Eric Karjaluoto

I Can’t Meet for Coffee

I’m often (pleasantly) surprised by the design community. I think what makes it special is that so many do this work because they love making things. As a result, many designers happily assist others when asked.

This tendency can be beguiling to others. In a quid pro quo world, many believe the only reason to do something is personal gain. Most of my design colleagues don’t think in this way, though. Instead, they pitch in to mentor, give advice, and even help those in other (sometimes competing) firms that are struggling.

The only problem with this is time.

When we started smashLAB, I was 26. I received our first request for a student interview only a few years later. These meetings were fun. I enjoyed talking to new designers, and being around their energy. I often scheduled an hour for those meetings—which commonly stretched to two.

By my mid-30s, I was married and a dad to two boys. I also ran a studio that fluctuated between 2 and 10 employees (not a lot for some, but this took all my energy). Soon, I realized that meeting for coffee with someone new wasn’t as tenable. Eventually, I could only see a two hour coffee meeting as time away from my kids.

So, Jen (our Office Manager at the time) changed how she dealt with student calls. Instead of trying to squeeze people in for meetings, she’d apologize and explain that I couldn’t meet. In asking Jen to do this, I escaped having to say “no” (a word I’m not particularly good at saying for myself).

I felt shitty about not making myself available. But, I felt even shittier about being an absentee dad (which I still sort of am). So, I focused on completing work, paying staff, and picking away at our personal line of credit.

My business partner and I keep a running log of ideas. This runs the gamut from the mundane (a content workflow system) to the monumentally difficult (software that reworks the democratic process). One of the ideas we logged and returned to was a way to give advice in a manageable fashion.

The initial idea was simple: an online directory highlighting those with knowledge to share. Anyone could then browse this list and ask for a meeting with someone holding appropriate expertise. At the end of the session, each party would rate the other. This would give us a sense for who was treating the other’s time respectfully. No big deal, right? We could have an MVP (I’ll talk more about those in the future) out in a couple of months.

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Scheduling turns out to be a tricky matter. Time zones are troublesome. So are the many logistics relating to connecting two individuals in distant locations. What if someone cancels? What if someone runs late? What if someone uses the service just to pitch?

Truth is, we haven’t solved all these problems, yet. However, we launched a (pretty decent) first version of our service. And it fixes a lot of the problems with in-person advice meetings. Sessions run on the web, so there’s no travel time. We simplified scheduling and automated reminders. And, we limit meetings to 10 minutes. This makes them manageable—even for busy people.

So, after years of not meeting for coffee, I once again am helping others. If you need a hand, request a session with me, on Officehours.

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