65: "The One-of-Many Leader" - Mohan Ramaswamy

Mohan Ramaswamy_color.jpg

"The One-of-Many Leader"

This is my conversation with Mohan Ramaswamy - one of the partners of Work & Co.  Mohan and I recorded this conversation at the Cannes Creativity Festival in June. Work and Co is unusual because they have 14 partners - all of whom are involved in all the major decisions of the company. For a business whose reputation and success has grown rapidly, that kind of community leadership is rare.


Three Takeaways

  • Faith in the vision & in the people around you
  • Warmth and openness
  • Clear focus on making a difference

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 65: "The One-of-Many Leader" Mohan Ramaswamy

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This is my conversation with Mohan Ramaswamy - one of the partners of Work and Co.  Mohan and I recorded this conversation at the Cannes Creativity Festival in June.

Work and Co makes digital products and services for brands. As Fast Company says, “they’re routinely entrusted with digital product innovation for companies like Apple, Google, Nike, and Facebook, which rarely approach outside firms.”

Work and Co is unusual for another reason. They have 14 partners - all of whom are involved in all the major decisions of the company. For a business whose reputation and success has grown rapidly, that kind of community leadership is rare.

So this episode is called, “The One-of-Many Leader”.

“I think it's interesting. Because I would've assumed for many years that that kind of federated decision making process would be a challenge. I think the advantage is, having spent so much time as a group over the years, we know which issues certain people care more about and we're really a consensus-oriented partnership.”

Being a successful leader has a lot to do with casting. You have to pick the right company for your kind of leadership. The right people to work for you.  And the right partners to work alongside you. 

A lot of attention gets paid to reporting structures and job descriptions and areas of responsibility.  But the most successful leaders are more demanding about who they work with than whether the lines between them are straight or dotted. 

Cast the right partners and you can overcome any kind of org chart design - and most of them do need to be overcome. But choose the wrong people to work with for you, and no restructuring is going to unlock your company’s creativity, or your leadership potential.

So what kind of people do you want to work with? What are the values and issues that matter to them? And what have you done to find them? Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. And it’s too short to work with people that don’t help bring your best or allow you to bring out theirs.

Here’s Mohan Ramaswamy.

Charles:

Great. Mohan, thank you so much for joining me here today. Welcome to Fearless. 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Thanks so much for having me. It's great to see you here in Cannes.

Charles:

Likewise. We are sitting in the lobby at The Majestic Hotel, tucked away to the side, so the background noise is the more subdued part of Cannes happening in front of us at ten o'clock in the morning. Let me ask you my normal first question which is, when are you first conscious of creativity showing up in your life?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

It's a great question, because I think for a long time I was on a more business-oriented track, and I think what we've really seen, as I was in college and as technology was becoming a little bit more of the core part of day-to-day experience, was that programming and then experiential design played such a huge role in how I was interacting with my computer, with products around me. 

I guess a little bit later than most people in the sense that this world happened and came to me a little bit more, I would say, in college than when I was younger. When I was younger, I think I was a lot more focused on music and a little bit more in studio art. But far away, I would say, from the digital design and development world that I am now in every day. 

Charles:

What kind of studio art?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Just painting, I don't think I was particularly great. It was one of those things where it was a good break, I would say, from the day-to-day when you're focused a little bit more on math and science and a STEM education which I think was the core aspects of my high school. 

Charles:

Where did you grow up?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I grew up outside of Boston in a town called Lexington. 

Charles:

Yeah.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Famous for the Revolutionary War, I suppose, as much as anything, and also having historical landmarks basically on every corner. It was a great place to grow up. I think you had the juxtaposition of being in the city and being able to actually see some art, see some more culture, and, obviously, a lot of local sports teams. Especially in relation to having the little bit of the suburban life and that quiet solitude that you grow up in.

Charles:

What did your parents do?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

My dad was a computer engineer, and he had worked at Digital [Equipment Corporation]. It's one of the very first large-scale hardware manufacturers from, I want to say, the early '80s. My mom was an anesthesiologist. Both my parents worked pretty much throughout my life. Which was interesting because our grandparents ending up living with us. We had a pretty large family at any point in time in our house.

Charles:

Have any brothers and sisters?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I just have one brother, and he is sixteen months younger than me. We spent our entire life I think ebbing and flowing in terms of closeness. But it's been great to have him there along the way every step of the way. 

Charles:

What does he do?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

He actually runs a global analytics team at TripAdvisor, so we're somewhat related in terms of what we do but a little bit different. It's been very different journeys, I think, to get there though.

Charles:

Technology's been part of your life with your father being so focused in it and then your brother also having an interest in it.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

It's interesting, because I don't think that I necessarily even thought I was following in my father's footsteps or anything per se. But technology's so interwoven into our day-to-day lives, I think it would be hard-pressed for many of us to say that we're not working in tech at this point.

Charles:

I think that's true.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

For better or worse.

Charles:

For better or worse, exactly. What did you do at school? What did you focus on?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I was focused on operations research and economics which is an esoteric way of saying I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. The degree ended up being a combination, I would say, of economics, finance, math, and a little bit of computer programming. Which, honestly, I think was pretty useful in terms of where I am today, because it helps you have a broader understanding of business as a whole. Then an appreciation, I would say, for the complexity of technology, and how that can be brought to bear in product development. 

Charles:

I think having an education that gives you the ability to try and figure out who you are while you're going through it is helpful. I had a liberal arts education which very much is the same thing.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that, that's one of the things that I really took from both high school and college is the value of being a generalist at the start. When you're 14 or 18, you don't really know what you want to do. I think we're still figuring that out every day.

But it's crazy, because there are these high schools in Brooklyn, where I live now, where when you're 14 years old, you have to pick a major. You have to decide, I want to go into biology. I'm like, "What did I know at 14?" I thought I wanted to be a rock drummer. 

Charles:

I think that's true. I think as you get older, you get better about understanding the things you don't want to do. It's an interesting evolution to try and ... to start to really focus on I want to actually ... This is what I'm drawn to, but, equally, I'm really not drawn to that. I'm not going to do that anymore. 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, I think you can say that a lot of careers are shaped by a process of elimination as much as anything. I think what's been fun especially as Work & Co has continued to grow and evolve is being able to focus on the things that I feel like I can do better than other people, or I can add more value to the organization. As opposed to going as broadly as I had in the past. 

Charles:

What do you think are the things that you bring uniquely?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think just based on my education, as well as where I'd been working historically, being able to look at things broadly has always been something that I've been more comfortable with. It's both understanding an industry space as well as being comfortable in ambiguity and helping define what a product vision could look like, or even what a problem we're trying to solve is. 

I think a lot of times what happens is that we get so focused on a particular interaction or a task that sometimes we haven't necessarily solved for the core user insight, or this is how this industry is changing. Being able to be a person who has the ability and also has the time to take a step back, I think has been valuable.

Charles:

You said that that came from earlier in your career. What was your first step out of college?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I fell into the advertising/marketing media space straight out of college.

Charles:

A lot of us do I think.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that it's kind of funny how it didn't leave in the end. But I ended up working at Digitas straight out of school in their strategy and analytics group for a few years which was, I think, a really solid foundation. We were doing some interesting things in terms of media buying and marketing management and actually understanding how we could use data to target end users better. I think it was still trying to figure out what should be happening to actually effectively market in the digital landscape? I think a problem that's continued to emerge and evolve over the years. 

But, I can't say that was what I expected to be doing out of school, because I was more of on a management consulting and finance track. But having interned at a bank, I was like this is not for me. Both in terms of just culturally and the ability to actually be creative in your problem solving wasn't exactly something that was looked upon highly there.

Charles:

Did you crave that early on? Did you recognize quickly that you wanted to be in an environment where that was a thing?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Very much so. I think that there's a degree of again broader problem solving and being able to think about something creatively and then also being in an environment that facilitates a little bit more of that informality and that discussion-based problem solving was always something that ... I shouldn't say "was always," was something that I really felt like I was missing when I was working at a bank or in more traditional consulting.

Charles:

A sidebar, but I'm curious, do you have a definition of creativity?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that's a very hard question. For me, I think that creativity is being able to broadly understand what you're trying to solve for and not being boxed into a particular idea or way of solving it. It's a little bit more of an abstract problem solving approach than anything. Perhaps that's because I'm not a designer or developer that, that's what my definition skews towards. That way I can still classify myself as creative. But I think that it's a little bit broader and being comfortable in that ambiguity and being able to think about how to action on or solve a problem in different ways. 

Charles:

Yeah, yeah, I think that's very well put. How long did you spend in the agency? What came after that?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I left from Digitas to go to Huge to help start and define their research and strategy capabilities for a couple years. That was really, really interesting, because I think Huge, at that point, was only maybe not even quite a hundred people. They hadn't been bought yet. They were doing a ton of really interesting work both in the website space, and then starting to figure out what should they do to be a full-service agency. 

It was very interesting, I would say, to actually be in a place where you could help define something from the ground up based on what you've learned. And, ultimately, I think, figure out how does that apply to the creative process more directly, as opposed to the more media marketing landscape. 

I think, for me, it was a great education in figuring out, okay, what are the data sets or what's the industry perspective that you have or user research that can drive to a direct action and be a little bit more specific for our creative team and our team as a whole. As opposed to it being, here's what the marketing landscape looks like, or here's what this particular industry is. Going from there it's like, " What do I do from that?" 

I think the best education that occurred there was being able to actually go from more of a general-based audit or understanding of a client or industry into, here are some specifics ideas or things that you guys can think about as you're designing and building a new product or designing and building ... redesigning a website, for instance.

Charles:

Starting to go from broad to narrow?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, and then, of course, from there I went very, very broad. I ended up going to McKinsey. Partially, frankly, because I felt like I was in a place at Huge where it wasn't super-easy to learn from people who thought about the world or solved problems in the same way. Because the agency itself, especially at that time, didn't really have that business consulting side. It was a lot more focused obviously on design and to a lesser extent development. I ended going into a lot of business development there as well as trying to really figure out how to add value on each project, and then you ended up being on eight things at once. 

I think McKinsey's model appealed to me a lot. There were a few things that were particularly compelling. The first being the emphasis on training and coaching and learning as whole. One of the other things being that you'd be staffed on one project at a time, so you could go deep, again, into a particular problem. Broader from an industry and problem scape perspective, but narrower in terms of what you'd be thinking about on a day-to-day standpoint.

Charles:

The consultancies, in general, are obviously ... There's a lot of focus in conversation on them generally, but this week, specifically, because they're around here, and the agencies feel massively threatened by them. There are certain things that consultancies do extraordinarily well, one of which is, I think, career development. Taking somebody in and then saying, "We have a plan for you. Let's talk about what that looks like." I think they're much better at that than agencies are, for instance.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, I think that that was one of the most striking things to me during my time at McKinsey was how much emphasis there was placed on a trajectory. Of course, there the entire culture is predicated on “up-and-out” model. You're expected to be there for two or three years in a particular role, and you either move up to the next role or decide it's not for you, or there's another opportunity that comes your way, or they even help you transition to your next role by opening up their entire alumni network and figuring out who are the right people to put you in touch with as you're looking for the next stage of your career. 

You can say that, that's pretty enlightened in terms of an approach. It's also somewhat self-serving cynically, because I think that what you see is that so many people who've been through there end up being clients of the firm. I think it's a model that's worked remarkably well for them and for the other big three in particular. 

Charles:

You really develop expertise to your point in certain areas.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, I think that for me particularly, I was someone who ended up in consulting without getting an MBA which is somewhat rare. I think it's increasingly becoming less rare particularly as there's more of an emphasis on digital and other kinds of problem solving. 

But my first, basically, two months, I spent, let's say, six weeks of those two months in various trainings. The first month was in this program called mini-MBA where they ... It's like summer camp for new McKinsey consultants. You're taught by these professors from Wharton and INSEAD which is pretty remarkable in its first place. You get to meet fellow consultants and get a refresher in some of those terms you may not have thought about for a decade or so in my case. Where whether it was financial statements or some of the economics work and then rounded out into, how does that apply to what the day-to-day experiences of a management consultant looks like.

Charles:

I also think it's important to point out that the point you made that you touched on earlier about the fact that there's a lot business development when you're working at a consultant ... One might actually say that there is ... That nothing is not about business development in that kind of environment with that kind of dynamic. The consultants, I think, are always looking for, where's the next opportunity to build this relationship?

But they do it through the lens, specifically, of how does this help you build your business, you, the client, build your business. Part of what I think people learn from consultancies, and curious to get whether this was true for you, is an inherent, instinctive focus on, how are we solving the business problem here? Rather than, what can I sell you? How do we solve the business problem?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think aspirationally that's correct. I would say that in my experience at McKinsey, in particular, selling is a word that's very frowned upon and even talking about someone as a prospect isn't language that they would ever really use. Instead it's a little bit more about understanding what your client's long-term goals are, where they're trying to move the needle, both in terms of, frankly, their individual career and then the business as a whole, and then because consultants typically have multiple work streams within a particular client, they're able to understand and take potentially a little more of a holistic view than if you're someone who's running a line of business, or you're in a particular function, say you're the head of marketing or the head of technology. 

I think that, that's where consultants have the most success, is how embedded they actually are across various aspects of an organization that leads to them finding that connective tissue and that next thing to work on that ideally is driving significant business impact.

Charles:

And do you think is that a function of hiring different kinds of people than agencies do, or is it a function of just training them and teaching them differently?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it's a little bit of both. I would say it starts as much as anything with access. I think this is the thing really that agencies are more worried about than anything, is that consultancies are at that C-level the whole time for the most part, just based on spend and cost and the broader remit of what they're trying to solve for. That starts with being able to have those different kinds of conversations that you may not be able to have if, let's say, you're working with a head of marketing or VP of marketing in a particular product or brand. You can certainly do great work in that vertical, but it's hard to see the bigger picture.

I think that to your point when you're thinking about hiring and training, consultants are tending to hire people who have a little bit of a broader, generalist approach, as opposed to people who are a little more focused on creative execution which has its pros and cons. Because I think when you see the work coming out of agencies, it's going to naturally be a little bit more tactical and executional, because it's meant to go into market, to drive a particular reaction or demand. As opposed to a consultant, who is coming in to bring about "transformational change". There is a little bit of a different person that you're looking for just to solve that kind of problem. 

I think the training can help close some of those gaps, and I think that's something that agencies, in particular, have not invested enough time in, is helping their designers or developers or even product managers and project managers have that orientation towards, okay, what industry is my client in? What am I actually trying to help them with? How do I understand their business a little bit better? 

I think we do a good job in terms of helping understand users as a whole. But it isn't something where agencies have invested in. This is perhaps too broad or general a statement, but agencies have generally invested in training their employees, especially their creative employees, around the business itself.

Charles:

I think when I ... My first job out of college was at Ogilvy, pre-WPP, and it was ... I never, still to this day, I haven't come across anywhere that invested as much in its employees. I remember being a junior account person, very junior account person and being flown across the country to participate in a training program with 60 or 70 other junior account people. 

I think it's unimaginable today to think that an agency would do that. The world has changed a lot, I think, even within the agency world. The gap is even more significant these days. 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah, I think that that margin pressure has somehow led to cost-cutting and thinking about things more from a ... I mean, one of my pet peeves is thinking about things on a quarter-to-quarter basis. Which then you're not necessarily able to necessarily think about the long-term health of your employees. I think there's still a focus on thinking about the long-term relationships that you have with your clients, but that has a clear top and bottom line impact. Whereas I think it's a little bit more ambiguous to say, "Well, what happens if I invest in training this employee or having 70 of our employees come together for a west coast training.

Charles:

Yeah. And then they leave, and then what have I got left? Right? There's that mentality where I think consultancies flip it around and say they're more likely to stay and they'll be more valuable while they're here if we put this effort into them.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah. And if they leave, you want them to leave to somewhere where you're excited about the next opportunity for them too, and I think that our goal, obviously, is to continue to keep people at Work & Co and to make sure that they're happy here. I think it's one of the things we're proudest of is that we have a retention rate in the 93-94%, and some of that is by nature of being a younger company, so your numbers will be a little bit better, but it's still something we're really, really proud of, probably the thing I'm most proud of since we started the company.

Charles:

Yeah, and I want to talk about Work & Co. What was the transition from McKinsey? Was there a step in between?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

No. It was from McKinsey to Work & Co.

Charles:

Pretty dramatic. Talk about culture shift.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah. It was kind of interesting because I think that I had worked with a lot of great people at Huge, and a couple of them, Joe Stewart and Felipe Memoria, who were running, at that point, Huge's creative and UX departments, I think were just ready to focus on something a little bit smaller and have a practice that was fully dedicated to digital product and service, and both from a design and development standpoint. 

Huge, I think, was becoming, no pun intended, even bigger, and as a result of that, they were focused on a lot of different areas and becoming a full service agency. Even, I think, doing some TV now and all of that. That just wasn't in Joe or Felipe's DNA. As they were thinking about starting an agency that had, I think, a significantly narrower focus, they reached out because I'd worked with them at Huge for a couple years to help think through, what could strategy look like when we're thinking about working on digital products from the start. 

I will say, it all happened very, very quickly. I was pretty happy at McKinsey, honestly, and I think McKinsey was in the midst of its transformation to focusing a little bit more on digital as a whole, but this felt like an amazing opportunity to be a little bit more in the work, and also able to ship world class products, as opposed to shipping world class presentations.

Charles:

That's well put. How early in their development of the idea or the physical reality were they at that point?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

It was the genesis, I would say, of the idea as a whole. I think they had been talking to each other maybe for a couple of weeks, just to think about, how can this work logistically. Joe had just moved across the entire country, and obviously we were just about to start a new company, and we were like, "Well, is there any way we could convince you to come back to New York, Joe?" The answer to that was no, so we then kind of started with a very small satellite office in Portland, and one in New York. Once everyone kind of came together we got the legal paperwork going and we found a little office space. 

Charles:

Did you have a client at that point, or was this just a concept?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

It was just a concept. We had personal networks, both in terms of people that we wanted to hire, both in the short and long term, as well as clients that we had worked with. As you know, it's not easy to start a new agency from scratch, especially when you had come from a prior agency.

There are lots of things that make it harder, I would say, to get going, but the advantage we had is that there were four or five of us to start the company as a whole, and we had our networks to start tapping into. For the first week or two, it was mostly cold calling and kind of reintroducing ourselves to the market and figuring out, what are the next steps to actually get a little bit of awareness out there, and we had a big kind of Ad Age reveal, I want to say, May of 2013. 

We were able to pretty quickly find a handful of smaller clients and then I think the big break really happened, honestly, when we were invited to pitch Virgin America, so big airline, and they, I have to say, showed remarkable bravery in having ... at that point, I think we were six people. We had hired our first employee ... come to the table against pretty much all the usual players from a large scale product standpoint, so the R/GAs [inaudible 00:23:43] Huge's, etc., of the world, to say, "Okay, well how would you tackle this problem of designing and building a new responsive website?" I think once we were able to win that work, the trajectory became much more clear.

Charles:

I'm struck by both the confidence and the entrepreneurial spirit of leaving a job as literally as safe as McKinsey with all that goes with that, and taking this massive giant step into the unknown, no clients. I mean, the number of companies that have started because they have a client and say, "Okay, well we can do this and there's an economic foundation," and so on. I think it's rare to find people who do it based on a theory and on the principle of, this is what we think we could sell. We have no proof point, and we are prepared to give up regular gainful employment and security. Were you a risk taker as a kid?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think I was actually pretty demure in terms of my decision making as a kid, where ultimately I wanted to do what was safe. I wanted to kind of follow orders. And then once you get to high school, midway through, all of a sudden everything shifts and you're just trying to break convention and stress out your parents as much as possible. Work & Co to me was in between those two realms where I felt really, really confident in the team that we had assembled and who I was kind of going to battle with. 

I think that they're amongst the best in their craft. I felt like, in the end, what was going to win and what was going to make us successful was our ability to execute, and I trusted Joe and Felipe and Marcelo and Gene and our early stage employees and our ability to actually do that. It was less about, oh we needed to bring this client over, and it was more like, we need to be able to tell the story of Work & Co in a cogent way, and also highlight who we are as individuals to build a little bit more trust.

Charles:

So you had enormous faith in the concept?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

And the people I was doing it with.

Charles:

Sure, and obviously it was the ... I was going to say, it was the combination of those two pieces, absolute faith in the concept, absolute faith in the ability of the people to deliver the concept that gave you the confidence to take, what I think most people would regard as a pretty enormous risk.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah. I think that that sounds about right. I will say I also loved the idea of focus and specialization. I think more increasingly see that that's the way the market is heading in a lot of ways. When you think about what's really shaped or what had shaped the previous 20 years from an agency standpoint, it was a lot about scale and it was a lot about how do we buy media at scale, how do we kind of decrease costs by making these more straightforward or offshore marketing solutions. I think that what you lose there, especially when most media is going to Google and Facebook, is that degree of creativity, and also being able to think about a problem, I want to say, in a more nuanced or focused way. It's hard to create a process that works for a big marketing or media campaign and replicate that for a transactional website. I don't think it's possible, frankly. 

Charles:

I'm struck by this through a slightly different lens. You know Fred Wilson?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yeah.

Charles:

The writer, of course, and Fred, who's arguably the most successful investor in tech in history, wrote a piece, probably 10 years ago that I read on his blog, which I think he's written every day for 15 years or something extraordinary, right? I mean, just incredible discipline. He wrote a piece-

Mohan Ramaswamy:

A lot of discipline too.

Charles:

Yeah, a lot of discipline, right, I mean real discipline. He wrote a piece a number of years ago which has stuck with me, which is that he described the fact that he believed that there were two different investment strategies. There is parameter based investing where you look for certain conditions, and then invest based on that. And then there is thesis based investing, which you come up with a proposition for where the world is going, or some aspects of the world, and in his case and his partner's case, it was that the web would be fundamentally driven by outward facing community based companies. So they invested in Twitter and Etsy and Foursquare and so on. Clearly that proved to be pretty smart and pretty right, but it strikes me that there are similarities in terms of the way that you guys set up, that you were very much betting on a thesis. Is that fair?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think so, and I think that we had a little more confidence in it based on what we had seen at Huge before, in terms of how Huge was able to organically grow with a little bit more of a focus. That being said, we were betting on the market to mature a little more, where instead of thinking about a digital product like a website or an app, is like, okay we're going to redesign and rebuild this and launch it into the market, and then we're gonna take it and there's never gonna be a phase two or an ongoing piece of work. 

Our thesis was that companies need to partner with agencies in the longer term to actually iterate and define and build, and then enhance what they're doing on the web or in a mobile app or in any kind of digital interface. Typically, what you see is that big push to get that first product out there and you lose all of this additional functionality and all the bigger, greater ideas just to hit some in market date. We thought that companies would kind of move on and kind of evolve who they are and how they spend budgets to, I think, invest long term with product development. 

I think that thesis has largely proven itself to be correct. I don't think the rate of change has been quite as fast as we would have anticipated or liked, but you have a lot of companies that are shifting some marketing dollars into product, understanding that the distinctions between those two are smaller than ever before. 

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Why do you think the rate of change hasn't been as fast as you thought it would be?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that to a certain extent, that's just based on our focus and how we view the world. So we were like, "Well, why wouldn't everyone kind of immediately go this way?" For me, that led to, I think, a twofold reflection. The first being, having a deeper understanding and appreciation for marketing more broadly, as a demand generation tool, as a way to build a brand, especially when it's a new product. 

And then, secondly, I think just realizing that the way balance sheet economics work are a little bit more of a challenge. The way organizations and structures are set up, it's not so easy to say, "Oh hey, if you put a little bit more money down in the funnel, you'll get X amount of return," because it's different owners. It's different ways that you want to capitalize or operationalize an expense, things that I hadn't really thought about, frankly, with enough sophistication until we were neck deep in this.

Charles:

To your point, you really have to get into P&L and balance sheet kinds of dynamics to be able to help the company, at least you have to be able to understand that side of the equation.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

More than I would have anticipated. I think that ...

Charles:

So you're not chasing budgets, per se, you're generally chasing marketplace opportunities, places where you think a brand or a company can go that you can help, and you can help take them there?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Broadly speaking, yes. I think that a large chunk of our work is oriented towards finding the right clients who are looking at larger scale, transformational, or ecosystem opportunities. There are obviously super interesting projects that are like, let's redesign a website or a mobile application, but those are things we're hunting for a little bit less, I would say.

Charles:

What percentage of the opportunity that come your way do you think, this isn't a good fit for us?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I would wager somewhere between 60-70% of the things that come inbound aren't a good fit immediately.

Charles:

So you're taking three in 10 opportunities, four in 10, something like that?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

We're pursuing three in 10 opportunities. We're really, I think honestly, let's say coming to terms with and understanding the opportunity space is right and the budgets are aligned and we have the team that we want to work on this, and our team's excited to work on this project, I would say it's one in 15-20 projects.

Charles:

One in 15-20?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

In terms of what actually happens.

Charles:

That you actually say, "This is right for us. It's a good fit. The economics work. The opportunity works. We're going to make enough of a difference for these people that it will be meaningful for them."

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think we're coming at that from a fairly fortunate position, candidly, where we have the majority of our client work are these longer term, I don't necessarily want to say retained, but they're either project based or retained relationships that we have. That really gives us a lot of latitude in terms of what are the specific opportunities that we want to compliment that, whether we see those as larger transformational opportunities or as really interesting projects that our team would get excited about or a non profit that we'd want to work with.

Charles:

Yeah. I'm struck by the description that you're fortunate in that situation because it strikes me that all the old cliches, the more I practice, the luckier I get, those kinds of things, and also, the cliché of fortune favors the brave. I mean, the fact is that you started the company literally from nothing, from an idea, and have, it sounds like, carefully crafted it so that it actually shows up in a very specific way designed to solve very specific problems, clear about the things it's not gonna do and you've been successful, through intention, through design. 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that's fair. I think it's also, there is a degree of luck that's involved where again, going back to Virgin America, where you're a five or six person company, I think we'd still be successful if we hadn't had that opportunity and they hadn't said, "We really think you guys are the ones that can design and build and transformational website for the category." But I think the pace and the rate and the growth, and our ability, I think, to set ourselves up for these longer term client relationships may have taken longer or it may not have happened in the same way. I think you're totally right in terms of saying that the intention and the way that we set ourselves up was to create this kind of long term success, but you still kind of need that spark in a couple of instances where it could be actualized.

Charles:

Yeah, no, that's for sure. I agree with that. Although, I suspect in a case like this, if it wasn't that spark, there would have been something else. It doesn't matter. It worked out the way it was and we'll never know. Right? 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I would like to believe that too.

Charles:

As you continue to grow, you exist in some aspect of the market and communication space, so agencies are around you in different ways. There is not an agency in the world that is turning down 14 out of 15 opportunities. There is a very, very distinctive different in terms of the way that you guys do business versus the way that almost any other agency would do business. As you build on that success, how do you make sure that you are maintaining the integrity of the thought process, the belief system, the values that have taken you to this point? How do you protect yourself against success? 

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think you have to be very measured in terms of growth. One of the benefits, one of the many, frankly, benefits of being independent is that we make decisions as a partnership, as opposed to having to have publicly reported quarters and falling to that narrow or near term revenue gap project taking problem that kind of exists, I think, with many agencies around the world who are just trying to meet their numbers. Not having to do that, I think, gives us a little bit more latitude and pace for growth, which I think is fundamentally what can kind of ensure that we're keeping the integrity of the organization. That doesn't mean that we don't have an appetite for growth. We've gone from five people to 250 people in five years, but what it means is that we have to be somewhat purposeful and measured in terms of it where when we're looking at projects and opportunities. 

Is it one where we want to double down and invest in growing our team? Is it something where we feel like it's worth hiring to actually close this because we see this as a point of sustainable growth? Or one where the work is so compelling that it fits with our mission which is to make sure that we're working on products that people are using every day. If there's a new project that comes from Amazon, let's say, we'll figure out how to make that work because it's an opportunity to impact millions, billions of people's lives, and I think that's fundamentally what we're excited about.

Charles:

Do you have a specific explicit mission statement, purpose statement?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it's something that's still being iterated five years in. A lot of it is about making sure that we're designing and building products that people use every day and that they are experiences that are bringing a little bit more joy into a user's daily life. I think the old agency thing is like, we're not saving lives. Right? But I do think that if there's a nice design solution or something is a little bit easier for you to use, maybe that makes you're day three percent better, maybe figuring out an easier way to check in on your phone so you don't have to be at the airport is a nice way to brighten out an otherwise pretty tense moment. We think that technology can help solve some of those problems.

Charles:

You said that all the partners are involved in decisions. How many
partners do you have?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

We started as five partners and we've actually now added nine more, so we're about 14 partners. I would say that's also somewhat unique aspect of our growth where we're very top heavy and hands on driven culture. All of our design partners are expected to lead two to three projects from a hands-on perspective, where they're actually designing with the team on a daily basis. I think that's something that a lot of agencies and a lot of companies frankly lose is, as you get more talented as a designer or a developer, you're put into a management position. You're put into a position where you're focused on biz dev, operations, mentorship, all things that are super-important. But those aren't necessarily the skills that got you there in the first place. So I think what we've tried to do is to create a culture where you can capitalize on the strengths of people. So someone who's a great programmer can rise to running a department and still being coding. I think that builds more respect with the team and also frankly ensures that you're kind of current in terms of the work that you're actually doing.

Charles:

Yeah. I think that's a very powerful reference point. Your business structure is actually designed to make sure that the most senior people are still very much hands-on in the work?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Yes. And that itself creates an additional governor on growth to a certain extent, because fundamentally, it's our belief that we're only doing great work if we're involved with our leadership team, to help craft and shape that work.

Charles:

What are the challenges of having that many people involved in making major decisions? Does it slow you down?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it's interesting. Because I would've assumed for many years that that kind of federated decision making process would be a challenge. I think the advantage is, having spent so much time as a group over the years, we know which issues certain people care more about and we're really a consensus-oriented partnership. So I think what actually ends up happening is, if there's a particular topic that we know is someone's main area of interest. Let's say that business development. Or let's say that's figuring out what our next office should look like, that person takes a little bit more of the lead. And there's a lot of trust from the group as a whole that they're going to make the right decisions. I think the other things that have to happen are that, we just have to talk to each other a lot, whether that's in one-on-one or one-on-many conversations, or even broader email discussions or on Slack or monthly meetings, I think that open channel of communication facilitates faster decision making and the trust enables us to go in a lot of different directions simultaneously, vs. relying on all of us to think about things at the same time.

Charles:

Is part of that communication structured? Are there actually regular-scheduled check-ins?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

So amazingly enough, that's something we've brought into bear this year only. I think that that's been helpful as we've gotten to a little bit of a bigger scale, as well as had even more partners. We had our 14th partner named this year. We have these monthly meetings, I think, that are really meant to talk about the company as a whole, where we see there are opportunities for hiring or growth, what we're thinking about in terms of the pipeline more strategically, and then, who's being tasked with what to help the organization. Whether that's, "Let's figure out how to hire these certain types of people. Let's make sure that our designers are getting this kind of training. Who's going to kind of lead that? Let's change this operational process." It's all deputized to one of the partners and then typically a handful of directors on a team, to kind of make that happen.

Charles:

What's the risk to having that many people involved in major decision making?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think you highlighted it yourself, where pace is definitely a challenge. If we're not communicating quickly, sometimes what will happen is that a decision will be made, and then we might have to walk back on it a little bit, just because we haven't necessarily socialized it broadly enough. There's enough trust where that almost never happens, but I think that what it really requires is constant communication as much as anything.

Charles:

How do you think the company feels about this? I mean, does the company feel cohesive, do you think. Are they-

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I-

Charles:

Getting this, are the people that are working for you getting the same messages from everybody? Do they feel like there is a unification, there's a focal point to the way this company's led?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I'd definitely like to believe that there's a top-down set of values and communication that persists from top to bottom. I think you hear a lot of consistent themes, regardless of which ones of us you're talking about, in terms of how we think about growth, "What's really important for the company, being that what we really want is for us to create really great work and to make sure that the people who are doing that are happy and excited and successful and fulfilled in their careers?" We're big believers that money and margins and all that stuff come out of those first two things. So there is consistency in terms of all of us believing that that's what you got to focus on. We don't even, I think this is a narrow example. But for instance, our Product Managers don't actually focus on financial reporting at all on their projects. Instead, they're focused on work quality, making sure that they understand they're solving something impactful for the client, and that the team is excited in producing interesting and new ideas. Perhaps there's a little bit of naivete in there where, what we're seeing is, if we build it, it will lead to more work, and it will be profitable, because people will respect the quality of the work that we're putting out there. But that's what's happened so far. And that's I guess the continuation of the thesis that we were kind of talking about earlier.

Charles:

What kind of people do you hire? What are the characteristics of people that succeed?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think broadly speaking, across all departments, we want people to be a little more of a generalist than they were in a previous area of their career. If they're a Product Manager, that means instead of just being internally focused on project management or being an Account Manager and being client-focused, we want them to do both of those things, and also think about this as if they were the owner of the product. Like, understanding the business and getting into the requirements. That's a harder profile to find, because it's a little bit more like a PM who would work at Lyft or Airbnb than necessarily like an agency PM, though there are a lot of those that work out really well, to. But we think that it's possible and better to work that way, because they're focused on one project at a time, instead of splitting across a lot of different things, like you see if you're a Project Manager, an Account Manager at another company.

I think similarly, from a design standpoint, what we've seen is that, the younger generation of designers has been trained digital-first, right? So they think about UX and graphic design and even coding in one overall landscape. I think we've pushed that onto everyone who's hired here where, you can't just come in and create like, a blocky wire frame. Or you can't just think about typography and palette and design beautifully. Those two things have to be thought of at the same time. You need to be able to show that works in a prototype or in mention. That could be through coding, or it could be through, in pieces of software that integrate with Sketch, like Principle now. So that makes it easier to see how something would behave or render itself on your phone. I think that evolution has been amazing to see how designers are expected to problem-solve a little bit more holistically. That enables I think a little bit more of a natural process.

Our third department, Tech, is the same way. Because historically, you had Front Engineers, you had Back-End Engineers, you had people who were focused in Mobile. I think we're seeing a convergence across a lot of those things where some of the same approaches: React, which is a JavaScript language that we're using on the web, now we're building a lot of apps in React Native. It's not a one-for-one translation, but that skillset translates more than being an Angular developer and going into iOS, for instance. So for me, the biggest thing we're looking for are people who want to flex their intellectual muscle and want to own various aspects of a problem, as opposed to someone who's like, thinking about, "I'm going to prototype this" or "I'm going to be the person who builds this new brand guideline." I think there's room for specialization within it where, obviously, you can't be the best at everything. That's literally what our entire business model is predicated around that focus. But you can be staffed in a complementary and structured way, so your team is thinking about something together, as opposed to like, "Step 1, we do this. Step 2, we hand off this to this. Step 3, it's going to the developers." It's much more of a collaborative process.

Charles:

What's the biggest threat to the business, do you think, looking forward? And how do you future-proof it?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think that it's making sure that we find the right opportunities that challenge our team and also facilitate longer-term systems growth where, we're thinking about these broader ecosystems, these broader transformations, as opposed to just these really interesting one-off projects. That's why we're trying to just be very measured, in terms of how we grow and how we solve a particular problem. I mean, I think there are some of the existential concerns, too, just in terms of the US government as a whole where, you're not entirely sure what will happen next, in terms of globalization, for instance.

For us, half of our employees are foreign-born, and that's not because we've got necessarily out of our way to hire in foreign nationals, but it's because we don't care where people are from. We think that you need a global perspective to create global products. I don't think that's a crazy thing to believe. And that threat, in terms of bringing in talent, is legitimately one that we'd have no control over, and have a little bit of worry about. And I think that's caused us to be even more politically active that we have ever necessarily thought. Whether that's signing on to various amicus briefs for immigration or DACA or against the travel ban, or even figuring out the right non-profit partnerships to work with long-term. Like, we've been working with Planned Parenthood for the last year-and-a-half, to launch a set of things, the latest being this Trump Tracker tool, which was oriented towards just showing was the administration is doing, in terms of taking back women's rights.

Charles:

How do you lead in the middle of all of that, with both what's going on within society, within culture, within your own business, within your own life? How do you lead?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think for me the biggest thing is always trying to find the right balance. Because at this point, there are some internal machinations with business development and operations that I have to look at personally, as well as a handful of larger client relationships and projects that I've been working on. It's understanding where I can provide the most value in that particular day. So for me, everything starts off with communication at the start where, it's like, "Let's touch base with the people who are leading or my partners who are leading an individual product," seeing if there's a way or an opportunity for me to make a positive impact on that particular day, or if I'm a gatepoint. Or frankly, if me letting them just run. And I think that that's a thing that's hard, is the best solution. Because you know what? I was in Cannes last week, and I can't be that bottleneck that's taking the project back three steps. So I think it's that open level of communication and then trust and prioritization that are helping me lead a little bit more at this point.

It's different from when we were a five- person company or a 30-person company where, you were neck-deep in one particular project the entire time, which was also really interesting. But I think for me now, knowing how I've had to evolve, it's even more fulfilling, because you kind of understand, "I'm helping all of these people be really successful in launching really great work, and I'm shaping this, this, and this in these narrower ways, but I'm not necessarily the guy who's going to be the front-facing client person who's shaping this work and coming with the best idea every single time."

Charles:

So is that a struggle? Do you miss that? Do you worry about that?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think it was a struggle maybe a couple of years ago, more than anything, when we didn't have as much as an organizational structure solidified and our leadership team hadn't grown up with us quite as much. Just because like, inherently, you trust based on past success. So once we started getting some of those things and seeing how it worked when we had 25 projects running at the same time, and the quality was still there, and we're still really proud top-to-bottom. Like, we have these year-in-review meetings, where we just show all the work and that's honestly one of the most inspiring meetings of the year, just because you see all of these things you hadn't even necessarily known, if you're a designer who's working on two projects, or even if you're me, who sees, let's say, 15 of them over the course of a year. I think just being able to take that step back has been really rewarding.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

I think I'm afraid of taking the next step back past that, where you are too removed from the work as a whole. For me personally, it's trying to make sure that there's always two projects that I'm hands-on in, especially in that earlier stage of the project, where I feel like I can add that value. So you don't necessarily need me to help prioritize features in GIRO when we're neck-deep in a build and making sure we're getting something for launch. But I think I can still help in that ambiguous part of the project where, we're saying, "What should we make? How is this going to drive a business impact? How are we focusing our work in a way that's going to be a little bit, bring a better solution, both for users and for our clients, and be something we'll be proud of as a whole?" So for me, that struggle is always going to be frankly time management and focus, and making sure I can still do those things.

Charles:

What about personally?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Personally, I have a two-year-old daughter now, and she's amazing. She's also quite a handful. I think that making sure that I have time with her has been a challenge, especially with travel. I think what's been able to happen really over the last couple of years, especially over really the last year is, an understanding of like, how to prioritize my time better, and how to disconnect a little bit for an hour and an hour-and-a-half when I get home. That had historically been almost impossible for me, not necessarily driven by work, it's just my own personality. I think she brings a good perspective there, and that's something that I continue to value. The other thing that's been funny about being a parent that I would've never guessed is how tired you are on Sunday night and ready to get back to work on Monday. It's like, I think that for both my wife and I, it's been a good balance, to basically be able to have work and then have time with her and then get ready back for work again.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three takeaways that I've heard that strike me as having been foundational to the leader that you are today, and the success that you're having. So the first is, what I would describe as faith, actually. You might describe it as confidence or trust, but you seem to have real faith in, whether it's the vision or the mission or the purpose or the thesis, but also in the people around you, whether they are your partners or the people that are working for you. And I think that that must imbue the people around you with so much confidence, that it would be inspiring. Second is that, there is just a warmth and a humanity and an openness about the way that you show up that I'm sure people are drawn to and make them want to lean into you.

And then third I think is that, you're very clearly focused on making a difference, that you are clear I think about the things that matter to you, and the difference is not simply internal from a work standpoint or even just personal, but it is in fact, "How do we make the world a better place?", as you said, whether that's in a 3% moment for individual or whether that is at a macro level with something as significant as Planned Parenthood, for instance. Do those resonate with you?

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Very much so. I think you synthesized it better than I could have. The only other thing I would say that is an important takeaway for me is, the importance of continuing to do what you love where, you can create an organization that plays to your strengths and what you're excited about. And having that hands-on leadership I think is really important. That was actually something that I took away from McKinsey, too, is that, the partners are in the room. Like, they're helping shape the presentations. They're meeting with clients. You can do that when you have a couple of things to worry about, as opposed to having to worry about the business end, 100 things. So it's like, "How can you crate that culture that fosters and supports people's strengths as they grow, instead of making them kind of re-pivot who they are entirely?"

Charles:

Yeah. I think that's well put. There is an intimacy I think about the best leaders, who find the way to be balanced between remaining connected and involved and invested personally, and also being able to step back and look at the bigger picture and understand when sometimes a decision has to be made. Thank you so much for joining me here in Cannes at the increasingly noisy now Majestic. Yeah. It's been great meeting you, and enjoy the rest of the week.

Mohan Ramaswamy:

Thanks so much, Charles. It was a pleasure.