Being a designer was not the plan. But the destiny wanted it otherwise – when his company needed a designer, there was none. So he learnt to be one. Afterwards he became part of California-based startup called Chute, now holding the position of the Director of Product. One day he hopes to take part in solving the world´s biggest problems. For now he just wants to be better every day. Martin Jerkovic.
You are a designer. Always wanted to be one?
It was never my dream actually. During my university studies, I was very focused on becoming a great business guy. I always loved computers though, so the natural path then led me to University of Economics in Prague, Business Informatics field. The program combined both business and technical knowledge which was amazing. Later on when I’ve started my own company together with two friends, we didn’t have a designer. I learned Photoshop quickly and began to design what was necessary. It wasn’t really great but it was enough to remove the obstacles and made us move forward. I held this position until the company was shut down. The more I designed the more I loved it. Design is one of the most crucial part of the whole product creation process.
What did your beginnings as a designer look like?
It likely looked like every other designer’s career — bunch of crappy logos, many crappy websites, mobile apps, until somebody said “wow I love this!”. I knew those people were not some design prophets. However product design shouldn’t be about designing for good reviews from your peers or design community. It should always be about users, customers and about the jobs that specific product does for people. I think I realized this very soon in my career. It helped me quickly understand the underlying forces and motivations of the users instead of impressing people with eye-candies.
If you were given only one year to become a great designer, what would be the key steps you would take? What are the most crucial skills a designer should have?
I think most of the beginner designers are focused mainly on the visuals — colors, shapes, layouts, animations. Then they start adding interactions in the equation, consider overall user experience, maybe think about marketing a bit, technology and then they usually stop going further down. I think that the next steps are extremely important though — thinking about why people have such behaviours, what are their intentions, motivations, fears, anxieties, habits and at the end of this — problems. Design is about problem solving. You’ll be surprised with the fact that not many designers analyze problems. They jump straight to the Photoshop or Sketch and start doing what they think is their job — finding a solution. Actually it is, but that’s a second step. Mastering the deep thinking about problems is one of the most important skills a great designer should have. Question everything and don’t be ok with the first solution that comes to your mind. Contrary to popular belief, first idea is usually the mediocre one.
What is your dream job as a designer? When you can tell “Great, I am living my dream”?
Working on one of the biggest problems that humanity has would probably be my dream. I’m not thinking about companies like Apple or Facebook now. I firmly believe that you can just take the design and problem solving skills from tech and apply them to any field. World poverty? Yes. Lifestyle diseases? Yes. Overpopulation? Yes, definitely. If you don’t believe me, just look at Elon Musk. This guy is 100% sure that humanity needs to become multi-planetary species and he’s doing it! It definitely takes a large part of naivete to think you can roll up your sleeves and just go ahead and solve these problems.
How far are you from that?
Realistically I’m definitely far from being ready to take part in this endeavour. You naturally start from small — solve your own problems, then continue solving problems on behalf of a company you work for, help customers of your own company, maybe help your country in case you feel very patriotic. Then if you’re still alive and capable of doing something, maybe you start thinking about evolutionary problems. One caveat I see is that most people are stuck with step 1 — solving their own problems. You need a house, you need a car, you need to support your children, you need to deal with all kinds of unexpected events that happen in life. That takes 99% of your whole thinking bandwidth over the long periods of time. There’s simply no time in regular’s man life to think about huge social problems or start solving them. This makes humanity move very slowly.
Do you have a specific problem in your mind you would like to solve on global level?
Right now I’m fully dedicated to solving problems of our customers at Chute. However I’ve noticed great news recently. Executives of Y-Combinator (the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world; Chute is backed by YC) are about to launch an experiment of “basic income” in Oakland, CA. Imagine you don’t have to work at all and you still get the income to secure your basic needs. The goal is to find out how people react to such scenario. Will they stop working completely? Will they educate themselves more because of free time? We already know that basic income allows people to get free time and let them allocate it however they want. I believe they’ll use it for good causes.
First of all let´s answer once and for all the ultimate question everyone wants to ask -how do you pronounce the name of your startup: Chute? 🙂
It’s always tricky, especially for non-Americans! The pronunciation is very close to word “shoot”. Do you know word parachute? Just say “Chute” as a second part of that word.
Do you know the story behind the name?
Honestly I don’t know, never really asked. I’m going to do some guessing work here. We used to have a logo that looked like a camera attached to a parachute which tried to tell you that we could drop images on your websites where necessary. I definitely need to ask our founders about this when I’m back in San Francisco.
What is the main idea of Chute? How would you explain your service to an uninvolved person?
Imagine that you want to come up with a great way how to present yourself as a person. Golden rule of all communication is to tell a compelling story. So you come up with all kinds of stories that you remember and explain who you are. What you’re missing though is that your friends actually already tell stories about you but you’re just not realizing it — statuses on Facebook, tweets, Instagram photos, etc. Your friends actually tell much more authentic stories than what you would say about yourself! Trust me, other people believe them much more.
That’s what Chute helps brands do — tell better stories through media. Instagram pictures, videos, tweets and Facebook statuses posted by their customers and fans. Our solution helps brands capture, manage, publish and analyze those stories so that their communication is far more authentic and target audience is more likely to relate to a brand. In practice, we allow you to gather media from social channels, pick the good ones, get usage rights and then publish them easily to your website, e-shop or generate a whole new website with one click. All of sudden your communication is not about stock photos anymore but it’s all user-generated content created by your fans.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing as a designer in development of Chute´s product?
For the last 6 months I actually hold the new position at the company — Director of Product. My responsibilities are much wider now. It’s not only about design anymore but the overall nature of the product, problems it solves, jobs it does for our customers, market position, behaviour analysis and technical feasibility. You need to constantly balance between user experience, tech and business. Not necessarily in that order.
The biggest design challenges are related to getting to know our customers in detail. It takes a lot of data-gathering to understand their behaviours and motivations. On enterprise B2B level, it’s even more complicated. You cannot just run into Coca-Cola HQ and ask their social media managers what they think about our product. You need to convince your customers that you exist because you want to make their lives easier and help them achieve their goals. That’s when you can get under the bonnet and they might allow you to understand them better.
Can you tell us what the next plans for Chute are?
We’re working on several great things now. Our industry is very crowded so it takes a lot of innovative thinking to offer more with less, and at scale. I’m pretty confident that things we’re working on right now may actually redefine the whole industry. Only recently we’ve launched consumer-facing tool called Picture.io which allows instagrammers to find out their visual influence in the world. Simply sign in and get the score with the list of your most popular pictures. You can check out my profile. Also feel free to sign in and see your score too!
Overall we’ve got very warm reactions from the community. Several blogs and magazines even titled us as the new Klout on the market. For me as a product person, it was exciting to see how we identified the pinnacle of people’s curiosity and used that as a motivation to sign in and find out their score.
How did you become part of US based startup? What was your journey?
When we stopped working on our company Studentive, we were still in San Francisco trying to figure out what to do there for the rest of the time. We decided to try to make a dent into Silicon Valley universe and started going to hackathons. I believe we went to three of them in the matter of two weeks. We didn’t win any of them. However during one event, we were able to ship the whole product during a weekend and got the prize for the fastest team. Various people talked to us during the afterparty and one of them was Greg Narain, a co-founder of Y-Combinator company called Chute. He told us what they were working on and dropped the important line: “If we had investment, I would hire you guys.” After we came back to Europe, the failure got deep into our minds and we couldn’t figure out what to do next. One day my colleague noticed on TechCrunch that Chute raised a seed investment. We wrote a very short congratulation email and joked about “now you have money!”. Response came back immediately and the following day we had a call about the testing project. We successfully shipped it within a month and landed remote jobs for Chute (we were based in Prague at the time). That’s how it all started. Since then I know that every single chat or meeting or regular conversation might make a huge difference in your life.
What is life in US startup environment like? What surprised you the most?
It’s a fast-paced environment. Sometimes things change in matter of hours and you need to quickly adapt, otherwise you may not survive. Also I like the guts that Americans have. Need something? Just go and get it. It doesn’t matter that you need to talk to a high-profile manager of a multi-national company. Just make sure that the time spent is beneficial for him as well. The way people sell products in US is completely different from what I saw in Europe. They don’t sell you a product and its features. They try to sell you the benefits, the story and the vision. Usually it can be summarized like “we’ll allow you to do X and Y so that you can earn more $ and become a top company in Z”. Along the way, they tell you all the achievements, mention all the clients. All of sudden you want your brand to be member of the exclusive club of companies that use the product. If you wanna see this whole sales process in action too, just go ahead and sign up for a product that is sold through live demo. Watch, take notes and try to replicate it in your own sales process.
Another thing that surprised me is how approachable most people are. If you have something interesting to say or offer, even CEOs of the best startups in Silicon Valley will talk to you. I think this is the result of a whole culture Bay Area has. You may not see this in NYC or in other parts of US. Even local Americans say that San Francisco is a very different kind of United States.
If you had to compare US and Slovakia in terms of startups, what would you say?
Slovaks are constantly doubtful and often fold the cards even though they hold two kings. I think a big blocker seems to be a lack of confidence. We all know that people in our country are highly technically capable and can often compete with the most successful players on the market. However when it comes to selling, it’s really amazing how some of them lose the deal because of dumb reasons — not thinking too much about the presentation or listing all the features instead of talking about the benefits and selling the story.
I’ve recently watched my pitch at first StartupWeekend Bratislava in 2011. Since then I’ve attended many other StartupWeekends in Slovakia and my pitch is still better than 99% of them! At the time, there were no pitch contests, trainings, startup incubators, workshops… There was nothing. I just practiced a lot and spent the whole night before pitching Sunday in front of the mirror saying the same lines over and over again. The presentation wasn’t perfect but we won and it’s still great compared to what I see now. How come this has not improved at all after so many events and available materials focused on just that? I’m not a great speaker at all. I’ve just practiced a lot, that’s it. I think people don’t do that now because they think it’s not important. They cannot be more wrong. Product is not everything. And I’m a product guy so I should be saying the opposite here. But I’m not because product is much more than just hundreds lines of code and beautiful buttons.
What are your 3 to 5 tips for a good pitch or presentation?
Write down a good script based on the blogs from well-known investors and just practice the storytelling in front of the mirror. If your english is not perfect, practice that too. People need to believe that you know what you’re talking about and that you understand the underlying constructs. There are so many good pitch tips that people read over and over again. When the time comes though, they just don’t use them at all. The reason is unknown to me.
Before Chute you held position of Chief and Designer in the initiative called Studentive which is “like World of Warcraft in real life”. Can you explain that?
Studentive was a project aimed to help students get their first job and on the other hand introduce the very best talents to companies. The biggest problem students face is the fact that most of them usually don’t have any real job experience when they graduate. Therefore we came up with “challenges” — the short-term tasks to demonstrate their capabilities by dealing with the real-world business use case. If you wanna know more about the initiative, you should check out the project called Challengest which continues to pursue this endeavour.
The “World of Warcraft” part of the communication was there because it was easier to explain the whole concept to young people — you need to fulfil many quests in order to make a dent into the world. Studentive is your beginning. I still love the idea but sadly it was shut down a long time ago.
The whole project was based on the low-level positions. Companies do not pay as much to hire graduates. Also the very best talents are already established in well-known companies through internships. We realised this very soon. However the idea was so noble that people around kept us going until we realized it all looked more like NGO than business. So we could either stick around and try to help people by finding them jobs or move on and become better. We chose to pursue our own competencies.
If you think of Slovakia, what product, service or project comes to your mind first?
The famous ones — AeroMobil, Sygic, ESET, Pixel Federation… I’m not really making a difference between Slovak and foreign projects now. I’m more interested into knowing what skills, capabilities and other circumstances allowed founders to build these great companies. And more interestingly what circumstances played roles in Slovak founders’ success so that we know what to focus on.
Have you found any patterns?
Hard work, strong technical knowledge, at least two founders, deep interest in the subject — the usual traits of any successful founder. One other thing is very important in Slovakia though — if you can truly tell yourself that your skills and knowledge are close to the top of the industry, then you’re def onto something. This is something that surfaces quite quickly while having the conversation with the person. And I’m really happy to say I’m meeting more and more people like that in our region.
Photos: Martin Jerkovic