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Martijn van Tilburg

Martijn van Tilburg

If you are part of a digital agency, there has a been a discussion around launching your own product. We all talk about it. Heck, maybe you've tried to build that perfect solution in the time between client projects. But you never get traction. Or maybe you assigned a dedicated team to develop it, but that adds financial and cultural stress to a successful service business. So how do digital agencies build and launch great products? Listen in as Martijn van Tilburg shares his insights from the creation of 10,000ft.

And be sure to join us for Owner Summit 2018 in Charleston to learn more great insights and connect with digital agency owners from around the world.


Carl:
Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. Today, we have a former designer of productivity tools at Microsoft; design director at one of my favorite shops, Artefact; and the founder and CEO of 10,00 Feet, which, as the name will tell you is a great tool to get a high level view of how your shop is running. Today, we have Mr. Martijn van Tilburg. How's it going Martijn?

Martijn:
It's going well, Carl. How are you?

Carl:
I'm good. I wanted to get you on the show for a few reasons. One, we have a lot of shops that try to launch their own products, and it's a real struggle. You've not only done that, but you've done it extremely successfully. I'm just curious. When you came into Artefact, and I know Artefact fairly well. I've hung out with Rob Gurling a couple of times at our owner camps. When you came into Artefact, what was that experience like, leaving a place like Microsoft and coming into a truly just creative and entrepreneurial shop?

Martijn:
When I left Microsoft, which was in 2006, which was actually the time that Artefact started. We were with four people then. I got to become part of the whole journey from starting that company to growing it to where it is now.

Carl:
Wow.

Martijn:
Rob Girling and Gavin Kelly also came from Microsoft. When we started Artefact, we also were quite interested in seeing how could we run a business or how could we shape how our business is run. Our background was always also in making software. That's kind of like what came together. We always wanted to make a product as well. The experience that we had from building productivity tools and the experience that we're building in running an agency and what motivates people, creative people came together in building 10,000 Feet.

Carl:
How long were you at Artefact? How long had Artefact been in existence when the idea for 10,000 Feet came about?

Martijn:
We launched 10,000 Feet in 2012, and we started building in 2011. That's about five years. 

Carl:
Wow. You actually launched within a year of starting the product?

Martijn:
We did. Yes.

Carl:
Whoa. I only say that because we tried to launch a product at my shop, and granted we were not former software people coming out of a Microsoft type environment. We didn't necessarily have the determination, let alone the skillset, but even then that just seems really fast, especially if you're going to be a service company as well. Did you take a small team and isolate yourself to work exclusively on 10,000 Feet?

Martijn:
Yes. One thing that we had learned, I think from maybe some earlier products or ideas that we might have had is that it is very important to focus 100% building the product and that's what we did as well. We allocated resources specifically to 10,000 Feet, including me and then also two developers that, where our goal was to build a product and see how far we would get it. I think that worked very well for us. I think that's an important lesson that we learned to not be distracted because especially for a service agency, the clients can be very distracting of course if you're trying to build a product.

Carl:
I'm definitely familiar with that. So you've got this small team, yourself and two developers, and you're working on 10,000 Feet. Were you in the same space as those that were working on client work? 

Martijn:
Yes. We were in the same space but we immediately before we started the products, we had set up a separate company to keep things very separate. We were in the same space, but we, we were not interacting that much besides socially.

Carl:
Got ya. I've talked with some other companies who've successfully spun off products and they mention that early on it was a little bit of a cultural thing because a lot of people wanted to work on the cool new product, but they felt that they were constantly ... I mean their job was to do the client work, so they eventually ended up in separate spaces because it was just more comfortable for everyone. I know that 10,000 Feet's got an amazing office. We were there, I think it was last October, and thank you by the way. You hosted us for one of our operation camp happy hours, and it was so nice. When did you move into that space? When did you actually leave the Artefact office?

Martijn:
We're actually pretty close together in office, so Artefact is like the floor below us and we are kind of like the floor above. When did we get our new official space, maybe after three years or so, and the beginning was sitting in the corner or the mail room or like ... 10,000 Feet is a bootstraps company. The moment we were making enough money, we hired all those developers into the company and have been growing ever since. Every time we grow in revenue, we will spend that money on hiring more developers or focusing on marketing or sales. We had to like grow into a size where we can, where we can afford a larger space as well.

Carl:
How has it developed in terms of the culture at 10,000 Feet? Now that you've been, you're in your own environment and you're moving forward, what's it like to work there?

Martijn:
When we set out to build 10,000 Feet, we had this philosophy around what motivates people and especially creative people are motivated by autonomy. Autonomy is reached if you have enough space in your work to kind of like determine what you're working and what the solutions are that you're thinking about. A lot of culture and a lot of tools out there are the opposite of that. They are more top-down and hierarchical and more about giving tasks and so we set out to create a tool that works well for the way we thought we wanted to work.

Then for the company, 10,000 Feet, we used the same, it's built on the same philosophy. We believed that, I would call it a design-driven organization, in that we are very focused on the outcome, and then let people come up with solutions to reach that outcome and we don't just do that for developing the product but also all the other aspects of operation, such as customer support and sales and marketing. We have a very, like flat organization where individuals have a lot of responsibility in trying to reach the outcomes that we set as a group.

Carl:
I know that you're a big believer in balance. I know just from some of the other conversations I've had and some of the stuff that I've looked at, and balance, when you're running a shop, and this was definitely true for me, but you've got the team and trying to keep the team happy, right? Keeping them engaged, keeping them feeling good. You mentioned autonomy earlier, right? That's a huge part of it. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose, so you've got that aspect of it, but you've also got profitability, right? If you're not going to be profitable, you probably won't be there, so the team definitely won't be happy if they're not still there. But then you've also got clients that you have to work with now. Clients for a product shop, product company, is totally different than having clients for a service company. At least it always felt that way to me. So when you look at balance at 10,000 Feet, what does that look like?

Martijn:
I'm not sure it's so different from clients versus customers. Yeah, but you're right. You want to optimize for these three forces. Yeah, our goal is to create a product of high quality and to create, to give great service to our customers so that they can accomplish what they want to accomplish with our software.

Carl:
When we talk about 10,000 Feet, you know one of the things that struck me ... I remember seeing the video that came out when it was first being shown. I just remember as an owner, I was suddenly happy because there was this product that wasn't getting bogged down in a whole bunch of data I was never going to look at, right? It was a product that was actually showing me data I could use, I could understand. I could figure out how to run my team better. How did you get in that mind space for which data you were actually going to share and how you were going to share it?

Martijn:
I think it really comes back to this notion of autonomy again, where there are certain requirements that you should adhere to such as the budget. You want to make money as a company, so you want to make sure the budget's run within that, as well as the, the deadlines. That's kind of like what we said. You minimally need to do that and then teams can fill in how they want to accomplish that by running the individual, figuring out kind of what needs to be done within a project. 

Then there is the managing of all that, like how do projects and people come together and we really want to create a very visual version of that, and that's these two come together on the schedule, where you can see when people become available, when you have a new project that you want to start. As a business, you can make decisions when ... You can run your business in that sense.

Carl:
How has it been? How are you doing right now? Are you still growing quickly? Are you getting a lot of feedback from customers of new features that they want to see? How does that work?

Martijn:
We've been growing very well. We are around, we have around 1000 organizations that use 10,000 Feet to manage their business, internationally, so about 60 countries.

Carl:
Oh, that's great.

Martijn:
We work very closely with our customers, understanding what they want and yes, people have a lot of future requests and we will, we will listen to those and figure out kind of how it fits into where we want to take the product. Especially to keep a product high level, you need to make those decisions, what to do, what not to include in the product.

Carl:
Right.

Martijn:
It's very easy to start to build everything and then have a lot of options in account settings to turn things on and off for people, but we try to ... Yeah, we try to keep it very simple because when the product is simple, everyone in the organization can use it. That's another aspect of autonomy. That's the transparency of the information so that everyone in the company can see it, not just management but also the team members that need to make decisions day to day.

If you're a visual designer and you know that a project is running hot, then you will, you will come up with different concepts that are more kind of like in line with where the project is going budget-wise with trying to open it up and go very broad. Everyone can use ... By keeping it simple, everyone can get this information in real time and apply it to kind of like their day to day activities.

Carl:
I have to say I think that's so important because I think there's certain tools that I've tried to use that I actually felt, I actually felt dumb. I couldn't understand what it wanted me to do. Then I couldn't figure out on the data, what I was supposed to do with it. Your point about transparency, I firmly believe that transparency is one of the core pillars of a great culture. If people can see what's going on, they don't try to make it up. They don't imagine what's going on, so you're so much more in tune, not only with how the team is doing, how the company is doing, but how you're doing and what you should be working on. Totally agree on simplicity and agree also on transparency, because those, both of those I think keep everything moving so much faster with such, so less questions, fewer questions.

Martijn:
Right. Right. I agree.

Carl:
Tell me something about the team now. How big is the team?

Martijn:
We are with 20 people right now. As I said before, kind of like constantly growing as we can afford it. The team is made up of about half product people and half growth people, focused on marketing and sales and customer success.

Carl:
Now is everybody encouraged to be creative, given that you've come out of such a creative environment? 

Martijn:
Yes. Everyone is encouraged to be creative. It's kind of interesting. As a growing company, we are hiring constantly. Recently we, the last role that we filled, it was very obvious how much people are craving creativity, and how much, they're not finding that in their current job. Even in more traditional creative roles, like let's say marketing, that could have quite a creative aspect, people are still not finding it. We offer that. We offer that at our company and mainly by being design driven and by being focused on the outcome and not focused on, on what the solutions might be that are most obvious. In a way, kind of like offering this opportunity for creativity is a huge benefit for people. Possibly might become like a more driving force in the future as well, and not just for creative roles, but also for operation roles, so if that's sales, support, project management, all these will have more opportunity to be creative.

I was going to say another trend that plays into that is this whole AI trend that, where ... Like many people see this as kind of like a negative thing. My job might go away because a lot of what I do might be more procedural versus, versus strategic, but really you can also kind of like see it this will introduce creativity in many of those disciplines. Let's say it's project management or sales or bookkeeping, accounting. Like if a lot of like the rudimentary tasks will be replaced by AI, what's left is the more strategic positions that need to be made. In a way, it's a very more kind of like upbeat message for those disciplines and those roles because they also will get to be more creative. They can change their roles into a more creative role if this AI trend is going to pan out.

Carl:
That makes good sense, especially when you look at, I mean basically what you do is you give somebody parameters. You say, okay this is the budget that we have or the time that we have. This is the outcome, like you're saying and then if you can alleviate some of that more manual work that can be automated and give them that additional time, that's where creativity comes from, right? The ability to know within some sort of a parameter what you have to accomplish.

I remember, the only boss I've ever had, Melanie, she would always watch me get started and she would go, "Why are you doing this?" One day we were at an event, and the woman who was speaking said, "When you're trying to train somebody, don't necessarily watch how they start. Wait and see how they end because they have to make those mistakes. They have to go in those wrong directions to figure out they're wrong. If you just tell them, they're going to keep trying to go because they haven't experienced the mistake yet." I think that's one of the great things about automation. It gives us just a little bit more time on the stuff that has to be done a certain way, or is mundane, right? Is just going to get done and allows people to grow. Sometimes that wrong direction, as we might call it, ends up opening up a whole new opportunity. 

Martijn:
Yeah, no that's right. What we have found as well is like we follow a method which we call outcome based planning.

Carl:
Okay.

Martijn:
There are a couple of aspects to it but it basically drives towards, or instills creativity in your job. One aspect is very, it's somewhat obvious but it's to run your work and projects ... The moment you turn work into a project form, it opens it up to creativity. If work is more continuous, it becomes very hard to do that. Then, so first is projects, and the second one is to set the outcomes and really focus the discussion around the outcomes. That's all that matters. These outcomes could be user problems you're trying to solve or they could be business goals that you have, but in the end, the most important thing you're trying to do with this project is reach this outcome.

I think where most people get very bogged down is that they're focused too much on the solutions themselves instead of the outcomes. I think designers are often very good at understanding there are many solutions for the same problem. It's just a matter of picking the right solution or coming up with the solution and then deciding on which one to do. One solution might not be that much better than others, but they might be a lot easier to accomplish. 

That gets kind of like the third part is that you want to set pre-defined, like what's your investment in this project? How much do you want to invest as a company towards reaching this outcome? If you have those three things, so the project, the outcome and the investment, then it's up to the team to come up with solutions that would get you there. They can, they can find a solution that fits within the budget that's pre-defined.

Carl:
What I love about that the most is that the team's incentive to work together to get to the outcome. There's not some preconceived notion of whose role is what, even though they may have certain skills. A salesperson could have an idea that they share with a designer because they're trying to get to the outcome. They're not as worried about themselves individually. Is that fair?

Martijn:
Yeah. I think in many companies, work becomes kind of like a game of telephone, where people assume too much that the solution that's handed down to them is what needs to be built. If you think about when you build a product, let's say an account manager talks to the client and gets requirements. Then a designer might take that and design a certain experience. The developer comes and they'll look at it and they'll try to build exactly what the designer had specified. But if you haven't talked about the outcome, you might be building things that are not important towards the outcome. Maybe the designer has designed some widget or experience that looks really cool but it's going to take a lot of time to build. If the whole team starts focusing on the outcome, it becomes a lot more easy to discuss whether a certain aspect of a solution is important or not. Should we have this discussion at all because maybe it doesn't lead up to the outcome that's needed. 

Carl:
Well and that's how you're able to release a product in a year, because you don't chase those little ideas if you can address what's the outcome.

Martijn:
Yeah. That is right. Lately, for us, the outcome can mean many different things. It can be problem you're trying to solve or again a business goal. For our product development, we are using the one part of our, kind of like our outcome based planning is to use the jobs to be done framework from Clayton Christianson, where we try to identify what's the core thing that a user would use our product for to accomplish this one task and is what we are building doing that or helping with that? Is the solution that we come up with a feasible solution for us to build rather than some very complex solution that might take us a long time to accomplish?

Carl:
Which gets back to your point about what you're willing to invest, right? Well Martijn, thank you so much for being on the show today. I really appreciate it. 

Martijn:
Great. I was glad to be here. Thanks for the talk.

Carl: For everybody out there that's thinking about launching a product or that's looking for a new tool so that they can run their current shop, you know what? Think about it from an outcomes perspective. That's the way to go. 

And be sure to check out the great work that Martijn's team is doing at 10,000ft!

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