. The idea of a minimal viable product was that at the time, or even a business model canvas, and thinking through how business models can change and adapt and be disrupted overnight is obviously on the forefront of most people. You and I have been in the space of helping companies disrupt and be disrupted for a long time.

And in the last six months with coronavirus and that it’s now syncing in. And I think for a lot of corporations that, oh yeah, that thing you were talking about…disruption…yeah. I think we need to pay attention to that more. It’s a crazy world where we’re seeing it. And so, I think that’s only going to speed up. My thesis is that everybody’s going to have these types of skillsets in their arsenal. Whether they’re a startup or whether they’re corporate and the more change happens, the more the mindset, the culture of adaptability and resourcefulness and the things that entrepreneurs do on a regular basis seem to be more and more valuable in the whole chain of things.

George Brooks: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And one of the things that we are seeing is we have organizations now, because they had a forced reality through going remote or having to move digital so fast, what was a three to five-year plan got done in three weeks or less? It changes your perspective of what else can we accomplish now.

Brian Ardinger: It’s the same thing that happens like in a startup weekend. I think a lot of people who go through that particular process, they see what they can do in 48 hours, 72 hours. And it’s like, wow, it does change the way you perceive your ability to create value or learn fast. A lot of times you can’t build anything in 72 hours, but you can learn some things you know, you don’t have to build or whatever. That speed and just experiencing that speed seems to do wonders for your mindset.

George Brooks: We’re working on a framework right now. And I’m totally about sharing work in progress. So, this is definitely a work in progress, but one of the things that we’re talking about is this idea that a product culture or an innovation culture has their postures or their mindsets, their disciplines and their activities. And then they have their structures. And structures was this area that we couldn’t figure out how to define it well. But what I realized was that with the right structures in place with the right constraints, with the right guidelines, with the right direction given. It allows that creativity to just be lit on fire, because it’s like the constraint of 72 hours. Man, you can create a lot.

Or the constraints of a pandemic can force you to innovate in a way that you never had to do it before. But without the constraints, we kind of let ourselves spin quite a bit. We like that idea of saying, awesome. Let’s put a constraint on this. Let’s put a flag in the ground saying six weeks from now, what do we want to have? What do we want to do? And then work back from there and then work in small iterative sprints to actually prove that we’re getting to that value.

Brian Ardinger: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that. I know from your internal perspective at Crema, you have things like Lab Fridays or what I’ve heard of venture labs and stuff. Can you talk a little bit more about how you go about iterating yourself and then applying that to your clients that you work with?

George Brooks: One of my favorite activities that we do, and you mentioned it there, is what we call Lab Friday, and it also has a component of it that is Venture Lab Friday. So, Lab Friday for us was originally intended to actually let us build some products. You know, every product agency wants to build their own things. And it’s so hard to do that because it distracts you from the client work. And that’s truly what our business model is based off of. But we want to scratch the edge. We want to be creative. We want to be innovative.

And so how can we build a space similar to the Google’s 80 / 20 model? But how can we create a space where we allow people to step away from their day-to-day work, where their risk taking is measured. We can take certain risks with our clients, but we might not be wanting to take all the risks that our clients, because they are paying the bills. And so how can we allow our teams to take some risks, learn some new things, experiment in a way that they can’t do it on a day to day basis.

So, the way that we play that out is every other Friday, we dial down almost all client work. There’re a few things that bleed into that, but almost all client work. And we set goals. So, in the morning each person says my goal is by the end of the day, I’ll be able to demo x. And the demo might be, I read a blog post and I’m just wanting to tell you what I learned from it. Or I watched a new course online and I’m learning this new framework, or I tried out this new tool or some of our teams have actually formed together and created product teams.

So, they pulled together and pitched ideas and we got down to originally five, then four, and it’s kind of, it stays around four to six projects at any given time with the size of our company. And they’re trying to, every other Friday, iterate on building products that either they want, or they want to use, or they think would be cool in the world.

They tend to be consumer experiences because we are mostly B2B. So, it’s kind of fun to work on a consumer experience. And a few of those have taken off and we’ve actually got some products that are getting some traction and that feeds their creativity. So, when they go back to our clients now, not only are, are they bringing exciting stories and energy?

But they’re also saying, you know, when we use this new framework, or we use this new technology called TypeScript or React back in the day and we think actually it could apply back to you. And so that innovation gets looped back into the value to the client. Now they go, Oh, cool. Let me hear about what you’re going to do next Lab Friday. And so they champion it and even show up to our demos.

And so, it becomes a really great part of that not only the culture, but the potential intellectual property for Crema and the continual development of our talent.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Yeah, we do something similar at Nelnet in our PaymentSpring Division. They have something called Trydays. I think it helps with recruiting. Quite frankly, helping people understand that you are forward thinking, and it’s not a day to day job that you’re going to be there doing the same thing over and over and over again. It feeds into the whole overall culture aspect. I know you cover a lot of that stuff on your podcasts, and culture’s a big thing in your line of work. So maybe let’s talk a little bit about culture. What’s the culture of innovation? What does it need to be? And what are some of the obstacles or things that you’ve seen that are holding culture back?

George Brooks: We’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. And I think partly through kind of what the world’s going through on a number of different fronts. And also, just how we’ve seen both companies that we’ve worked with, organizations that we follow or what we do ourselves. What’s that secret sauce. What’s that thing that makes them really able to pull off work. That seems to be, I wouldn’t say nearly impossible, but really at odds with reality sometimes.

And what we come back to is primarily that the teams that are able to keep an extremely open mind and adapt quickly are the ones who succeed. The second part is the ones that can really think cross disciplined. So, they’re no longer working in siloed departments or in siloed verticals. Instead they’re valuing making decisions faster and making decisions better by including more people in the decision-making process, through smaller decision-making iterations.

And so, I think it’s really those two principles alone that can open mindedness and adaptive. And then how can we pull in perspectives and actually see through people’s lenses faster? I think we see that through the way we set up our product teams that are cross-disciplined.

So, we have designers and developers and test engineers and product managers working in small collaborative teams instead of here’s my dev department, here’s my design department, here’s my product management team. And we hand things over the walls and it’ll eventually get back to a client that goes, well, this isn’t what I wanted. Oh, well, funny thing, you didn’t see it for the last six months.

We really think that it’s primarily that. And then it’s just simple disciplines when it comes back to…I was talking again about postures or those mindsets, those disciplines, and then those structures.  How can you create disciplines, rhythms, ceremonies, that foster that type of work, right? So maybe it’s the agile methodologies of Scrum, standups or of iterative sprints, or maybe it’s something that you create on your own, like an Innovation Lab Friday, but you have to build something that’s going to get to a routine or a habit.

Because people have a hard time going, why is this changing all the time? I need to adapt. I need to understand. Then the last piece with those structures. If they don’t have something that gives them structure and direction and purpose and vision, they will go in any way. They’ll create their own visions. That’s both exciting and scary. You don’t want that to happen.

So, we find that if teams have a really clear vision, they have really strong disciplines. And then they come in with really thoughtful mindsets and postures. Intentional postures. They end up executing better on anything they’re doing could be product, could be innovation, could be a call center for that matter.

And the hardest part of that work that we find is getting both leadership and practitioners to buy in at the same level on what they value in each of those three areas. And that’s something we’re trying to hash out how to break down those walls. Aaron Dignan was on our podcast and he’s the author of A Brave New Work, which I highly recommend.

And his whole mission is to destroy bureaucracy. I kind of love that, right? How can we get to a world where no longer are we working in a fear mindset that is afraid of things going wrong, is afraid of me not looking like the smartest person in the room, and making all the decisions instead valuing the perspective of others, seeing the opportunities, unlocking potential. Those are the cultures we’re trying to create, foster.

Brian Ardinger: To that end, that’s maybe that last topic we’ll talk about, is the tools and the tactics and the ability to be able to spin up these experiments has changed dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years. So if you think about the whole no-code movement or this access to things like Airtable or Zapier or whatever, that literally allow you to piece together, experiments, try things, especially in the digital world that you couldn’t do before or not quite as easily. How is that impacting a design agency like yourself, both in your ability to build products and that, and then what you’re seeing out there with the ability for other folks to build stuff.

George Brooks: There’s a couple of thoughts that come to mind. One is I wrote a blog post, gosh, a couple of years ago now, that was like the 38 SaaS apps that I use to run my company. And it was kind of satirical, but it’s true as well. And rather than having the behemoth thing, that’s supposed to solve all my problems. In order to adapt, we have to kind of keep looking for solutions that are going to fit the things that I’m dealing with right now.

And so, we do, we love Airtable and we actually replaced our CRM recently with just building our own custom Airtable solution. Or, you know, we’re Asana nerds, but yet we understand that JIRA is what the industry uses. And so how do we both use the Asana for operational and then JIRA for development tasks?

And so, we’re always looking for ways to pull in the right tool. Primarily it has to be something that fosters collaboration. If it’s not fostering collaboration some way, oftentimes that’s when we’ll kill it, because it’s just not going to actually work in our environment and the way we work, especially now in a remote world.

But I also think that what’s really fun is that a lot of our clients will come to us and say, Hey, I actually hacked together a solution to solve this problem. And that’s when we’re like, yes, that’s the person I want to work with because at least you’re in the thinking in that mindset already. You already thought I can go take a Google doc and use it as a database with Zapier hook to pull in something from an email, you know, et cetera, et cetera.

And if you’re willing to be that scrappy upfront, to solve your problem, then when we start to bring in custom solutions, whether it’s a, you know, fully baked database and API and a front-end user experience for both mobile and web. Now we can still think that iterative way. You can still think about building a skateboard instead of a car. Right?  And that’s just a mindset. It’s a posture that changes the way we, we actually approach building new products. That’s exciting that we have those tools at our exposure. Now.

Brian Ardinger: Well, and hopefully you get better projects that have been, de-risked a little bit, or, you know, you get to the desirability stage a little bit quicker. A lot of times we’ve worked with startups and others that, you know, they bring us an idea and it’s like, have you talked to anybody about this? Does it really matter if this product exists? You know, rather than build something out, let’s figure this out first. So those tools obviously allowed you to do that as well. So hopefully you’re further down the line, whether you’re a startup or corporate using these things.

George Brooks: It’s about traction, right? If you’re just in a solution mindset and you’re not trying to solve a problem, you’re not actually finding attraction and actually hits a problem and a solution mixing together. Then how many people have I talked to and then come back a year later going, Hey, how’d that project go? I know you didn’t, you know, et cetera. It’s like, well, we don’t have any customers, but we’re still working on it. Like you’re still building? Kind of hurts my soul a little bit, but also, I understand it’s really hard not to solution things, but if you’re focused on traction, that results are always going to be better.

Brian Ardinger: Well, George, you and I can talk for a long time, but I wanted to give a chance to tell us a little bit about Crema. If people want to find out more about yourself or about the company, what’s the best way to do that?

George Brooks: Check out Crema.us. And honestly, our primary content channel is YouTube. So, if you go look at Crema or Crema Lab on YouTube, we’ve got about 150 plus videos there now, and our audience is growing, and we love putting out content on YouTube. And we also, like we said, we’re going to have you on the Option Five podcast. Where we talk about product culture and product teams and how people can use design technology and culture to help individuals and organizations thrive. So, check us out.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, George Brooks, thanks again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

George Brooks: Thanks, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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Episode 218

Ep. 218 – George Brooks,...