How I got here

By Kevin McElroy – – 

This past May was the annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, a multi-day trade show of contemporary furniture and product design. The premier event of its kind in North America, it sits at the base of a calendar of satellite openings, talks, and parties that has come to be known as Design Week. Whether you’re exhibiting, making contacts, hearing a talk, or just sipping some free wine while lounging on a $20,000 sofa, it’s a must-attend for anyone connected to the business. And it’s a lot of fun. Since first exhibiting at the ICFF as a student, I attend every year.

But this year I didn’t make it. I hate to say it, but I was just too busy.

My departure for Colombia, a city called Medellín, and an exciting (yet, admittedly a bit vague) new project with Polymath Ventures was fast approaching, and there was much to do. There was client work to finish, friends and family to catch a last drink with, and time to spend with my girlfriend whom I wouldn’t be seeing for three months. Perhaps the heaviest task, though, was the taking down of my office, a consulting and co-working studio I shared with a partner (who also was leaving town, for a gig with IDEO in San Francisco). Try as we might to maintain the operation, or at the very least sublet the space, I reluctantly had to let the lease go. Selling off the last of the office furniture, I effectively severed ties with my former livelihood.

Somewhere during all that, Design Week came and went, and I got a suitcase packed.

Fast-forward to now, two months in, with one to go. Looking back on skipping one of the biggest industry events of the year, and significantly winding down my consulting business to come to Colombia and work for a start-up, I can’t help but ask myself if I have regrets. To answer that question I only have to look at the people I have come to know, and at the work we have done, to realize that the experience has, in fact, surpassed my expectations both personally and professionally. The members of Polymath hail from across the globe, and all of us, for one reason or another have decided to put our “regular” lives on hold and try some thing new. Our goal was to create positive social impact by identifying and launching viable business ventures – from scratch, in three months. Easy, right?  Well, we are about to do just that.

There are many remarkable ways this is happening. Here are a few that have inspired…

  • Focusing on people. We began by interviewing dozens of everyday people to find out their stories, worries, and hopes. We have kept their needs at the center of our work, and whenever we are not sure which way to go on a decision, we go back to those conversations and put ourselves in their place.
  • Surfacing Opportunity. Dividing into two separate teams addressing mobility and financial services diversified our efforts and allowed for multiple vantage points and a broader understanding of the demographic. In combining the methodologies of Human-Centered Design, Lean Start-Up, and Management Consulting, we’re tempering ideas with viability in a way that is incrementally measurable.
  • Humility and Fast-Learning. We put together economists, designers, CEO’s and engineers (to name just a few of our backgrounds), but the truth is that no single person knows all of the process required to make this work. We’ve been stumped more than once, but the key is we’re the first to admit it and look for help, from other team members or a roster of esteemed advisors. A good sleep on it doesn’t hurt, either.
  • Collaboration. From research to concept, we feed off each other as a team, and regularly share information, resources and best practices. We use friendly competition as motivation, but underneath we truly want each other to succeed.
  • Thinking a lot, but Doing more. We spend plenty of time discussing and sifting through information, and we’ve got stacks of spent post-it notes to prove it, but nothing takes the place of prototyping and getting out there and testing in the field with real users in real situations. (Even if we do get hassled by the occasional security guard.)

Moving into month three, we are beginning the field-testing of our concepts with users. Now is the time we will prove the validity of our assumptions, and refine or pivot, based on feedback. Simultaneously, we are building out the business models, and investor talks are happening, as once abstract ideas become reality. It is a very exciting time, but bittersweet, as the end of the project is very clearly in sight. My “regular” life has been creeping in as well, as I start to make plans and book appointments back in New York. We have accomplished a lot, and I am proud to have been part of it. Some big talents came together, and I have learned an enormous amount, some of which I am sure I don’t fully realize yet.

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