Talking Collaboration with Mikael
This post is part of an ongoing series about collaboration in the workplace. We talk to individuals about their challenges, successes, and advice on how to collaborate more effectively.
Mikael Cho is the founder of Crew, a community that connects designers and developers with projects. We talk to Mikael about Moodboard, Unsplash, and the ongoing challenge of building trust in an organization.
Tell us about Crew and what you do there.
I'm the founder of Crew. Crew is a community of independent, pre-vetted designers and developers. We have a network of 400 designers and developers now. We connect them with projects — also pre-vetted. Everything is done through Crew, from project management to payments.
How does collaboration fit into your daily work?
Collaboration happens alongside individual thought at Crew. When someone has an idea, we meet to discuss it. Then everybody goes away to think about the idea and go down their own path. Then we come back together.
This distributes the creative stress. Instead of putting the burden on one person or expecting one person to come up with the ideas, everyone is thinking about the idea from different perspectives.
What tools do you use to collaborate?
We just started using Meldium to share passwords. It makes account switching easy, like when you need to switch between your personal and company Twitter accounts.
Trello is another big one. We've got a massive Trello board. I've found Trello useful when you have more than five projects running at once.
Does Crew document these processes?
We do. We use a combination of Google Docs and a wiki. The wiki is for permanent documentation, because it's harder to update and doesn't track changes. Google Docs are more fluid.
We're always looking for ways to make our Google Docs public. Many of our blog posts on Backstage actually start as Google Docs.
How does Crew manage a team working across different timezones?
Nobody works set hours. Everyone at Crew has different hours, even people based here in Montreal. If we need to cross paths for a deadline, we plan that about a week ahead of time.
We found that if you hire the right people, people will look to optimize their time. They'll look to find ways to do things better, when you give them the freedom to figure that out.
Have you seen a collaboration recently that inspired you?
Creating Unsplash and seeing it grow has been amazing.
Unsplash launched about 16 months ago, using photos left over from designing our website. We said, "Let's give these away for free. There aren't a lot of good stock photos out there, and they're really expensive." We put them up on a site and called it, "10 photos every 10 days," because we had 10 photos.
We didn't know how we would get the next 10, so we added a form to submit a photo. We figured we could take more photos ourselves if we needed to.
In the first month, there were 20,000 downloads. Then people started submitting. This was crazy to me. Photos are free, so people aren't financially benefitting. There's just a sense of goodwill.
Now we're doing 2.4 million downloads per month, and over 165 million photos are viewed every month.
There's an #unsplash hashtag on Instagram. People are creating art, combining photos, and giving credit back to the photographers. To see a community grow around something that you made is unreal.
Where have you seen collaboration break down, and what lessons were learned?
The one thing everyone wants when designing a website is "clean and simple." We run into the "clean and simple" example all the time.
I might think "clean and simple" looks like Apple's site. The client might think clean and simple looks like the Toys "R" Us site. The designer might think something completely different.
When this happens, we make sure to get a collection of images that represent the client's idea of "clean and simple" using a tool like Moodboard. Then the designer has a good starting point. Knowing what each side is expecting from the beginning has been helpful.
What are some differences you've noticed, working in both centralized and decentralized organizations?
I've noticed that people feel less empowered in centralized organizations. As a result, projects move more slowly. Everything seems to move faster when the structure is more flat.
Another difference is the freedom to explore and engage in activities — unrelated to your job — that come back around and influence your work. That creation and consumption is necessary. There are companies that block Twitter and Facebook, and I think that makes people feel small. That hurts creativity.
How does Crew encourage a culture of collaboration?
Trust. Trust fuels everything. Trust allows people to work their own hours and figure out what needs to be done. To make people feel trust is the ongoing challenge of every company.
We look for ways to build up trust in the beginning. We do this by not having set hours and providing the equipment and tools people need to do their best work. By the time collaboration happens, the barrier has been reduced. That's why we share our process on Backstage and why we have HipChat. Everyone at Crew talks openly, and that adds to trust. That openness changes everything.
Do you prefer to collaborate with diverse or like-minded teams?
I prefer a little bit of clash. For instance, I prefer Montreal as a city. I spent time in Silicon Valley and cities that might be more advantageous for business. Montreal has a good mix. Tech isn't the focus, but it isn't too far away. It gives you a different perspective. I really enjoy that.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to collaborate more effectively?
Right now, I'm reading Creativity Inc from Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar. At one point he talks about the importance of giving feedback the right way: good feedback should make teammates want to work on the project again tomorrow.
Maybe the design isn't great yet. If you say something negative, will they want to continue to work on the design tomorrow? Probably not. You can frame your feedback as a challenge: "I'm feeling this is not the right direction to have a large impact. Do you want this to be impactful?" Make it clear that you're in this together.
It comes down to making good stuff. For that to happen, you need to want to make it better tomorrow.
Thank you for your time, Mikael!
You're welcome! Thank you for the questions.