The Seattle Creative Show

Coonoor Behal of Mindhatch

Episode Summary

Design thinking and the bettering of our work environments.

Episode Transcription

Jonny: Okay. Tell me about Mindhatch and how you got to where it is today and your story of starting a business.

Coonoor: Sure. So Mindhatch is basically my kind of independent company, so solo run company. And what it's really all about is getting companies and organizations to get better results and outcomes, business and otherwise by using innovative and creative methods. So what we really specialize in is design thinking and human centered design. I personally have been an improv comedy performer for 10 years, and so bringing improv into the workplace is another one of our methodologies that we use. So improvisation is a tool and a mindset to end a behavior, set of behaviors to make workplaces better. And I also do facilitation work.

So usually around the realm of innovation and creative sessions such as ideation sessions, new product development sessions, but also sometimes your classic kind of staff retreats as well. Anytime someone needs to get a group of people to come up with some ideas and coalesce around those ideas and what to do with those ideas afterward. And most recently, I'm super proud to say that Mind Touch is now applying its organizational improv expertise to the world of diversity and inclusion, which is something super passionate about as a woman of color, but also diversity is just necessary if you're going to innovate. So I think it's a real great connection to the work that I've already been doing.

And you also asked about my path to starting the business. So my previous two careers were the first one after graduate school, I worked in nonprofit international development. And then from there I decided I want to get a little bit of business experience and so I went into big four consulting. So I got to do strategy and innovation consulting at Deloitte for a few years. And that was really where I kind of dipped my toe into all the things that I'm doing at Mindhatch. And after a few years there was just kind of ready to take the leap into working for myself and take the leap into doing this kind of work for clients and higher stakes, and higher stakes involved.

Jonny: Was there kind of a turning point that you realized I can go and kind of do this on my own and be successful?

Coonoor: Well I mean, and be successful part you're never sure of, right? Even though that was over six years ago, I kind of feel like, okay, this is going to be the rest of my life. So I guess admitting to that is a success in and of itself. But so in terms of feeling capable of doing it, I think, and the decision around it it was really just like this urge to, okay, I want to not only do this for my colleagues and not only practice this internally, but I really want to help people solve critical business and organizational problems using these methodologies.

And I think another big motivator was just culture. I did not love the organizational culture at my NGO. By the time I left my consulting company I did not love the culture there, even though I loved it when I first started. And so I really kind of view all the things that I do now had my previous organizations that I had belonged to offered these things or practiced them or valued them, I might well be a working stiff to this day. I might be office drone. I never would've left. So it was also kind of that wanting to escape the trappings of corporate office environments and office politics and bureaucracy and all the things that we know get in the way of doing good work.

Jonny: So you kind of touch on this topic of good work. But where do you find this balance of making good work versus making well paying work?

Coonoor: Wow, that's really interesting. It's also interesting because I wouldn't necessarily say the clients I work with are the sexiest clients out there or that the problems that they're looking to solve are super sexy problems. But that being said, for me, good work is being able to apply the methodologies that I really believe in and know can work. So I'm a little bit not too picky about where I apply the methodologies I work in. I just really like applying it and every client is different, every project is different, which is something I really loved about being a consultant beforehand.

I kind of really take pride in the fact that when you're a consultant, it's next to impossible to describe what you do because every time is so different. So in terms of good work and good paying work, I mean there's always a nexus. And of course, over six years of being in business, my thoughts have changed on it. So I think I kind of subscribed to the fact of, okay, try to get this prospective client to say no, but you don't want them to just say no based on price. You want them to counter offer. And so I think in my early days of business, I would get kind of frustrated if I would just get a no based on price 'cause I'd be like, "Come on man, dance with me here, have a counter offer. It's not all or nothing."

So I think more sophisticated clients I work with understand that honestly. And so in my mind, the good pay aspect is like, okay, am I going to cover my expenses? Am I going to cover my lifestyle? Am I going to be able to afford to bring on a co-facilitator or fellow design strategist to execute this work? Can I do the work well and not feel like I'm being taken advantage of, is really the nexus there. I want to be able to, once that first invoice is sent out, to not even think about am I delivering more value than what someone has paid for?

Jonny: Tell me a little bit more about that relationship with your clients. Since you're not saying here's a piece of work, but you're collaborating in real time with people on site, what does that relationship look like as far as the kind of best case scenario?

Coonoor: Well, it kind of varies. So definitely if the unit of service as I tend to say that I'm delivering is a session or a workshop, it's something very discreet like that, then certainly when I'm delivering that it will be on site except in times like now when people cannot be in the same room together. But for other things, like the more consulting aspect of my work when I'm say hired by X company to be a design strategist for three months and work with a particular team on developing a product or service that is usually a mix of onsite work and remote work as well. So it really varies a lot in terms of how the work is conducted, but it's definitely a mix of collaborating virtually with the client or colleagues.

I think my kind of consulting era, organizational skills come in handy in terms of knowing how to communicate well with clients and keep them in the loop and know when to ask them which questions. And then the delivery of course, for the most part happens live and collaboratively.

Jonny: How are you finding these clients that are looking for this type of training?

Coonoor: Well, it's not always training. It's interesting. A lot of the work that I do, I do kind of begrudgingly acknowledge is HR adjacent. I for sure am not an HR practitioner, never have been. That's not my skill set. But I think people who value and are interested in things like training and professional development and doing things in different ways, that tribe tends to fall in certain divisions of a large corporation and HR is one of them. But then the design strategy work, design research work that I do that can, I can be hired at a lot of different places in the company for that.

But to answer your question about how people find me? That's something, gosh, out of all the things I learned really, really quickly when I first started my company years ago, the whole kind of marketing and biz dev thing was something that I thought I would learn a lot faster than I did. That learning curve was definitely a bit steeper. But that being said, I think now having had six years under my belt, I definitely know it's a combination of word of mouth and sometimes that word of mouth can be kind of fed by me or generated by me. And I also try to do a lot of article writing and just putting content out there that hopefully engages people and showcases what me and my company are all about.

So the whole content piece has been one prong in me trying to rest some agency over the word of mouth kind of beast instead of leaving it all up to chance. I also do a little social media work and I have a monthly newsletter I send to subscribers just to keep them informed on the work that I do. 'Cause the work that I do is very niche. It's sometimes hard to explain. So wanting to just repetitively inform people what I'm all about so that hopefully when they think of an opportunity, they're like, "Oh wait, I think this sounds like Mindhatch, I should let them know about this."

Jonny: It sounds like a lot of the skills and the work that you are doing is practices that a design team would think of and know, but not other types of businesses or other groups within a larger business.

Coonoor: You're totally right. I definitely have had the experience, especially early on in having Mindhatch, where I might explain to people like, "Oh, I do human centered design, I do organizational improv and facilitation." And I think for people who aren't in the know, their initial reaction is, "Wow, those are three really different things." But when I mention the three things I do to someone who is in design already, the response I get is, "Wow, those things make a lot of sense together."

Jonny: So how do you ensure that you're making an impact then on your client's business if they don't necessarily see how those pieces are fitting together?

Coonoor: Oh, that's really interesting. I guess I could consider myself a triple threat. If you're hiring me as a design strategist, people who I've worked with before, they know I bring something a little bit extra. They know, for example, that, "Oh wow, Coonoor can really facilitate the crap out of an ideation session."

Most of those design projects are going to ultimately come to an ideation session or some type of client stakeholder workshop, milestone workshop, whatever you call it. And so they know that not only can I do the customer research, can I extrapolate the insights, can I do the kind of business strategy work around it? But then when the time comes to bring people along, my facilitation skill helps, they know that my sessions will not be boring or passive because I always try to imbue them with a little bit of the improv magic that I have.

So I think people understand they get a little bit more when they bring me on because of the varied things that I do that can be brought to bear on a project.

Jonny: And is it you, do you have a team? Do you have people? Do you have contractors?

Coonoor: So it is me. I'm the only full-time employee at Mindhatch, and that is really kind of by design. I think after years of working for large organizations, I am still a little bit reluctant to become an instrument of the oppression. And I don't necessarily want to be responsible for another bureaucracy in the world. So I don't think keeping the idea of having staff, so to speak, at arms length for right now, who knows, talk to me in two years, I could be thinking very differently. But yes, for right now, I'm the only full-time person at Mindhatch.

But all the things that I do are very group based and I love collaborating with people. So yes, I do very often bring on a co-facilitator to a project or I'm joining someone else's team as a design strategist. So I do operate subcontractors on many projects throughout the year, actually. I'm always looking for ways to work with other people because that's also the best way for me to continue learning and continue sharpening my own skills too.

Jonny: Excellent, excellent. How do you create a creative environment to feed yourself in all of this work, but still create the business environment that it takes to support it?

Coonoor: I love that question and I'm just going to be out with it where even though I am in the business of helping other people be more innovative and more creative, you'd be surprised at how boring and mundane my own day to day is. It's a lot of sitting in a laptop, it's a lot of emails, it's a lot of Google docs and that kind of thing. Unfortunately, not making PowerPoint decks day and night like I was when I was in consulting. But I'd say it's probably a function also of working solo. I'm sure if I were working with a team at my kitchen table, there'd be a lot more white boarding and a lot more of that.

But I think how I keep myself creative and businessy, I think is the question, it's kind of a mix. I think I'm pretty good at working to my own rhythms. That's something that I really valued when I first got a flavor of working from home years ago before I even founded Mindhatch. I think that's something that really helps me stay both creative and focused, is just being able to work to my own capacity and my own rhythm. So if that means, okay, I'm going to work really intensely for one hour and then not do work for two hours and I'm going to go back, that's way more productive time for me than say the artifice of working in an office where you're there eight to 10 hours a day and studies show that you maybe get four hours of actual work done.

So I kind of feel like the ability to have the autonomy to work from home helps me in both aspects of being able to be more creative, but also manage a business. I think honestly, also, I'm really big in all my work around. Okay, what is the stimulus here? Especially when I'm designing ideation sessions, it's okay, what is the provocation? What is the stimulus? What is the thing that's going to get people to think outside of their own heads or beyond the obvious? And honestly, for me, I think it's my clients.

Like I said earlier, every brief is different. Every client is different. Every challenge that they're working on is mostly different. And I think that just continually inspires me to think, oh, how can I apply what I know to best solve this problem? So I think I get a lot from just a sheer variety of people that I get to work with.

Jonny: Is there someone or a type of assistance that you're looking for were you to expand to bring on a different skill set that you don't have?

Coonoor: That's a really good question. I do have an admin. I feel like that phrase really diminishes how much value she brings into my company, but I do have someone like that working with me very consistently. I think honestly, and this might be informed by just some recent books I've read about how to expand a business, especially in the services industry, I kind of feel like one of the first things I might be inclined to get help on, or even just outright outsource that would be kind of sales and marketing.

If there's one thing I've learned in my six years of having my Mindhatch is that wow, marketing is not one thing. There are so many facets of marketing out there that I did not even know people could be specialists in. So I kind of feel that would be the biggest help. And then of course, there's once you get more work, then having collaborators. I'm always actually looking for collaborators. I'm really grateful to have a really awesome network of people to send work to or hire on to my projects across all the things that I do, but I'm always looking to collaborate with people.

Jonny: So you kind of touched on this idea of being able to control your own day and control your own time as opposed to the kind of being forced to work at a certain body of time, certain part of the day. How would you say owning your own business has affected your own health? It sounds like it's been a positive change to be able to control that time use.

Coonoor: I would say it's definitely been positive. Just the, I use the word autonomy a lot when I describe it. It's just honestly, when I first left my corporate job to found Mindhatch, it was this honeymoon period that honestly hasn't ended I think. I've just kind of, wow, if I want to go to the gym at 2:00 today on a Tuesday I can. And so it's really just a great trade off where I think even when there are many, many moments where it's 10:00 at night and I'm doing work, I know it's because I got to go to the gym at 2:00 today. Or I got to go be with a friend in their time of need earlier today and now I can allocate my time accordingly. So I think it's just that freedom of being able to work like an adult that is a really, really great trade off for me.

And specifically about health and I think it's been really good. I mentioned specifically being able to exercise when I want to. That also means I get to cook more at home, which I really enjoy doing. It's always a privilege to be able to do something like going to the grocery store or to the dry cleaner when it's not lines out the door to do it. To be able to go patronize businesses at off peak hours. It just adds to the efficiency and honestly the lessening of anxiety in someone's life. That being said, I think when you own your own business especially, you're kind of never not working. Your brain is kind of all, or at least mine is, I shouldn't speak for everyone. But always like, "Oh wait, there's that one thing. Oh, there's that thing. Let me do it now even though it's a Saturday."

So part of that for me is just the joy. Again, it's that constant realization of the trade off of I can do this now because I got to do something non-work related at another time. So your brain's never really not thinking about your business, but for me, that's kind of joyful, I think.

Jonny: I mean, that's fantastic to hear. I have had some experience of that being a freelancer, but knowing that this is not just a freelancer's life, this is something that you can almost design your life to be is really fantastic.

Coonoor: And I really appreciate my kind of the opportunity to do that. I think there's some kind of, I remember years ago, and maybe this is outdated knowledge by this point. But I remember a few years ago first hearing the phrase lifestyle business. And I believe the way I first heard it was that it was kind of in opposition to say a startup where you're trying to get investors and scale and build and get big versus a lifestyle business. Which was almost derogatorily explained to me as like somebody just wants to fool about and just pay their rent and not aspire to anything greater than that. And I'm kind of like, "Wait, those aren't the only two options."

I would not at all call Mindhatch a lifestyle business. We're definitely trying to accomplish something greater than that, greater than me just paying my mortgage. There's more purpose to it than that. Even if I don't necessarily want outside funding or I don't want to have 100 employees. Even if that's not my goal, it's still more purposeful than a mere "lifestyle business."

Jonny: Have you found the growth of Seattle to help support your own growth?

Coonoor: Absolutely. So I actually was living on the east coast in Washington DC when I first founded Mindhatch. And I knew at the time that Washington DC was not the greatest place to found a company devoted to innovation and creativity. I knew that, but the stage of life I was in, I could not just up and move to somewhere else. Being in Seattle has been really great I think just because the language here is already one about innovation and creativity.

My first couple of years of having my company in DC I was needing to answer very, very foundational questions. What is design thinking? What is improv? Let alone getting to the value of it and then hopefully making the sale for it. And it's been really nice being in a place like Seattle where people just kind of know and understand the value of the things that Mindhatch does. You can get on with the conversation a little bit more easily. And I think that's a feature of Seattle has a really, I mean compared to DC, a really diverse economy. There's just so many world recognized and nationally recognized brands here that represent so many different sectors and so many different types of retail.

I know Amazon is the juggernaut that everyone talks about, but having come here from a government town where every private sector company is essentially a government contractor. I think in Seattle, it's been really nice to have that diversity of the economy here and just the different brands that have done so well for themselves, and that's pretty cool. So I think just being around that has definitely helped Mindhatch's growth. In addition, just because I think there's a lot more of my peers are in Seattle than where I used to be.

Jonny: Excellent. And so I guess to back up in your own story, when and how did you learn these practices of design thinking and organizational improv and was it a formal education or was it a practical education? I'm trying to understand how each and every business owner got to where they were at and their opinions on four year degree or just go learn. Just go be an intern and get your hands dirty.

Coonoor: I can definitely describe for you what I did or how it happened for me. It doesn't mean that that needs to be the way everyone else does it. So basically the design thinking passion I got, the organizational improv passion I got, and the facilitation passion I got all happened while I was working at my big four consulting company. So I really owe my time there, all credit due to my time at that consulting company, even though I ultimately left it. And so that was where I really got to dabble and experiment and learn and also start teaching others. I got to practice all of those things internally.

The improv side is really a unique case too, because I was taking improv classes and performing improv after hours and my colleagues kind of heard about that. And it was they who came to me and said, "Hey, Coonoor, I've been reading in Harvard Business Review and in Forbes and blah blah blah, that improv is really helpful for business and collaboration. Can you come do a one hour session for my client and his team?" And so without my colleagues there, I maybe would've been way later to understanding the value that what I was doing for fun after hours had benefits to the work I was doing during the day.

So I really kind of got my start unquote on the job when I was at Deloitte. And while I was there, especially when it came to the design strategy and design research piece, I did start wondering, "Wow, I really want to make this my career. Do I need to get formal education? Do I need to get another master's degree?" And I did a lot of research into it. And again, I was living in Washington DC at the time, and this was by this eight something years ago, and there just wasn't a lot of formal education available. The nearest thing I could find was in New York City, but again, I wasn't able to just move to New York City for 18 months and get another master's degree.

So I really, out of necessity, just did the self-taught and apply it on the job route to cutting my teeth. And since then, of course, there's been a proliferation of formal education in a lot of these areas, which I'm really jealous people have now because I love education, I love learning new things. But I think for me, I was able to kind of cobble together a lot of great experiences just through self-teaching and being able to apply on the job.

Jonny: And have you ever had interns or in a mentor scenario where you're also then passing on this knowledge?

Coonoor: I have. Over the years I've had a couple of different interns, summer interns, and I actually remember the first time someone reached out to me for a summer internship. This was years ago, I think I was only in year two of my company and I was like, "Wait, am I allowed to have interns?" It was kind of like, "Isn't that something that real companies have?" I was like, "Wait, am I allowed to?" So I said, "Yes." And it was a great experience. So the answer is yes. I wouldn't say that it's a part of my business model. Definitely whenever people reach out to me, I try to find ways to help them and give them access and there's ways to involve them in delivering the work for sure.

Jonny: Excellent. So just to be respectful of your time. But if you had to look back at where you were, where are now, where you're going, are you content with where you are now and where do you see yourself in five years?

Coonoor: Oh man. Well, I see myself at my kitchen table talking to you, Jonny, in five years. I'm quite pleased with where my attach is today. That doesn't necessarily mean that it needs to be the same in five years, but I am kind of more thinking about when I'm old and decrepit and ready to retire, what does Mindhatch look like then? So I'm kind of leapfrogging over what happens in five years. I feel like there is only so much control you have over what happens in five years, but I'm more kind of thinking long term to what do I want the end game for Mindhatch to be? So that's kind of more my focus.

The five years from now, I really hope it's a continuation of the good stuff that has happened so far. I really hope that there is more and more demand for what I do and more and more sophistication around people knowing what it is that they want and when they need it. So that whole kind of finding people to collaborate with gets easier and easier. That's what I would hope in five years. I think when I started a Mindhatch, I was like, "Oh, I'll know when I've made it when I'm getting so much interest that I'm giving work away to my friends. That I'm sending work away to my peers and my colleagues because I'm fielding too many requests." And so I think that's what I would kind of hope for in five years.

Jonny: Excellent. Last question. What gets you up at 5:00 with a smile?

Coonoor: Oh my God, nothing. I hate early mornings. I think the last time I did wake up early and actually laughed, it was because my dog was doing something cute. Oh, because she almost fell off the bed. And so I think that's probably the only time at 5:00 I've actually smiled. I'm not an early riser, so that'd probably be it. Something cute my dog does.

Jonny: Excellent. Well that's everything I have. Thank you for talking with me today.

Coonoor: This was super fun. Thank you. I appreciate it. Stay vigilant and healthy and thanks for supporting the creative community.

Jonny: Absolutely, thank you.