Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

Startup as a process for solving hard business problems

Startup startup startup. That's all I hear in the London tech and design scene at the moment. Well, the tiny bit I get to hang out with now I'm a parent.

There's a bubble going on right now, which is ace, as bubbles mean irrational exuberance (anyone ever figured out why this is always considered a BAD thing!? Irrational exuberance sounds amazing!).

Anyway, amid all the chat and so on about startups, I've come to a realisation - Startup is a process, not a thing. And to me, it seems like the closest to a new process for value creation and solving hard problems since everyone figured out how to formalise innovation. Essentially, Startup is the process of properly, genuinely figuring out the answer to the question, what is actually valuable? What product or service will people actually pay for?

This is a question that is often asked of lots of different types of business consultants in vary levels of detail and lots of different forms - from market researchers to innovation consultants to design agencies to straight up business advisory services. And all of them deliver half baked answers in powerpoint decks - the only way to really find out if they are right is to try it. By which time you've wasted lots of money and time (same thing) on fees and powerpoint decks.

The thing is, is that the process of Startup answers the question very quickly, at very low cost, away from your brand and existing customers in a 'safe space' - Startup is all about figuring out what will people use and pay for - Right now?!

Right now, it is still the case the process of startup is being tamed to make investing in traditional, entrepreneur led web/tech startups more efficient. Effectively, this is just an investment strategy - people like 500 Startups, Y Combinator, Techstars etc are getting good at investing in lots and lots of little bets.

Surrounding this is an emerging set of practices for how to make it more likely that your bet will pay off - Lean startup, the pivot, customer discovery, sales learning curve to name a few - that taken together have the smell of a new type of process for creating value.

Apart from startups just being the most totally exciting place to be a designer of the New Product (which is why at Sidekick we're doing about seven at once), the thing that I think is about to happen is the emergence of Startup as an agency offer - its something we're thinking about at Sidekick, and to me, its super interesting as a solution for established businesses looking for ways out of the cul-de-sacs that their legacy businesses, legacy customers and general inability to do stuff that compromises existing profit centres gets them stuck in.

This is not lean agency, which as far as I can see is just very iterative product development. Instead its about offering a service that helps companies take risks and explore new routes to growth outside of their existing product portfolios and development processes.

The cost of doing a web startup has now fallen well below the cost of doing a reasonable campaign. In addition, doing a startup has the potential to return a lot more to the business than just ROI from the new company - it can help them understand the future customer, the future market and the routes their competition will be taking.

The trick to selling startup as a business process is to be good at the process. That's my next post.
August 2nd, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, sartups / Trackback / Comments

Service design is Dead. The New Product is Alive.

So, I changed my job title a few months ago. I dropped the ’service’ bit. I’m now just Sidekick’s Design Director. I’m now MASSIVELY EXCITED about a new thing – designing products.

But not your old products. No, I’m excited about designing a new type of evolving, networked product that requires a multi-disciplinary team just to keep it alive, let alone make it awesome. I’m calling this the New Product. Let me explain.

Service design is dead

Ok, it’s not that I think service design is dead, its just that its pretty much used up its interest for me, and I think for Sidekick. There’s two reasons for this I think. One interesting, the other less so.

First, the uninteresting bit. The problem with service design is not the practice as such, but more the way its practised. I’ve basically become a bit bored with the way in which the service design community is constantly trying to legitimise and define the central-vital-most-important-ultimate-more-strategic-than-whatever-you-do role of design in innovating and managing services. I’ve been guilty of doing this a bit in the past. Sorry about that.

Its quite an isolating view, and not very helpful for actually making change happen, and creating new cool stuff.

Second, the interesting bit. The flipside to this is that I’ve become really interested in the actual role of design in bringing new stuff to market, and creating useful things that people want (in particular digital services that solve social problems, which is what we do at Sidekick). Really importantly, I’m getting a good sense of how design fits in the mix with other disciplines in doing this, in particular technical skills, marketing skills and financial skills.

Probably this is just me getting older and more experienced, but I think its also a bit that I’m reaping the rewards of moving away from strategic consulting, and towards making and inventing new things.

As part of this shift I’ve come to the conclusion that organising the invention and making process around products is a really good way to get focused on creating good work – and ironically can help solve strategic questions along the way. Let me explain.

The New Product is alive

Everywhere I look, but basically on the web, the people I am inspired by are talking about products – product incubation, product design, product management. But this is a New type of Product, born and growing up on the web. When people talk about the New Product they’re generally describing businesses that provide a mix of content, service and experience. But the way they make that tangible is by focusing on product.

The UKs most important online property, the BBC, recently reorganised its entire online strategy around the idea of products. Writing about the change, Eric Huggers, the digital boss, says:

“The product management role [is] ‘a multi-disciplined person who operates at the intersection of technology, design and editorial and is able to bring all of these elements together’ to deliver products whose lifecycle is managed. We’ll no longer build websites which are published and which sit unattended and slowly degrade; products will be managed.”

Jack Dorsey, probably my biggest crush on the internet, and wearer of great suits, head of product for Twitter and Square (and CEO to boot) says (in an awesome video) “So, my point here is, this company is not going to be known by one person or by five people or by multiple people. It’s going to be known by the product that we put out… Support and feedback is what our customers are telling us. Product is what we are telling our customers.”

Finally, Denis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, says “I’ve always looked up to the people who went from being unemployed to doing interesting things with product.” Doing things with product. I love the active sense of this sentence. Doing things. Sounds like designing and making to me!

The New Product design is the new rave

When big, established and admired properties like the BBC, and small, ambitious, and equally admired startups like Square are talking about the same thing, its worth listening. Essentially, these businesses are using the idea of ‘product’ as a way to coordinate their digital service development activities across engineering, design, marketing and even organisational management.

The interesting thing here is that the role that sits at the heart of all of this, the product manager/designer, really sounds a lot like the stuff I’m interested in, some of which I was calling service design. In this world good product managers/designers focus relentlessly on user experiences, have a clear vision for where they want that experience to evolve to, they get that from close liaison with customers and users, they are able to translate this into briefs for technical, marketing and interface design teams – and they can wrap all of it up and sell it in to management.

Above all, they know where their product begins and ends – at the point of use. They are the ‘bring it all together’ people, but in a real, hands-on way. Because what they bring it all together into is a real, live product you can experience and use right now, just by connecting to the web. Right now. Go to, and

At Sidekick we’re embracing the new product design and management wholeheartedly. And since we’ve done that (and ditched service design!), our business has really taken off. All our current projects (bar one small research piece) have the idea of creating a ‘product’ at their heart. And once we’ve created product, we’re starting to get really good at managing it. Watch this space for big news on Buddy, our most developed product. We’ll be launching a client product in September, and there’s lots more to come over the next six months.

We’re doing a lot more at Sidekick – not least we’re really starting to nail a lot of the process stuff behind the business aspects of social innovation (but that’s another post/book) – but the thing I am getting most excited about is our products. They are the place where it all comes together. The place where you can touch, use and experience everything we’re learning about how design, technology and business can change the way social innovation happens.

All we have to do now is ship. Which we will, because we have to.
July 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, servicedesign, designthinking, innovation, productdesign / Trackback / Comments

Two moments that are really important in creative careers

Cross posted from the Sidekick blog.

The other day I had one of those a-ha moments where you realise something really obvious, but quite profound.

I was chatting with my friend Steve, and we were talking about people and moments in our professional and academic lives that had left a big impact on us. When we stopped to think about patterns, there were basically two categories of moments with people that had stuck with us:

1. When someone you admire gives you something to aim for that’s at the very edge of the path you are thinking about going down

This category is about seeing a vision of your future self in someone else. Its definitely not envy, because the moments that matter are when you see that they have done general stuff, or achieved approximate things that you would like to achieve – if you really want to. I’ve had a few of these moments.

One that really sticks in mind is when Richard Eisermann sat me down during my internship at the Design Council and told me about his career in design – he’d worked as a lighting designer for Sottsass, been design director at Whirlpool, headed up a practice at IDEO and was now ‘head of design and innovation’ for the UK Design Council. He told me all about his story, and I basically thought – that’s what I want.

That’s not to say that I want to be Richard, or that I wanted his exact career. Years later Steve actually went to work with him at his new company Prospect (but is now leaving to go and work at Ziba). Its more that I saw the kind of stuff, the types of projects, that you can get involved with as a multi-disciplinary designer if you work hard. And I thought, I’ll have some of that please. So, thanks Richard for giving me a vision.

The second category of important moments is the exact opposite. Instead of it being about wanting something external, its all about internal validation.

2. When someone you admire totally, unconditionally believes in you.

This category is all about giving you complete confidence in yourself, right now. Where as the first category gives you confidence that other people can achieve great things, and you could do the same, in the future, this is just all about being sure that what you are doing right now is great, so you should keep doing it.

An example I had of this was at college, I was doing a project that was going nowhere fast. For some reason I’d ended up trying to do some metal casting or something, and I was feeling pretty crap about the whole thing, to the point of thinking I’d be better of doing a normal degree.

Anyway, one of my tutors, Mike Waller, who wasn’t even that much my friend, saw that I was pretty depressed and he said to me “Nick, don’t worry about this project. There’ll be lots more. After this degree course, some people will go different ways. But I know that you will be a successful designer. So stop worrying.” Or at least, he said something like that. Whatever it was, I remember holding on to what he said, or the sentiment, for the rest of my degree course. I know you will be a success. So, thanks Mike for giving me a rock of confidence. I bet you never knew how much that meant to me.

The point of this post isn’t meant to be really deep – its pretty simple. Basically, I think I’m saying that good leadership in creative fields is about two things. Giving people great big goals to aim for, and giving them complete confidence that they are going to get there. The two moments above have stuck with me for ages, much more so than other ‘normal’ highlights like wining competitions, or seeing my designs being used by loads of people.

However, if you think this is a useful insight around leadership, I’m sorry but I think its going to disappoint. The problem is that I’m not sure that either of these kind of moments can really be planned, because they only work when both people are in just the right place emotionally, and you don’t realise that they are important moments till ages afterwards. Which means I doubt I can engineer ways for people I work with to have them – but I can try to help them find the people who they will have them with at some point. And I can say thanks to the people that have done it for me. So that’s what I’m going to do.
July 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, thinking / Trackback / Comments on SS3

Me and Adil got interviewed by Wired magazine about our newest, latest, most exciting-est project - Our social technical design-ical business incubation programme SS3.

The best bit is that they actually quoted me talking about the idea that Jonny had about how design can help you to go that bit further than Minimal Viable Product, and into Minimal Viable Sexiness:

"Many designers talk about creating the minimum viable product for speedy market testing, but Sidekick talks about the need minimum viable sexiness when developing social enterprises. Marsh explains: "The key is to get people not to make a working product but one that people really want to use. We know that you need to get great design in there to make people not just use it, but love it."

Read the full interview here.
May 29th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

SS3! Its here. And its amazing!

Just lost your job in the public sector cuts?
Failed in your latest tech startup and ready to fail again?
Working for The Man and want to stick it to Him?

We've got just the thing for you.

April 14th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

An interesting thing

"The Junkyard Jumbotron lets you take a bunch of random displays and instantly stitch them together into a large, virtual display, simply by taking a photograph of them." Via Ian
March 15th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

Developing a sustainable social sector – are we missing the point (a bit)?

First blogged on the Sidekick site.

Last night I went to this RSA talk by social investment big beast Sir Ronald Cohen. It was very interesting, and good to hear Sir Ronnie's first hand account of how the social investment task force was setup (a phone call from the treasury), his experience raising finance for and running Bridges Ventures (It was hard and relied on his mates), and what he thinks of the potential of the darling of the social investment world, the Social Impact Bond (it could be amazing, as long as you can measure impact clearly).

However, despite all the interesting stuff I was left with two nagging thoughts that rather undermine it all.

Firstly, the reason Sir Ronald was asked to chair the social investment task force, and then do all the cool stuff he's doing, was because had made an absolute massive pile of cash through building up Apax partners in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

He gave various examples of how he's used connections made in the corporate / venture / finance world to raise money for his various funds, including Bridges. Fellow investors had come from Goldman and the like, and they saw it as a form of hard working philanthropy.

The point I'm coming to is that it felt like the best way to make an impact in the social sectors (which include charities, social enterprises and other hybrid organisational formats) is to make a stack of cash in the world of business, and then spend your time being clever about how you give it away or invest it. This is the prevailing view in the states, and despite the fancy language about social investment, the under capitalisation of the sector, the need for innovation in regulation as well as product design etc etc, the (limited) evidence on display last night was that the heavy hitters in social investment were already wealthy individuals.

The second thing I thought, that I think I wasn't supposed to think, was that all this work to create markets and instruments to unleash innovation and cleverness in solving social issues might be a case of not seeing the woods for the trees.

Sir Ronald's starting point for the talk was the observation that the public sector, government, isn't very good at creating innovative solutions, and is especially bad at investing in preventative measures and services. Hence, in his view, the need for the social impact bond which allows the government to invest, with minimal risk, in preventative services such as the recidivism service being run by St Giles in Peterborough.

The problem here, in my opinion, is why don't the government just do this stuff for them/ourselves!? Why are public sector workers so un-empowered to pursue sensible, useful solutions. The St Giles work is based on rock solid evidence that to stop people re-offending they need to be met at the prison gate, given somewhere to live and a job to do. If its so obvious, why doesn't HM Gov just do that, and why do they let people out without that support? It will reduce offending, reduce the prison population and eventually start contributing to the tax base. - Tom Jefford Chair of the Cambridgeshire Criminal Justice Board says that:

"What we do know is that if you supervise short-sentenced prisoners, if you offer them increased opportunities to access work, you overcome some of their barriers about accomodation, and you offer the level of personal support to those prisoners who would normally receive a probation-type level of supervision, they are far less likely to reoffend. What’s happened is that short-sentenced prisoners are released from prison with very little support if any support at all, and they very quickly return to offending and then go back into prison. So by creating investment that is going to work with this set of people, we would hope that they are going to reoffend at a much less rate."  [source]

So I say again - why has the government been doing this if they know it doesn't make sense?

Cohen's argument, which does ring true, is that there is value in the culture of social sector organisations that makes them better able to deliver these services as they are rooted in communities and not for profit. But again, er, surely that's what public servants and public services should be!

It just might be that in a headlong pursuit of innovative solutions for the social sector we're getting rather caught up in the glitzy shiny new stuff, which admittedly is much more fun, and we're loosing focus on the stuff that's broken:

Firstly, our public services desperately need reform to allow the people who work in them to innovate and act like the social entrepreneurs so many of them want to be.

Secondly, our view of business and the culture surrounding it needs equally urgent reform to encourage successful people to invest their money in people who are less fortunate then them, and to see the pursuit of profit and wealth as a means to a social end - improving quality of life for all - rather than a means to a private end - a porsche / etc.

That's not to say that the work that Cohen and others are doing in this sector isn't worthwhile, it is, and I'm really excited to be helping out and setting up our own social ventures, but it does mean we shouldn't divert our attention from the causes of this work - a dysfunctional, overly centralised public sector and a (sometimes) morally bankrupt commercial sector.
January 25th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

The why is it. The why is what makes journalism an adult game. The why is what makes policy coherent and useful. The why is what transforms bureaucrats and foot soldiers and political leaders into viable instruments of rational and affirmative change. The why is everything and without it, the very suggestion of human progress becomes a cosmic joke.
— David Simon on the broken social contract depicted in the Wire, probably the most inspiring, entertaining and thoughtful thing on TV, ever.
January 18th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

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